Grief into Action

What My Mother’s Death Taught Me About Activism.

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Margaret Huang, circa 1961

I lost my mom to multiple myeloma cancer two years ago. We were planning her 75th birthday, a milestone celebration, not a funeral. When I experienced the most devastating loss in my life, there were many who told me I should not be grieving, that I should be grateful that she’s not suffering anymore, that she’s in a better place. They asked me to accept that her arduous battle with cancer had finally ended. Later, as time passed, some people suggested that I should be done with the sorrow.

As an artist, I turned to my craft because I knew it would help me cope and heal. Many people didn’t understand why I needed to make art about something so sad, or how art could help me recover. But, much like the Parkland Students and Sheryl Sandberg, I couldn’t be still; I turned my grief into action.

Mom, at my grandmother’s house, May 16, 1964.

We came to the states from Taiwan in 1983 to help my aunt and uncle with the family restaurant in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1991, my parents purchased from my dad’s younger brother one of the 16 Chinese food franchises they owned, and we moved to Dallas, Texas. That’s when I became a social practice artist. Whether I’m making billboards to dialogue on race, or building an interactive wishing tree for an art museum, I heed my mom’s advice to do what’s good and right. My mom taught us to practice kindness everyday and always remember people’s names. I employed the lessons I learned from my mom to build community.

My mom, Margaret Huang, was ahead of her times. As the head chef and owner of the Chinese franchise, she made it a point to hire and teach immigrants and refugees how to cook, ushering them on to bigger and better opportunities with trainings to increase their job options. Looking back, she had a strategy to cope with the global migrant crisis before I even knew what the phenomenon was. After she passed, I struggled to cope with the tremendous grief, so I created a social justice initiative called “Break Bread, Break Borders” to honor her legacy. Since my mom was a chef, restaurateur and a community leader, I wanted to combine all her superpowers in one project to keep the activism she started alive. BBBB is catering with a cause. We give refugee women access to professional training. We leverage their basic skills, such as cooking, to empower them economically, allowing them to earn a living wage by catering. It’s a dignifying way to learn how to fish instead of being given the fish. The social entrepreneurship program uses a “work while you train” incubator kitchen concept to provide cooks in the Vickery Meadow (Dallas, TX) community mentorship opportunities with professional chefs, restaurants, catering services, commercial kitchens and culinary consultants. The program helps refugees acquire food handler permits, food manager licenses and, depending on their need, placement in full-time jobs in restaurants, or pathways to culinary school.

The Break Bread, Break Borders refugee cooks and volunteers, along with their mentor, Chef Rhonda Sweet (second from image right).

I once heard the refugee celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich speak at a lecture about how food is a great equalizer. Anybody with a difference of opinion can sit down and break bread with the community and break down borders at the same time.

Beef Kubbeh, handmade by Syrian refugee cook, Maryam Al Haw, a BBBB participant.

As the great civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs said: “We are the leaders we’ve been looking for.” My mom taught us that inclusion and equity means all should have access to success. As an activist, I have to stand up for the voiceless. What sets BBBB apart is the women don’t just drop off the food. They spend time with the diners, sharing stories of their war-torn countries, discussing their lives as refugees abroad and here in America. Then they share what it’s like to cook with BBBB. It gives them a safe space to talk to communities they wouldn’t normally interact with. It’s heartwarming to hear diners say that, after tasting the food and seeing the faces behind the food, they recognize these women are no different from their own sister or mom.

The refugee cooks do their storytelling at a BBBB catering for a racial healing workshop, Oct. 2017.

I’ve since deleted the voicemail messages my mom left me. Although I still tear up every now and then, I no longer break down every time I speak of her in public forums, and ugly cry afterwards in the bathroom. I still have in my freezer the last batch of Chinese pickled cabbage she made, and her handwriting of my name on a yellow post-it note. Now, I understand the quote from Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi master: “Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.” I understand this eternal love that keeps on giving because I’m able to pay it forward and give back to our community. It’s all thanks to my mom.

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Jin-Ya Huang is an interdisciplinary artist and the founder of Break Bread, Break Borders, a social entrepreneurship that provides economic empowerment to refugees through sharing food and culture. She is a Dallas Greenhouse Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.