BEYOND THE SURFACE WITH ASMERET BERHE-LUMAX
Champion for change – Asmeret Berhe-Lumax kickstarted the One Love Community Fridge and co-founded Black Beauty Club.
What began as a seed of an idea in 2019 for New Yorker Asmeret Berhe-Lumax has since grown into One Love Community Fridge (OLCF): a non-profit, mutual-aid organization founded during the height of the Covid pandemic to address food insecurity in NYC. Berhe-Lumax has a gift for not only dreaming up ideas but knowing how to bring them to life. In a short time, she kickstarted both One Love and co-founded Black Beauty Club – both community-centred groups aiming to address big-picture social issues.
We spoke with Berhe-Lumax at the MYKITA Shop New York Soho to unpack how she has built and sustains, with joy and enthusiasm, multiple communities and organizations. Beaming in a One Love neon orange t-shirt that reads “Food That Nourishes Me, Nourishes My Community”, she reflects on One Love and how it started as a personal project – with just her family stocking a single community fridge — to a wider community in NYC, fuelled by the efforts of over 100 volunteers. One Love now stocks a network of 22 city-wide fridges with thousands of pounds of fresh food each week, in partnership with a network of local restaurants, farms and corporate partners including Sakara and Gorillas.
In our conversation, Berhe-Lumax discusses her culturally-rich roots and unorthodox career path, her thoughts on sustainability — not only as an important pillar at One Love, but as an overall life approach — and the importance of design as an indispensable tool to convey respect and dignity for all, not only a few.
You started One Love Community Fridge during the peak of the pandemic. What was the process like in the beginning?
It started as a personal project inspired by a friend of mine who set up one of the first community fridges in New York. When the pandemic started in New York and food insecurity worsened, people were standing in long lines just to get basic food for their families. I thought the community fridge was an amazing idea because it wasn’t complicated — anyone could drop off or pick up food without waiting in line. We helped set up a fridge in Clinton Hill and stocked it with food every day. At the time, people wanted to help in different ways, but didn’t necessarily know how. One Love provided an accessible space where people could offer their help, but it was also a place where people could come for support if they needed fresh food and supplies. We wanted to focus on respect, dignity, and health and provide a joyful and beautiful space where everybody could meet on equal footing.
Impressions from the One Love event at The Dutchess Farm in upstate New York: pickling and making salsa with donated produce.
Was there a specific moment that pushed you to take action?
[There’s not one thing but an example might be through my own family]: My daughters Joie and Ella Rose have been in both private and public schools in New York and sadly, I could see the difference in terms of access to resources, specifically the food that is served. Your health and the ability to educate yourself all starts with food, so I wanted to provide kids access to the food and resources they needed. I saw a need for a long-term initiative that wasn’t just an emergency relief response to Covid.
You’re very active in your community. Have you always volunteered?
Actually, yes. I was born in Asmara, Eritrea and grew up as an African immigrant in Sweden. I eventually moved to New York, so I’ve immigrated twice in my life. I feel a responsibility to create opportunities for others just as certain opportunities had been created for me.
What was it like for your family to emigrate from Africa to Sweden?
Growing up in an immigrant family in a culture that’s very different, my childhood was very much about being proud of and knowing your history. My parents had to push aside their own dreams to raise us. They really pushed me to be curious and not ask for permission. They believe that we can all do something to help others and taught me about integrity and the importance of addressing social injustice in society.
Young Asmeret was born in Eritrea and emigrated with her family to Sweden where she grew up and started her career in fashion buying.
Did your upbringing have an influence on your career path?
Yes, absolutely. My upbringing was one driven by survival. As a child of immigrants your parents want to prepare you for a life that is easier than theirs and the standards fields tend to be law, medicine, engineering, or finance. I went into finance, but was always interested in exploring more creative areas, fashion and beauty. After a trip to Stockholm, I joined a fashion buyer program that opened my eyes to a completely different side of fashion and beauty that I did not know existed previously. It led to a path and opportunities to work with a range of brands, such as Balenciaga that has had such a big impact on culture. The last five years I was the head of production and product development at Saturdays NYC. Then the pandemic started.
What was going through your head during this time?
Like many others, I was anxious for what the future would look like. Despite all the uncertainty and challenges, the pandemic provided a brief pause for us as a family. For the past few years both my husband and I had travelled a lot for work and for the first time in years it gave us an opportunity to spend time together as a family. I was able to slow down and rethink where I wanted to head next in my life.
I didn't realize that you had started both organizations at the same time.
It started at the end of 2020 when I was researching skincare. Tomi Talabi, the co-founder of the Black Beauty Club, and I were having conversations about the Black Beauty movement and how to create a sustainable business that is profitable, given the opportunity to grow and could actually make changes within the industry. It was a time when everyone was home, so it grew very quickly first on Clubhouse, with an incredible response, and now we have in-person events at least once a month. It's not a typical beauty club where we only discuss products. It's really about all of the conversations around them. It can be anything from colourism to the importance of sleep, and beauty from within.
With friend and co-founder of the Black Beauty Club, Tomi Talabi at DUMBO House, New York City.
So, while the world slowed during the pandemic, you saw an opportunity to take action. How do you find the time and energy to do all these things at once?
[laughs] I can’t do it all at the same time! I always have to keep prioritizing. There are weeks when I have to focus more on my kids and there are weeks where I’m really excited and focused on work. I also have a partner — we’ve been married for 17 years — so it’s important to stay connected.
I also think that physical activity is also important. Morning runs are like meditation for me. That’s where I clear my head and plan things out. I get most ideas when I run. I actually started running with my phone because I need to take notes right when the ideas come!
We admire your talent for bringing your ideas to life. Where does the confidence and ambition stem from?
Because of my upbringing, there’s this idea of always seeking freedom to choose what you want to do and who you want to be. I always have so many ideas and if I feel like I can do something, I have to do it. Or I might know somebody that can help me do it. Or maybe I can inspire someone else to do it. I never think about permission. I’m always thinking about moving forward.
Is it a community effort to make these ideas a reality? Who is a part of your community?
Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t do this by myself. One Love is one community, but it’s also many communities or ecosystems. We have the schools, the farms, the volunteers, the fridge network, the different mutual aid groups, and the members who need food. We’re taking these different ecosystems and connecting them in different ways to help them sustain one another. One Love took its time to grow because we wanted this idea of circular movement. It’s not just about giving back or taking, having or needing. It’s this idea that we can circulate everything in different ways. For example, warehouses run by larger organizations donate food to us so that we can distribute them to families in need. In turn, the warehouses feel amazing about not letting the food go to waste. In a way everyone is doing their part. Community members that come to the fridges not only take food, but they also help do their part by maintaining and cleaning the fridges.
The One Love community at The Dutchess Farm in the Hudson Valley.
Speaking of sustaining communities, that is a great segue into the pillar of sustainability in your work and life approach. How do you define sustainability?
There are so many angles to sustainability. First, we are working to minimize food waste because we live in a country where 40% of food is wasted. Every day, we pick up food from our partners that are no longer able to be sold for different reasons, and we ensure it reaches families in need. Second, we are sustaining communities where a high percentage of people do not have access to food. Third, we support and partner with farms, community gardens and other businesses as a long term commitment towards a sustainable future. We recently had an event at The Dutchess, a private farm in Hudson Valley. It was during the Upstate Art Fair and there were workshops surrounding the idea of zero waste. We used donated produce for pickling and salsa-making with the idea that you use all of the scraps to create anew. It was beautiful!
What does ethical design mean to you?
At One Love, we understand the power of communication through design. Design is important — not from a superficial level but as another way to communicate respect and dignity. If you have great design, it also translates to a community feeling respected and making a space of pride and joy rather than need and disparity. From the beautiful produce in our fridges and carefully packaged food and supply kits, to our logos and quarterly magazine—both designed by Miguel Paolo Yatco (@yatcher)—everything is well designed and considered to make sure we are communicating in the right way.
And what does that future look like for One Love?
We’ve recently been designated a 501c3 non-profit status, which is huge for us. Now we can apply for different grants and financing and build our infrastructure. We’re able to grow and it means that some of the partnerships we wanted to build with bigger companies are now possible. We realize we cannot do this alone and we need as many people as possible to get involved on an individual level, an organizational level, and a government level. We want to build a small full-time team. We're trying to expand beyond New York and the goal is to create a toolkit that is adaptable to different cities. We’re looking at LA, and while the stationary fridges work in New York, we’ll adapt to mobile vans in LA. We want to continue to collaborate and partner with many organizations, especially grassroots organizations.
And there’s also the dream of one day having our own One Love Community farm…
You heard it here first; the seed has been planted!
Now we have a few rapid questions for you as a New Yorker:
Favourite summer activity in New York?
Learning to farm!
Favourite local farm and why?
Oko Farms in Brooklyn. They’re super-local, committed to sustainability and one of our community partners. We gathered there recently to celebrate the launch of our zine.
What’s your favourite recipe at the moment?
The sambusas from Makina.
Favourite NY restaurant?
Teranga in Harlem at the bottom of the Africa Center. It’s a West African fusion restaurant that serves casual and healthy food.
Favourite NY museum and why?
The New Museum is great to visit as a family; we’ve been going since my girls were toddlers. A favourite show was the Faith Ringgold exhibition that was up earlier this year.
Why did you choose your MYKITA frames? What appeals to you with their design?
Their design is chic, low key, high quality, and with understated luxury.
Berhe-Lumax in the One Love shirt design and optical model FARAH in Pine Honey and Silk Graphite from MYKITA ACETATE.
Discover the full MYKITA ACETATE collection.
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