Meet Ianne Fields Stewart: The Activist and Actress Who Is Combatting Food Insecurity In The Black Transgender Community
By Jaimee A. Swift
In a white, cisheteronormative, patriarchal, and capitalist world that chronically enacts violence against the Black transgender community, activist, actress, and community organizer Ianne Fields Stewart (she/her/they/them) is catalyzing safe and luxurious spaces where the Black transgender community is not only seen and heard but are being fed.
There are several words that describe Ianne Fields Stewart: Multifaceted. Talented. Determined. Compassionate. Giving. The list could go on and on. The 26-year old Birmingham, Alabama native, now New York-based, Black, queer, and transfeminine storyteller is not only a rising actress/performer––who by the was featured in the hit FX telvesion series, Pose!––she and they are a theatrical consultant, playwright, director, teaching artist, choreographer, and community organizer who has been featured in outlets such as Buzzfeed LGBT, BBC, Inside Edition, and more.
Working at the intersection of theatre and activism, Stewart is not only a formidable presence in the acting world, she and they are also using her and their talents as a community organizer to catalyze and curate safe and luxurious spaces where the Black transgender community is being affirmed, valued, and fed. Recognizing the strucural issues of food insecurity, racism, transphobia, violence, homelessness, and poverty that chronically impacts the Black transgender community, Stewart founded and serves as the director of The Okra Project, a grassroots, organizer-led initiative with a mission of combating food insecurity in the Black transgender community by bringing free home-cooked, healthy, and culturally-specific meals to Black transgender people in New York and Philadelphia by way of Black transgender chefs. Partnering with institutions and community spaces such as the Osborne Association, The Okra Project also works to help Black transgender people experiencing homelessness or whose homes cannot support the project's chef's cooking by delivering food to Black transgender people in dire need.
Dedicated to disrupting and interrupting the exclusivity of luxury by curating spaces where entertainment, nourishment, and self-care are accessible to the most marginalized in their community, Stewart believes that in a world that is constantly enacting violence and trauma, Black queer and transgender people should be able to experience and center collective emotional, physical, and sensual pleasure.
Read more about Stewart's work with The Okra Project; her and their love and admiration for Janet Mock; why Black femme politics matters; and what a "Black Woman Radical" means to her and them.
Jaimee Swift (JS): What was the impetus of creating The Okra Project and how have you seen the project impact the Black transgender community?
Ianne Fields Stewart (IFS): "The Okra Project actually started on my couch in December of last year. I was in a community organizing meeting and I was being talked over a lot by a masculine-person. While I was disengaging from the conversation, [the idea for The Okra Project] came to my mind. I turned to my friend, Nyla [Sampson] who was sitting on the couch with me, and said, "What do you think about hiring our friend Meliq [Meliq "Zaddy" August], who is a chef and the creator of Zaddy's Kitchen, and collaborating with [Sampson's Black Trans Solidarity Fund], to go into the homes of Black trans people who may be experiencing food insecurity or who are not be able to go home for the holidays and cook for them?" Nyla and later on, Meliq, agreed and were on board with the idea. On Wednesday, December 19, 2019, we launched The Okra Project, with the intention and hope of raising $1,000. We dropped it at 9 a.m. that day. By 2 p.m., we raised $1,000 and by the evening we raised $2,000. That Friday we raised $6,000. Since the launch, I can comfortably say we have probably raised $30,000-$40,000 for our community. We also started creating community events. The Okra Project really has taken on a life of its own and become something in the community that people can lean on and rely on in the community when they need to. It has been really humbling and an honor to do this––creating and curating this space for Black trans people specifically. One of the greatest ironies of The Okra Project is that I can't cook for shit but I started The Okra Project [laughs]."
"Unfortunately, we have a habit that when Black queer and trans people make something, it suddenly becomes a public commodity. When we walk in the world with people seeing our bodies as public commodities, why would our work, our efforts, our productions not be seen as public commodities? We are resisting this in everything we do by saying, "No, this is exclusive to Black trans people."
"However, some challenges we face is the vision [of The Okra Project] is not always clear to folks. A lot people will hear 'Black' and say 'of color', or people will hear "Black trans" and just say "trans". Over time, we realized how people are so determined to live in their anti-Blackness and do not want to acknowledge specification. It is interesting that there is an association with specificity as exclusivity, as if somehow that is a bad thing. I do not think it is bad to be exclusive to the most marginalized people and I do not think it is a bad thing to be specific. Are there trans people of color or who are white who could use our services? I absolutely do think that. My hope is that more organizations and institutions and other programs will pop up. This is not a model we are hiding or feel we have any exclusivity over. What we have always hoped that by doing [The Okra Project] and watching how it has grown, how it speaks to the community and to people as a whole, that other people will say, "I will start something like this as well."
"Unfortunately, we have a habit that when Black queer and trans people make something, it suddenly becomes a public commodity. When we walk in the world with people seeing our bodies as public commodities, why would our work, our efforts, our productions not be seen as public commodities? We are resisting this in everything we do by saying, "No, this is exclusive to Black trans people." We pass on partnerships, organizations, and institutions that have wanted to partner with us because we are exclusive to who we serve. And that is important and necessary."
JS: For so long, so many Black queer, non-binary, and transgender people have been ignored in radical, Black Politics. How would you like to see Black queer, transgender, and non-binary activists centered in Black Politics?
IFS: "It is interesting because we talk a lot about who we center but even in that, there is an assumption that an outside force is centering us. I think the truth is that Black women, Black femmes, and Black non-binary femme people have been at the center from the beginning––it is just whether you see us or not and do you recognize us or not. To be honest, whether people do or do not see us or recognize us is something I am not terribly tied to. I do not feel the need to make people see what is there because the proof is in the pudding, you know? We have been here and we have been doing the work forever. Is it exhausting and frustrating that we have to put up with this shit and put up with people who refuse to acknowledge us? Abso-fucking-lutely. There is this really wonderful quote by Tracee Ellis Ross where she says, "I love being a whole and full woman ... I am more than my parts and we all are. And we all, as women, need to continue to change our gaze from how we are seen to how we are seeing. in the future of Black women's radicalism, Black women politics and Black femme politics, I would like us to shift that gaze. Rather than attempting to address how we are seen, we need to address how we are seeing."
"In the future of Black women's radicalism, Black women politics and Black femme politics, I would like us to shift that gaze. Rather than attempting to address how we are seen, we need to address how we are seeing."
"Do we see each other? Are we showing up for each other? And often I think the answer is absolutely yes. And if we are seeing each other and if we are showing up for one another, how much do we really need anyone else? And I do not want what I am saying to be a part of a narrative that Black women don't need anyone else and we can do this on our own and play into this 'superwoman' mentality. I don't want us to participate in that type of thinking because I think there is also power in recognizing when you need help and naming it for yourself. But if our priority is to go to our sister or sibling first and say, "I need help", I wonder what power comes from that. I wonder what power comes from prioritizing our sisters and our siblings first and then us discussing as a whole: do need these other niggas? If alright, cool. But truthfully, I have seen more radical change occur when Black women and femmes work together than at any other time. For me, I feel like if Black cis women see Black trans women and Black non-binary femmes, then we are going to be okay. And if Black non-binary femmes and Black trans women can see Black cis women, we are going to be okay."
JS: "What does a 'Black Woman Radical' mean to you?"
IFS: "I think there are so many different things that make you a 'Black Woman Radical', but the simplest thing that makes you a 'Black Woman Radical' is your love and your dedication to Blackness, your love and dedication to your own Blackness, and the Blackness of other Black women. It is your love and dedication to showing up, no matter how hard it gets. Truthfully, being a 'Black Woman Radical' is being constantly in love with being Black and being a Black woman. If you are moving from a place of Ioving Black women and Black femmes and loving Blackness with all your heart, when you move in love in that way––and not in obligation––but love, true and honest love, the way is made clear for you."
"Truthfully, being a 'Black Woman Radical' is being constantly in love with being Black and being a Black woman. If you are moving from a place of loving Black women and Black femmes and loving Blackness with all your heart, when you move in love in that way––and not in obligation––but love, true and honest love, the way is made clear for you."
"When you love Blackness, you cannot love Blackness in singularity because we are not a singular people. Blackness is complex, it is multifaceted: it is an explosion of beauty, culture, strength, survival, history, foundation, legacy, melanin, good skin, great hair––it is all the things. When you love Blackness in all of its complexity––including the things we don't want others to see; including the times where we hate ourselves and we hate each other; including the times when Bayard Rustin was dismissed by Martin Luther King until he could be brought back and be useful again; including when we hate our own sisters and ignore their deaths as they mount. If you can love Black people through all of our complexity, not conditionally, and love us through all that––but not accept those behaviors because those are not behaviors we should accept––but if we can really love Blackness through all of its joys, all of its fears, and all of its woes, I think that is what really makes you radical as a Black woman. That is what makes your work sparkle, shine, and become more important and more effective."
JS: "Who is a Black Woman Radical who inspires you?"
IFS: "Who inspires me the most is definitely the queen, Ms. Janet Mock. Truthfully, any time I see Black women and Black people thriving, I am overjoyed but particularly, when I see Black women and femmes living and getting their life, I am overjoyed. Whether that means they are getting fucked right; whether they are dancing their asses off; whether they are fierce as fuck walking down the street; whether they aren't feeling the ferocity but still choosing to stay in the arena and battle another day––I don't care. Black women and femmes thriving is what brings me so much joy, so any 'Black Woman Radical' activist is someone who inspires me because they are doing the work––as long as they are inclusive of all Black women."
A still of Ianne Fields Stewart hugging author, producer, director, writer, and transgender activist, Janet Mock in Buzzfeed LGBTQ+'s video, "Janet Mock Surprised Some Of Her Biggest Fans."
"Janet Mock is my icon and my idol. Getting to work on set with her on Pose was a dream come true. She inspires me in so many ways. Her honesty and her raw truth that she has shared with all of us is the gift that keeps on giving for me. I love her voice, her truth, her wisdom, and it inspires me everyday."
"But Janet Mock is my icon and my idol. Getting to work on set with her on Pose was a dream come true. She inspires me in so many ways. Her honesty and her raw truth that she has shared with all of us is the gift that keeps on giving for me. I love her voice, her truth, her wisdom, and it inspires me everyday. I can only hope to be a quarter of how brilliant and wonderful she is."
For more information about Ianne Fields Stewart, visit here.
For more information about The Okra Project and to support The Okra Project, please visit here and here.
You can follow Ianne Fields Stewart on Twitter and Instagram.