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Denise Van de Cruze | “Courageous Voice” | connect.faith
“Wherever I am, I’m going to do work…I can be in the most comfortable place and I will find the most vulnerable people, and identify heavily with them, and I will do work on their behalf because I see that as being on my behalf as well.”
Denise Van de Cruze
Fill up on this empowering conversation with Denise Van de Cruze, social justice advocate, world traveler, owner of Vienna-based queer cafe Villa Vida, and self-proclaimed nerd activist for the people.
In this episode we chat about:
- Finding places to be of service
- Social justice
- Parenting by example
- The necessity of community
- Living your values
- Social joy
- Black stories and the Black Austria Project
Today is the day you vow to follow your heart and not your fear. If only it were that easy! The Courageous Voice podcast chronicles international artists, creatives, plus a handful of scientists, and their stories of fear, courageousness and creativity. Hosted by singer, storyteller and self-proclaimed joy spreader, Chanda Rule, The Courageous Voice inspires us to share our voices courageously in spite of our fears through courageous conversation and community.
Chanda: Welcome back to our listeners. Thank you so much for listening and taking in all this wonderful content. You are in for a very special treat today. We have the fantastic, amazing Denise Van De Cruze with us. Yay, Denise.
Thank you so much for coming. Denise wears wears many, many, many hats. She is a mom. She is a multiple business owner. She is a traveler. She is a queer activist along with community activism. And I am going to add something called truth activism.
And there’s a really interesting thing I read. She has also referred to herself as a nerd warrior for the people. So welcome, Denise. Thank you so much for your time. What, what is a nerd warrior for the people? I love that I’ve never seen that about you.
Denise: Well, yeah, I mean, I’ve always sort of had an engineering brain. I studied engineering and then I became a software engineer. And what I tried to do is take those technical skills and the way that I analyze data and make them work for the values that I hold very dear, which are around social justice issues.
Denise: So I try to do that in a lot of my work.
Chanda: Okay. So listen, Denise is also living in Vienna, Austria, where I am. And when I moved here, I was not seeing enough people of color and I tried to, to be cool about it, and then I started getting really desperate and I was online, Google stalking everyone, and I found Denise, and just kind of did 50,000 million back flips. One of the things that really stood out to me from when I first met you, I mean, aside from the fact that it’s just wonderful, these communities that you’re creating– I know you created Black People In Vienna, but I think you also did this in Berlin– is that one of our first conversations that I had, I just asked you a bit about yourself and you just kind of sat and you told me all this stuff, and it’s so interesting because it’s really hard to find all this stuff about you. You’re so humble with the things that you have accomplished, the things that you do. But what I do remember is early on in some of your first businesses you were working with farming, right? And farming activism?
Denise: Yeah. So one of the things that I’ve been really interested in, and something that’s very important to me is food justice. So when I lived in North Carolina, I worked closely with farmers. I was on the board of my food co-op, and my job there was at Student Action with Farmworkers. They organize farm workers in North and South Carolina.
Through that work, I did some research on farm workers in the Southeast. And I got to talk and interact with a lot of amazing people that are doing that work.
Chanda: But you were in Mexico for a while, too, right?
Denise: Yeah, yeah. So when I was homeschooling my, my daughter she was partially educated in Mexico as well. So that was part of our travels as well. I’ve done like a lot of different things.
Chanda: Uh-huh, uh-huh.
Denise: I wasn’t in Mexico for my work around food justice. But I think one of the things that my work around farm work has taught me is that like, we’re still like living history. One of the legacies of farm work in the United States is that initially it was done through stolen labor of Black folks.
Denise: So there has never been a time where farm laborers have been adequately compensated or have had enough rights. And since a lot of the progress and labor law happened around the same time that Jim Crow was still in effect, farm workers and domestic laborers – jobs that were primarily Black people – were excluded from those things. So farm workers do not have a 40 hour week. They do not have overtime. They do not have a minimum wage.
Chanda: Okay, but you’re speaking about this like it’s present. So you’re saying they still do not.
Denise: They still, in 2022, do not federally have a minimum work age. Like they’re migrant children who have never completed a school year because they migrate with their family doing farm labor, and they are working like grown folks at 12 and 13 and so on.
Chanda: Mm. And this is in America.
Denise: That is in the United States, yes.
Chanda: Mm, wow. You know, I remember having this conversation with you a while ago and I did not know that that was like a present day thing. This is wow… Wow, wow, wow.
Denise also started a queer cafe here in Vienna called Villa Vida. This is like the point- the point place for you, for community activism. How does that tie into your love of food justice, or your need to really get the word out about what’s happening with farmers?
Denise: I have direct relationships with my farmers. They’re local. Our wine comes from like local farms. And so I established those relationships before I even opened up the cafe. So that’s great. It’s a value of mine that will be in whatever I do.
And I think that that’s why it’s really hard to not be humble. Because it’s like, by the time I say all the things I do, I’m telling very different stories. They’re only connected through me. It’s not like, you know, now I’m doing farm labor activism in Austria. I’m not.
Denise: I don’t think so, outside of prioritizing local and organic when I can. But I’m not, you know, directly involved in that kind of work in Austrian context.
Denise: What I try to do wherever I am is assess where I can be most useful and do that.
Denise: So I grew up in New York city. I went to Howard university.
Chanda: Yes, Howard!
Denise: When I was at Howard university, I became a parent to my daughter, Blue.
Denise: I recognized that there was no advocacy organization for parents who were also students and we were quite a demographic. So I started the College Parents Association, and we did so much together. We would schedule our classes around each other in order to reduce our need for childcare, we would pass on clothes that one kid grew out of to another kid, or formula that was of no more use to a kid that would need it. We would pool babysitting. We did a lot of things that meant that we did not have to sort of like work super hard in our own bubble because we were being resources for each other.
Denise: So that was one of the organizations I formed when I was at Howard, because that’s what I saw that was needed. And I was involved in other organizations at that time. I was in the Lesbian Avengers. I was in the queer group on campus.
Chanda: Okay. The Avengers. Okay. I didn’t know about this. The Lesbian Avengers. What is that? What was that? Does it still exist?
Denise: The lesbian Avengers has a really amazing, radical and progressive history in the United States as an organization. It’s been in many different cities, not just Washington. I believe there we’re a Lesbian Avengers in New York. Definitely there were in Seattle. And so, you know, they were famous at that time, or known for doing radical protests that got a lot of attention, like for example. Eating fire outside of the federal building topless or, you know, protesting things like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
And this was in the late nineties and they were fighting for the inclusion of trans folks, you know.
Denise: They were doing all of that kind of stuff. So a lot of my political education came through doing.
Chanda: Okay. Were you always like that or did this kind of jump off after the birth of Blue while you were at Howard? Or is this something that you just kind of carried in you since you were a child? Tell us, tell us about that.
Denise: I definitely think I probably carried it since I was a child. I think it has to do with being an immigrant to the United States, and being poor, growing up poor.
Denise: And so what that then meant was that if there was something that we needed, we had to figure out how we were gonna get it. We had be extremely resourceful in order to survive that in the United States. And so there was never this sense of like, "oh, something sucks; I’m going to bed."
Denise: It was very much like, "oh, something sucks; let me fix it." Or, "Ooh, but I know somebody who could do a little piece of it that would make it less sucky." and then I could do this other piece. Now put those two together and then I’ll have a solution to this because I’m not gonna wait on any kind of apparatus to provide the solution, cause that’s not ever gonna come. I grew up in a very religious –– going to church, like four times a week –– like serious, serious church.
Chanda: Like Cogic Church.
Denise: Right. It was very oppressive to grow up in the church as a queer child.
Denise: I was depressed a lot. I was very depressed, but one of the things that it impressed upon me was like, community is necessary.
Denise: It’s necessary. So before there was Facebook, when you needed a job, you would like roll up into the church and be like, I need a job. And it would part of your testimony. And then somebody in the back hopefully is like working somewhere where there’s openings, or they have a business. Or you would roll up to church and be like, "listen, I have no place to sleep tonight." And then that would be sorted.
Denise: And so that level of community, where it was so hands on–– in my house, there was always some immigrant family, somebody who was in firm, somebody who was sick, somebody who was running from a domestic violence situation… there was always something going on in terms of like providing care within a community context. That was how my mom lived her life. That was how she lived her life.
So there was never this sense of like, "mm, is your husband beating you? That must suck for you. I hope you pray about it." Like there was never this hands off kind of mode.
Denise: So even though it was very hard psychologically for me to exist in a church that negated- or could not affirm my womanhood and could not affirm my sexuality, it was absolutely empowering to see my mom and my dad live their values. That they truly believed in this whole "live like Jesus" stuff.
Denise: And they tried to do it to the best of their ability.
Chanda: Okay now this is interesting because you know, listening to you, I’m seeing like, of course now, this connection to community. One of the things that I mentioned earlier that I’m serious about is I’m calling this a truth activism, because you seem to me, from what I have come to know of you, as someone who is very comfortable with sharing their truth in the moment. Like this is what I believe to be true. And I’m now also making a connection to your parents with this. Can you talk more about this? Because this is this podcast. I always really get to how we can use our voices more courageously. And I feel like this is a thing that you do – that you use your voice very courageously.
So I hear this foundation of your parents, and you seeing this happening, but also you’re getting the opposite. Is this something that you grew with and you just continue to experiment with? Or at what point were you like "okay, well, this is who I am. This is my truth. This is how I’m gonna express myself in the world. This is how I’m gonna build this community." How did that start taking shape for you?
Denise: Yeah. I think the single most radicalizing event of my life happened when I found out I was going to be––or, decided to become a parent. Right.
Denise: So I was 18. I had just finished my freshman year of college. And so I was a teen parent. And this was, is this came with a tremendous amount of shame coming from the family that I come from.
Denise: Because I had like gotten pregnant the first time I had sex, like many people who were victims of abstinence only education.
Denise: Right. Like, I didn’t know a whole lot about my body.
Denise: I didn’t even know a whole lot about safer choices. And you know, there was just like sexuality, sex; all of it was so imbued with shame. And then there was a lot of pressure for me to get married. And I actually got married at 18, five months pregnant.
Right. So all of this stuff happening. But when I made a decision, I did know that abortion was legal. It isn’t anymore, but it was then. When I decided not to have the abortion, it wasn’t for any religious reason. There was nothing that could happen in my life after I left for college, that would mean I moved back home. Like there was just nothing. I was never, ever going to move back home.
Denise: As much as I admire my parents, I think a lot of my admiration for them came after I myself became a parent and could like, look at them from a distance.
Denise: Especially at 18, there was no way.
Denise: It is such a painful experience growing up in that household being me. And I knew I didn’t want that for my child, but I also was young enough to know that it didn’t matter what I said to the kid; that what mattered most was how I decided to live. So I started to say, "okay, fine, so then that means that anything I want my daughter to do, I have to do.
So then I was like, well okay, I have to start living as if I am my own daughter. I don’t know if this makes.
Chanda: Of course it makes sense.
Denise: What that means is like I have to start treating myself with compassion. I have to start becoming more self-aware. I have to start taking more accountability for my choices. I have to demand more from my partners; demand more from my friends. And demand more for my world. Because those are things that I wanted my daughter to do.
Chanda: Wow. Wow. Wow. That’s a word. This is a word. Listen, you know, I was not going to talk about Roe V, but you did mention it and you’re talking about your daughter and you’re talking about living by example and, I’m wondering as far as living by example, how that can show up now. And like if your children have questions, even though they’re here––because they’re partly American, or they have ties to America––I’m just wondering what you’re modeling for your children or what you could advise another parent, perhaps. Because this is beautiful as far as really leading by example through parenting
Denise: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
Chanda: Any thoughts?
Denise: Yeah. I mean, an ethic that was really important for me with both of my children––so I have a 28 year old and I have a 15 year old ––was very open and honest communication around sex and production and sexual freedom. And that includes like discussions around gender, sexuality, everything that was possible because I was, and remain, an active participant in their education. They’ve both had some form of independent schooling by me and me trying to contribute some modules towards their education.
I think one of the things that is hard, and it’s somewhat of an existential thing that they struggle with to varying degrees, but I think is a very human struggle, is that you know, social justice and these issues of governance are a group project.
Denise: And no one is 100% happy with any group project.
Denise: You don’t have control. The output isn’t something that you would’ve done if you are doing it on your own. And so this idea of our societies being this group project, and in your group is someone who may or may not believe that you have full autonomy over your body, is a very, very hard thing to try to do.
Chanda: Mm, mm-hmm. Yeah, it is. So, is it just a matter of that education? In that everything isn’t easy and that we have to work together and it’s hard sometimes.
Denise: I don’t know, I mean, I think… you know, I will say this about being an expat, especially after I was doing a job where my job was essentially activism. You know, and sort of coming out from a little bit of burnout with that.
Denise: But I definitely, you know, had this vision of, "okay, well, I’m gonna move to a place where the quality of life is easier and where I do not feel ––like it is so heavy. In terms of the call to do this activism thing, because it is often extremely painful. What I learned about myself in the 14 years of being an expat is
Denise: wherever I am, I’m gonna do work. I could be in the most comfortable place and I will find the most vulnerable people and identify heavily with them.
Denise: And I will do work on their behalf because I would see that as being on my behalf as well.
Denise: And that comes from, you know, being on the bottom of the power totem pole so many times in my life; as a poor child of migrant parents who was a teen mom, right? And then a single mom. Do you know what I mean? And a Black person and a woman and a queer person. So there’s so many times where I’m just, you know, at the bottom of the power totem pole. That there is no way that I’m ever going to identify with anybody else outside of the most vulnerable
Denise: And I’m a doer.
Denise: So if I see that there’s work to do, I’m gonna do it. I try to pace myself and I try to do projects that I can succeed in that could be of use to the community that I feel called to do in a unique way; that I’m adding a unique skill to it. But at the end of the day, I’m always going to be emotionally invested. We can’t tap out of.
Chanda: No, this is beautiful.
Denise: And, and that is something that is immensely painful. And that’s where people think that they could like opt out of that through apathy. And you can’t; you can’t opt out of it. Because whether you care about something or not, it still will affect your life one way or the other, or it’ll affect the life of someone you care about.
Chanda: Yeah. Yeah. I love this example and I’m thinking I recently had a conversation with Salem, who we both know,
Chanda: And we were talking about just the power of being present. And so when you said that, when you were talking about life in most countries, but in America, specifically, as this group project, and you having to hold that, I think that’s such an important thing to say.
Because there’s a lot of stillness with that. There’s a lot of vulnerability with it. There’s a lot of surrender with it. And I, I feel like those are things that get looked over a lot. And not only are you saying that; you’re also admitting where you are in it, what’s too much, and what you can continue to do.
So I think, I think that was very helpful and wonderful advice for parents and for everyone. So thank you for sharing that. It’s also making me think of Villa Vida. This community activism through bringing people to sit down, and have a conversation over food. And so to me, that is why I was thinking of this connection with food justice, I guess, in a very different way.
Chanda: But I think this is so needed. It’s so needed. Because I feel like, I mean, as human beings, as people that are emotional, people that think and feel, there’s so many different aspects and sides to us. And it’s so easy to get like burdened down on this, like the mental and like everything that is wrong.
And it’s so interesting. My mom, my mom is so cute. She posts stories every day and today she had a story. You know, all these negative words and like the number of letters in them, and then like their opposite, positive word would have the same number of letters. So she’s like, you know, thinking a lot about balance and all that. But I think this is so needed to have this balance of like, okay, let let’s come and sit down and eat some food, some good food, and like talk.
Denise: My work around Villa Vida is kind of like an extension in some ways of how I organized Black People In Vienna, or how I’ve organized the Black Star Brunch when I was in Berlin. What I noticed immediately when I got to Berlin was that there was this massive cultural disconnect. You know, Germany and Austria – bless their hearts – are not the more hospitable of the European countries, you know. It’s not Spain it’s not Greece, it’s not Italy. And so there isn’t this culture of, "oh, come to my house and eat," like, "oh, you just moved in, okay- here’s a pie!" Like "let’s sit down and talk." There isn’t that culture at all, and so what a lot of people from the Global South, or from America were dealing with was a tremendous, just crushing loneliness and isolation. You know, that now they were in a culture where people seemed wholly disinterested in who they were as individuals. Right? Like, you’re like literally living next door to me, you know, let’s share a meal. Even if it only happens one time.
Denise: Or we just had a conversation. We’re both in this class, we’ve just had a conversation. Hey, let’s go for coffee- why not? What I was trying to do with the Black Star Brunch was, you know, I found that there was a Black community that was pretty politically engaged in Berlin.
Denise: But then I would ask them about each other, you know, like "what’s the tea? So this is a person that’s organizing all of the protests with you. Are they partnered? Where they come from?" You know, basic questions…
Denise: …and people wouldn’t know anything about each other. And they would be spending like 20 hours a week together doing activism work. And I was just like, this can’t stand. I don’t know. Because here’s the thing- in Germany and in Austria, most Afro-Austrian or Afro-German people grow up in isolation from other Black people. So there isn’t this sense of like a Black community until they reach adulthoods- at least in my generation, you know?
Denise: Now you have more communities, especially in Austria. There’s a community of Nigerians here and they’re growing up around each other.
Denise: And that’s a very different scenario. But the scenario that I was finding were people that were Afro-German coming from a small village, and they came to Berlin the minute they hit 18, you know.
Denise: But there was so much discomfort because culturally they were German. Even though racially, they were Black. So there wasn’t this same sense that I had where it’s like, I grew up in a Black family, in a Black neighborhood and went to a Black school. And then even for college, I went to a Black school.
Denise: The crook was Black, and the police were Black, the doctor was Black and everybody was Black. So this level of comfort I have with other Black people is just very different.
Chanda: Okay. Okay.
Denise: And so I saw Blackness as this site that fed me. You know, it’s a community and it feeds me, but I don’t think that you can like successfully organize or actually successfully be a community if you’re not engaging in regenerative ways with that community.
Denise: It’s hard to do activism around your queerness if the only time you engage in queerness is when you’re doing activism around your queerness. Like that’s really a hard sort of relationship to have to any one of your identities.
Denise: If I looked at my Blackness as a site of struggle, I don’t think I’d be so interested in that as an identity either.
Chanda: Oh my God, and this is the other reason why I’m just so grateful for what you’re doing because yeah. Looking at things.
Denise: So what I wanted to do was like present, within this very inhospitable context, Blackness as a site of joy.
Denise: Blackness as a site of connection. Blackness as a place where we get each other, we understand each other, we’re affirming each other, we’re loving each other. We’re providing community for one another. It just seems so counterintuitive for me that, you know, we, as Black people are only gonna speak or organize or pick up the phone and call each other when it’s time to protest.
Denise: Or when the police have done something wrong, or in opposition to White supremacy, or whatever the situation is. Yes, we do that work. But if we don’t have each other’s numbers because we don’t even know who we are…
Denise: That can’t be the only time we engage. I mean, cause we’re also working people; we need to be fed. Spiritually. And it’s that community work that does that. Social joy as a vehicle for social justice.
Chanda: Social joy. I love that. Mm-hmm.
Denise: That’s how I see my role- is like somehow getting us together so that we can share in joy so that we can understand what we’re fighting for. Otherwise like what are we fighting for?
Chanda: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Listen, I wanna ask you just a few more questions about something else, because when I was Google stalking you, I saw that you were a writer and I was like, I didn’t know that you were writing. And then I saw your Black Stories Project, which you mentioned. I think this is something else that I knew.
Denise: Yeah. Black Austria. Yeah.
Chanda: Excuse me, Black Austria.
And there was an interesting quote on there. Mm. Yes. By Chinua Achebe about storytellers are a threat. And I thought that was very interesting because it seems like… I don’t know. I want you to say more about that, but also about this bringing people together and telling the stories, and the power that we can find in sharing our stories, and just more about what your mission is with this project. It’s a beautiful project. So congratulations on it.
Denise: Yeah. I mean like documentary filmmaking is like a massive passion of mine. I have way more interests and hobbies than I have time. But yeah, I used to volunteer at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which was in Durham, North Carolina. But now I’m really interested in it as an art form and exploring what maybe I could do with it. And specifically I found that with my work around Blackness in the German and Austrian context, people would be like, "there are no Black people." And I felt like there needed to be more documentation of the fact that we are here and we’ve been here for quite a while. And I wanted to, in some way, contribute to that. So that’s what that’s about.
I think storytelling is definitely a threat. I think there’s definitely this way that Western civilization has codified this model of storytelling in the sense of like, "it’s only objective if you have no skin in the game." So, you know, only someone who isn’t directly affected by something could actually be objective. And there’s this idea of objectivity that presupposes or presumes that, because someone isn’t the subject, that they have no emotional investment or have no emotions about a particular thing.
Denise: And one other thing about Blackness that is very interesting is that, you know, I’ve been all over and it doesn’t matter if I was like Istanbul or Australia, or whether they’d ever seen a Black person in their life or not, everyone had feelings about my Blackness. Everyone had feelings about it.
Denise: There is no objectivity on the Black body.
Denise: And so the only one that is going to have any level of insight and clarity in our experience is us.
Denise: Because everyone else’s vision is so skewed by White supremacy.
Denise: Sometimes even our own vision is-
Chanda: even ours, yeah
Denise: -skewed by White supremacy.
Denise: Right? But hopefully, you know, as part of the project of our own survival, we’ve dismantled that a little bit. But, you know, yeah- there is no such thing as objectivity.
Chanda: No, but I do love the fact that there has definitely been a shift in that, especially within academia on that, you know. On the personal experience of whoever is showing or bringing the information, and how important that is. I think that’s great, cause it wasn’t like that, like I guess a couple of decades ago, but now I think it is. Maybe not enough, but I definitely see that it’s a shift where I wasn’t seeing it before. Oh, this is wonderful. So Denise I have one more question for you.
Chanda: So tell me what advice would you have, let’s say, for our younger generations or anyone who really wants to start to use their voice more authentically, and they’re like, " I don’t really know how I can practice this. I’m scared. I’m nervous." What, what is, is maybe one step or one practice that they could start doing?
Denise: Mm, yeah, I would definitely say ramp up to it. You gotta ramp up to it. You know, if you’re not ready for the small fights, you’re not gonna be able to pick the big ones.
Denise: If you can’t even say something to the man who’s stepping on your foot, how are you gonna say something to your boss who’s violating your boundaries, right? Like you have to ramp up to it. So like noticing those like smaller moments where you have opportunities, in order to have that practice to put into a larger moment. Because I think that as a new Yorker, as someone who grew up in the inner city of New York, conflict’s in my blood. I’m sure there’s a conflict that’s big enough that it might scare me in the future, but 99% of all the conflicts that I witness or I’m a part of, I do not feel any fear.
Denise: But usually people get quiet in conflicts because they feel a tremendous amount of fear.
Denise: And what any athlete will tell you, if you are, you know, a professional skier long jumper or something, you’re not gonna be able to do those tricks when you’re like skiing, if you’re afraid to ski.
Denise: Like you’re not gonna be able to ski really fast if when you’re at the top of the mountain you gotta go down, you’re already crying. Right?
Chanda: Okay. Mm-hmm.
Denise: So you need practice in order to get skillful at anything.
Chanda: So really finding the little things and stepping up, ramping up as you said…
Chanda: And not holding your voice in the little things. So this is the actionable thing. I love it. Well, Denise, thank you so much.
Denise: You’re very welcome.
Chanda: Thank you so much for, for joining me today. Listen, where can we find you?
Denise: You could go to villavida.at for Villa Vida Cafe.
Denise: And that’s it.
Chanda: That’s it? Are you on Instagram?
Denise: Yeah, I’m @miasolista on Instagram.
Chanda: Are you on Twitter, also?
Denise: Same handle on Twitter.
Chanda: Oh, that’s beautiful. And for the listeners in Vienna, where is Villa Vida cafe?
Denise: It’s at Linke Wienzeile 102.
Chanda: Wonderful, wonderful. Well, thank you so much.
Thank y’all again for joining me, joining Denise. And listen- rate, review, and subscribe. Tell your friends, and we’ll see you next time. Bye.