News & Politics

Heroes of the Crisis: A Baker Who’s Making Desserts for Social Justice

Why has Paola Velez's project Bakers Against Racism been so successful? "People just wanted to do good."

Photograph by Jeff Elkins

This article is part of Washingtonian‘s feature “Heroes of the Crisis.” From medical professionals to social-justice activists to culinary stars, here are some of the people who have helped get us through these most challenging of times. Read about the 15 people making a difference during the pandemic here.

Paola Velez
Cofounder, Bakers Against Racism

It all started small: In May, Velez raised $1,100 at a pop-up doughnut shop benefiting the DC immigrant organization Ayuda. That modest idea—making desserts as a way to combat racial injustice—grew into Bakers Against Racism, the collective she founded with chefs Willa Pelini and Rob Rubba. A global virtual bake sale they organized for five days in June raised $1.9 million for racial-justice organizations. With another large-scale BAR event planned for December, Velez—whose main gig is making desserts at the acclaimed DC restaurants Maydan and Compass Rose—has decided to assist hospitality workers who are struggling financially. She recently helped launch Bee’s Grocery Fund with BAR to distribute $50 mini-grants for workers’ food needs.

Is there something about baking that unites people?

Baked goods are used to celebrate. To see baking used as an agent for good was amazing. Everyone knows how to make a chocolate-chip cookie, right? But to be able to sell it to your neighbor and talk about Black Lives Matter is a different thing. It gave people a shield to stand behind while talking about something important.

You’re juggling your day job as pastry chef at Maydan and Compass Rose with all of these initiatives. What is that like?

I’m so stressed. [Laughs.] I’m just a baker. To make this worldwide movement was like, Oh, my God. What’s important was the support people gave. The DC [hospitality] community rose up. They made sure I was eating and dropped off food without me having to ask. They all made sure I was okay.

Looking back over the last six months, what are you proudest of?

How united we were. There wasn’t a lot of fighting for recognition. People just wanted to do good. Bakers at Michelin-starred restaurants were [contributing baked goods] under the radar. Home bakers were uniting—in London, in Mumbai. It was a pure expression of unity.

This article appears in the October 2020 issue of Washingtonian.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.