Actress and activist Ianne Fields Stewart founded The Okra Project in late 2018 with the mission of addressing food insecurity in the Black trans community. The organization, which began funding Black trans personal chefs to go into the homes of Black trans people to cook them a meal, has grown substantiality in the past year and a half. While food remains at the heart of The Okra Project, the organization has expanded its scope of offerings to build community through arts outings, beauty and wellness offerings and an international grocery fund to provide food grants to Black trans people worldwide.
“For so long, Black trans people have become accustomed to living in deficit, living without many resources. And so our hope is to make things that feel luxurious — things that feel excessive — just commonplace,” Stewart says.
While the organization’s in-person programs are on pause during the pandemic, The Okra Project’s mission remains imperative. The organization has established a grocery fund to help ensure people in need are able to purchase groceries, and has also paid bail for people who’ve been recently incarcerated. In early June, the organization launched the Nina Pop and Tony McDade mental health recovery funds, in memorial of two Black trans people recently killed by police fire. Both funds aim to provide one-time therapy sessions with a licensed Black therapist.
In addition to limitations of the pandemic, the organization also faces the challenge of breaking through an innate selflessness prevalent in the Black trans community. Stewart is adamant about letting the community know that they are deserving of services offered by the Okra Project, and that they have permission to prioritize themselves and their own joy. They have permission to accept what is being offered.
“Black trans people, potentially more than any other group, have an innate understanding of what it means to look out for each other because until recently not really anyone else was trying to help us out,” Stewart says. “We have learned to help each other out by saying ‘No, I will sacrifice to let someone else have this. I won’t prioritize myself.’ We look out for each other even when we don’t know who the other person is.”
Nourishment can come in many forms. In addition to monetary contributions, Stewart encourages people interested in supporting the Okra Project, who are not Black and trans, to reach out and share their skill sets. There isn’t a formal volunteer network yet, but those conversations have the potential to spark an idea down the road. And even as the organization is bolstered by a recent surge in donations, Stewart is committed to making sure its fundamental mission remains front and center: The Okra Project is for and by the Black trans community.
“The fact that folks believe in our work and have appreciated it, that is the greatest gift we can ask for,” adds Stewart.