Rachel Baron

[email protected]

I was on the phone with Drive Change fellow Migdalia Wilkerson when she shouted to an unseen passerby, “Hi, would you like a flyer!?”

At the exact moment I’d called, Wilkerson was recruiting for the organization’s next cohort, which is a group of 12 formerly incarcerated young adults that would spend eight months training for jobs in the restaurant industry. Alongside Wilkerson, there were four other fellows recruiting on Graham Avenue and Cook Street. “No one better to do it than us,” Wilkerson declared.

Wilkerson — a 24-year-old mother — had been convicted of grand larceny. Though the charge was a misdemeanor and not a felony, Wilkerson couldn’t find work — even as a security guard, and even after going back to get her high school diploma.

Drive Change fellows Migdalia and Jameaka

Now in Phase 2 of the Drive Change fellowship, which constitutes a six-month stint at a restaurant following a two-month training period, Wilkerson is in love with her line cook job at Union Square Events, part of the Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG). Everything Drive Change taught her, from knife skills to knowing how to properly clean her station, had prepared her well. “It really got my foot in the door,” she said.

The organization’s founder, Jordyn Lexton, launched Drive Change after teaching at East River Academy, the high school serving the youth on Rikers Island, from 2009 to 2012. Until recently, New York was one of only two states that incarcerated 16-year-olds as adults, and Lexton worked with a number of young adults aged 16, 17, and 18, “who, like me, wanted to think for their future.”

Lexton also realized that the young adults exiting the prison system were in fact encountering “really intense barriers” to many of the opportunities taken for granted by the more privileged, including employment, education, and the ability to support their families. Many of them also return to prison not long after their release; around 70 percent of individuals incarcerated before the age of 24 will end up back behind bars.

Hospitality for Social Justice (HSJ) manager training

Two things about Lexton are immediately clear. The first is that they are indisputably scrappy, having spent close to a year learning how to run a food truck and exploring the nonprofit space before launching Drive Change. The second is how readily they admit their wealth and race privilege; Lexton grew up in an upper-middle-class white Jewish family in New York City, where they “had the lived experience of really knowing that food was a source of curiosity and learning for me, but also a way that I showed love to people.”

As Lexton told me, “One of the only places inside of Rikers where people were thriving and being seen as whole people was in a culinary arts class.”

The cooking space was, in Lexton’s view, “a place for people to feel a bit more like themselves.” Young adults stripped of their humanity at an early age could gain it back by cooking a meal together. This thinking prompted Lexton to create the Drive Change fellowship alongside development director Annie Bickerton. To them, a food truck presented the perfect platform on which to train these youth for reentry, and to equip them with the skills that would both prepare and empower them for the workplace. The Hospitality as Social Justice, or HSJ, fellowship is the newest version of the fellowship, and was recently awarded a $2.6 million by the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative.

In Phase 1 of HSJ, the young adults get training from Chef Instructor Sean Rembold, former head chef at the Marlow Collective restaurant group, in areas like knife skills, plating, and recipe development. They also work on the Drive Change food truck. In Phase 2, they spend six months working in the kitchen of one of Drive Change’s partnering restaurants. The fellowship is a fully paid opportunity.

Lexton believes comprehensive change depends on more than just preparing formerly incarcerated young adults for reentry. The weight of change should fall equally on the heads of managers, who Lexton believes must address their own racial, gender, and other biases in order to hire these young adults.

On this topic, Lexton was inspired by the philosophy of USHG, which is one of Drive Change’s biggest hospitality partners. Lexton realized that “the idea that people are the most valuable resource in any company” seems intuitive, but that people don’t always remember that value in a capitalist system.

“You kind of take that value and you add the realities of structural inequality and racism and classism. That’s what Drive Change is trying to do and be,” Lexton said.

The way the organization creates this accountability is through a bi-directional application system. Fellows need to apply for a spot in the program, but restaurants must also apply and go through training to become HSJ partners. This grants them eligibility to hire from the Drive Change fellow pool. Current partners include USHG and Ovenly bakery.

This model not only provides these restaurants and managers with staff, but also helps them to “run workplaces where people are going to want to stay,” said Lexton.

The organization’s main commercial venture is the Drive Change food truck, which operates under a model Lexton calls “farm-to-truck.” The name goes beyond clever branding; by leveraging the mobile capacity of a food truck, Drive Change is able to enter communities that are “over-policed or undernourished in terms of access to healthy food,” through the organization’s respective Access and Awareness Events, Lexton said.

Fellows also get the chance to help develop the menu and occasionally name items for the Drive Change food truck and recently launched pop-up Drive Change Café. This allows them to engage the public in social justice dialogue through food. Lexton used the example of a salad called the ‘70%,’ composed of bitter greens, blue cheese, and hazelnut vinaigrette, whose name refers to the 70 percent of inmates on Rikers who are pre-trial and unable to pay cash bail.  

Lexton asserted that fellows should be the ones leading this communication, as “those closest to the impact are the voices that need to be at the forefront of shifting the system.”

Lexton also told me that the organization is not unique – something they’re actually quite happy about. Indeed, according to Lexton, a number of other bakeries, restaurants, and food trucks have begun hiring people with “barriers to employment” such as a criminal record. The staff at San Francisco’s Cala restaurant employed seventy percent formerly incarcerated employees upon opening a few years ago. Other nonprofits also train the formerly incarcerated for workplace reentry in food and hospitality, like EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute in Cleveland.

Because of restrictions on resources and space, the fellows train in their commercial kitchen, and are able to work with 12 fellows in each cohort. The food truck can only fit four, but is mostly used for events or Access & Awareness Days. Though not all 50 of the past fellows have graduated, most of them are still working, and not a single one has been re-arrested or re-incarcerated.

When I asked Wilkerson if she wanted to keep working in restaurants after the fellowship ended, she didn’t even have to think. “Oh yeah,” she said. If Union Square Events will keep her on after the six months, she’ll gladly take the job.

Until then, she said, “It’s my job to just show them that I’m worth it.”

All photos courtesy of Drive Change

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