Meet the Hospitality Vets Rethinking Equity in the Food and Beverage Industry
Radical Xchange founders Ashtin Berry and Kisira Hill hosted panelists in New Orleans to discuss entrepreneurship, systemic barriers, and the true meaning of accessibility.
For hospitality activists Ashtin Berry and Kisira Hill, Resistance Served came from the desire to host a forum on industry issues that didn't offer the usual feel-good platitudes or superficial solutions. “I was tired of these conferences that have all of these resources and do this performative work of saying we care about this, but are not actually building the structures and the bones to make sure that carries on when people leave,” Berry said.
Berry and Hill are the duo behind Radical Xchange, a food- and beverage-focused collective reflecting their backgrounds in the social sciences, community development, and hospitality. The recent Resistance Served conference was their inaugural event; the two-day New Orleans symposium, which took place in early February, brought together food and beverage professionals and historians to celebrate Black historical achievements and discuss systemic barriers to success in the industry.
With panel topics such as "Our Roots: Adaptation and Skill through Food and Cultural Cuisine," "Black Labor and Innovation in the World Beverage: Gateway to Upward Mobility," and "Narratives of Reclaiming: Pioneering and Ownership," the panelists spoke about entrepreneurship and what it means to be Black in the industry.
Johnny Caldwell and Taneka Reaves, of Cocktail Bandits, discussed leveraging social media to build their brand despite multiple rejections in their hometown of Charleston, a city still reeling from the Emanuel AME Church massacre in 2015.
Teo Hunter, of Dope & Dank, spoke about being his own mentor in the beer industry while fighting stereotypes of black beer-making and consumption. For Berry, having the panelists share stories on taking charge of their narrative was important. “We didn’t own our narrative because historically, we didn’t own our bodies," she said. "It’s important that we start to reclaim ownership of our narrative and take up space.”
Although the conference celebrated Black achievement and tackled systemic issues, Radical Xchange was intentional about opening the doors for everyone.
“Whether it's a conversation about race or gender or anything, you can't dismantle systems of oppression without the people who benefit from it,” Berry said. “And we can't talk about equity if we don't have those people present. It's about people knowing that they need to participate in this work, and that it’s not just for us to do.”
That shared history of oppression—and the responsibility to dismantle it—was most apparent on the Resistance Served excursion to Whitney Plantation, the only plantation in Louisiana that centers the stories of the enslaved. For Radical Xchange, the trip contextualized the panel topics in a more tangible way, providing a necessary historical framework.
“Historical context is really important because it shows when we're repeating systems of oppression," Berry said. "When people think about the kind of work that moved from the plantation, they think of sharecroppers, but they forget about domestic work. They're basically the first hospitality people.”
Helpfully, Hill's background in cultural anthropology serves as a lens for viewing hospitality’s history. “If I'm talking about the radiation of the ways that we do things in our society, we need to find the foundation," she said. "Black history is American history, and if we're going to talk about food, beverage, and hospitality, it needs to be grounded in the histories of the people that established that work.”
Emotions ran high during and after the tour, as participants shared tearful and poignant responses with the group. Sentiments continued to be shared more intimately at the group tables, as lunch was served family-style by Dr. Howard Conyers, a NASA rocket scientist and multigenerational pitmaster.
Initially, he hesitated to cook on Whitney grounds, but made an exception due to the story the plantation tells in regards to slavery. Dr. Conyers insisted upon featuring whole hog barbecue for lunch, as it had symbolic meaning during slavery. “On the plantation, enslaved Africans would often take pigs from their masters and barbecue them in earth-dug pits in the woods as a way to resist oppression, and it’s the precursor to how I cook," he said. "I was extremely honored to share a piece of food history.”
The bond of community was steadfast, as people networked and exchanged cards, and conversations were overheard on collaborating on future projects. That was the goal. “Seeing the amount of support that we received from our sponsors [such as Patron and Backatown Coffee] and the community coming together has been most impactful,” Hill said. “We want to see people build community so that they can have support long after Resistance Served.”
Radical Xchange plans on using their community-building savvy to expand their brand beyond food and beverage. With a multi-city tour in the works, expect to see the duo “melting in all of these important and really crucial and culturally rich industries and seeing how we can involve people in new ways,” Hill said.
”I want the umbrella of the hospitality industry to start recognizing other communities and look outside of their insular community," she continued. "The word 'accessibility' needs to be enacted in all hospitality places so much more.”