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Rose McGee Is Granted New Opportunity to Explore Racial, Social Divides

Rose McGee’s children’s book, Can’t Nobody Make a Sweet Potato Pie Like Our Mama, is being published by the MN Historical Society Press.

It took her seven attempts over the past 20 years, but Rose McGee has been named a 2019 Bush Fellow, a distinction and cash endowment that goes to just 24 leaders a year from an applicant pool of almost 700.

It’s not because she doesn’t have a good story to tell, because the unsinkable Rose McGee certainly does. Instead, it stems from the fact that the competition for the grant with a hefty monetary award is uber competitive. 

“They always tell you not to get frustrated and give up,” the creator of the Sweet Potato Comfort Pie Approach says. But rejection, even of the highest form, is never easy. Nor is the five-step application. “It’s an excruciating process,” the now elated McGee says. “I’m excited. I don’t want to come down.”

But she will have to step off cloud 9 as the hard work is about to begin for the effervescent community activist. 

The foundation, established in 1953 by Archibald and Edyth Bush, “invests in problem solvers who tackle complex issues in their communities…and (in) efforts to inspire, equip and connect people to become more effective leaders.” Bush was chair of the executive committee at 3M for most of his career, and the foundation’s income is derived from the 3M stock he donated.

McGee will be using the up to  $100,000 grant over two years to help her further her mission around racial unity and to get a grasp on how to lead a charge to lessen the divide between youngsters and older adults. To that end she will be visiting historically black colleges and universities to learn from intergenerational leaders. 

She also will be working with a lifestyle coach to help develop a healthier lifestyle. Her problem is common with people who devote a good portion of their time to helping others, “you don’t focus on yourself,” she says. She’s had two knee replacements and needs to relearn healthy eating and exercising, along with juggling a job and a ministry. 

And while she’s learning how to be a better leader and healthier person, she’s not taking her eye off the pie. “The pie is what got me here,” she says. 

Sweet potato pie is more than just African-American comfort food—“it’s the sacred dessert of black culture,” she says. “Food has a purpose for more than sustaining our bodies.” It can break down barriers and mend families. 

She believes the symbolic gesture of making and presenting homemade food in the midst of chaos and anger can bring communities back together.

And over the years, McGee has proven that to be the truth again and again. But that food offering has to be meaningful and it has to taste amazing. 

Just like different regions of the country have their own barbecue style, sweet potato pie is unique to families. The best pies, McGee says, chuckling, is when you add a little bourbon. “But I don’t do it for my purposes,” she adds sternly. 

Her grandmother’s version used evaporated milk, but somewhere along the line McGee tasted a pie with condensed milk and adapted her recipe, along with adding lemon and a better balance of spices. “Not too much nutmeg or cinnamon, and somewhere I picked up ginger,” McGee says. 

She knew her pies were special when she was introduced to Sue Zelickson, the founder of Women Who Really Cook, a networking group for women who are currently in or breaking into the food industry, typically at a cottage producer level. She encouraged McGee, who started selling her pies and pound cake at farmers markets, and even  considered getting a booth at Midtown Global Markets, but when she did a business plan, she couldn’t get the dollars to work. She had another idea.

The first time she rallied the community together to bake and deliver pies to a racially charged situation was the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. She works in conjunction with Calvary Lutheran Church and Golden Valley Community Foundation.

A more recent project was delivering pies to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a mass shooting had happened earlier. She and volunteers made the pies in a kosher kitchen in St. Louis Park where a rabbi oversaw the process.  

While they were in Pittsburgh, they took a pie to Antwon Rose’s mother. “Antwon was a young African American killed in June (2018) by a police officer,” she explains. A pie was also delivered to Jonathan Freeman’s mother, another African American who was killed, this time sitting in his home. “Next we are onto Kentucky where two African Americans were killed at a Louisville, Kentucky Kroger Grocery Store in October,” she said at the time of her visit to the synagogue.

McGee, whose day job is at MN Humanities, plans to continue her studies into food and culture as well as the generation gap. “My concern is the gap between younger people and older people and the disrespect” younger people often display toward their elders, she says. And she knows it’s “truly more than sitting down and having a piece of pie.”

One of the places she’ll visit starting in the fall will be where one of her heroes opened a school. Mary McLeod Bethune was an African American educator, stateswoman, philanthropist and civil rights leader who started a school for African American students in Daytona Beach, Florida. Her work is especially inspirational to McGee because of the way she raised the money: “She rode around on a bicycle selling sweet potato pies.” 

Another cultural icon for her, George Washington Carver, was an African America professor and scientist who in the early 1900s advocated ways to rotate crops to keep cotton from depleting the soil. He also was one of the first Americans to publish a recipe for sweet potato pie. (School children mostly remember him as the “inventor of peanuts,” although he developed hundreds of products for soybeans and sweet potatoes).

And while she’s on this educational  journey through the south, her first children’s book is being published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. The theme? Sweet potato pie, of course. 

McGee knows there’s a lot of work to be done to heal the racial and religious divide that’s becoming more and more prevalent. But it’s a start. Who doesn’t need a bigger piece of the pie when it comes to healing and respect? 

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