As early as 1920, Chesapeake Bay’s seemingly limitless oyster population had been diminished by up to one-third, both by overharvesting and by habitat destruction caused by siltation and dredging. By 2001, the harmful effects of pollution and disease had taken their toll, and the bay’s native Virginica oysters dwindled to less than 1% of their historic numbers. The bay had all but collapsed.
It was under these conditions that cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton decided to revitalize their family’s historic oyster farm, Rappahannock Oyster Co. Founded in 1899 by their great-grandfather, James Croxton, on Virginia’s Rappahannock River, the company wasn’t much more than mud by the time the cousins took over the leases in 2001. But in that rich tideland, the cousins saw an opportunity to salvage a family legacy and renew their community.
Cousins Travis (left) and Ryan Croxton have transformed their great-grandfather’s oyster farm, Rappahannock Oyster Co., into a model of sustainability that is practicing food production methods that are healthier for the consumer, the Chesapeake Bay they call home and the native oyster they are 100% committed to preserving. / Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Because they were starting from the mud up, the cousins were able to develop sustainable new methods that not only produce the highest-quality shellfish but also contribute to the health of the bay and repopulation of its aquatic life.
“Aquacultured oysters are a win-win for everybody—the farmer, the waters, the consumer that gets a better product,” said Travis Croxton, whose off-bottom method of growing oysters in wire cages not only protects the oysters but also allows them to reproduce naturally—a vital factor in restoring native oyster populations. And because oysters feed on excess nutrients in the water, their presence also helps keep the bay clean, as well as helping native grasses and other sea creatures to proliferate.
The number of oysters harvested in the Chesapeake Bay has grown wildly in the last two decades.
Perhaps the most satisfying thing for the cousins has been the ability to provide an opportunity to work, grow, and live in what has been a depressed rural economy. “Too often, rural communities such as ours lose promising talent as people look elsewhere due to lack of opportunity,” said Croxton. “We’re proud that our employees have a reason to stay.”
Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.
By 2004, Rappahannock had developed a thriving wholesale business. Now with their tasting room, Merroir, four stand-alone oyster bars from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, California, and a restaurant, Rappahannock, in Richmond, Virginia, the cousins are able to share their oysters and their dedication to “good people doing great things.”
When we checked in during spring 2020, owner Travis Croxton didn’t deny that it had been tough for Rappahannock Oyster since the COVID-19 pandemic had hit. He and cousin Ryan Croxton had to furlough hundreds of employees at their oyster company and restaurants. But, as Travis Croxton said, “You have to perform a hard pivot and await what the future may hold.” Rappahannock quickly set up an employee relief fund for those in need and shifted their restaurants to solely curbside pickup/takeout. On the oyster company side, they had to make additional hard pivots, focusing mostly on internet sales (which Travis Croxton said have greatly increased) and designing completely new business models, which included working with vineyards and breweries to sell 25-count bags of their oysters on consignment on weekends.
In 1899, James Croxton, great-grandfather of Travis and Ryan Croxton, laid claim to two acres of Rappahannock River bottom for the purpose of growing oysters. / Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Despite these challenges, by trying to sustain nature, not tame it, the Croxtons have carried on their great-grandfather’s legacy, this time on a foundation of sustainability.
Pashon Murray of Detroit Dirt believes communities should be composting and managing their own waste streams. / Photo by c’mon team
Pashon Murray could be called a next-generation Rachel Carson—fearless, outspoken, and willing to take on the big boys. Murray saw that food waste had become an epidemic—a 2020 estimate in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics valued food waste by U.S. consumers at $240 billion a year—and that was a driving factor in developing Detroit Dirt, her full-circle composting company.
Detroit Dirt’s mission is to push forward a low-carbon economy by way of organic waste diversion. Murray designed a closed-loop system that treats waste as a resource, saving 50 to 70 tons of renewable waste annually from entering landfills and instead turning it into fertile compost.
Photo by c’mon team
Murray asks: “Why truck food waste 30 miles outside the city? Composting is a natural process. All communities should be composting and managing their waste streams.”
Murray started simply with a pilot program that composted food waste from General Motors and Blue Cross Blue Shield offices in Detroit. Now her company works with a wide selection of restaurants, coffee shops, and corporations that look to Murray to help them manage their waste streams more efficiently.
Detroit Dirt’s composting site near downtown Detroit is producing rich, healthy soil for local farms, backyard gardeners, and community gardens, and before the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for Murray’s delicious dirt grew daily.
Detroit Dirt has a composting site that is transforming renewable waste from local restaurants, coffee shops, and corporations into rich, healthy soil. It’s packaged and available for purchase, starting at $15 for a five-pound bag. / Photo by c’mon team
A one-woman force with a dedicated team of collaborators—including the Detroit Zoological Society, which provides the herbivore waste critical to her compost—Murray has helped to change the carbon footprint of Detroit by revitalizing neighborhoods and finding solutions for everyday waste.
“Our health and the health of the planet depend on the soil,” said Murray. “If we’re not investing in soil, then the consequences are detrimental to the ecosystem. Globally, we can make byproducts with food waste. It’s a resource, not a waste.”
Statistics on municipal solid waste in America.
When we checked in with Detroit Dirt during late spring 2020, production of their rich compost had slowed significantly as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Obviously, the waste stream from local businesses hadn’t been flowing in typical fashion since everything went on lockdown. For Pashon Murray, these challenging times gave her opportunity for reflection, brainstorming, and collaboration. She looked for ways to work more closely with local officials, food distributors, urban farmers, other composters, food banks, and more to develop better crisis management models for recovering and repurposing food surplus. “I believe this pandemic is going to help us in the future, shining a light on the voids and giving a heightened focus to our broken food system,” said Murray. “We all have to look at our own footprints and waste streams to understand why there is an abundance for some and some don’t have enough—and start painting a picture of why a viable waste material management model is so important.”
Photo by c’mon team
Murray has shown that with a small shift in perspective, you can empower and influence people to take big steps toward protecting and enriching their environment so that we can all thrive.
Great Lakes Brewing Co. has been around for more than 30 years, brewing award-winning craft beer in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. Its founders, brothers Daniel and Patrick Conway, focused on sustainability from the start by renovating the 19th-century buildings that house their brewery and brewpub.
By the early 2000s, they’d also decided they wanted to do more for their community, the environment, and the health and well-being of their workers. “We view business as a force for good in our communities,” said Daniel Conway. “Our role is essentially one of stewardship.”
A Brewing Good community clean-up effort by Great Lakes Brewing Co. / Photo courtesy Great Lakes Brewing Co.
The brothers have developed a triple bottom line business model that addresses profit, people, and planet, with initiatives that include water stewardship, renewable and clean energy, and inclusive economic growth.
An early adopter in the local food movement, the company established its own farm, Pint Size Farm, in collaboration with Hale Farm and Village in 2008 to supply its brewpub, and in 2010 co-founded Ohio City Farm, one of the largest urban farms in the United States (learn more about these two farms here). The solar panels on their brewery offset 13 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually—a widget on their website shows how much beer is brewed using solar energy. And by inviting employees to become owners through an employee stock program, the company allows everyone a stake in its sustainability.
Ohio City Farm, co-founded by Great Lakes Brewing Co. / Photo courtesy Great Lakes Brewing Co.
Great Lakes’ Brewing Good giving program also commits a percentage of company sales back to the community through initiatives that preserve history, advocate environmentalism, and focus on critical needs in the local area. The company’s nonprofit Burning River Foundation, which annually hosts the Great Lakes Burning River Fest, strives to maintain and celebrate the vitality of the region’s freshwater resources. “Burning River,” also the name of a Great Lakes Brewing Co. pale ale, references a particular incident: the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, in which an oil slick on the heavily polluted river caught fire and caused damage in the six figures. The incident sparked further outrage and interest in environmentalism, driving significant policy changes for the Cleveland area and beyond.
While the COVID-19 pandemic forced Great Lakes Brewing Co. to close its brewpub temporarily, beer continued to be brewed and to flow through the local distribution footprint and to-go service. Beers such as the 107 IPA and Siren Shores Passion Fruit Saison, the first employee team recipe ever created on Great Lakes Brewing’s Small Batch Pilot System, debuted in spring 2020. Social media channels continued to keep the community in the know on what Great Lakes was up to, from its Hop College going online and posting video tutorials and sessions on Facebook, to owner Daniel Conway’s heartfelt request to join him in supporting the Race for Relief fundraiser benefiting the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Cleveland hunger centers.
Statistics on Great Lakes Brewing Co.’s sustainability efforts as of mid-2020.
The Conway brothers have long had an understanding of how each part of their business ecosystem feeds into the next. By continuing to innovate new strategies of sustainability, they’ve led by example and helped to revive both an industry and their community.
Trained scientist Rachel Carson and wildlife artist Bob Hines conduct research off the Atlantic coast in the early 1950s. The two formed an extraordinary partnership, which brought awareness of nature and conservation to the forefront. / Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / public domain
We live in an era where environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and renewable resources are keywords for how to live our lives and operate our businesses.
But it wasn’t always this way. In the early 1960s, writer and biologist Rachel Carson was one of the lone voices sounding the alarm that the rapid, destructive changes we were making to our own environment were having disastrous consequences.
With her groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring, which exposed the damage caused by indiscriminate use of pesticides manufactured by powerful chemical companies, Carson showed that she was a scientist motivated by a sense of responsibility to serve the best interests of the wider community. Carson’s eloquence reminded us that we are all part of a delicately balanced ecosystem, and by destroying any piece of it, we risk destroying the whole system. It would become unsustainable.
Rachel Carson holding a copy of Silent Spring in June 1963. / THF147928, detail
Thanks to Carson’s passion and perseverance, a movement of ecological awareness was born. Her work is credited with giving birth to the modern-day environmental movement. Other direct results were the banning of the pesticide DDT and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In an era of “living better through chemicals,” Rachel Carson was a changemaker who brought our awareness to the effects we had on our environment. But she also knew that we could be part of the solution. One way people carry on her legacy today is by acting as citizen scientists.
While Rachel Carson was a trained scientist and biologist working toward the greater good, a citizen scientist is a nonscientist who works with the scientific community to affect positive change. By paying attention to our environment and taking an interest in the science behind sustainability, we all can make a difference. Here are some ways you can become involved yourself.
It was a friend of Rachel Carson who raised an alarm about bird die-offs in her backyard and prompted Carson to write Silent Spring—proof that big change can start small. Here are a couple of ideas worth considering in your sustainability quest at home.
Join the annual Great Backyard Bird Count at birdcount.org. The count is a great way to get kids involved with nature.
Use your smartphone to help scientists gather data on animal populations. You can count Costa Rican wildcats at Instant Wild (instantwild.zsl.org) or share observations on your local wildlife at iNaturalist.org.
In Your Community
Look for opportunities for neighborhood involvement—you’ll stay socially connected and help your community at the same time.
Use resources like greenamerica.org to find and support businesses and brands that are striving toward sustainability.
Start a community garden. It’s a great way to shift away from packaged, processed foods and to get to know your neighbors. National Garden Clubs (gardenclub.org) helps coordinate the interests and activities of state and local garden clubs in the U.S. and abroad.
Participate in crowdsourced data gathering like noisetube.net, which measures noise pollution, or createlab.org, which trains artificial intelligence to identify smoke emissions.
In Your Workplace
If you are motivated to make a difference, become an advocate for sustainability and social change within your company. Going green is a differentiator that gives businesses a leg up on recruiting and marketing.
Recycle office waste, implement inventory controls (which prevent unnecessary purchases and wasteful spending), or research tax credits for becoming energy efficient at energy.gov, the website of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Let your company’s unused computing power contribute to scientific research projects at scienceunited.org.
Protest Poster, "I Will Listen and Take Action," 2020 / THF610765
In every issue of The Henry Ford Magazine, staff from The Henry Ford suggest books, podcasts, apps, television shows, and websites that have caught their eye (or ear). For the January–May 2021 issue, the selections reflected the issue’s theme of “connecting with community,” with our staff interpreting this theme through the lenses of social activism, social justice and injustice, and diversity. Check out our picks below.
I remember sitting on my mom’s lap reading my childhood favorite, Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle. Today, I appreciate how books for the youngest readers distill complex stories into compelling images and clear, action-oriented ideas.
My latest read is No! My First Book of Protest. Little ones will enjoy saying “No, No!” with each activist. They will learn that a “No!” followed up with collective action can change the world.
Many social innovators featured on these pages have a home in our collections, programs, and exhibits, including Frederick Douglass, Alice Paul, and Rosa Parks. Judith Heumann, a disability rights activist, is someone I knew less about and was glad to discover. Greta Thunberg has influenced some of our recent collecting, including signs made by students for the climate marches of 2019–2020.
I hope all of us take this book’s message to heart: “Great people made big changes when they said ‘No, No!’ Someday you can protest too (when you’ve had time to grow).”
--Cynthia Jones, Director, Museum Experiences & Engagement
The COVID-19 quarantine has allowed me to spend time with family and revisit some of my favorite stress-relieving hobbies, like guitar and Chinese martial arts. But the current political climate has stirred my inner community activist.
Friends recommended the following books to me: Shaun King’s Make Change along with Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. Both reads are very timely and offer insights to solutions and alternatives during this wake-up call for racial and social reform in America.
This American TV sitcom series chronicles the complexities of raising an upper-middle-class Black family in Los Angeles’ white suburbia. While rooted in comedy, the show addresses hard-hitting cultural and social topics that Black Americans face on a daily basis. It is presented in a way that doesn’t lose its significance and provides multiple vantage points on Black culture.
I find the show to be very timely and poignant during a time when an overconsumption of political news can be discouraging.
--Anita Davis, Program Manager, Corporate Professional Development
The Negro Motorist Green Book has been at the forefront of the cultural psyche for the last three years, but the Macmillan podcast, Driving the Green Book, brilliantly journeys into its roots, from the Underground Railroad to firsthand accounts of racism today, by highlighting Black female entrepreneurship, civic pioneers, and communities, both physical and social.
--Sophia Kloc, Historical Resources Administrator
Community Deconstructed: Recommendations from Our Library
Grow your knowledge about community making, the power of an organized voice, and the role of farming, past and present with these book suggestions from our library collection. For help with access, contact the Research Center.
Mick Ebeling, founder of Not Impossible Labs, home of Music: Not Impossible. / Photo courtesy Not Impossible Labs
Film producer Mick Ebeling founded Not Impossible Labs to be a tech incubator with the mission of righting wrongs with innovation. Since then, his credo to “create technology for the sake of humanity” has resulted in developments like an invention allowing people who are paralyzed to communicate using only their eye movements and 3D-printed arms for Sudanese children who’ve lost limbs to war. So when Ebeling witnessed a concert for deaf listeners—where the music was turned up loud enough for the crowd to feel the vibrations—around the same time as a friend lost his sense of smell in a skateboarding accident, he had a revelation. “He didn’t fall on his nose—he fell on his head,” Ebeling said. “That means you don’t smell with your nose. You smell with your brain, which means you don’t hear with your ears, you do that with your brain too. So what if we went around and kind of subverted the classic way that people hear and we just took a new pathway to the brain?”
Thus was born the Music: Not Impossible project. Ebeling enlisted Daniel Belquer, a Brazilian music composer and technologist, to be the “mad scientist” shepherding the endeavor. Belquer was obsessed with vibration and tickled by the observation that skin could act as a substitute for the eardrum. “In terms of frequency range, the skin is much more limited than the ears,” said Belquer, “but the skin is better at perceiving texture.”
Belquer and Ebeling worked with engineers at Bresslergroup, Cinco Design, and Avnet, in close collaboration with members of the deaf community, to create the current version of a wearable device consisting of a “vibrotactile” vest, wrist straps, and ankle straps. The harness features 24 actuators linked to different instruments and sounds that distribute vibrations all over the body. The system is totally customizable and could, for example, have the drums vibrate the ankles, guitars stimulate the wrists, basslines rumble along the base of the spine, vocals tickle the chest, and so on.
Mick Ebeling and Daniel Belquer worked with leading engineers and members of the deaf community to create the current version of their wearable device, which consists of a “vibrotactile” vest, wrist straps, and ankle straps. / Photos by Cinco Design
“What we’re doing is transforming the audio into small packets of information that convey frequency amplitude in the range that our device can recognize,” Belquer said. “And then we send this through the air to the technology of the device. The wearables receive that information and drive the actuators across the skin, so you get a haptic [a term describing the perception of objects by touch] translation of the sound as it was in its source.”
As the team tested prototypes and held demo events, they also discovered the device has benefits for hearing listeners as well as deaf ones. “We can totally provide an experience that is both auditory and haptic,” said Belquer. “So with the vibration and the music, you hear it and you feel it and you get gestalt. This combined experience is more powerful than the individual parts. It’s like nothing you’ve ever felt.”
Photo courtesy Not Impossible Labs
The project won silver in the Social Impact Design category at the 2020 Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA)International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA), which are hosted at The Henry Ford. Here’s what Marc Greuther, vice president at The Henry Ford and an IDEA juror, had to say about the project: “I like to think of design as an essentially friction-reducing discipline, reducing chafing in the functional, aesthetic, or durability realms—of design building bridges, shortening the route between user and a known destination promised by a tool’s outcome, whether it’s a really good cup of coffee, a comfortable office chair, or an intuitive e-commerce interface. Music: Not Impossible grabbed my attention for going an order of magnitude further—for bridging unconnectable worlds, making sound and music accessible to the deaf. In his design checklist, Bill Stumpf said good design should ‘advance the arts of living and working.’ Music: Not Impossible fulfills that goal by creating an opening into a vast landscape—not by reducing friction but by removing a wall.”
“In the beginning, people would say this might be something like Morse code or Braille, that you have to go through an educational process in order to understand,” said Belquer. “But as an artist, I was always against a learning curve. You might not know or like a specific kind of music or style, but you can relate to what the emotional message of the content is. You don’t need to be trained in order to have the experience and be impacted by it.”
Photo courtesy Not Impossible Labs
What may be most remarkable about the project is that it creates a shared experience among people who might not have had one otherwise. From what the Music: Not Impossible team has witnessed so far, wearing the device can be just as intense and euphoric for folks who can hear as those who can’t. “We’ve had maybe 3,000 demo participants at this point,” said Belquer, “and there’s this face we always see: Their eyes open wide and their mouth and jaw drops as they have this ‘wow!’ moment.”
Lavender Suarez has made music as an experimental improviser for over a dozen years as C. Lavender and studied the philosophy of “deep listening” with composer Pauline Oliveros, which helped her understand the greater impact of sound in our daily lives. But it was seeing fellow artists and friends experience burnout from touring and stress that inspired her to launch her own sound healing practice in 2014.
“Many artists are uninsured, and I wanted to help them recognize the importance of acknowledging and tending to their health,” she said. “It felt like a natural progression to go into sound healing after many years of being a musician and studying psychology and art therapy in college.”
Waajeed has worn many hats in his musical career. Besides the stylish Borsalino he usually sports, he’s been the DJ for rap group Slum Village, half of R&B duo Platinum Pied Pipers, an acclaimed producer of hip-hop and house music, and proprietor of his own label, Dirt Tech Reck. But it’s his latest venture that feels closest to his heart: educator.
The 45-year-old Detroit native is now the director of the Underground Music Academy (UMA), a school set to launch in 2022 that will guide students through every step of tackling the music industry obstacle course. “You can learn how to make the music, put it out, publish it, own your company, and reap the benefits,” he said of his vision for UMA. “A one-stop shop.”
Photo by Bill Bowen
While Waajeed initially broke into music via hip-hop, UMA will, at least at first, focus on electronic dance music. Detroit is internationally renowned for techno, a form of electronic dance music first created in the Motor City in the mid-1980s by a group of young African American producers and DJs. But as the music exploded globally, particularly in Europe, techno became associated with a predominantly white audience. While Detroit’s pioneers were busy abroad introducing the music to foreign markets, the number of new, young Black practitioners at home kept dwindling.
UMA’s initial spark hit Waajeed a few years ago, when he was spending endless hours on planes and in airports, jetting to DJ gigs around the world. “On almost every flight I jumped on, I didn’t see a lot of people that looked like me, and it didn’t feel right,” he said. “All of this energy that’s being put into building Europe’s connection to our music and our past and our history, and it’s like, this needs to be happening in our own backyard. It was an awakening.”
Waajeed performing at Brunch Electronik Lisboa in Portugal. / Photo courtesy Brunch in the Park
Waajeed spoke to Mike Banks, a founder of the fiercely independent techno collective Underground Resistance, about how best to communicate to younger Black listeners that this music, primarily associated with Germans and Brits for the last 30 years, is actually an African American art form. The genesis of UMA flowed from their discussions. Waajeed described Underground Resistance’s credo of self-determination and mentorship as “a moral and business code that’s been the landmark cornerstone for our community.”
Another huge inspiration came from older musicians like Amp Fiddler, a keyboardist for Parliament-Funkadelic whose home in Detroit’s Conant Gardens neighborhood was close to Waajeed’s high school, Pershing. Whenever Waajeed and his friends (like future hip-hop producer J Dilla) skipped class, they’d end up in Fiddler’s basement, where he taught the teens how to use instruments and recording gear. “It started with people like Amp,” Waajeed said, “taking these disobedient kids in the neighborhood and giving us a shot in his basement, to trust us to come down there and use what felt like million-dollar equipment at the time, teaching us how to use those drum machines and keyboards. Amp put us in the position to be great at music.”
After years in the making, Waajeed is hoping to welcome students to the physical space for his Underground Music Academy in 2022. It will be located on Detroit’s East Grand Boulevard, near the internationally known Motown Museum. / Photo by Bill Bowen
Waajeed hopes UMA will institutionalize that same “each one teach one” tradition, not only with respect to music-making but also business and social acumen. “I heard stories about people who worked with Motown that would teach you what forks to use so you could sit down for a formal dinner, and that’s what I’m more interested in,” he said. “As much as being a beat maker is important, it’s just as important to be a person who is adamant about your business: knowing how to handle yourself the first time you go on tour, or how to set up publishing companies and bank accounts for those companies. That’s what we’re trying to do, to make that instruction more available so you have no excuses to fail.”
Until the physical space is ready to host students—scheduled for 2022, though the COVID-19 pandemic may alter that plan—UMA is concentrating on video tutorials that can be watched online, as well as fundraising, curriculum planning, and brainstorming about how best to reach the academy’s future pupils.
Waajeed sits on the steps of the future Underground Music Academy in Detroit. / Photo by Bill Bowen
“The result of this is something that will happen in another generation from us. We just need to plant the seed so that this thing will grow and be something of substance five or ten years from now,” Waajeed said. “I would be happy with a new generation of techno producers, but I would be happier with a new generation of producers creating something that has never been done before.”
Catch a glimpse of Brian Yazzie’s left arm, and you’ll see cranberries, sumac, and sunflowers near his wrist, blue Hopi corn on his forearm and Navajo squash holding court at his elbow. An illustrated sleeve of more produce and wild game are up next for the right.
Chef Brian Yazzie. / Photo courtesy Brian Yazzie
The inspiration behind the ever-growing tattooed bounty of Native American produce started at age 7 for Yazzie, when the aromatics of Navajo blue corn mush or the sound of a knife tapping on a cutting board drew him into the kitchen to help cook for his large family. Raised by a single mother in Dennehotso, Arizona, located on the northeast part of the Navajo Nation, Yazzie remembers eating traditional and freshly foraged foods like wild spinach and pine nuts but also commodity foods like government cheese, canned chicken, and powdered milk.
“That was what we grew up on,” said Yazzie. “But for me, as long as we had food, we were OK.”
He discovered his passion for cooking but at the time was equally lured into gang life, spending his teenage years in and out of detention centers and county jails and skipping classes, sometimes to just hide out in the home economics classroom.
“I was blessed never to end up in prison or passing on,” said Yazzie, whose sisters would call to tell him to come home because they missed his food. “That was their way of checking up on me. Cooking always kept me out of trouble; it’s what saved my life.”
It’s also what prompted Yazzie and his wife, Danielle Polk, to settle in the Twin Cities in 2013. They wanted opportunity but also to stay connected to Native communities. “The Twin Cities has one of the top five Native urban populations in the U.S.,” said Yazzie, who works closely with the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes there while continuing to help the Dennehotso reservation and other tribal communities around the United States.
In 2014, Yazzie enrolled at Saint Paul College, where his first assignment as a culinary student was to perfect any dish from around the world. “I wanted to make something beyond frybread, but I realized at least 50% of ingredients inside Navajo tacos are native to the Americas,” said Yazzie.
Toppings like summer squash, peppers, and eggplant reminded him of French ratatouille, and he found his dish. More importantly, he discovered the larger influence of Indigenous foods and his passion for reviving, celebrating, and recognizing their ancestral origins.
Chef Yazzie found inspiration in eggplant, summer squash, and peppers, like the one on this circa 1951 seed packet from our collection, during his first assignment as a culinary student. / THF294269
He and Polk started a Native American Club on campus and connected with local chef/author/educator Sean Sherman, CEO of The Sioux Chef, to cater one of their events. “Seventy-five percent of the appetizers he served were foreign to me,” said Yazzie, who went on to work for Sherman before he and Polk started their own catering company, Intertribal Foodways. “We wanted to bring awareness to what’s been overlooked for so long.”
Along with showcasing Native ingredients and techniques, that’s also meant addressing health issues like diabetes that have long affected Indigenous communities. “We try to implement food as medicine,” said Yazzie, now executive chef of the Gatherings Cafe inside the Minneapolis American Indian Center. “Especially during this pandemic, we have to keep our elders strong and safe; a lot of them hold lost languages and teachings.”
After COVID-19 hit, Yazzie and his team started making 200 healthy meals a day for elders in the Twin Cities, established a Dennehotso COVID-19 relief fund, and regularly sent healthy food and supplies to the Apache County community. He works with local farmers and foragers to bring Native ingredients into his food whenever he can, even if it means taking baby steps with dishes like unhealthy frybread (created by Yazzie’s Navajo ancestors while they were in internment camps at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in the 1860s). “It’s still on the table across North America as a survival staple for tribal communities, especially during the pandemic, so I had to take a step back and listen to my elders, but we’re getting there,” said Yazzie, who lightens up the wheat-heavy bread with amaranth flour or wild rice flour.
In mid-August 2020, Dan Giusti posted a picture on Instagram of an empty cafeteria. Communal tables were stacked against the walls, and single spaced-out desks and chairs took their place. “Maybe a new norm?” he asked in the caption.