A mixing bowl and mixer, drawn with sugar on a black countertop Photo illustration by Brittany Fan
Photos by Eugene Lee

FOR MICHAELA HOPE BANKS ’16, the path to racial justice is paved with cake batter and silky buttercream.

In August 2020, Banks started @Sweet.Sweet.Justice on Instagram, where she auctions off cakes to make the world a better place.

As a child, Banks’ sweet tooth fueled her determination to learn to bake. Although she lit an oven mitt on fire during one of her earliest cooking efforts, she persevered and discovered melting chocolate, sifting flour, and creaming together sugar and butter was soothing. She coped with high school stress by baking hundreds of cookies at a time.

“I can’t control a lot of things, but I can control baking. If you do the right thing, it’ll turn out. I love measurements. They’re very specific. That just speaks to my heart,” she said, laughing.

After graduating from SPU with a nursing degree, the Kent, Washington, native worked as a primary care nurse in a Seattle nonprofit community clinic.

When she and her then-new husband, Jordan Banks ’16, relocated to Denmark for two years for his engineering job, she pursued a master’s degree in international public health through a University of Liverpool distance-learning program. Banks’ interracial marriage opened her eyes to the ways her husband experiences the world differently than she does and made her want to become a stronger advocate for racial justice.

“My reality of being married to a Black man in America means that in a small way, racism stopped being an intellectual topic and has become deeply personal. I often think about the reality that one in three Black men will be incarcerated at some point in their lives, compared to one in
17 white men. Black men and boys are 2.5 times more likely to die by police force than white men,” she said.

“My hope is that cakes will be an on-ramp to engagement, but never a distraction from the heroes in the streets, the schools, and the courtrooms.” — MICHAELA HOPE BANKS

“These realities are not abstract. The experience of praying that my husband is one of the lucky ones is one that Black women have verbalized for decades, so only speaking up now reveals my failure to truly listen and grieve before it touched me personally.”

Banks also thinks about the world her future children will experience. Nationally, Black children are three to four times more likely than white children to be suspended from school. When it comes to the juvenile justice system, Banks notes that 86% of incarcerated youth in the Seattle area are people of color.

Even under-representation in children’s stories is an issue: “My children will see more books about animals than about children who look like them, or any other  people group of color.”

Her graduate studies highlighted the ways that racial and economic injustice can negatively impact people’s health. For instance, Banks points to research findings that show that racial bias from health care providers and the stress from ongoing experiences with racism result in dire outcomes for Black women, who are two to three times more likely to die during childbirth than white women — a statistic that  has only worsened in the past 30 years.

After returning to the U.S., Banks began working for Public Health in Seattle and King County, where she is currently leading COVID-19 outbreak investigations in correctional facilities. If a facility has a positive case among inmates or staff, she provides guidance to control the infection. Banks works to make sure facilities have what they need in the event of an outbreak, and she ensures that the county’s epidemiological data includes individuals who
are incarcerated. It’s all part of the work to maintain transparency and accountability as facilities respond to an outbreak.

Her experiences and knowledge prompted Banks to look for new ways to engage in her community.

“Following last summer’s racial injustice protests, a lot of people were looking for opportunities to learn about systemic racism. When I started this learning process a couple of years ago, I didn’t know anyone I could ask questions of or look for resources from, so I found myself in many really awesome conversations about, ‘Who are the teachers we can learn from? Where can we engage?’” she said.

“I was already baking almost every week because it was an outlet for creativity, so I put some feelers out: If I sold cakes and donated the proceeds, would people be interested in that?” Banks asked. “I hoped, at the very least, people would see there are so many opportunities to be generous, but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel or try to be the savior when it comes to addressing racial inequity. We just need to know where to look. I wanted  this based in [my local] community, and I also wanted people’s involvement to be really joyful and accessible.”

Every other weekend, Banks posts on Instagram about the cake she is making and about the organization she wants to highlight. Her baking inspiration often comes from Pinterest or Benjamina Ebuehi’s The New Way to Cake — a gift from her mother-in-law. (Ebuehi was a quarter-finalist on The Great British Bake Off in 2016.)

For 24 hours, Banks shares behind-the-scenes glimpses of her baking process along with facts about the organization’s work. People bid in the comments until the auction closes. She also accepts donate-what-you-can cake commissions — a popular choice for tiny weddings during the pandemic. Banks favors warm spices and complex combinations, like chai cardamom spice cake layered with homemade caramel and cream cheese frosting. She’s made a Halloween-themed dark chocolate espresso cake with marshmallow webs and buttercream ghosts. She created a purple-hued ube cake with Swiss meringue buttercream frosting. Banks polls her followers to see where tastebuds are leaning: malted chocolate cake with Baileys ganache, Southern caramel cake, and cappuccino cheesecake are on the horizon.

Her top-earning cake — gingerbread with maple bourbon frosting — fetched $750 for the Black Birthing Bodies fund through Seattle’s Rooted Birth Doula Services.

Since Banks started Sweet, Sweet Justice in August 2019, her cakes have raised more than $15,000 for some two dozen organizations, including a $5,000 donation to the NAACP from The Drew Barrymore Show after Banks appeared on the talk show last December. Seattle’s King 5’s Evening named her “Best Local Hero” in 2020’s Best of the Best.

Other than a baking sabbatical in March, Banks tries to bake consistently. “It’s not sacrificial giving if it’s something I want to do all the time,” she said. “And so I try to remember that when I feel really tired, and I don’t want to bake.”

For Banks, the bottom line is ensuring the people she loves are safe. “Every person wants the best for their children and for their partner,” she said. She also believes her responsibilities are larger than her household. “I love Jesus, and the more I get to know him, the more I am encouraged and convicted by his heart for justice and shalom.

“For those of us in the church, our familial commitment extends beyond our biology and our own limited world experience,” Banks said. She quotes Mark 3:32-35: “‘Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.’ And he answered them, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.’”

Through her efforts, Banks desires not the spotlight, but a means to illuminate others.

“My hope is that cakes will be an on-ramp to engagement, but never a distraction from the heroes in the streets, the schools, and the courtrooms,” she said. “I’m following the lead of the Black folks and people of color who have been doing this work for much longer than I have.”

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