It’s Women’s History Month, and we’re picking the brains of bold, powerful women who represent our future. Today, meet the founder of Akasa, Ashleigh Parsons.
Throughout time, we’ve counted on a small number of community leaders to push things forward, break perceptions, and bring change. And ladies, the past two years have been pivotal. We’ve seen–and struggled with, and spoken out against, and called shit out on–issues that have been pressing, and still continue to press, womenkind. It’s change that we want to champion throughout this month, while celebrating those who are propelling us into a far better future. So throughout March, we are focusing what matters to us most, right now: groundbreaking, culture-shifting, era-defying, and straight up goals women.
By Zarna Surti
Photos by Maya Fuhr
Putting aside our weekly (ok, daily) Postmates cravings, we all realize there’s something incredible about sitting around a table and enjoying a home cooked meal with your best buds. That’s why we sat down with one of the kindest and most genuine individuals to ever live in Los Angeles (yes, they exist!), Ashleigh Parsons. Inspired by the “incredibly healing” power of food, you can find the beauty running around Echo Park and Silverlake with her pup Sage, empowering Los Angeles’ youth through food with her nonprofit Akasa, or helping run shit inside Los Angeles favorites like Jon & Vinnys and Kismet (if you haven’t been to either you are missing out, if you don’t live in Los Angeles, make a trip just to eat at those places). She’s also a genuine bud, like, a really good one. The kind that checks in on you, the kind that always recommends you for things, the kind that is completely selfless—and the kind of person the world needs more of. We chatted with Ashleigh to learn more about what it was like to graduate from Harvard (yes, I told you she was actually perfection), her power team of females, and what’s on the horizon for the unicorn herself.
Why and how did you get into the food industry? Can you tell us about your journey from San Francisco to Boston to Los Angeles?
Food has been incredibly healing for me. Cooking was not something I grew up doing, so when I moved to San Francisco in 2008 in my early 20s, I began learning about people like Alice Waters, Daniel Patterson, Michel Bras, Alton Brown, and so many other inspiring chefs. It felt like a new world had opened up to me and I started going to the farmers markets and having dinner parties with friends. I was simultaneously working as a Program Coordinator in the Tenderloin and became interested in food deserts and food justice. I saw that there was a gap in our food system and I wanted to address that gap by creating something, but I didn’t know how to make sense of that energy at that time. I ended up traveling to France and studied service at La Chassagnette, a Michelin starred restaurant. It was a dream, but I felt pulled toward academia and decided to pursue my Master’s in Education. In Boston, I was learning a lot, but academia is SLOW and I felt disconnected—from myself, from food, from all of it. My longtime friend Ari Taymor had begun a pop-up called Alma that was sort of taking off in L.A. We had always entertained the idea of starting something together and I thought now might be the time. I moved out to L.A. to open Alma in tandem with my non-profit in 2012 and I never really looked back.
“I saw that there was a gap in our food system and I wanted to address that gap by creating something, but I didn’t know how to make sense of that energy at that time.”
What an incredible adventure. How do you feel when you think about your journey?
Recently, I went on a 10 day silent Vipassana retreat—yes, no speaking, email, or phones for 10 days straight—and I was able to reflect on the last 32 years of my life for the first time in awhile. I guess I would say I’ve always been on an adventure, I’m not quite sure where I’m heading or what I’m doing, but I’m trying to create something beautiful and sort of make sense of it all along the way.
It must have been amazing to be completely offline for so long. Speaking of reflecting on the past, you got your Masters at Harvard! Can you tell us a bit more about that experience and how it inspired you to start Akasa?
Ah, yes. I was actually talking with some coworkers the other day about whether it’s important to receive higher education in today’s world. It’s expensive! I’m still paying for my student loans, six years later. Mostly, I don’t think it’s necessary because there’s so much you can learn beyond the walls of a classroom or lecture hall and often it just requires focus, dedication and drive to get yourself to where you want to be. All that to say, I think my time at Harvard helped me gel my interest in food and education. While I was pursuing my Masters, I had the opportunity to be the Principal Investigator on a study that investigated the efficacy of yoga on in the classroom. This particular study was interested in looking at the mental health and wellness of high school students and to see whether a yoga program during the school day could help to decrease stress and depression, and improve general moods. I was also working as a Research Assistant at the Harvard Family Research Project, focusing on Out-of-School Time Learning. There, I learned a lot about our nation’s approach to experiential learning and after school programs in general. These two experiences allowed me to arrive to L.A. in 2012, feeling ready to begin a program of my own, which would eventually become Akasa.
We love that Akasa has created wellness curriculums in partnership with public schools in low-income communities. Can you tell us more about Akasa’s amazing all-female team?
The women behind Akasa inspire me everyday. We are a small but mighty female-led organization and we work together around the clock to ensure Akasa is operating at the highest possible level. Veda Romero is our Assistant Director and Parent/Volunteer Coordinator. She was raised in Rampart, which is where our classes take place, so she has a deep understanding of the community and the neighborhood. She has taken our monthly parent workshops to another level by working alongside the parent coordinators on school sites to ensure all classes are translated in both English and Spanish, since many of our families are Spanish speaking. She also works directly with our growing group of volunteers to make sure they are set up for success at the classes they attend.
Araz Martin is our Lead Chef and focuses on recipe and curriculum development to provide our students with a healthy, sustainably-sourced, creative, and affordable recipe each week. Araz has improved the quality of our programming by integrating recipes that cross cultures, and she weaves in health benefits of various ingredients so students are educated and empowered to make the recipes for themselves in the future!
What is most rewarding part of Akasa?
Sitting with the students and listening to their feedback. The program is in its fifth year, so I feel like we have this assortment of vignettes where students tell us they can’t wait to make the recipe at home or they tried blueberries for the first time and loved them or they’re convinced that kale makes them strong women! So many stories, the list goes on. I think the students are the reward. I always tell someone that’s interested in Akasa to visit one of our schools for a site visit. Once they see the program in action, they understand what it’s all about. No mission statement can fully describe the change that actually occurs in the classroom.
“The most inspiring aspect of this all is that even if it’s for an hour and a half a week, we’re providing a space where the students feel safe, they feel like they have a place where they can just be and work creatively together to make a delicious meal and eat together. It sounds so simple, but it’s significant.”
Right now more than ever is an important time to cultivate positivity among youth. What has been the most inspiring part of it all?
I couldn’t agree more. We have countless stories from our youth and families. I think the most inspiring aspect of Akasa is its longevity. We’ve been in the same schools now for years, so we’ve seen these students grow and they remember Akasa! They’re like “Yo, miss, I still make that yogurt parfait recipe at home for my cousin,” or “Miss, you inspired me to be a chef,” or “Akasa cooking class was my favorite!” There are so many stories, but I think the most inspiring aspect of this all is that even if it’s for an hour and a half a week, we’re providing a space where the students feel safe, they feel like they have a place where they can just be and work creatively together to make a delicious meal and eat together. It sounds so simple, but it’s significant. I think we all value that place where we can just be at ease. Akasa aims to be that for these students and families.
You’re such a multi-hyphenate! What are you up to with the legendary Jon & Vinny?
Ha, yeah, it’s a hustle! Jon and Vinny brought me on in January as Service Liaison, a senior level position to focus on being the glue between their restaurants. I love working with the teams, they’re such an inspiring restaurant group here in L.A.! One of my big projects this year is to focus on the Animal 10 year anniversary, which is coming up in June. I’m super excited to be focusing my energy on that, especially because Jon & Vinny have been such changemakers for the food scene here in L.A.
You also know all the good spots in L.A. What are your go-to spots to eat, hang out, and unwind?
I’m like a Grandma and love to stay in cozy but my favorite spots here in L.A. are definitely Pine & Crane for early supper (mapo tofu and pea shoot greens are my faves), Triniti in Echo Park (their turmeric drink is outlandish), Kismet for their morning coffee (they serve it Turkish style, which I love), Animal brunch (it’s an L.A. secret, possibly the best in town), and for the occasional drink, I like to make my own margarita (I’m hoping to have a house big enough someday so I can host my friends for cocktails because I make a mean margarita!). I also love Sqirl (post rush in the late afternoon), Honey Hi, and Moonlight Rollerway!
We know you rarely have down time, but that you’re also an avid reader. What’re you reading right now, and why?
The Madonna’s of Echo Park because a friend recommended it to me when we were trying to start a book club. The book club hasn’t happened because we’re all too busy, but the book is incredible. I highly recommend it. Brando Skyhorse gives a very honest and poetic snapshot of Echo Park that serves as a microcosm for our country as a whole.
“It’s a sisterhood. We need to support each other in our actions, not just our words. It’s easy to say you support your sisters, but words only go so far.”
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing women today?
Our voices need to be heard. We’ve come so far, but they’re still many who try to quiet us, who try not to hear us, or see us. We need to continue to fight for equality on a daily basis, especially (in my opinion) in the workforce.
Agreed. Why is it so important that women support other women?
It’s a sisterhood. We need to support each other in our actions, not just our words. It’s easy to say you support your sisters, but words only go so far. We need to be carrying out that support day in, day out. That’s the only way change is going to happen—at least, that’s the way I see it.
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