All photos by the author.
The Woke Truck, based in Los Angeles, gets a lot of questions in its inbox. Sometimes, these questions also arrive in the form of an in-person interrogation at the window of their truck either accompanying or arriving instead of a food order.When the vitriol and accusations are extracted, those inquiries basically amount to “Who are you?” They are Max Daniel, Kashmir Hughes and Michael Powers, all in their late 20s. When asked to give their elevator pitch, Hughes answers: “We are three people in a polyamorous relationship who live together and own a business. We are Irish, Black, and Asian; [we] sell fusion food and teach history at the same time. And we use our business to give back to the community. We hire employees fresh out of rehab, train teen mothers for the job and we do stuff for the community, as well.”
“Are you white?”
“Are you even black?”
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“How do you feel about women’s rights?”
What The Woke Truck also does is sell food. The dishes are divided into sections entitled Anarchy! Apps, Riot! Rice, American Assimilation, and the largest category, Radical Mexican. Tacos, burritos, and rice dishes are named after characters real and imagined, like Cesar Chavez, Audre Lorde, the Dalai Lama, and Hazel Grace, or events such as the Six-Day War.While the truck began operations last August, its beginnings trace back to a year and a half ago, to Daniel’s experience running a restaurant called Food With Love at the Community Outreach Center in nearby Sun Valley. The restaurant, which depends on donated food from the Community Outlet Mart food bank and other sources, had been losing money, and the operation was turned over to Daniel, an Irish- and Polish-American from New York. Though he had worked in restaurants his whole life, it was his first time in the kitchen, and he’d only been sober for a week at the time. Within a couple months, Daniel had turned Food With Love around and was operating at a surplus, achieving wide acclaim. By the time of this writing, Daniel has been sober for a year and a half, crediting both his time at the food bank and The Woke Truck for bringing purpose in the midst of his sobriety.
Building on Daniel’s experience at the food bank, along with Caribbean recipes from Hughes’ mother and grandmother and Japanese influences from Powers’ grandmother—an internment camp survivor who fueled Powers’ passion for blending food and advocacy—the truck serves burgers, burritos, tacos, rice bowls, and fried snacks, all with bright flavors thanks to an accompanying rainbow of pickles and variety of sauces.
Hughes feels a collective assumption being made about them based upon all the knee-jerk feedback they’ve received. “Many people think it’s some white guy who doesn’t give a crap about anything and decided this was a really easy way to sell food right now because it’s popular and trending on Twitter,” Hughes explains. As for all the hate mail they receive, the trio hasn’t bothered to push their identities as a defense. “To me, it’s not coming from a place of ‘I actually want to know more about your business and what you stand for’…they’re coming from a place of ‘I’m looking for something to be offended about.’ Well, you’re already there; you’re pissed. I don’t need to help you. The reality of our business is that we just don’t waste our time with things that trivialize our message and what we’re trying to do,” she says.
Hughes adds, “Right now we’re in a certain political climate where people are nervous to talk about hot button issues, and what’s politically correct and not politically correct. …It becomes this issue, like ‘Are we going to shy away from using terms like ‘radical’ or not? Are we going to shy away from terms like ‘woke’ or not? The reality is we’re not, because you look back at some of these figures like the Dalai Lama or Martin Luther King, these are people who back then would’ve been considered extremely controversial, terrible to talk about and not someone you wanted to put on a poster. They’ve been arrested several times, considered criminal, and so I didn’t want to shy away from the term ‘radical’ when that is what it is.”
The Woke Truck has plans to eventually incorporate a QR code with their menu items that would provide a history of the eponymous person or event and the impact on social justice he, she, or it has made.Hughes draws a parallel between the truck’s presence and street art. “Street art is another one of these [ways] of basically putting your ideas out into the world as a form of propaganda. It’s a way of spreading political consciousness.”