Mo Cheeks is baking for justice
A former Madison Common Council member’s quarantine hobby rises to a higher cause.
When former Common Council member and Madison mayoral candidate Mo Cheeks borrowed some sourdough starter from a friend last January, the meticulous process of baking bread was solely an escapist coping mechanism.
He brought the starter from Washington, D.C., back to Madison and faced his third try at mastering the art of breadmaking.
“My process of making a loaf of sourdough bread typically takes 24 hours,” Cheeks says. “During that time I’m doing things like mixing the dough, monitoring the temperature of the dough, watching the rate at which the dough is fermenting, and I’m carefully folding and shaping the dough in an effort to create the conditions for a perfect, or at least very tasty and healthy, loaf of bread.”
As he kneaded his dough and curated Paul Hollywood-worthy baked goods for his wife and kids to distract from the outside world, he quickly fell in love with making sourdough. He started a bread-specific Instagram account, @bakingmo, where he showcases his yeasty creations.
Cheeks was among many who turned to baking to relieve stress, especially as discussions of America’s other pandemic, racism, arose.
“There have been plenty of nights where I’ve lost sleep sitting at this computer at 2 a.m., journaling half-thoughts about the state of American racism and how helpless I feel,” he wrote in an Oct. 23 blog post. “In the past, I’ve proactively directed my energy towards creating progress in a variety of ways. To my own surprise, for much of 2020, I’ve taken that energy and directed it towards baking sourdough bread.”
Since launching his Instagram, Cheeks has made lots and lots of sourdough bread, but he’s also experimented with bagels and English muffins. “Pizza Fridays” have become a favorite at home.
“I knew I wanted to keep increasing my bread production, but with two kids, a full-time job that I enjoy and no aspirations of trying to start a bakery, I wasn’t sure exactly ‘why’ I would keep increasing my weekly bread production,” he writes. “Mostly it seemed like I was increasing our grocery bill while giving bread away to a widening group of friends.”
And while dropping off baskets of bread to friends brought him joy, that wasn’t quite enough reason to turn his kitchen into a breadmaking factory. One week, he accumulated a whopping 100 pounds of flour with the help of some local supporters.
“Then it hit me that baking bread can be my vehicle for not only joy, but also activism,” he says. With his a knack for social justice, Cheeks joined the Bakers Against Racism (@bakersagainstracism on Instagram) collaborative for its Bake the Vote sale back in September. He raised $889 and donated 100% of the proceeds from his Bake the Vote sales to the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the Black Voters Matter Fund, which have been fighting for racial justice in the state.
“Being a part of a tribe of thousands of bakers across the country who participated in the Bake the Vote project was very encouraging,” Cheeks says. “It was fun to be part of a group effort like that, and it was exciting to know that demand in this community was higher than what I could possibly bake during the few weeks that I was baking for leading up to the election.”
After baking bread every single day for 15 days of the Bake the Vote campaign during a tumultuous national election cycle, Cheeks took a break to reassess his dough-related future. “I enjoy the speakeasy vibe of people having to know how to find me in order to get on the waitlist,” he says.
On Oct. 23, Cheeks launched his email newsletter “Bread and Justice,” in which he shares details on upcoming bake sales, reflections and stories pertaining to social justice and more. More recently, Cheeks leaned apron-first into the steady inflow of order requests, and established his microbakery Bread and Justice in January 2021.
“It took a while to figure out if [and] how I could sustain it,” he says. “Once I realized I could, then it was exciting to realize I could continue to raise money for organizing I believe in.”
Cheeks still donates 100% of his micro-bakery’s profits to local racial justice organizations and social justice nonprofits, and is expanding his products week after week. Every month, he chooses a different organization to donate Bread and Justice proceeds.
“I haven’t quit my day job or anything, but I’m really passionate about developing my craft as a baker and using this skill to not only nourish people, but help them engage with social justice work,” he says. “So I’m glad that 2020 produced this.”
After a year of embracing his quarantine hobby and making more than 300 loaves, there are a few things that Cheeks is sure of.
First, bread should be natural, healthy and simple to make at home. Second, sourdough has a large margin of error. While it takes a long time to perfect, even if you mess up you’ll still be able to create good bread. Lastly, Madisonians — and not just the ones who bake — should be using their voices to strengthen democracy, fight racism and actively build a more just society.
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