In our new series Person of Interest, we talk to the people catching our eye right now about what they’re doing, eating, reading, and loving right now. Up first, multi-talented activist and chef Ora Wise.
When you meet Ora Wise, it makes perfect sense that her name means ‘light’ in Hebrew. For the better part of two decades, she’s worked as a community organizer and mobilizer for decolonial movement building. Though her career has wandered across media, arts, and culture, including a grassroots hip-hop documentary, work with Palestinian youth, and a queer wellness collective, food is her grounding creative outlet. Lately, it’s also been a wellspring for enacting change.
As culinary director for the Allied Media Conference (AMC) in Detroit, Wise has helped organize meaningful community dinners, co-created educational tracks focused on making food systems more just, and, this year, in partnership with Food Lab Detroit, contributed to“an epic experiment in food and community” called the Dream Cafe. Headquartered inside the walls of the Cass Cafe, the Dream Cafe brought to life a vision of what’s possible when food and dining centers on communities of color and collective action turns equitable ideas into reality. Ora shares her“it takes a village” mentality, her take on reshaping food media, and the playlist that keeps her cooking in the kitchen. Wanna know her guilty pleasure snack? Read on.
The best thing I did this year was… the Dream Cafe at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, which grew out of soil that has been cultivated by a bunch of different people and movements. It took a village, and many, many hands. It was a culinary center, a lab for practicing food production and service that could be equitable, cooperative, sustainable and community-centered. The mission was to leave us all better than when we started––to leave us with more resources, more relationships, more opportunities to do what we love to do, and do it better.
My love language is… food, of course. I moved toward food work at a time when I needed something more sensual and physical than the work I was doing. Food systems are at the crux of colonial systems of exploitation and destruction; they are also at the heart of community building and liberation. Food has always been my art, my central creative practice.
I feel grounded when… I’m by the ocean, as corny as that sounds. It has always been uplifting for me. I have a tattoo of waves on my right shoulder because the ocean literally held me during one of the hardest times in my life.
One of my greatest pleasures is… working with fellow food travelers who want to do things differently.
My village includes… Jenny Lee (Director of Allied Media Projects) who helped envision the Dream Cafe. The community of chefs and activists who helped produce three years worth of community dinners at AMC. Munira Lokhandwala, who initiated the food track with me at AMC in 2017. My co-director Kimberly Chou, who was essential to our success this year. Devita Davison and the Food Lab Detroit team who curated the all-day cafe and connected us to black-owned food businesses. And Shane Bernardo, our farm coordinator, who helped source local produce from a network of twelve urban farms led by people of color.
Real activism is… in answering questions like, “What are you doing to redistribute power and real resources?” not just symbolic representation. Culture shifting, like the kind you see playing out in food media, is important because it creates room to open up more space in broader society. It is part of the work, but it’s important to not mistake it for the work.
I’m nourished by… my kitchen and my garden, especially all of the flowers on my deck and my vegetable garden. My partner and I built three raised beds where we’ve got kale and a billion tomatoes as well as peppers and herbs.
I lose it when I’m around… Chips. All kinds. All of my friends are very amused by my intense love of Chex Mix (bold flavor, of course). It’s rare that I indulge in it but when I do, it goes down!
Right now I’m reading… Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, & the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen,
The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Tsing, and The Italians by John Hooper.
The playlist I have on repeat includes… Like Sugar (Chaka Khan), Phone Down (Erykah Badu), Mornin‘ (Star Slinger), Death by Disco (TOKiMONSTA), Little Bit More (Jidenna), Best Life (Cardi B+ Chance the Rapper), HEAVN (Jamila Wood), So Close (Tom Misch), Cómo Me Quires (Khruangbin). Think Twice (J Dilla) is a good one for evening cooking, and throwbacks from En Vogue to Kelis to Janis Joplin and Bobby Womack.
A good morning looks like… waking up early, feeling rested. I drink lemon water before my morning meditation and movement practice, then I might have some maté on my deck. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to bike to yoga.
My ideal end-of-day situation would be… aperitivo hour either somewhere at a restaurant sidewalk or at home, having food ready so that I can eat on my deck watching the sunset (and not actually still cooking at that time which is usually the case).
I find joy… dancing outside in queer spaces, in wine, and in drag culture. My perfect night would end with me dancing wildly all night long.