Food for Thought: A Meal with Seitu Jones

Loeb Fellows are by their very nature socially engaged, often approaching their social engagement through urban planning, policymaking, architecture, or activism. For Seitu Jones, social engagement is realized through art. And on special occasions, through food.

Jones, a Loeb Fellow from 2001-2002, readily admits that his art has taken a number of forms: ranging from corporate to transit-oriented. But in a recent lunchtime presentation at the GSD, organized by the African American Student Union and the Loeb Fellowship, Jones highlighted one unusual project from his wide-ranging repertoire: community art in Frogtown, his very own neighborhood in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

When he speaks, Jones is articulate, direct, and fully engaged with his audience. He stated, “I’m just going to talk about one thing: how you can change the world with a singular focus.” In this particular undertaking, his singular focus was on a community meal: a Sunday dinner in September. 2000 guests. 250 tables. One-half mile along a single street. After declaring the nearly bewildering scale of the event, organized in September 2014, he questioned the endeavor itself: “Why would I take on such a crazy idea and task?”

Jones has been preoccupied by food for many years. Even during his time at Harvard, he dutifully researched collard greens across Harvard’s many libraries, finding recipes and articles, histories and stories behind the food we prepare and share. He worried that though we frequently have memories surrounding food, dating back generations, “We have forgotten some of these food stories.

He was also concerned about the frequent barriers poor people face in access to healthy food, particularly in his own neighborhood, even with some fresh food sources available. He learned that one important reason people rely on packaged and processed products, even when alternatives are at hand, is that they are intimidated by fresh ingredients–what they are, how to prepare them. He asked, “So, what’s a brother to do?”

And so, like a good neighbor, Jones invited everyone to dinner. And like a good host, Jones invited conversation and encouraged storytelling to keep his guests engaged. And like any good piece of art, Jones gave it a name, CREATE. He loved the way the title contained all his aims: Art, Act, and Eat. As a temporary, ephemeral installation, the event involved a careful choreography of guests, of artists, of conversation, of connections set to outlast the meal itself. The project pulled from many inspirations: the neighborhood itself, the legacy of George Washington Carver, Jones’s artist residency at Rick Lowe’s (LF ’02) Project Row Houses, past projects by his friend Theaster Gates (LF ’11), the Black Panther’s history of free breakfasts. But perhaps the greatest inspiration was Jones’s consistent commitment in his work and life to “leave your community better than you found it.”

Conversation at each table focussed on community and food. Kolu Zigby, current Loeb fellow and food activist, asked Jones to elaborate. He said artist-servers were enlisted to facilitate discussions through a carefully choreographed engagement with each table and through predetermined questions, all of which are food for thought. How do you define healthy eating? What do you talk about over dinner? Do you know a farmer? Do you have food rituals?

After explaining the how of the community meal (source hundreds of pounds of black beans, mobilize artists, coordinate mayor and city councilmembers, build mobile kitchens, recruit local chefs, ensure blue skies), Jones explained the why. That was much simpler: love. “We do this work for love and we don’t talk about it enough,” Jones explained. The presentation slide behind him echoed his insistence in black and white: L-O-V-E.

“This is where I leave you all,” he finished, looking expectantly at the crowd. “All of you are here at the GSD to change the world. Do it for love.”

Lead photo by Andy King.

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