During the summer of 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Washington, D.C.-based pastry chef Paola Velez (executive pastry chef at Compass Rose’s La Bodega Bakery and Maydān) co-founded the grassroots activism group Bakers Against Racism with Willa Pelini (now creative director and pastry chef at Cincinnati’s Elm Street Social Club) and D.C.-based vegetarian chef Rob Rubba (Oyster Oyster). Velez put out a call on Instagram to activate both professional and home bakers to bake and raise money for social justice organizations. Since BAR began, bakers around the world have raised more than $2 million, possibly making Bakers Against Racism the world’s largest bake sale. With more than 50,000 Instagram followers, global and national chapters and almost 18,000 hashtag posts, it’s a movement in which any baker can get involved on their own, or join in more organized opportunities like last year’s Bake the Vote and a holiday bake sale. In this Voices in Food story, Velez — who is Afro-Dominican — talked to Garin Pirnia about her work with BAR, the racial pandemic and the importance of baking for Black lives.
My favorite thing about the first activation for Bakers Against Racism was how people were baking for Black lives. Not just for justice, but for art, for peace, for science, for technology. We really encourage people to find things that they love and see how their craft or their trade or their education is intersected with Black lives and how maybe opportunities that were not available to the Black community can be made available if you help fund certain things.
There’s an organization called Black Girls Code. They’re teaching Black girls how to code, and that’s so important. That means in a few years we’re going to have more Black women in tech. Even if we just impact two lives, it’s a trickle effect. And that’s really what Bakers Against Racism is about — it’s less about the immediate and more about creating pathways to the future.
But I don’t want it to become just another thing people do because it’s trendy or because we have a cool hashtag. It really has to be meaningful, and there has to be history and thought behind it. I think that with baking, it’s something we all normally do anyway. Traditionally, in Americana cuisine, baking pies, cookies and brownies is a big staple of what we feel is American. I think a lot of people took baking as a softer pastime that is just for entertaining or for self-care, and when you think about baking radically and baking for another life, you’re not just saying, “I want to donate to this organization.” You’re saying, “I’m going to take time, money and my talent to fundraise for an organization that I’ve looked into and that I care about.” It makes it really personal to fundraise in this way. It makes it tangible because you can see your work having a direct impact to a community or to one life.
“Even if we just impact two lives, it’s a trickle effect. … It’s less about the immediate and more about creating pathways to the future.”
It was pretty cool to watch it unfold. We were all so surprised. Usually, the baker community is not regarded as anything of importance. We’re the first program to get cut from a restaurant. Even some executive pastry chefs aren’t seen as equals to executive chefs, while we probably have the same — or more — tech skill. So to see this movement come from the least of those is powerful.
We were the first ones getting cut during the pandemic. Most of the emails I got were from unemployed or furloughed pastry chefs. We were still like, “Let’s bake, because that’s all we know how to do.” I hear so much feedback. A few organizations that have used the Bakers Against Racism model have launched their own businesses and have been able to sustain themselves throughout the pandemic. That impact is huge. People are using what they’re learning from these bake sales to sustain themselves and bake for social justice at the same time. As long as you’re baking for Black lives, then I don’t really mind how you do it. As long as you’re caring for another human being and valuing their lives and standing up for them, then please, by all means, keep it moving. Make it better.
“When you think about baking radically and baking for another life, you’re not just saying, ‘I want to donate to this organization.’ You’re saying, ‘I’m going to take time, money and my talent to fundraise for an organization that I’ve looked into and that I care about.’”
One thing I will say is, in America, Black people have always made sure that other Black people are OK. When I worked at [Afro-Caribbean restaurant] Kith and Kin, somebody wouldn’t be like, “Hey, you’re not XYZ.” They’d be like, “Yeah, that’s right, because you look like me. You talk like me. You are me. We’re the same. You just got colonized by the wrong person.” While it is confusing for other people to understand how someone could occupy two spaces at the same time — Black and Latinx — for me it’s an honor and a joy to be able to have my Dominican heritage and be American and look the way that I look. I’m elated that I have this walk in life. It’s challenging, but it’s also beautiful. It’s full of art, history and beautiful souls that I interact with daily.
I hope things are going to get a little better. I think there are glimmers of hope. We had President Joe Biden’s first D.C. restaurant visit, to Call Your Mother deli. We had forgotten that the president can go out to eat. So far, it feels like the tide is changing and it’s more peaceful over here. I think anything can change the world, as long as you have a good heart and the right intentions.