AJ Hess: Sharing a life of service


Most of us were taught as children how to behave in society, including how to share. AJ Hess took that lesson to heart into adulthood — and parlayed it into a lifestyle and a career.

Manager of the West Philadelphia Mariposa Food Co-op, Hess has worked in the cooperative business for almost 20 years. In addition, the gender-nonconforming parent has fostered multiple children.


PGN: Where did you grow up?

AJH: I grew up in South Fork, Pennsylvania. It’s a small town in the middle of the state, in the middle of nowhere.


PGN: Ah, the place James Carville referred to as “Pennsyltucky.”

AJH: Pretty much. I’ve lived all over working in co-ops for the past 20 years or so. I was in New Orleans before here, Seattle before that, Richmond, Virginia; Carrboro, North Carolina; Portland, Oregon; Durham, North Carolina; all around, working with natural food stores and co-ops.


PGN: What drew you to this business?

AJH: I went vegan in, I think it was about 1997.


PGN: Before it was hip.

AJH: Yes, before it was hip to be vegan. I was living in North Carolina and working at a natural food store and a friend of mine told me about the local co-op, The People’s Intergalactic Food Conspiracy. I started volunteering there, and from there I learned about co-ops and cooperative economics and the negative effects that corporations have on small businesses, especially cooperative businesses, but mom-and-pop shops too. From that point on, I was done with any type of corporate entity and I knew that co-ops, and specifically natural-food co-ops, were where I wanted to be.


PGN: Can you give me a definition or description of what co-op means?

AJH: Sure, sure, I can certainly do that. There are multiple kinds of co-ops: There are worker co-ops, consumer co-ops, producer co-ops. Here at Mariposa, we are a consumer co-op. The idea of consumer co-ops is that a group of people start talking and realize that they need something in their area. Often it’s a grocery store, but it can be any number of things, like REI, the camping-equipment store, which is a cooperative. So people get together and say, “We really need this here, but I can’t do it by myself, but if we do it and 10 of our friends join in, and we all invest small amounts of money, we can build this thing that we all need.” It’s a beautiful way for the community to pull together and pool resources. Farmer co-ops are really great examples of how it works, especially in rural areas where shipping is a huge cost for them. But when they do it together instead of each one having to spend separate money for advertising and shipping and packaging, and distributors, they’re able to do it and negotiate as a group for the benefit of everyone. And if one farmer is not doing well, the other farms can kind of make up for that too, to help them get through, and everyone shares in the wealth.


PGN: What’s one of the most damaging things the corporate-modeled stores are doing?

AJH: There’s good and bad. For those of us who have been involved in the natural-foods movement for a long time, one of the main goals was to get access to healthy and organic foods and to reduce the damage of factory farms and mono-agriculture. Getting food that hadn’t been sprayed with pesticides was almost impossible, but now you can find organic foods almost anywhere — your grocery store, your big-box stores. So in that way, it’s a huge win. However, what has come because of that is that many co-ops are closing. Many of the natural-food stores are going out of business because now you can just order stuff online or go to most grocery stores for it. It’s a double-edged sword. We are achieving the goal that we set out to do and have raised awareness about the importance of natural foods and, in some ways, it’s been so successful that it’s putting us out of business. We’re doing pretty well, thankfully, but many co-ops are going out of business.


PGN: I imagine most co-ops start out as all-volunteer. How has this one grown?

AJH: Yes, Mariposa started off down the street in a much smaller place with a staff of about nine people. Now, we’re in a much larger location and we have a staff of about 50 — many of them full-time, and we’re able to pay decent wages. And we’ve been able to support a number of different access programs to help provide healthy food in our community. People can become members and working members and have a chance to share in what we’re doing.


PGN: With a utensil in the name of your hometown, you might have been destined for the food business. Tell me a little about growing up in South Fork.

AJH: [Laughing] I guess so. The only other options in that area were pretty much coal mining or steel work.


PGN: Who’s in your family and were any of them in those fields?

AJH: My grandfather was a steel worker; one of my great-grandfathers was a coal minor who died of black lung like so many did back then. My dad worked on truck shipping docks when I was a kid. But then he went to school and became an accountant, which is where I got my love of math, and my mom works in administration. Some of my family members worked in factories, sewing factories, etc. There used to be a lot of manufacturing along with the mills and mines, but most of [the industry has] closed down now. I have an older brother, and we had a pretty typical small-town upbringing, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there. It wasn’t easy coming out in the ’90s at my high school. I was ready to get out by the time I was 14. When I did, I was very fortunate to get to move around a lot and see so many places working in co-ops across the country.


PGN: So what did you do as a kid for fun in South Fork?

AJH: I’d hang out with my brother and his friends and other kids in the neighborhood. I played baseball and softball from the time I was 4 until about 22. Pretty normal childhood. We traded baseball cards on the porch and played basketball in the park.


PGN: Give me a description of the town. Were the neighbors nearby or down the road?

AJH: It was a small mining town so the houses all looked the same and were built close together, but there weren’t many of them. I’d say maybe about 1,000 people in the town. I was just back there recently and it was kind of terrifying to see how steep it was, with the town basically just pitched in an area cut into the side of a mountain. It was beautiful with all the surrounding trees and the tracks for the trains that used to ship the coal winding around. [Chuckles] Growing up, I thought it was the greatest place ever, until I got old enough to know better.


PGN: When did you have your first crush, and when did you act on a crush?

AJH: Probably kindergarten. In middle school, I started to realize what was going on, but it did not feel safe to come out. This was before there was any kind of representation in the media or in pop culture at all, so it wasn’t until I was 16 in high school that I finally came out.


PGN: That’s still pretty young.

AJH: Yeah. It was terrifying, but I couldn’t not come out. I told my best friend and she responded by telling me she thought she was bisexual. So we were able to come out together. It was awesome. I had my first girlfriend at 17, so she had to come out too, and it was definitely met with challenges. We were not allowed to go to prom together because the school decided that same-sex couples were not allowed.


PGN: Sadly, that seems to be still happening today. So, fast-forward, what brought you back to Pennsylvania?

AJH: I was living in New Orleans, and I had a kid. I still have that kid. I’ve also been a foster parent. I’ve fostered almost 20 children, but I really wanted my daughter to know her grandparents. They now live in Reading, so I wanted to come back to this area. This job came up and it was the perfect opportunity, and here I am three years later.


PGN: What are some of the challenges of being a foster parent?

AJH: Honestly, it’s not easy. The whole system is flawed, because much of it is privatized. Until recently, there were religious groups running the services who refused to let gay parents foster children. And you can clearly see the systematic racism played out — kids being taken from parents that shouldn’t be. Women of color are more likely to be reported and have their kids taken away than a white mother. That’s been statistically proven, and you see it when you go to court. The goal is to reunite the kids with their parents, but there’s not much help or guidance given to make that successful. The system is underfunded, and the social workers are underpaid and overworked, and it’s very stressful for them too. They have lives that they are responsible for and not enough time or resources to do it properly. It’s a spiderweb of threads that are all broken, which leads to a pipeline from foster care to the prison system, which is also broken. So it can be brutal, but then you see one of the kids smile at you and you know that you’ve provided them a safe space for however long and the rest goes away.


PGN: What was a rewarding moment?

AJH: There was one kid who’s 22 now and has her own daughter, and we still keep in touch. She was 17 and only stayed with us for a week. But she calls us whenever something good or bad happens in her life. She called us when she graduated from school. We were there when she had her kid. It shows you the impact you can have on a child even in a short period of time, good or bad. So you really have to be on point to make sure it’s a positive impact. She actually just gave a talk in Baton Rouge about the foster system and what things work and don’t work. It’s amazing to see her progress.


PGN: And when did you become a parent?

AJH: I never thought that I would have kids. I’ve identified as gender-nonconforming for a long time and use “them” and “they” pronouns. I never felt super-connected to my body. When my partner and I wanted to have a kid, we were thinking about adoption, and then she said, “Would you have a kid?” and without really thinking I said that I would. It was the most challenging and wonderful experience at once. It was a fun process to choose a donor and then have a little human grow inside of you. And now she’s 4 and a pretty cool kid. She’s always been kind and empathetic, and she’s taught us so much. We still have foster kids, and they all have something to teach us as long as we listen.


PGN: I work freelance doing mock patient trials and I just got a memo yesterday that they have started requiring medical students to ask patients their pronouns when introducing themselves. It’s great to see things changing. Assuming you had to use female pronouns as a kid, when did you start using they/them and how has it changed things for you?

AJH: Yeah — as a kid, I didn’t know I had a choice. Even until recently, we lived in such a binary world. I liked playing with my brother and his friends and I never felt like a boy, but I never really felt like I was a girl or female either. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized, oh, I don’t have to choose one or the other. I can be both; I can be neither; I can just be what feels natural to me without subscribing to any line of masculinity or femininity. I’ve been teaching the kids the same. We say our name and our pronouns at dinner every night. They’re learning that not everybody has to be a boy or a girl. My 4-year-old is very good at gently correcting people, and when she meets people she doesn’t know, she introduces herself and says, “My pronouns are she/her. What are yours?” It’s really important to me because, when I came out in the ’90s, there was a lot of pressure to fit into a mold of how lesbians were supposed to dress — a very butch/femme dynamic that I never subscribed to; it just wasn’t for me. Now, for the first time, I feel really comfortable not having to make a choice and being able to look and dress and be whom I want to be.


PGN: Absolutely. What do you like to do for fun?

AJH: I just started playing softball again in a queer softball league in Philly, and I play a few instruments — guitar and a little bit of banjo. The past few summers I went to the adult rock camp, which was a blast.


PGN: Best and worst sports moments?

AJH: A lot of good ones. I played shortstop on a competitive traveling softball team. We played four games a day, often in 90-degree weather. One time when we were in Virginia Beach it poured. There were puddles about 2-feet deep and some of the other players and I just started acting like kids and jumped in the puddles and splashed around in the mud. The worst moment was when I broke my nose during practice. I got hit in the face with a softball. The twist is that my dad was the coach and he hit the ball. He still feels bad to this day. It’s a family joke now.


PGN: What three foods would you have banished from the earth?

AJH: Chard — I hate chard. And high-fructose corn syrup and anything with hormones or artificial ingredients that they try to pass off as healthy.


PGN: In another life, I was probably …

AJH: An accountant. I can’t imagine not doing something with numbers. It’s why I love my job.