Sharon Richardson honors the transformative power of food. Drawing on her West Indian and Brooklyn roots, she believes it is a conduit to soul and substance, resolving sorrow and anger and delivering joy and elation.
Track back to childhood. Collards washed and ready in the sink, grease popping on the stove, okra chopped and Grandma gliding with ease between pots and pans, seasoning in hand and a smile on her face. Sharon watches in awe, legs swinging, never realizing that she was seeing the outlines of her own future.
Sharon Richardson is a chef who creates mouth-watering soul food. She is also an activist for formerly incarcerated women. She has shared their journey. Entrepreneur, mom, daughter, and survivor. She has parlayed all that she is into a community and a cause. Founder of Just Soul Catering and Reentry Rocks, Richardson turned personal misfortune into opportunity.
In 1990, Richardson began a 20-year sentence on charges of killing her abuser. The twenty-something woman, balancing motherhood and relationships, was ironically a corrections officer at the time who was compelled to manage the “three C’s: Care. Custody. Control” of the prison industrial system.
Today she tussles with the contradictions in terms, wondering how control within a broken system can ever render caring.
Richardson was trapped in a familiar web that was unknowingly threaded long before her entanglement with the criminal justice system. An estimated 80 percent of incarcerated women are survivors of violence, abuse and trauma in their lifetime. Approximately 26 percent of women have reported partner violence, compared to eight percent of men.
Like Richardson, an estimated 700,000 incarcerated people are parents to nearly 1.5 million children under 18. Richardson left behind an eight-year-old daughter and two-year-old son in the care of her mother. When she was released they were grown.
For most incarcerated people, their release date is like their second birthday. On May 6, 2010, two decades removed from the outside, Richardson returned home.
Struggling with how to make a new life in a strange world, Richardson was accepted into a program that supported budding entrepreneurs at the margins. The road she’d take was familiar and made sense, connecting and nurturing through the power of food. Her Just Soul Catering startup would be honed into “justice as a social enterprise.”
Employing formerly incarcerated women like herself, Richardson rebuilds their lost community one dish at a time. Patrons can dine on classics like candied yams, gourmet macaroni and cheese, and honey-ginger teriyaki wings all while listening to the stories of the women that serve them.
The conversations are meant to draw others into their world and build bridges that can strengthen ties and forge partnerships that give a human face to those inside and beyond the cages.
Richardson is also the founder and executive director of Reentry Rocks. The mission is to meet the unique and complex needs of survivors of intimate partner violence and other forms of gender-based violence.”
“My goal is for these women to know that we are there for them. We’ve paved the way. The work is done for you,”explains Richardson. “You don’t have to be a victim and we won’t judge you and we have programs to help you get on your feet and contribute to something bigger.”
From the beginning Richardson united her work in a marriage of food, passion, and giving to the community. As New York became the epicenter of the Coronavirus, Just Soul Catering provided free lunch to healthcare workers and school aged children affected by COVID-19. As the pandemic of racism and the Black Lives Matter uprisings took center stage, she pivoted to donating portions of her Just Soul profits to families impacted by police killings.
Richardson’s preoccupation is with the culture of today. “Everything going on now has reawaken our roots. It’s painful to think that we’re going through what our ancestors went through. Just Soul and Reentry Rocks want to make a statement. We are part of the protests. We are part of feeding the community. We are a part of giving back,” she says.
The future, Richardson hopes, will include a food truck, a brick and mortar store and a bestselling memoir.
Check out Sharon Richardson’s famous catfish and grits live cooking class on Kitchen Rodeo.