Uplifting the youth caught in the juvenile justice system is not the first thing that comes to mind when visiting Chef Franchesca Nor's Dive Coastal Cuisine in University Park.
There are the overt things that make Nor stand out - a business owner and restaurateur for going on 10 years (while also being a mother), her training and background, and her attention to her craft.
However, it's the change she's making in the lives of kids in the Dallas juvenile justice system that brought us to Nor to tell her story as a Community Change Maker.
While recent years have seen the prison population in the U.S. shrink, we still incarcerate more people than any other developed country in the world. The U.S. beats out El Salvador, Rwanda, Russia, and Brazil for the top spot of incarceration rates.
The emergence of the school-to-prison pipeline has brought the mass incarceration epidemic to our youth which, as with the overall trend on incarceration, disproportionately affects African American youth.
Bootstrap success stories can make for great headlines, but these are the exceptions, not the rule. Many youth that enter the juvenile justice system lack the resources, skills, and support to break the cycle of incarceration they've been foisted into.
For most, that is what it comes down to - resources, support, and skills - and the lack thereof. It's the environment they came from that led to the poor or often desperate and seemingly unavoidable choices, and it's the environment they're dropped back into after leaving the justice system.
It is an environment that too often leads to a vicious cycle.
While much work has been and is being done on the front lines of criminal justice reform, Dallas-based Youth With Faces is doing the literal hands-on work of giving these kids the needed resources to learn from past mistakes and create a better path for themselves.
Change Through Food
Youth With Faces offers several programs that offer needed skills to the youth in the juvenile justice system. The most popular, understandably so, is the culinary program and this is where Nor comes in. She works with Youth With Faces Culinary Instructor, Chef Charles Plummer, to create the culinary curriculum the kids go through.
While Nor undoubtedly has her hands full running Dive Coastal Cuisine, she knew that she wanted to have an impact beyond the reach of just the restaurant. She connected with Youth With Faces after seeking out a program that gave back to the community but also incorporated her values within the food and culinary world.
Nor knows the life and experiences these kids have had are beyond what many of us could imagine. "Some of these kids have seen things that we don't want our kids to see" she says, "they've never seen things that we see all of the time that we take for granted."
That could be a life of opportunities, or something as simple as a common vegetable.
The culinary program's intent is two-fold. "We said let's create a culinary arts program" says Chris Quadri, CEO of Youth With Faces, "that not only teaches about nutrition and how to feed your family...but also to give them some job skills so they can enter the restaurant industry."
Graduates from the program walk away with culinary arts training, a food safety license, real world restaurant experience, and nutritional knowledge.
The job skills are vital to breaking the cycle many in the program may find themselves in, but nutrition and healthy eating are often undervalued skills the kids are never taught or exposed to.
Nor says "I really want to get kids excited about not just eating out of a box...real food, this is what we're meant to do."
Creating New Identities
Being in the juvenile justice system invariably builds an identity for the kids in the system. Our society perpetuates this by reducing and defining people by their perceived past mistakes, regardless of the environment that led up to them.
On his own work with Youth With Faces, Quadri says "I was passionate about finding a path forward for our kids and a way to remove themselves from maybe the identity of those mistakes they made."
Nor and the culinary program offer a way for the kids to redefine their identity and self-worth through learning from, rather than just simply living with, their past.
"All of us have made a mistake in our lives" she says, "we all want to learn from those mistakes...it's our instinct to learn from those mistakes."
Working with food also reduces people to their fundamental self - you're no longer a 'criminal', you're a human being creating and coming to the table for sustenance. Something many of these kids may have missed out on, if they happened to come from a rough or unstable family, is this fundamental and nurturing experience.
Not About The Food
Fundamentally, it's about providing an opportunity for a population who have been denied the basic needs many of us take for granted.
For Quadri, it's a collective responsibility to offer these opportunities.
He says "something that we are responsible for I think as a community and organization is providing access and opportunity for our kids. Something that most of them, I'd say 99% of them have never had."
Through the culinary program, the opportunity is more than just getting kids interested and skilled-up for work. The food is just the bait. Nor just wants to give them exposure to new things and get them excited about something, anything.
"There's a lot of other great things in this world to look at. It doesn't have to be food" says Nor, "we want to talk about 'Hey, like, don't give up.' If it's hard, keep practicing, keep trying at it. If you like it, believe that you like it and follow that. Follow your heart, follow what excites you."
In addition to the culinary training, Youth With Faces offers a dog training program, job skills training, and programs to build social and financial skills needed to exit the juvenile system for good.
Youth With Faces boasts a 75% post-release employment rate and less than 13% of graduates return to the juvenile justice system (the average in Texas is over 50%).
To get involved, you can visit YouthWithFaces.org
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