How Does the Cheese Industry Join In Community With Marginalized Peoples? | culture: the word on cheese
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How Does the Cheese Industry Join In Community With Marginalized Peoples?

Finding community at the American Cheese Society

While at the American Cheese Society (ACS) conference this year, I was asked how the ACS brings the cheese community together. I had to think about it for a minute. I knew the person interviewing me wanted a sound bite, but I struggled to respond. I wasn’t sure how to answer because this is not an easy question for me, and perhaps it’s not easy for you, either. I’ll do my best to describe how I feel being part of the cheese community.

Let me start with my truth: Being in the cheese industry does not automatically give you community. It begins by setting you up with a considerable group of folks with the same general interest, but community is different. I am grateful that after working in the industry for about 15 years, I know what community means to me, and I now have a strong circle of protection and love within the cheese industry. My cheese community is part of the global majority. My cheese community is disabled. My cheese community is queer and trans and represents all the letters of the alphabet. My cheese community is intersectional. My cheese community is exceptional. 

Several years ago, I was going through it. Someone I’d never met in real life sent me flowers. The note attached said, “Hoping these beautiful flowers bring a smile to your face and remind you how much you matter.” That note is taped on my desk and makes me smile whenever I read it. This friend extended grace and love when I desperately needed it, and I am so grateful for that and for them.

While working an event this summer, someone belittled me to my face and behind my back. They made negative comments about the non-profit I’m a part of. This person did what they could to make me feel small, and it almost worked. Members of my community rallied. They gave hugs and non-verbal communication, letting me know they saw me and had my back. As I was packing up to leave, a member of my community said, “Do not let anyone dim your radiance.” I needed that infusion of love. As I think back on it, I can feel my shoulders loosen, my body sighing with relief. Those words still echo in my heart and still bring me comfort. 

This August, I worked a table at the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival. Members of my cheese community were there: a friend from when I was a cook in Chicago, cheese friends I hadn’t seen in years, and my shiny yarn friend. There were hugs where neither of us wanted to be the first to break away, laughter, and some tears of joy. I felt so loved and safe. 

And that’s what community means to me. It’s the safety that I feel when I’m genuinely in community with folks. Many of our cheese events are in spaces where surrounding areas aren’t always safe for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, especially for our Trans siblings and cousins. Many of these places aren’t safe for people with disabilities or people with mental health challenges. Many of these places are unsafe for Black, Indigenous, or People of Color. When you consider these factors, and that many of us belong to one or more of these groups, me included, the question changes: How does the cheese industry join in community with marginalized peoples? How does the cheese industry help keep us safe? I don’t have an easy answer for that because there isn’t one. So, I continue to turn towards my community. My community of cheesemakers, mongers, distributors, sales reps, shop owners, authors, freelancers, independent business owners, folks just starting, and the legends who have paved the way. I rely on them and hope they know they can always count on me. We keep us safe, and for that, I am so grateful. 

Agela Abdullah

Agela Abdullah is a “reformed” cook and chef who took her first job behind the cheese counter in 2008. She currently handles marketing for an Illinois cheesemaker and serves as a board member for the Cheese Culture Coalition. She lives in Chicago with two cats, two sourdough starters, and an old laptop named Harbison.

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