There’s an old saying that if you’re more fortunate than others, it’s better to build a longer table than a higher fence. Loosely, that’s the principle on which the new website Equity at the Table is based; it describes itself as a “practical and proactive response to the blatant gender and racial discrimination that plagues the food industry.” The site’s founder, Julia Turshen, chose the name “equity” deliberately; it’s not the same as equality.
“I think they’re really different,” she says. “It’s not just about who’s invited to the table, it’s who gets to do the inviting, who gets to sit at the head of the table. It’s not looking at diversity for the sake of diversity, but true inclusion and intersectionality.”
Turshen, a cookbook author based in New York’s Hudson Valley, created Equity at the Table to be a database of women and gender-nonconforming individuals in professions related to the food industry, nearly all of them people of color or queer people (or both). The site encourages straight white women to join if they’re able to provide resources for food professionals, but it’s mostly intended for women who are part of at least one minority group. (Turshen herself is gay.)
In the process of putting together her last book, Feed the Resistance, Turshen got to know many of the people who contributed recipes and essays, which helped plant the seed for EATT. “Coming to better understand their experiences and getting their stories out there was very eye-opening for me,” she says. “I’ve come to understand the power of representation and seeing your story reflected in the world.”
When she first had the idea for EATT, Turshen says, she thought something like it must already exist. “The more I looked, the more I spoke with colleagues and friends, we were all like, we don’t see this, but we want it,” she says. She put together an advisory board of colleagues and friends, and with the help of the board and other contacts, began inviting people to join the site before it officially launched. “It was important to me that when we launched, people could actually see the thing, not the idea of the thing,” she says. EATT went live April 3 with about 100 members and now has nearly 400.
Maya-Camille Broussard, a Chicagoan and creative entrepreneur, was one of the site’s first members and helped Turshen find other women to invite. She owns a bakery, Justice of the Pies, and runs a workshop called I Knead Love that teaches kitchen skills to kids in low-income neighborhoods.
Broussard contributed a recipe to Feed the Resistance and says that she and Turshen have been in touch ever since. “When she mentioned Equity at the Table, as a black woman living with a disability it felt like the perfect place for me to let myself be known to other professionals in the culinary industry,” says Broussard, who’s hearing impaired. “What the industry is lacking is a core support, and that’s what EATT does. It provides a core for women to bond, to have power in numbers. The more people we add to the network, the greater the leverage will be.”
The response to the site, Turshen says, “has been wonderful.” The very first day it was live, a member tweeted that a potential client had found her through EATT and e-mailed her, and Turshen says she’s heard from other members with similar experiences. A Patreon to support the project, where “patrons” pledge to donate a certain amount each month, is currently at nearly $5,000 a month from 38 supporters (the original goal was $150 a month).
Eventually, Turshen says, she wants the site to be not just a directory but also a community. “I have talked a lot with the advisory board about how can we really be in touch with each other, support each other in our work?”
She also recalls the frustration of seeing lists in magazines of chefs or sommeliers and noticing all the people who’ve been left out. “Looking at a list of all male, all white people—it doesn’t mean there aren’t other people in the professions, doing this work in new and interesting ways. I wanted a place where it was really easy and obvious and simple to find everyone. We’re all here.”
Broussard recalled that recently a chef she knows, a white woman, looked over a job application for her. “She said, ‘You need to sound more like a white man. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘You really have to brag about your stuff. Every single white male chef in this industry brags about themselves and their food isn’t even that good. Your food is great, so you need to brag about yourself so they get that you’re just as talented as they are. It’s all about perception.'”
Broussard notes that if a man loses his temper in the kitchen it’s accepted, but if she does the same thing she’s seen as an angry black woman. “Those perceptions are not something I can change overnight. That changes over time, and it changes when you have a core collective of other black women, other queer women, other women with disabilities, come together.”