Hella Black Brunch – Building Community & Connections with a side of Bourbon Lemonade
Meet Dr. Carrie Y.T. Kholi, better known as Kholi.
Kholi is the executive director of Khafra and Company, a marketing firm that is a “dream incubator investing in community actualization.” She is also a self-described educator and student, who has a love of narrative and how it shapes our past, present, and future. As part of Khafra’s work, the team provides women, queer people of color, and people from the African Diaspora with unique food, culture, education, and recreation experiences to reinforce safe spaces and local relationships. One of those offerings is a quarterly gathering known as Hella Black Brunch (HBB).
I met Kholi in September when HBB made its debut in New Orleans. It was first launched in Oakland in 2017 – on the day of 45’s inauguration and the Women’s March. The NOLA brunch was held in a quaint restaurant with about 30 black and brown bodies who came to the event with common intentions – to enjoy great food and make connections with other black and queer creatives. For those couple of hours, it was like getting your soul refilled by being in a space with other like-minded black and brown creatives. And that menu! Curated by Kholi and New Orleans Chefs, Shonda and her partner Rhonda, it included:
Beignets w/ bourbon caramel sauce
Slow-cooked shrimp stew
Creamy country grits
Shredded collard green salad with roasted sweet potatoes and cashews
Caramelized onion frittata
All of that was topped off with Kholi’s signature bourbon lemonade.
In 2019, Khafra will work with a promotional partner to have at least 3 brunches that focus on an exploration of inter-generational food practices and culture. They are also planning which cities to bring HBB to next. Their goal is to seek out anyone that is creating unique spaces. So far, they’ve had promotional partnerships with Mandela Foods, a co-op grocery store in Oakland; the Oakland Food Policy Council, and Dillard University’s Ray Charles Program in African-American Material Culture.
As a new fan of Kholi and her work, I spoke with her to learn more about how HBB came to be.
What was the inspiration behind Hella Black Brunch?
Shortly after 45 was elected, we started noticing that a lot of narratives were talking about women and Muslims. And even though so many different black folks were dying in the news everyday, as always, unfortunately, there was a weird hush around blackness in terms of identity in the news. We knew that the Women’s March was happening on the day of the inauguration. But we felt like that was such a solemn day for so many folks, and we really needed to come together and hold space with and for each other.
We started off at an Ethiopian restaurant called Enssaro in Oakland. We basically filled up half of the restaurant, and we started asking a bunch of questions around connection and what we want to do moving forward. That one brunch grew into another brunch. We moved from a restaurant into [someone’s] home. I think once we got into the home space, it was like, ‘ok, we nailed it.’ We really want to create something that feels like we’re family, but also allows us some space to kind of be aspirational and hopeful. To really just kind of come together to critically think and dream, and also just to celebrate the fact that we are still in existence.
What did you see happen out of that first brunch experience that really resonated with you?
The first one, I thought, ‘here I am putting together this kind of one-time thing.’ It was actually quite surprising that we literally filled up one side of the restaurant. I think I knew that it was something that I felt I needed. [I thought] ‘I don't know how many other people feel like this, it’s probably just going to be a small meetup, [but] let's do this thing.’ And I think the real surprise is that we've had our eighth brunch now. So now there are so many folks who are like, ‘bring this to our state’, or ‘bring this to our city’ or ‘we need this’. And it's like, ‘oh wow!’ I forgot that none of us are alone, right? None of us are having some sort of unique experience onto ourselves, and so I think that other folks are also able to say, ‘oh thank you. Yes, I did need that. I'm going to continue to come to those. I'm going to need to support it.’
Are there any differences between the brunches when you do it outside of Oakland, if at all? Like when you were in New Orleans?
They're kind of the same in terms of logistics and how we set them up. But every time we do them in a different place, we do try to at least work with one local chef or, hopefully, with multiple local chefs. And the menu changes based on the location. There's always a staple of having West African food involved - because that's my background - and we always want to include something that feels kind of Southern. In each city that we move it to, we're definitely like, okay, what is the local produce from this place? What are the local meals? How can we innovate on that to let them know that we appreciate the space that we're coming into and that we appreciate the community that they already have. And then what can we make special about this for them as well.
I love that concept. One of my questions was about the food and you went into that. Is there anything else you'd like to add about the kind of food you can expect at Hella Black Brunch? I'm still remembering that bourbon lemonade!
Haha, yes. I think bourbon is always a part of our menu. It's always either bourbon lemonade or bourbon Iced Tea. That’s my favorite drink when I’m drinking…
So this last time when we went back to Oakland for our harvest, we did a kind of, if you took your Sunday dinner and turned it into brunch. So we had some fried fish fillets and southern, smokey grits. And then we created a corn pudding that felt like a mac and cheese. It just depends, mostly on what I'm in the mood to make with the chefs because we split creating the menu. It’s usually like, here's my idea, here's where I want to go. Then I'll tell them the things that I'd like them to make and let them know what I'd like to make. And then we kind of bring our own flavor for cooking into the meal.
How would you say that Hella Black Brunch is different from traditional brunches or “networking brunches”?
I still don't think of Hella Black Brunch as a networking brunch. I think, if anything, it might be like a capacity building brunch. We know that we curate an awesome group of folks and they're all, in whatever form, high achieving [and] highly aspirational and, of course, doing amazing things in the city that they're in. But for us it's never like, ‘hey, come together, find more folks to work with and connect with’. I think that as a community if we're active, if we are awake and trying to build, we can at any point meet someone and decide that we're going to work with them. So I think that for us, our brunch is more like, we know you're doing the work, we know you're out there, and we want to bring you together where you can just kind of sit and celebrate yourself.
I think it's less about the networking and more about finding a moment of respite, and a moment of seeing yourself reflected back to you. And also just having an amazing meal with people that you really enjoy, you know, and that doesn't always have to be about, ‘oh, I'm bringing my business cards and I'm moving up to the next level in some way’.
What have you seen as the impact of Hella Black Brunch?
I feel like there's two things: I think about Hella Black Brunch as a capacity building tool of some sort, right? I think, for us, in order to expand and to be useful in this world, I think we do need moments of respite. I think we do need moments to just come together. Whenever I see folks continuously coming to brunches, to me, that's like, okay, we've built something that folks see as useful in their life. This is helpful to them in some way. This is somehow something that makes their life better in some way. And so I really love and appreciate that.
So, no, it's not a networking brunch. But when folks continue to be friends outside of the brunch, or they make connections and then eventually end up on panels together, or end up working together in some capacity, I think that’s useful. I think it's always wonderful to make a connection that can help you in some sort of business or economics. But our main goal is hitting that personal level of like, is this helping you as a human being? Like someone that needs to feel held and safe and understood in community.