By Allison Campbell-Jensen
On June 1, Rose McGee, founder of Sweet Potato Comfort Pies, arrived at the memorial for George Floyd Jr. with more than 20 pies, baked the night before by volunteers. It’s a path of caregiving that she began following the 2014 shooting of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., by a police officer. She has delivered to other hurting communities after racial violence — Charleston and Pittsburgh, among them — about 3,000 pies in all.
Sweet as pie is, and as much attention as it attracts, it’s not just about the pie, says McGee, who is a member of the board of the Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries. It’s what happens when people are making pies together, when they gather for conversations. “What’s the relationship that is starting to develop? What’s happening when you take those pies into community? How are you learning from community? How is empathy being acquired?”
That is why her Sweet Potato Comfort Pie movement’s motto is “A catalyst for caring and building community.” Her efforts are attracting the media: People and Good Morning America featured her outreach on June 9 and 10.
Story circles build community
Story circles are tools that she has written a book about. She uses them for educators’ professional development in her full-time job with the Minnesota Humanities Center. And in her other job, too, says McGee. “We call it the Sweet Potato Comfort Pie Approach. We use story circle as a key process for taking people through the experience of communicating.” Here is a link to give a donation to this pie-baking, circle-creating, community-building enterprise.
The reasons to have these conversations started centuries back.
“It began way before Mr. George Floyd,” McGee says. “If you think about the fact that this country was established by taking over the land from inhabitants who were here already, in a very cruel way. On top of that, then they went and snatched up a bunch of people from another country and brought them here to build this country. That’s a lot to think about. Who did it all? White people.”
Following the atrocious killing of George Floyd, everyone, black and white, must figure out how to make meaningful change. “What is transformation going to look like?” McGee says, including defunding the police or addressing the so-called achievement gap. “How then do we deal these things, really, if we are genuinely concerned about the future, and we really and truly do want to see things done differently and better for all people?”
During the Minneapolis funeral of George Floyd, McGee heard Rev. Al Sharpton say: “Get your knee off my neck.” She says, “I just took it further: ‘Get your knee off my neck and in the process write a check.’” Because of the dynamics of power and control, she says, Black communities are largely poor. But, she adds, “There is no reason for resources not to be distributed in a way that everyone can be taken care of in this country.”
With her Friends of the U of M Libraries board service, she also is distributing resources — her knowledge and experience. She was recruited to the Friends board by Edie French, President and CEO of iDream.tv. French and McGee became friends while working together on a Minneapolis Public Schools TV show called School Matters and later filming a play McGee wrote about Juneteenth, which marks the June 19, 1865, date that enslaved people in Texas finally learned they were free — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“We need to diversify the board and the people we are reaching and serving,” French says. “I felt she could help with this mission.” Also, McGee had a passion for sharing libraries’ resources, having been barred from her local library as a young girl because of her race.
Serving on the Friends of the U of M Libraries board, McGee says, “gives me a chance to weigh in on things, particularly around diversity.
“Everybody has good intentions, but they need reminding from time to time of certain things. We’re in a time now when it is going to be really important that people pay attention and listen.”