Vernon Bryant/Staff photographer
What happens when you put Cafe Momentum kids behind the wheel of a food truck
by Chad Houser, Contributor | March 24, 2019
In 2008, I walked into the Dallas County Youth Village for the first time. My friend, Jerry Silhan, was the executive director for Youth Village Resources of Dallas at the time, and he asked me to come to the juvenile residential treatment facility (an anaesthetized way to refer to a prison for kids) to teach a group of young men to make ice cream for a competition featuring local college culinary school students.
Upon meeting them, I ashamedly realized that I had stereotyped them before I ever met them. Not only were they not the thugs I had imagined them to be, I couldn’t understand how these amazing young men could end up in jail at all.
I used to rationalize that it was the homes, schools and communities they came from that failed them in the first place. But that statement creates too much distance between my life and theirs. We’re not talking about a different world. We’re talking about neighborhoods that are a stone’s throw from the heart of downtown Dallas. This can’t be a “them” or an “over there” issue: It’s an “us” and a “here” issue. This is our Dallas, and we’re actively failing it as long as we continue to fail to see our people. Especially our kids.
What I have since come to realize is our Dallas community has both intentionally and unintentionally created a set of circumstances where kids are often left with no other option than to fend for themselves and fight for their survival, actions that frequently place them at odds with the justice system. But what kind of justice system is it when we’re punishing children for crimes committed out of desperation, acts based on generations of systemic oppression, segregation, and deprivation?
I’m not condoning or defending violence or criminal behavior. I am, however, convinced that we, as a community, are culpable for marginalizing communities of color in ways that have created this current set of circumstances, where 7,000 young people between the ages of 10 and 17 are entering the formal juvenile system annually in Dallas County alone.
A Department of Education study reveals that 43 percent of incarcerated kids receiving remedial education services in prison do not return to school post-release, and another 16 percent that do enroll in school drop out after only five months. We have to dig into that and understand the causality behind the statistics and not just look for surface correlations. I don’t have the definitive answer, but here’s one narrative: these kids aren’t avoiding going back to school. Simply, they can’t go back.
Imagine being 15 years old coming out of prison. You may or may not have a home to go back to; you are certainly already well behind where our country says you should be in your studies. You’ve received negative label after negative label like failure, criminal, degenerate, throw-away.
For those few kids who come out of juvenile detention and have stable support systems to help with their transition, there are services and options to help create a new reality. But what if you have no one to call? And despite all of your best intentions, you find yourself back in the same place. The question remains: where do you go for help?
So what’s the answer?
There’s not one. There is no silver bullet that can course-correct decades of disinvestment, neglect and marginalization. But, we can at least attempt to create a new system of support for our kids coming out of the justice system. We can create a place for them to land.
When Cafe Momentum opened in January 2015, people often said the concept would be impossible to pull off. Not only do restaurants have low success rates, but a majority of people in our community did not believe in these kids. Since that time, we have worked with more than 750 young men and women through our 12-month internship program, during which time we teach them critical skills in a real-world environment of nurturing accountability. We have seen firsthand that these youths are a wealth of untapped talent, and with the right support and care, they can achieve their true full potential. They can and will rise to whatever level of expectation that is set for them.
Just as Cafe Momentum was growing, Ruthie’s Rolling Cafe was making an impact through its Ruthie’s Snacks of Kindness initiative. Ruthie’s serves grilled cheese sandwiches to the staffs of nonprofits and highlights their missions to Ruthie’s larger customer base. Since its inception, the Ruthie’s Snacks of Kindness program has supported more than 185 nonprofits in North Texas. Although Ruthie’s and Cafe Momentum are separate organizations, our goal and focus are the same: to impact and build a better community — a whole community.
As Ruthie’s founder Ashlee Kleinert and I talked about ways to partner beyond traditional donations, we recognized there could be a way to reimagine this philanthropic relationship. Cafe Momentum needed a business partner willing to join in our mission. So, beginning this month, youth who complete the 12-month Cafe Momentum internship program will have the opportunity to begin a paid fellowship with Ruthie’s food trucks, where they will develop additional skills in the restaurant industry and access the support they need to continue their path to personal success.
What’s more, Cafe Momentum’s partnership with Ruthie’s is unique because we will put the youth in charge. They may take the truck where they please, into their own communities and neighborhoods. Doing so gives them the place at the table they deserve, the chance to decide how they will impact their communities as they, members of those communities, know best.
We know through our work at Cafe Momentum that our kids, despite being considered throwaways by our juvenile justice system and so much of our Dallas community, have the grit, wisdom and perseverance to accomplish actual change.
Before starting our organizations, we didn’t realize how much we needed Dallas’ amazing philanthropic and business community. We certainly didn’t realize how much we needed each other.
The spirit of collaboration is a model we hope to inspire others to replicate across the country. We encourage nonprofits, businesses, philanthropists and communities to find ways to work together to expand their own reach. You don’t have to do it alone. We certainly knew we couldn’t.
At Cafe Momentum we often say, “This is not a normal restaurant.” We are proud today to add, “This is not a normal food truck.”
Chad Houser is founder, chief executive and executive chef of Cafe Momentum.
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