About a week ago, upon returning to Berkeley from a relaxing, digital-free camping trip with his daughter on the coast near Jenner, Collin Doran recalled feeling outrage once his phone was within cellular range again. It was the day that President Donald Trump tweeted the idea of postponing the election.
That tweet was just one more reason Doran, the owner of longtime Berkeley diner Homemade Cafe, wanted to be part of Dine for Democracy.
“It’s pretty evident right now that if we don’t have a democracy, we might have a dictatorship,” Doran said.
Grassroots organizing through food
Dine for Democracy is a campaign that raises money for grassroots organizations that fight voter suppression and activate underrepresented communities to vote. It was founded by Lena Wolff, Mariah Castle and Hadley Dynak, three East Bay-based artists, educators and activists.
Wolff, a visual artist, said she was motivated to get politically involved on a community level after the 2016 election. She started hosting a Solidarity Sunday group at her home in Berkeley as a way to work with like-minded activists, but Wolff wanted to do something to engage the larger community to vote during the 2018 midterms. She contacted Dona Savitsky, owner of Doña Tomás (now, Doña) in Oakland and Tacubaya in Berkeley, and together with Castle, they organized the first Dine for Democracy event at several restaurants around the Bay Area and in Portland, Oregon.
In 2018, Dine for Democracy asked participating restaurants to donate a percentage of proceeds on a certain day of the month to the cause. Now, with restaurants struggling to sustain business on takeout and limited outdoor dine-in service during the pandemic, Dine for Democracy has changed its setup. Rather than asking restaurants to donate proceeds from sales, on every first Friday of the month leading up to the election, Dine for Democracy encourages people to order food from participating restaurants and donate to its Democracy Voting Fund. In turn, restaurants are asked to spread the word about the campaign.
More than 100 restaurants and bakeries in 22 cities around the country are participating in this year’s Dine for Democracy campaign, which will raise money for five voting organizations led by people of color and youth: Black Voters Matter Fund, Woke Vote, The Alliance for Youth Action, Mi Familia Vota and Montana Native Vote.
Although there are no actual “events” taking place at the restaurants on those first Fridays, and diners can donate any time to the fund, Wolff said specifying the first Friday of the month as event days has helped. On those days, Dine for Democracy gets the bulk of its donations.
Doran has put up information on Homemade Cafe’s social media pages and as well as on the door of the restaurant and in takeout bags.
With no one dining inside, he has less interaction with customers than he used to, but Doran said he’s gotten positive responses.
“A lot of people say, ‘This is great. Can I contribute?’” he said. “I think with everything going on, people have felt much more activated just to do whatever they can.”
Cooking for more voices to be heard
Doran wants as many people’s voices heard as possible — a sentiment Christina “Lala” Harrison, chef-owner of Oakland’s Jusla Eats, echoes. Harrison grew up in Berkeley and has cooked at many East Bay culinary hot spots over the years. She now runs her own pop-up specializing in California-style Cajun and Southern soul food. Jusla Eats currently has a Tuesday and Friday residency at Palmetto in Uptown Oakland. As a Black chef, Harrison sees cooking as a means to activate the community in movements like Black Lives Matter. She’s also been working with World Central Kitchen to feed communities in need during the pandemic. Participating in Dine for Democracy was a no-brainer for her.
“We embrace voter awareness,” said Harrison, who like Doran, puts Dine for Democracy fliers in takeout bags and posts information on her social media accounts. “Especially in urban areas and for African Americans and communities of color, we want people to know how much voting affects your everyday life.”
Harrison says she wants to let people, particularly young people, know how important voting is.
“Our employees are all youth – they’re 16 to 24,” she said. “Our customer base is young too, and it’s good to bring awareness.”
Contributing matters, especially during the pandemic
While this year’s Dine for Democracy isn’t quite what organizers had originally planned, it’s good for a time when we all need to adapt, Wolff said.
“It’s a crazy time for restaurants, and they’ve been saying, ‘Thank you for giving us this opportunity to do something,’” Wolff said. “In a way, this seems like how democracy should work with everyone donating something, and it gives people an opportunity to be engaged in the political moment when coronavirus is taking over.”
Sylvia Osborne-Calierno, who owns North Berkeley lunchtime spot Fava with her friend and former Chez Panisse colleague Jeremy Scheiblauer, is glad for that opportunity to contribute. Fava was one of the first restaurants to sign up for this year’s Dine for Democracy campaign.
Osborne-Calierno has a bit of personal history with Wolff. As a student at Berkeley High School, Osborne-Calierno was in an art class taught by Wolff’s wife, Miriam Klein Stahl. Today, Osborne-Calierno considers the couple friends and respects them as political organizers. They are a big part of the reason she wanted to be involved, she said.
“It’s cool the way they think about politics and community,” said Osborne-Calierno. “They’re artists and always thinking about ways to connect the dots. It’s grassroots, and they have connections to laborers, and many people who back it are normal, everyday people. They’re not just going for tech money.”
In a time with so much fear and uncertainty, feeling like you’re contributing matters, Osborne-Calierno said. And, she added, many restaurant workers are people of color, often adversely affected by the current administration’s policies.
“We’re essential workers and part of community,” she said. “We are living in times when working-class people and minorities have less and less of a voice, and the virus has brought that out.”
So far Dine for Democracy has raised about $20,000 with an ultimate goal of $200,000 to be split evenly between the five voting rights groups. With so many feeling worried about the upcoming election, Wolff hopes to offer some fun.
“The goal is to bring people together, and food is a great way to do that,” she said. “We’re trying to place joy at the center of civic engagement and activism.”
Homemade Cafe, 2454 Sacramento St. (at Dwight Way), Berkeley; Jusla Eats at Palmetto, 1900 Telegraph Ave. (at 19th Street), Oakland; Fava, 2114 Vine St. (between Shattuck Avenue and Walnut Street), Berkeley The next Dine for Democracy event is Friday, August 7. Find a list of more participating restaurants on the website, including many in Berkeley and Oakland.