It’s bad enough that youth unemployment for Americans is nearly double that of the general population — but if you’re a young person of color, your prospects of finding a job are even worse.  The rate for African American teens (ages 16-19) is 30 percent, about double the rate of white teens. 

In New York City, where I live, young black and Latino males are 10-and-4 times more likely than their white peers to have a felony and 14-and-5 times more likely to return to jail within a year of their release. What's worse, New York is just one of two states (North Carolina being the other) that automatically treats late teens as adults, regardless of their crimes.  

There are some extraordinary consequences to this practice. Firstly, a majority of employers — 92 percent — run criminal background checks. This means that a run-in with the law will likely lead to a ‘life-sentencing’ of employment challenges. According to research, a felony conviction factors into the hiring process (ranging from 74-to-96 percent) as does a misdemeanor (ranging from 26 percent to 50 percent, depending on the severity). Unfortunately, only about half of employers reported that they take into account the age of the offense when hiring. One study estimates that former felons are now categorically barred from working in more than 800 occupations because of laws and licensing rules.

Secondly, while there is overwhelming evidence that incarceration actually INCREASES the chances that a young person will commit another crime, some states still impose harsh and long-term prison sentencing -- which means there are still youth serving 25-to-40 years before they have a chance at parole.

Lastly, even though research shows than an overwhelming majority of youth who enter the adult court are not there for serious, violent crimes, not all states empower judges with more discretion to consider whether a youth's case should be considered in adult criminal court. 

Both in raw numbers and by percentage of the population, the United States has the most prisoners of any developed country in the world — and it has the largest total prison population of any nation. In order for the juvenile justice landscape not to be such a slippery slope, a system needs to be put in place to ensure that youth offenders have the opportunity to succeed and not fail due to their inability to find work and empower themselves civically.

My first job out of college was to teach young people at East River Academy, a public school serving incarcerated youth on Riker’s Island. From 2009-2012, I worked with 1,300 youth facing felonies, and the road ahead of them was paved with red lights, stop signs and dead-ends. A staggering 70% of them returned back into the system, proving how vicious the cycle of incarceration, re-entry and incarceration continues to be.

One of the only areas of light inside the truly devastating Riker's environment was the culinary arts program.  It occurred to me that food could serve as a vehicle to justice and drive change. I conceived of using the food truck industry to (i) raise awareness about injustice in the criminal justice system; (ii) hire youth who are coming home; and (iii) source sustainable food from local farms. 

Today, Drive Change turns red lights "green" by offering formerly incarcerated youth paid fellowships, teaching them transferable skills and preparing for re-entry to society through mentorship. Our Theory of Change is built on principals that will broaden access to opportunity for court involved youth and lower the likelihood that someone will be re-intercepted by the system.

We have three phases of our fellowship:

  • Training Phase - Fellows earn their Food Handler and Safety License (DOHMH Credential) and Mobile Vendor License (DOHMH Credential). They go through rigorous hospitality and culinary training and take a food truck practical exam.
  • Employment Phase - Fellows work on our food truck in rotating jobs: Cashier, Head Chef, Customer Service Attendant, and Manager. Fellows attend professional lead courses in Social Media, Marketing, Money Management, and Small Business Development.
  • Transitional Phase (Optional) - Fellows have the option to continue to work with our team as they plan for the future.

Still in start-up mode, we have one truck which employs 20 young people per year. In cohorts of four, our fellows earn licenses, credentials and training to be able to work in the food industry.  Over top of them is our staff — just 4 people to guide the program.

We are seeking to grow by building a garage and commissary space and will be launching more food trucks.

Below is a list of supporting documents and different ways people can help:

PRIORITY #1: Write letters to prospective employers

Educate your community about the challenge of youth unemployment

PRIORITY #2: Take the Criminal Justice Quiz

Test your knowledge of our current system!

PRIORITY #3: help use raise the age!

All children have a right to safety and to access developmentally-appropriate services, programs, education, and treatment.

PRIORITY #4: support us financially by fundraising or donating

your investment matters!

  • If you want to create or drive change, you have to think beyond where you currently are and look towards that change, whatever it happens to be. But it's not enough to simply visualize something happening, you have to take focused action towards it.


My Theory Of Change

Feb. 20, 2016

Advice for my peers

Feb. 20, 2016

Being relatively young and starting something brand new is hard. There's a tightrope of tension between experiential learning and true experience.

Early on, I was eager to add anyone to my team if they had specific 'experience' — especially if it was free. But taking on offers of “free” also meant that I was subjecting Drive Change to being put on the back burner and not being given best consideration.

It's really important to surround yourself with a strong board and leadership team that can help you identify the priorities and resources you need to succeed.  

Decisions that wed personal and career goals together can lead to true fulfillment, but it's important to separate the two lives so that you can have the emotional capacity to be there for your friends and family on one hand and your employees on the other.

Snowday: Our 1st Truck

As a vehicle for social justice, we wanted to be able to be able to employ, empower and educate people, while at the same time sourcing sustainable food from local farms. 

We decided to name our first truck: SNOWDAY because our recipies were maple syrup-themed -- most noteably, maple-pops!

We are New York City's first farm-to-truck food truck. Menus are seasonal and are sourced from a wide array of farms across New York State.

In 2015, we won the Vendy Cup and the People's Choice Award -- no vendor has ever done that before in the 11 years of the Vendys! We are very proud and inspired by the demand of farm-fresh food and social justice.

Our goal is to build a network of social justice food-trucks to turn red lights green for formerly incarcerated youth. 

The design journey

Our goal was to build a food truck that could cater to a New York gourmet foodies' high standards by stimulating all of their senses: sight, sound, smell and touch. To do that we needed to embrace the dynamic between industrial and organic materials as well as food ingredients. 

Mapping out your idea is critical to the eventual success of your product. Without all of the upfront work we did to visualize and then render our first truck, we wouldn't have had the roadmap to success.

For the exterior snowflake pattern of wood on the truck, we used recycled wood materials such as reclaimed cedar and redwood from an old ceiling tower.


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