For communities at the margins, food has long served as a tool for self-expression, empowerment, and solidarity, and connectedness—and it has been a crucial part of movements for justice and equality. In our first in-person event of the Conversations on Food Justice series, we’ll explore the role that food has played in the social movements that have shaped our nation’s history. Moderated by Elliott Gaskins, senior vice president of Share Our Strength, and featuring historian Monica M. White and community activist and historic Ben’s Chili Bowl owner Virginia Ali, this panel will share stories about the evolution of food and social movements, and share reflections on how we can continue to use food in the fight for justice.

Meet Our Panelists

Virginia Ali with her husband, Ben Ali, the doors of the now iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl on August 22, 1958. Today, over 55 years later, this institution has become a place of fond memories for countless friends from DC, Maryland, Virginia, and all around the world.

In addition to all the hours she has put in at Ben’s Chili Bowl, Virginia has also made time for many other meaningful endeavors. She has served on the Board of Directors of For Love of Children, The Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage, the Islamic Society of the Greater Washington Area, and Cultural Tourism DC among others.

Over the years, Virginia and Ben have received countless awards and accolades including the prestigious America’s Classics Restaurant Award from the James Beard Foundation. They were inducted into the DC Hall of Fame in 2002 and were later given the Key to the City by Washington, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty.
More recently, the Smithsonian placed Ben’s Chili Bowl on its list of the 20 Most Iconic Food Destinations Across America.

Dr. Monica M. White, Ph.D. is the Distinguished Chair of Integrated Environmental Studies (2021-25) and associate professor of Environmental Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a joint appointment in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology and the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies. She is the first Black woman to earn tenure in both the College of Agricultural Life Sciences (established 1889) and the Nelson Institute (established 1970). Dr. White is the author of Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement. Her research investigates Black, Latinx, and Indigenous grassroots organizations that are engaged in the development of sustainable, community-based food systems as a strategy to respond to issues of hunger and food inaccessibility in both contemporary times and the twentieth century.

Elliott Gaskins (Moderator)

As senior vice president of development at Share Our Strength, Elliott oversees a team across the country focused on securing major and foundation gifts, building the vision and leading a team that executes fundraising dinners for No Kid Hungry Dinner and other cultivation events, as well as building multi-year plans and strategies to significantly grow revenue.

For more than two decades Elliott has worked at some of the premier nonprofit institutions in the country including The Aspen Institute, The Alzheimer’s Association, The Nature Conservancy, and America’s Promise Alliance.  During his tenure at these organizations he raised millions of dollars and executed multi-year campaigns, led national special events, created, designed and implemented comprehensive strategic plans and led critical work on diversity, equity and inclusion.

More Conversations on Food Justice