What's On Your Ballot?: Reem Assil of Reem’s California Bakery

Reem Assil at Reem’s California Bakery in Oakland on Sept. 29, 2020.  (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

In 2020, the United States faces an election like no other. Citizens will vote in the midst of a global pandemic, severe climate change, an uprising for racial justice and an administration that has eroded the norms of democracy. In ‘What’s on Your Ballot,’ KQED checks in with ten different artists, activists and cultural figures about the issues on their minds and their hopes for the country.

Reem Assil opened Reem’s California in 2017, inspired by Arab street corner bakeries and the vibrant communities surrounding them. The Palestinian-Syrian chef descirbes Reem’s as “a place where Arabs could feel celebrated and proud” during a post-9/11 world in which many Arab communities were threatened, attacked, and forced to hide their identities as Mediterranean or Greek. The bakery was also created to serve as a space for the social justice community where people could meet, strategize, and enjoy a good meal. Says Assil, “You come from Reem’s, you come from the whole movement.” 

Prior to founding Reem’s, Assil was engaged in political activism and community organizing for many years. She worked for a decade as a labor and community organizer at SEIU Local 1877 and East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), where she fought for the dignity and equality of workers in the Bay Area. In the face of the pandemic, Assil has transformed Reem’s Oakland location into a kitchen that currently feeds more than 10,000 people in need every month, and hopes to transition the bakery into a worker owned cooperative.—Sam K. Lew 

As we head into the election, what do you make of the political climate in America today?

It’s a climate that is very polarized. I worry about that because there is a whole generation, particularly a younger generation, that is really galvanized but has no institutions to plug into. What happens when you have a group of people who are galvanized but not organized? Because of COVID, folks are stuck in front of social media and that becomes their only way to relate to the world, which doesn't necessarily affect the change that we want. However, I do think there are communities on the very local level who are doing a good job of creating institutions that are protecting their own. 

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As a Bay Area chef and restaurant owner, what is the importance of the food industry in this current moment? 

The one thing that I’ve really tried to push on my fellow chefs, especially to those who are business owners, is that it’s not about the business owner right now, although certainly we’ve been impacted. It’s about the communities that we live in and our workers and this economy that is crumbling. While I would appreciate government assistance, I would rather see policies that will lift all of us up. Sometimes, I feel like the advocacy is more narrow-minded on a national level about what it would take to save restaurants.

Reem Assil prepares meals for The Unity Council to distribute to those in need of food. The Unity Council is a non-profit organization that provides assistance for low-income children, families and immigrants.
Reem Assil and Karl Greene prepare meals for The Unity Council to distribute to those in need of food. The Unity Council is a non-profit organization that provides assistance for low-income children, families and immigrants. (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

There is a tremendous opportunity to redefine restaurants’ role in our communities as economic engines, as political stakeholders, as teachers, as organizers. Why not use this moment to organize folks in the workplace? Business owners may be afraid of doing that, but we have to give something up to make this work. Reem’s is transitioning to a worker ownership, shared-governance structure. 

Even before we talked about making Reem’s into a co-op, we had always built a model around employing people with the most barriers: hiring people of color, formerly incarcerated folks, and undocumented people—especially when the refugee population surged. It’s a place where people who were overlooked get a chance and get paid well. Our wages were higher than the living wage, and we didn’t create the same hierarchies of the food world. Whether you were the dishwasher or the line cook, Reem’s was about providing a place of refuge. 

You’ve been engaged in political activism throughout many elections, including during the Bush administration. What keeps you going, in spite of burnout or cynicism? 

I’ve been part of political campaigns where we’ve seen the changes. I’ve seen the power of good old-fashioned door knocking. The act of talking to my fellow citizens is honestly the more transformative piece of the work than the actual outcome of the campaign. I’ve been part of campaigns where we've won and ones that we haven’t won, but it was still powerful because you build relationships with your community and you get clearer about what moves us into a better future. It’s really about the face-to-face organizing and strategizing. It’s lovely to win, too. 

Restaurant owner Reem Assil sits in front of Reem’s California in Oakland on Sept. 29, 2020. Assil closed the restaurant's Fruitvale location to the public and now uses it to provide food for vulnerable communities affected by the 2020 global pandemic.
Restaurant owner Reem Assil sits in front of Reem’s California in Oakland on Sept. 29, 2020. Assil closed the restaurant's Fruitvale location to the public and now uses it to provide food for vulnerable communities affected by the 2020 global pandemic. (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

Electoral work is just one tool in our toolkit as we fight for a more just and equitable world. What are some other tools that we can use during and beyond the election?

We should be taking care of one another. One of the most inspiring things of this moment is the mutual aid efforts that have popped up. We can’t really start a movement unless we get our basic needs met. It’s hard to tell people who have four jobs and who don’t have healthcare to go out and vote. 

At Reem’s, we’ve been partnering with SF New Deal and the World Central Kitchen to provide meals to people who need it. We make about 10,000 meals a month. We’re working with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center and the Palestinian Youth Movement to get meals to low-income Arab families. Restaurants could be feeding people and benefitting from it if we were subsidized by the government. Can you imagine if restaurants had structures to do this?

Your work lies at the intersections of borders, nations, people—it is deeply international. What does this look like for you in the face of the election while engaging in local work? 

Particularly around food sovereignty, my work has always been internationalist. I’m an extension of the diaspora and of home. As a Palestian and as a Syrian, I try to keep the narrative of my people front and center. That’s important for their fight: to be seen and not to be invisibilized. I know the more I can connect the local with the foreign, the more success we’ll have. 

Restaurant owner Reem Assil at Reem’s California in Oakland on Sept. 29, 2020.
Restaurant owner Reem Assil at Reem’s California in Oakland on Sept. 29, 2020. (Estefany Gonzalez/KQED)

The reality is that on the foreign policy level, the militarization of the U.S. is not going to change with the Democratic party. If you think about the Obama regime, his immigration policy was horrible, Guantanamo didn’t get closed down, the troops were still abroad. The system is much bigger than who is in the seat of the president. But some things do change when people in power are pressured. I think about Apartheid South Africa when we decided to engage in the boycott. That was the result of organizing that impacted foreign policy. So we have to keep that pressure until—as we say in organizing—the person in power will move on something because it’s too expensive for them not to. 

After the election—no matter how it goes—what are your hopes and goals for the country, and for the Bay Area?

I hope that we can use the situation to politicize folks and help them understand why it’s important to build. No matter who wins, I hope this moment galvanizes people to do the work and know what's at stake. Now is not the time to be complacent. We’re going to need everything we’ve built in this time of crisis to forge a new path forward and to hold elected officials accountable whoever they may be—or to take it from them. And the more we can let go of our grasp to this idea of democracy—because we’ve never truly had democracy—the more we can actually build the democratic models we want to see.

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Learn more about Reem Assil and her bakery here.