The Care Between Us: An Interview with Ashley J. May
[February 2021, by Alexzandria Compton] Ashley J. May, the “J” sits between the first and last like the body of a scale, holding both in place with the power of balance and the weight of its wisdom passed down to her by her Grandmother “June.” Over the last month we were honored with the time to more intimately explore Ashley’s work within the Black, Brown, and Muslim communities, and the multigenerational gesture of community care that she so gracefully wears at her sleeve.
AC: In your own words, who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?
My name is Ashley J. May. I’m a woman, mother, and daughter of many. I live, love and dream together with my two sons, spouse and large family in my hometown the unceded Tongva lands commonly known as Los Angeles, CA.
I am the Founder and Project Director of The Grassroots Morning Garden Project. Through community engaged research, mutual/material aid, writing and advocacy, I work together with children and families to co-construct spaces of liberation and engage in world making that sustains our communities.
Can you recall a pivotal memory from your own childhood that made you grow in the relationship you had with caring for yourself and for others?
When I was a little girl, I’d spend hours lost in my paternal grandparents’ garden, making potions from what I found in the bushes or digging through old photo albums, as my grandfather was the keeper of our memories. Often my grandma sat near me, in one of her favorite chairs, observing me as I moved through my own little world; other times she disappeared—usually mid afternoon. I’d find her on her bed, arm draped over her eyes. She taught me how to set boundaries for myself as a mother, and more broadly as a caregiver. To give myself permission to rest. To disappear and dream. I’ve done some of my best thinking laying down, eyes closed, not necessarily sleep but very much at rest, often daydreaming. I’ve recovered from the hardest of days by giving myself permission to disappear in plain sight. And when I think of her, may God have mercy on her, I am reminded of rest as a space of possibility. I am reminded to rest for the sake of me. To care for me for the sake of me. And, to dream the same for my community.
"I was taught that every action
I take with my limbs and every word that flows
from my tongue is an extension of my heart."
And if care of myself and my community are the branches and blooms that emerge from the soil, a strong ethic of love, of self and community, forms the soil that feeds that extension of me. I was taught that every action I take with my limbs and every word that flows from my tongue is an extension of my heart. My good elders taught me how to want for others what I want for myself. I believe it all grows from a sound heart, radical love, and being in right relationship with folks. For every move I make, I examine my intentions and check in with my heart. What I do for my community can’t thrive if it’s rooted in saviorism. But when I start to dream of us getting free together, the work feels real good for everyone.
You created a material aid project last winter to give directly to families needing help coping with the food insecurity related to COVID. Tell us a little more about the Grassroots Morning Garden Project, and where you see it going in the future.
Yes! What a moment that was. So here’s the history on that. In October 2018, I embarked on ethnographic work together with Muslim mamas and little ones in my local community. The intent of my work was to explore culturally sustaining circle time, song, and storytelling as a space of freedom and affirmation. Our place was the forest for an entire Islamic festival year. We did so together from October 2018 to September 2019. I can actually see the pine trees and mountains we explored from my office window. Sometimes it brings tears to my eyes. I look up and out of my window often throughout my work day to ground myself; I take down my mask and breathe. What a joy that practice has been as the return to work in essential social services is no small thing.
So, while the year in the forest was once called the Wild Little Seekers Cooperative Forest School, the work soon expanded and so I dreamed up the name The Grassroots Morning Garden Project in the spring/summer of 2019. My field notes and the moments we co created are captured in the first volume of Thirty Sunsets and a Moon. And, many of the questions and radical dreams that emerged from that work will be engaged in volume 2 and 3.
I get great joy from being able to bring my research and knowledge production back to the communities I serve; back to my community. If we don’t bring it back to us, who are we doing it for? I am very deliberately doing it for us.
The Food Program of December 2020, my first mutual aid project, and the Healing Care Baskets for Black Mamas/Caregivers and their little ones, which launched in February 2021, are both efforts very much grounded in a deep knowing of what my community needs. I often talk to folks, neighbors and aunties and elders, who care for little ones and I listen for their dreams, their needs, their wishes. I keep them with me. They inform the work; I am simply the vessel.
When I sit down at my desk to read technical reports, government data and relevant research it is only a confirmation of what the streets have already told me. Knowledge starts on the ground. Wisdom grows from the community. And that’s sort of the ethos of the grassroots morning garden project.
You’ve mentioned to us before that you cherish many childhood memories spent sitting on the exact staircase of the triplex that you live in now. How many generations of your family have lived there?
In Mid City, there are three properties on the same block where my grandparents, my great grandma and myself have all lived. In Ladera Heights, where they are now, several generations at one time. My mother and grandparents still live on the same property today. Really, I’ve always lived on the same property with my grandparents or in walking distance.
Growing up with grandparents so close in proximity feels really special. I’m surprised by how many people I end up meeting who never got to experience that. Do you feel like this influenced your career focus and personal practice today?
Absolutely. From a very young age I had already developed a very grounded concept around what community and collective care could look like. I grew up, quite literally, in a web of inter generational care. My grandparents and neighbors and aunties cared for me. I have always lived just moments from or on the same property as my elders.
“This work that we do out here is only good work
insofar as it remains a conversation with, not a conversation about,
the folks that live and love in our community.”
As a child, I watched my grandpa work hard running the Kaiser Watts Counseling and Learning Center of which he was the founding Director. He modeled for me a delicate balance of caring for self and caring for community. He left early, worked all day and came back home in time to care for his garden. I know now, as someone deep in my own work, that this ritual was his release. That was how he poured into himself. I imagine much of what grows in the garden now at my family properties was tended to by his hands during that time. And that’s pretty powerful to imagine.
I guess I am pretty fascinated by how we, as Black folks, came together for each other in the post Watts and post LA Uprisings eras, and I think what worked then continues to inform how we care for each other. This space of thinking and theorizing forms the foundation of my work today.
That’s incredible, and the ritual tending he does to his garden (even to this day) is such a special detail to acknowledge. It makes me feel as if this gesture were but a fractal projection of the same love and care he has put back into his community...Can you elaborate anymore on his work here, and how he worked together with a group of parents in the community referred to as the core mothers?
Today, as our little family pod celebrated my Grandpa Bill’s 94th birthday in the lush green courtyard of our Ladera Heights triplex, I asked him to tell me more about the core mothers. I’ve been sitting with him on occasion as part of an oral history project for the sake of preserving history and as a source of guidance on work I’m leading in the community. This is one of two topics I aspire to archive.
He told me “I did not seek out the core mothers,” they came to him. They were the parents of children the center served and they wanted their voices, needs, and dreams front and center. And, he knew he could not run a program in the community without them. He recalled the names of mothers and stakeholders as if it was just yesterday. I sat listening equally amazed and unsurprised. The story is of course much longer than we have space for here; a story that needs the honor of its own moment. But, what I will say is that he confirmed for me what I somehow always knew, with a few bumps along the way to figure it out on my own. This work that we do out here is only good work insofar as it remains a conversation with, not a conversation about, the folks that live and love in our community.
Did you know early on you wanted to follow his path?
Since I was a child there was evidence that I was on this trajectory but there were times when I tried to tell myself I’d do something else. Some of the organizations that I collaborate with now were actually places I volunteered at as a youth. I remember telling myself I can’t handle the heartbreak of service like that. I told this to my cousin who was in law enforcement at the time; she advised me otherwise knowing I’d find a way to thrive in spite of the heart ache because there’s still just so much good to do in this world. I think the path I’m on was paved by so many. My mom has a history of working in the community, when she was pregnant with me, she worked in Watts. And, when I was a young girl she was in non profit youth and family services as well. My paternal grandpa and uncle were also leaders, high ranking, in social services. I feel that everyone’s legacy echoes in my work; and I hope one day my children will say the same about me.
You recently put out the book Thirty Sunsets and a Moon, which uses heirloom recipes, crafts, and traditional foodways to beautifully frame stories of self care and solidarity that revolve around the Islamic faith. Can you walk us through the conception of this project and what you may have uncovered about your own faith and resilience?
Thirty Sunsets and a Moon has an interesting genealogy. It grew from my wish to capture some of the recipes we shared in community throughout our year in the forest—we being myself and the mothers and children in the group.
I collect community cookbooks and imagined that a sweet way to preserve this time together would be to create one for these families. I wrote a simple story for Ramadan about an anxious child, a moon, and a butterfly. It was my dream to print this story within the pages of the cookbook as a treat.
At the time that I reached out to my friend Jessica, who collaborates with me on this project, the book had no name. Then it occurred to me, I would use the hashtag that I had been using for years to mark the Muslim festival season— #thirtysunsetsandamoon. What that name speaks to is how our days during Ramadan are marked in sunsets (the moment when we break the fast) and one moon, the Ramadan moon.
At the beginning of the project, Jessica, a trained librarian and skilled book maker, was helping design the books and I planned to take them off to conference presentations. Then Covid hit and conference presentations were cancelled. My fellowship year was cut short—I was workshopping on a program model as a Re Imagining Migration Fellow. And, I felt Thirty Sunsets and a Moon had the power to do bigger work than we had initially planned. Jessica and I expanded it to include recipes, reflections, my field notes and stories crafted during the spring and summer seasons as well. Now, we have a total of three volumes planned which aim to engage in critical conversations around care of self and community.
The final volume will be a home for Black and Muslim voices in diaspora; I see it as a coming back to center for me. I find that Black women particularly can find themselves doing a lot of caring for other folks, and we are left wondering who cares for us. In my wildest dreams, volume three will be a home of radical care for us.
What are some words of wisdom that you come back to on a regular basis that keep you grounded even when the world around you feels as if it’s not?
On words of wisdom, Sonia Sanchez has been both holding me and pushing me in my work. (See poem below)
That’s my favorite part of that poem. It makes me feel so good about what I do. Community work, mother work, and how it’s all intertwined. I imagine washing my children’s feet in flower scented water and the stories of their elders. A washing over my community with a reminder of all that makes us whole, beautiful, amazing. To have hands that fold our children inside of their history, like an embrace. What a thing to do.
To say that Ashley’s work is rich with the experience and dedication of a seasoned ethnologist would be an understatement, no, her work within the Black, Brown and Muslim community is both dynamic and intelligent with an intention and thought that can only be procured by the strongest tree in our garden, its fruit abundant and nourishing, roots running deep to its waters of knowledge, leaves spoken tender by the love and laughter of a wise woman.