Khara DeWit & Alita Kelly became business partners and started South East Market— their opening day just weeks ago. For years, Alita has been a friend and model for Conscious Clothing, and her passions have long inspired us. Meeting Khara only added more joy and inspiration to the mix— together they are truly making change happen in the community. Their collective passion for justice and food equality are only the tip of the iceberg — read through our conversation with them to hear more of their vision, in one of our most heartfelt and inspiring interviews ever.
Tell us a brief bit of each of your stories! Where are you both from?
Alita: Born and raised in Grand Rapids. Spent some time in Chicago and Ann Arbor for school. I loved the walkability of both those cities. A huge environmental burden of our food system lies within the last few miles of transport from the store to our homes. I found great joy living in places where you can walk to get groceries. It's a win for people having access with less transportation barriers and it's a win for Earth.
Khara: I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai’i, on the island of Oahu. I grew up immersed in a rich, interconnected and diverse cultural heritage in the islands. This very connection is the foundation of the Hawaiian culture_ understanding that we all have a mandate to malama, to care for the land, our environment and for one another. After graduating college, love brought me to Grand Rapids and has been home now for over 15 years. I’m a Mama to 3 boys and have worked as a freelance business systems and accounting consultant for over 10 years.
How did you both end up meeting /connecting …and eventually becoming business partners?
Alita: Khara and I met after I started scouting for an accountant for the store. She and I had our first meeting at the store at the moment I received the keys. We sat in the front window that night and shared our passion around food as medicine, our ancestor's stories and our journey as mothers. I knew then she was going to be huge part of South East Market and three weeks later I invited her to come on as co-founder.
She's one of the most kind, hard-working people I know. She's also got this passion for radical love, sharing and Christianity in its most evolved form, something I think many Christians aren't in touch with these days. We have a nice balance because I'm the big idea, dreamboat rebellious partner while Khara is the detail-oriented, creative business-building, grounded peacemaker. Our chemistry is wild.
Khara: It is as Alita said….
Together, we’re unstoppable.
Tell us your passions- what gets you out of bed?
Alita: I get to see my dreams realized. I know that is something that many people won't get to do in their lifetime and I don't take it for granted. It's not just because I work hard. Of course I work hard but I have a lot of privilege whether it be social connections, having light skin or access to quality education. With all that privilege comes great responsibility. The fact that my dream of having access to healthy food and warm spaces near home where you feel loved, cared for and supported is shared with so many of my neighbors gets me so hype. I wake up in awe that the universe conspires to support our dream and that I get to have an intimate role in seeing it to fruition.
I'm hopeful that larger social, environmental change is on its way because of the collective trauma we are all going through with COVID. Many people with privilege were humbled through this experience and now they understand what many of us have been going through. I can already feel the movement from empathy towards compassion. Empathy seeks to understand and feel the pain of another but compassion is when you are called to not just feel that pain but be a part of reducing or ending another's suffering. Compassion is what we need.
Khara: Each new day I wake feels like a new opportunity. A goal of embodying the spirit of aloha - being in the presence of and sharing the essence of life - challenges me toward peace, kindness, grace, compassion, generosity, hospitality and a responsibility to relationship and future generations. I believe making a way to peace is possible. It is active participation of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice. It is forging a way toward justice, restoration, and forgiveness. Knowing of our interconnectedness to each other and the earth, and understanding my privilege, affords me the grace, energy and passion to fight for the injustices present in our current culture - most notably advocating for youth experiencing homelessness and racial and socioeconomic equity. Now this grace fuels my passion for working for food justice and joining Alita in creating place by way of a market storefront to honor the dignity and worth of our neighbors, and to encourage generous economy through beloved community.
We loved to see so much support show up for you in starting the Market —tell us the vision behind opening Southeast Market, and how it came together.
Alita: I'd been working in food for several years now. Managing nutrition programs, operating a catering business, going on and one to my friends and family about why they need to incorporate probiotics and ginger into their diets. It was really affirming to see so many people show up behind this project. I'd been planting seeds for years and now the little sprouts have matured into our sweet store.
Khara: Alita’s vision for this market was pure and whole. Watching the community rally in support of building this market was truly remarkable. Watching our crowdfunding grow, receiving affirmation from caring citizens of the city, gave us both the fuel to make this happen. This is truly a grass root funded market for the people, by the people.
We are so excited about fresh local food available in an area where it really wasn’t before. Tell us about that.
Getting people close to the Earth in its most raw form is the answer to so many of our issues. So many people have lost their connection to Earth so they pollute her and compromise our home because they have forgotten where they come from and what truly sustains them. We believe that getting people closer to the bounty of Earth is not only good for their body, mind and spirit but will increase the chances of people truly advocating for sustainable policy. We have larger goals at South East Market but we know that it doesn't start at policy, it starts with the people and so we're committed to doing this grassroots work to empower people to advocate for their lives, communities and our shared home Earth by first getting closer to fresh local food.
How do you imagine the future looking for sustainable & local food be more accessible to more communities? How do you envision it looking in GR?
We're really excited about the model we've created and are still evolving at the market. I hope to see it replicated after we've lived into it. We're learning from Black women across the country doing this work like the brilliant souls behind Süprmarkt in L.A., Soul Fire Farm in New York and Forty Acres in Chicago. It's hard because the current food system at large isn't set up for us to thrive. It's because the system is set up to pour wealth into the hands of few at the expense of the rest of us and Earth. It's going to take innovation, collaboration and what might feel like risk to get us out of the mess we are in.
Humans will need to get aligned to the clues that Earth is giving us to survive or she will wipe us out. More bee hives, butterfly gardens, urban agriculture, places to recycle and dispose of trash but most importantly I think the most important tool we can use along with effectively communicating the benefits of providing local, healthy food is to incentivize sustainable, just behavior for businesses. It'll require holding businesses accountable and being conscious about how we as a community use our collective purchasing power to let those with the most control over our food systems know what we want the future to be. I encourage everyone to get involved locally and have their voices heard because it's not just about what I imagine the future to be, it's about what WE want.
Tell us about your passions outside of the market, and where you both go to reflect & decompress.
Khara and I are both bath and tea lovers. We're both passionate about travel and exploring other cultures as well. It's been hard not to travel recently but we are learning about other cultures through food, relationship and books! We also can’t wait for beach days in the warm summer months.
What are some essential things in your life right now? Whether it’s books, podcasts, people, food…
Alita: As far as food goes, Brooklyn Tea's Well-Kanda blend is a go to. Muse coffee (collaboration between local roasters Roast Umber and Littlefoot) with chocolate Oatly oat milk makes my heart sing in the morning as well. As far as people go I'm really enjoying all the older people that are visiting us at the market. It's COVID and they are at risk but they still make their way to the store to either drop off donations or run errands for us. That type of support from people that have almost seen it all brings me to tears almost every time.
Khara: Setting rhythms was a lifeline for me during these pandemic months at home. What’s saving me is waking early in quiet for meditation and centering prayer, warm cups of loose-leaf tea, my cozy corner on the couch under a warm blanket, cuddling with my boys, outdoor fires with close friends, phõ takeout from Asian Palace, warm winter gear and winter hikes, and all the seasons of Fargo on Netflix.
We have some sustainability goals for our business this coming year to repurpose some fabrics & make our production more efficient. What are some of your personal or business sustainability goals?
Alita: Personally, I want to grow 50% of my food this summer and get real serious about canning this next growing season. For the business, I want to figure out a way to track our food waste really well. Right now we have very little because I'm pretty good at ordering food efficiently. We work with the local vermicomposters at Wormies (our favorite soil keepers), and they take most of what would be our food waste and feed it to worms that help create nutrient rich soil. Anyone that knows me knows I'm a little neurotic about trash and waste. I was just researching how to recycle hair extensions. You know you can take used synthetic hair and turn into plastic things like earrings?!
Everywhere I look there is opportunity!
Khara: I’m a geek about systems thinking within business. Applying a systems thinking approach to SEM’s sustainability will allow us to keep innovating ways to impact the collective whole for longterm systemic impact. This will help us see the connections between our goals and where our lane of contribution and impact lie in the interconnectivity of economic, political, social and ecological issues.
For this next year, I plan to keep a close eye on how are living into our goals (one example, direct relationships with farmers and local producers, reducing the miles traveled to store) and how we collect data to measure our impact. This involves monthly transparent reporting on our Pay it Forward program, building and gathering interactive feedback for our Soul to Soul gifted bundle recipients, and the accountability of tagging miles traveled to get our local meat, produce and product in store. Personally, my family and I have decided to recommit to being conscious eaters at home to care for our bodies (to maximize holistic healing and potential!) and the earth (eating less conventional meat and more vegetables, and beginning to compost).
We gotta ask….What are some favorite garments of ours? Any essentials you hope to get your hands on that you don’t already own?
Alita: The backyard jumpsuit is seriously my jam. I think I wear it once a week in the summer. I've been eyeing the hemp fleece summit top because turtlenecks are my uniform in the winter and I imagine it being soft, cozy heaven but still practical enough to wear to meetings or literally anywhere.
Khara: Ha! Are you really making me choose because my answer is ALL OF YOUR ITEMS! Your alpine cardigan gives me all the feels because it reminds me of my おばあさん (grandmother’s) Japanese happi and hanten coats. I have my eye on the Everybody Weekend Pant in concrete - of the pandemic hasn’t changed anything, it’s changed the way loungewear as normal workwear.
Images by Leigh Ann Cobb.
Khara & Alita are both wearing our Greenhouse Apron as they work.