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Sweet activism: Pittsburgh baker uses cookie art to encourage diversity and fun

Scrolling through your daily Instagram feed, you might not expect to see activism, amazing art, and delicious-looking confectionary wrapped up into one bundle. But on one Pittsburgh baker's social media, that's exactly what you'll find.

Jasmine Cho, 35, tries to spread knowledge about social justice issues and diversity through the delicious medium of cookies. Although cookies might seem like an unusual choice, Cho said that it's important to embrace creative storytelling.

"I think cookies are such a wonderful storytelling medium because they're just so inviting," she said. "I think they really have become the perfect vehicle for me to tell hard-to-digest topics."

Cho first discovered baking in high school. Growing up, baking for her was always something celebratory and special, but it was at a sleepover with a friend that she discovered she enjoyed it. Her friend taught her how to make a dessert they found in a cookbook: pineapple coconut squares.

"It was just a super magical experience for me. I think she helped sort of demystify baking and that whole process," Cho said. "And that really is the spark and what kind of triggered my whole path down always loving to bake and aspiring to have my own bakery cafe one day."

This passion for baking was carried with Cho throughout her high school career. Then, while pursuing higher education, Cho realized her second passion: learning more about her Asian-American culture.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Cho said she never learned much about her culture or history in school. When Cho found an elective in college that taught about Asian-American immigrant experiences, it was an emotional moment for her.

"I just remember feeling so many emotions come up that I just couldn't articulate. It was like this mix of anger, of relief almost, empowerment, sadness, so many emotions," Cho said. "It's like, 'Oh my gosh, we've been here in this country forever, but I'm now 27 years old and this is when I learned about all of these people."

Cho realized she could combine her two passions – baking and her culture – to educate others about influential Asian American people and showcase matters that were important to her. She then began designing cookie portraits based on people she admired and posting images of her work on her Instagram page.

Cho is now a baker, artist, entrepreneur, and activist working to educate the public about Asian-American history and social justice issues. Cho launched her online bakery, Yummyholic.com, in 2015.

Within her bakery, Cho makes cookie portraits of prominent Asian-American figures, as well as people whose voices she believes deserve to be uplifted.

"Matters of representation were always like a pinpoint for me and always on my mind and in my heart. But I don't think I ever really knew how to communicate these stories until I found cookies," Cho said. "And I sincerely believe that cookies are just so disarming because they're cookies. Who doesn't like cookies?"

One cookie that Cho has resonated with deeply is one she made of George Helm, a Hawaiian activist in the 1970s. Cho lived in Hawaii for three years, where she learned about and was inspired by Hawaiian history.

"It's insane the amount of injustice that the native Hawaiian population has faced as well through the whole annexation of the kingdom. There were so many horrific stories that I heard about nuclear testing and the fallout impacting native Hawaiian populations in all of this," Cho said. "George Helm was one of those activists who really embodied the spirituality of the native Hawaiians and the connection to their land, to nature."

Another cookie Cho is fond of is her portrait of Betty Ong, a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, which was hijacked on September 11, 2001 during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. An article by writer Damon Young about the American flag causing anxiety also helped inspire the cookie.

"The whole article was about how his attitudes toward the American flag have changed since Trump's presidency," Cho said. "That article resonated with me so much because he was basically talking about whenever he goes into a rural area, he'll notice like the influx of American flags everywhere and how that suddenly makes you – it raises your anxiety all of a sudden, and it's become associated with hate groups."

After reading the article, Cho decided to combine Betty Ong and the American flag in a powerful statement.

"I made the Betty Ong cookies because she was a 'shero' from the 9/11 tragedy, and at that time, 9/11, the American flag was all about our country coming together," Cho said. "So I wanted to almost reclaim that flag by putting it behind her face to say, 'Look, she was an American and she's got an Asian face, but she's an American hero who helped possibly save hundreds of other lives by reporting everything that she did.' "

On Cho's Instagram for her business, @helloyummyholic, she showcases more of her astounding cookie art, including other political figures such as Larry Itilong, a Filipino-American labor organizer, and pop-culture figures such as Keanu Reeves, a Canadian actor. The cookie Cho made of Reeves, a snapshot from the movie "Always Be My Maybe," has a much deeper significance to her.

"I had just gotten so busy that I definitely lost touch with (healthy) kinds of practices. And around that time is when my brother had asked me, 'What do you do for fun?' " Cho said. "I couldn't believe that I had so much trouble answering that question. And I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, you're right. I think I forgot to have fun.' "

Watching "Always Be My Maybe" inspired Cho to make the Keanu Reeves cookies and have fun with it. "It was something to reconnect me to fun and to make sure that I remembered to incorporate fun and enjoyment in my life."

Cho also has self-published a children's book that was inspired, in part, by a studio art course she took and her cookie art. It is called "Role Models Who Look Like Me." The book contains watercolor illustrations of influential people like Yuji Ichioka, a historian who first used the term "Asian American."

"The idea just sort of fell naturally to me," Cho said. "I was already doing this work of elevating Asian American representation through my cookie art, so it was very natural for me to continue that message on through watercolor."

Cho's book celebrates diversity, which is something she wishes she saw more of as a kid. "It's the book I wish I had when I was growing up. And that's been reiterated by the majority of everyone who's bought the book. They're like, 'Oh, I really wish this was a book I had,' " Cho said. "I think they really hunger for something like this."

Cho hopes her cookie art continues to inspire people to be creative and think positively.

"Instead of trying to think of something new and original, just look inward and see, maybe there's already a passion or a love that you have," Cho said. "Use that for something that will serve the world in a better way. That's what I hope I inherently inspire people to do when they look at my cookies."

Ayisat Bisiriyu, 16, is an iGeneration Youth reporter living in Pittsburgh, Pa. Read more stories at igenerationyouth.com.

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