Presentation of Learning and Leadership: Cooking as a Way of Healing

By: Audrey Nefores, Development Manager for Supporter Engagement

Senior Chelsey Reyes and Disha Patel, Common Ground’s Food Justice Educator.

Common Ground senior Chelsey Reyes stands in the front of a classroom with a cart of fresh ingredients. Around her, students are gathered in small groups at tables, each with an electric griddle warming up in the center. Behind Chelsey a whiteboard states four simple rules:

1- Don’t yuck my yum
2- Be present – no phones
3- Never a failure, always a lesson
4- No cooking rules, make what you feel, just don’t burn the place down

When the energy of the room settles, Chelsey explains they are gathered for a collaborative demonstration entitled, “Cooking as a Way of Healing.”

Twice a year, Common Ground students and staff facilitate a “Presentation of Learning and Leadership” conference day organized by Candi Fulcher, Environmental Leadership Manager. Students are asked to reflect on a topic they are passionate about and create a workshop for their peers. The event is focused on amplifying our student’s unique voices and experiences.

Chelsey’s workshop begins with a discussion on the importance of cooking together for her family; that despite their busy schedules cooking meals gives them time and space to connect. She shares that many of the traditional Mexican dishes they love take several hours to complete and have been passed down over several generations.

Student group cooking collaboratively.

Chelsey explains that the group will be learning the process of making quesadillas as a way to explore the healing powers of cooking collectively. It’s clear she has taken great care to create a tranquil environment for the project. The room has dim, natural light and instrumental music gently plays.

Students are offered two options to begin- sweet or savory. Next, they choose their topping ingredients. Chelsey states that the wide variety of ingredients available are intentional, so that everyone has creative freedom.

When the process begins, Chelsey seems surprised by just how creative her peers get with their dishes. Some student groups decide to caramelize apples on the griddle. Others combined unlikely flavor profiles.

The space hums with conversation and laughter and seems transformed from a classroom into a home kitchen. 

Disha Patel, Common Ground’s Food Justice Education Coordinator, is an active presence in the room, assisting when needed, but remaining hands-off to allow Chelsey the opportunity to lead. The idea for the workshop sparked from a conversation the two shared about family traditions, mental health, and how meals from our family often become the comfort food we seek in times of frustration, stress or uneasiness. 

Taste testing the final product!

While her peers enjoy their quesadillas, Chelsey makes her rounds to each group, engaging them with thoughtful questions about how the experience went for them. One student shared that the project made her think of her grandmother, who made quesadillas for her when she was a child.

Organically, the groups at each table begin to discuss their respective cultural identities and the foods that are meaningful to them.

When the room clears Chelsey reflects on the event, how each person brought their own ideas but the groups worked together to create their final dish. She’s reminded of the true magic of her family dishes, like mole, a complex sauce made from dried chiles, nuts, seeds, spices and a bit of chocolate.

“What’s special about mole is it’s so specific to whoever makes it. Even though it’s passed down generation to generation, my mother’s mole doesn’t taste like anyone else’s.”

Chelsey’s successful presentation was just one of the many events students had the opportunity to participate in on PLL day. Topics ranged from boxing to farming and utilized a variety of imaginative approaches for sharing information. For a sample of other PLL workshops, see below:

Student-led presentation on the Umoja village in Kenya, an all-female matriarch village founded as a sanctuary for homeless survivors of violence against women, and young girls escaping forced marriages.

Farm Internship:
Student-led talk held on the farm about different vegetables, how to identify them, and ended with an optional taste test. Taste tests included garlic, onion and hot peppers. 

How to be Respectful to the LGBTQ+ Community:
Student-led presentation on how to be a good ally, how to ask for/give pronouns and all sorts of other things revolving around the LGBTQ+ community.

Theater of the Oppressed – Housing and Educational Justice:
Student performance of their own written and produced theatrical workshop focusing on education, housing and/or environmental justice.

Life After Common Ground: Q&A with Graduates!
Alumni-led presentation on the paths alumnis have taken after graduating high school — successes and challenges, in college, careers, life, and leadership. Common Ground students were encouraged to bring questions. 


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