This food truck is driving change for youth just out of prison

This week’s spotlight: all things prison.

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Jordyn and her sweet food spread. (photo courtesy of Jordyn Lexton)

In her English class at East River Academy one day, a school for incarcerated youth on Riker’s Island, Jordyn Lexton had her students read Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem (A Dream Deferred).”

After the group discussion, one student asked if he could be an architect someday. She told him yes. Another student who had been sleeping throughout the class raised his head and shouted, “Hell no! No disrespect, Miss, but you’re selling dreams.”

In that moment she realized that most of these kids would never actually have a chance to live their dreams—not because they didn’t have the potential, but because the system was broken.

Her students were all 16, 17, and 18 years old, yet charged as adults in the New York state prison system, one of only two states to do so. And even if they were lucky enough to leave East River Academy with a high school diploma or GED, the chances of them ending up back in jail were high—70% would return, in fact. Future employment and further schooling would be also tough due to their felony record.

“Regardless of what I was doing inside the facility, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to literally stop selling dreams and actually create channels for young people to have a successful reentry experience,” Jordyn says.

So she left teaching at the beginning of last year to start working at the Correctional Association of New York on the Raise the Age campaign. She got interested in prison reentry, and afterward, worked at the Center for Employment Opportunities.

An unabashed foodie, Jordyn then had an idea: what if she opened a food truck in NYC and hired her students once they got out of jail? The idea stuck with her. So she started working at Kimchi Taco Truck to learn the ins and outs of the mobile food world.

“If knew if I was asking people to pick up the truck, drive it to a site, turn it on, get it going, do sales, clean up, bring it back—I wanted to know what that entailed and felt like. And it’s not easy by any means,” Jordyn says. “The knowledge of that experience gives me an edge.”

Food with a side of social justice

While organizations like Homeboy Industries and Mission Pie have been touting the therapeutic benefits of culinary arts for a while now, Drive Change is really the first of its kind.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re trying to take the program and put it onto wheels,” she says.

One goal is that Drive Change will play parent to a bevy of other food trucks. Its first child, set for a soft launch at the end of November, is Snowday, inspired by the time Jordyn was 12 years old and had “the most amazing food in her life” on a family trip to Canada: maple syrup over snow. Other mouthwatering items on the menu include maple bacon Brussels sprouts and pulled pork bacon maple sliders, among others.

“I don’t want someone to come up to me and say, ‘This tastes like it has a social mission,’ ” she says. “I want you to walk away having this amazing food experience and then later, if you find out it’s one of the trucks by Drive Change, then you feel even better about the fact that you contributed to a lofty social goal.”

Although it won’t hit you over the head, that lofty social goal is the main entree. Jordyn envisions hiring a cohort of eight to ten formerly incarcerated youth, and training them over a period of eight months on everything from how to use propane gas to social media marketing to accounting.

The overarching goal of Drive Change is expansion: to train more kids who can use the skills they learned to get a job or open their own food truck; to make Drive Change the go-to caterer for social good events in the NYC area; and to help start lots more trucks in other cities.

The journey hasn’t always been easy for Jordyn, but it’s always felt right.

“If you have a good enough idea and the experience to know what it takes to bring it to life, and the ability to get investment from a number of community stakeholders, then I truly believe there’ll be enough support and noise whatever the hurdles,” she says. “And something positive is going to come out of it.”

Interested in seeing how this story progresses? Follow @DriveChangeNYC and @Snowdaytruck on Twitter, and like Drive Change and Snowday on Facebook. 

Drive Change is always looking for partners. If you know a corporate sponsor who might be interested in events or catering, or a food business interested in developing or donating menu items in exchange for promotion, get in touch with jordyn@drivechangenyc.org.

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Can we create one million new jobs by expanding national service?

City Year is an example of a national service program (Photo Credit: City Year, Creative Commons/Flickr)

Recently, I stumbled across the One Million Jobs petition, launched by Our Time and ServeNext, to tackle high rates of unemployment among young people (which is currently at 46%, the highest since World War II). They are asking the presidential candidates to, “Pledge to create one million new national service positions by expanding programs such as AmeriCorps, VISTA, City Year, Habitat for Humanity, Teach for America, and others so we can serve and rebuild our country now.” The thinking is that by increase these opportunities, we can provide employment, develop important skills among young people, while improving our communities.

This made me wonder: Can we create one million new jobs by expanding national service?

I asked this question in the Opportunity: What’s Working Group on LinkedIn, a special partnership between the Huffington Post and LinkedIn to spotlight how people across the country are tackling what they call a dual crisis: that 20 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed and that 3.5 million jobs are currently unfilled due to talent shortage. Here are a few of the responses:

“I am currently serving at a position through Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS), a faith-based volunteer program similar to AmeriCorps. I have found the experience helpful in defining and uncovering transferable skills, developing a list of accomplishments, and building a network.

I will also note that for 15 years up until June 2011 some BVS placements were eligible for a $5,350 education award AmeriCorps through the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Federal budget cuts passed at that time meant CNCS could not pay the award to all affiliated community service programs. These awards often helped pay student loans or continue education once the volunteer completed their term…”

“Creating a national service would create jobs in the short term. Everyone can agree there’s a lot to do. But these would be paid for by the gov’t (read: taxes). If creating a national service would help stimulate the economy and create job IN THE LONG TERM, then it might be worth it. But I don’t see how that would happen. We need a long-term, structural change.”

“When I first saw this discussion the first thing that came to my mind was, where does the funding come from? But the more I thought about it, the more I thought given a clear, detailed plan, this could be a viable option. If this was to be a true “National Service” program, then everyone would need to buy in. That would mean major corporations sponsoring the program, (a program like this would provide them with a higher quality employee candidate pool in the future) as well as local, state and federal government buy in, (they would have the same benefit). Scholarships for outstanding service would also be a possible part of this program…”

So what do you think? An important step to reducing unemployment or do we need something else?

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Our 2011 survey: Is the sector bouncing back?

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Click here to read the report at idealisthr.org.

This past spring, we reached out to the organizations on Idealist to learn how you had been impacted by the financial crisis of 2008, and how you were feeling about the future.

More than 3,000 of you responded: human resources professionals, executive directors, fundraising managers, volunteer coordinators – and often, all of the above. You work for small nonprofits and large ones. And as of June 2011, your mood overall seemed to be one of cautious optimism. Click here for the survey results.

Of course, this offers just one snapshot. Do the survey results ring true for what’s happening at your organization? Did things change this summer?

Sound off in the comments below, or join the conversation at idealisthr.org, our new space for nonprofit HR professionals.

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Submit your idea. Create more jobs. Win $50,000.

Right now, over 200 million people are without a viable way to make a living, and millions more are in less-than-desirable working conditions around the globe.

Yet it’s not hopeless. With so many brilliant entrepreneurial minds out there, Ashoka’s Changemakers and the eBay Foundation believe solutions are possible.

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Image via changemakers.com

The Powering Economic Opportunity: Creating a World that Works competition is open to individuals, organizations and collaborations who think they have what it takes to create sustainable employment opportunities in vulnerable communities around the world. Anyone can submit their idea in English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese.

Five winners will each receive US $50,000. The deadline to submit is June 15. Enter the Changemakers-eBay Empowering Economic Opportunity Competition here:

http://www.changemakers.com/en-us/economicopportunity

Stand-out entries will be those that have shown impact, are ready to be replicated elsewhere, and play nicely with others to expand their reach. The creativity is astounding so far. There’s everything from a historic center in Cuba to a farming magazine in Tanzania to a women’s swimming project in Sri Lanka.

So, entrepreneurs: get to it. Employ your imagination, and be a part of helping to bring the jobless millions down to zero. Coming up blank? Share your opinions on the entries themselves, and wage your bets on the best ideas by voting for who will make it to the first round.

Update, 5.13.2011: Ashoka Changemakers recently let us know about a new way to participate in the competition: ChangeSpotting. Until May 25, ChangeSpotters can nominate organizations and social entrepreneurs who are already creating jobs. All you need to do is take a picture of yourself with their logo, or something that makes it clear who you’re nominating, and send it to connect@changemakers.com or upload it to your Facebook or Twitter account. Five randomly selected ChangeSpotters will each receive a $50 gift card to WorldofGood.com.

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