Jordyn Lexton ’08
There was a theater class at Wesleyan that taught theater practice and principles to young people who were being detained inside a correctional training school in Middletown. We went in and we taught classes and worked with the young people who were detained and then put on some performances together as a group. It was a really impactful experience for me. It was the first time I had really worked with youth who were impacted by the justice system and one of the first times that I was actually teaching.
When I graduated in 2008, I was pretty inspired by our commencement speaker — at the time he went by Senator Obama. He was talking a lot about the value of service work for the young population of graduates.
I ended up becoming a New York City Teaching Fellow but was feeling very committed to working in alternative education. My roommate, who was also a Wesleyan grad, worked for the alternative education district in New York City. She told me about a job opening to teach English at a public high school in the jail complex, Riker’s Island.
I became a public high school English teacher at Riker’s in 2009. I worked with adolescents, 16-, 17-, and 18 year olds who, due to a strict New York State law, were treated like adults. New York is one of two states where they automatically treat 16-year-olds like adults in the criminal justice system. As a result of that, there’s a New York City public high school on Riker’s Island. I was working with a lot of young men, who were disproportionately young people of color, disproportionately poor people, and working inside this facility I saw how devastating and detrimental adult jail is to youth. It affected their futures because due to this law, many of them would leave with felony convictions and would have a really hard time finding employment after release.
I had noticed that during my first year, there was a culinary arts class that was really one of the only places that young people seemed to have both a real knack for it, but also there was a sense of pride and self-esteem that went into being able to cook something and present it to you even within this very devastating environment, and that had always stuck with me. After hearing a lot of my students talk about their need for employment after they are released, I wanted to think about a business solution where I could run a business and provide that quality employment for young people but then at the same time teach transferable skills, and also connect with the community to let people know about these injustices in the criminal justice system.
The thought of doing a food truck social enterprise seemed to be a great fit for all these things and also, as a food lover thinking about the emerging food truck world in NYC, I thought it would be a great way to engage people through top quality, interesting food and then also have them get wrapped up in some of this justice work that we wanted people to be inspired by. So that’s where the idea came from.
Once I came up with the idea, which was in 2012, I decided to work in both fields. I worked on a food truck for seven months. I worked on the Kimchi Taco truck, and I got my own licenses and credentials and built my network there. Then I worked in criminal justice and reentry to work on policy around this campaign to raise the age in New York, but also to learn some of these other reentry programs like evidence-based practices and models for reentry success. That allowed me to develop my network and to get people across the sectors and into the agencies and community-based organizations. The food world was really excited about what we were doing.
I did that for about a year and then last spring we started raising some money. I knew what I wanted the first truck’s menu to be. It’s called Snow Day, that’s the name of the first truck. It’s a maple syrup food truck, so we do savory and sweet items using maple syrup, so maple bacon Brussels sprouts, maple pulled pork, maple grilled cheese and these little pancake balls stuffed with different things. But it was really inspired by this thing called “sugar on snow,” which is just fresh snow with hot maple syrup poured on top.
Next, I hired some people on the culinary side and we started building up the truck and we raised, to date, close to $250,000. We were able to build it and hire our first group of young people that are going to help us get the business underway and we are literally launching Snowday tomorrow.
For a lot of the young workers, it is their first job. For my two biggest hires, one was a culinary arts director to work with purveyors, because we are locally sourcing all of our food so it’s all coming from upstate New York farms and we are promoting local New York maple syrup as well. The other hire is our head chef and mentor who is a formerly incarcerated man himself, with his own food business. A lot of our focus in work has been on empowerment and mentorship and entrepreneurialism.
As a food truck business, we use it to teach people skills, money management and accounting, culinary arts, hospitality and we are recognizing that it’s really good to do business where you have a number of people who are invested and involved but who also have a key sense of food and branding and can get inspired about how to develop their own business. A lot of the young people that we are working with right now recognize that this is a step, that they are part of this growing thing. The recognition that we are investing in them to help us develop this business is something that they are taking very much to heart. I’ve seen it directly, just in how they talk about it, but also in our ability to kind of bring home the significance of this moment.
There’s no doubt that education for people who are either doing time or even upon release is 100% a valuable thing when it comes to the likelihood that somebody will be able to go on and make a livable wage and not wind up back inside the system. There’s no doubt in my mind. But also just broadening — one of the main things that we are focusing on… our logo is a traffic light that has all green lights. For us, that’s more of an ethos of broadening access and broadening experience. I believe that education has the capacity to broaden somebody’s surroundings and experiences and get people thinking in ways that are maybe a little outside the box for them. I think that there’s power in that. I would absolutely be an advocate for education inside the facilities but I also am a very big advocate for education prior to, access to education and opportunities and experiences prior to, the idea of investing back in a community instead of investing in a prison because in reality, the idea that somebody would be able to get an education only once they’re in jail is kind of a silly system.
We would hope that you wouldn’t have to ever be incarcerated to get access to quality education. One thing we talk a lot about in the advocacy world is "Net Widening": the idea that if the first time somebody is getting medical attention is inside a jail, that’s a problem. What are we doing in the community to make sure that there is access to these vibrant services so that hopefully people aren’t coming to jail in the first place? Certainly considering where we are right now, I am 100% an advocate for quality educational programs inside facilities and I think Wesleyan’s program is a great example of that.
There is something really cool that I recently heard about: Basically there are a couple of programs where college classes are offered for both inmates and guards at the same time. It seems like a pretty cool model where you can build shared values and people look at each other not as “other,” which I think is a unique and interesting approach.
We just pitched the food truck plan to the social enterprise conference in Harvard and we won third place and then we also won the audience choice award and one of the judges was talking to me about this exact thing and asked me about Wesleyan’s impact. I told him about the class but really for me it’s more about the culture and the environment and the way in which, I think, even beyond just the classroom experience. The experience of Wesleyan for me was a place where I started thinking about my social impact on much larger scale. I think there’s just a way that people operate outside of themselves in something that proliferates throughout the campus.
I recognize that when I look around at my peers and all of my friends who graduated from Wesleyan at the same time, there’s basically no one that’s in a traditional sort of more self-serving career path. I have so many friends that are teachers, so many friends that work in the creative arts spaces, so many friends that work in the social justice world, and I think that it’s a place that attracts that kind of person to the campus, but also the campus being a place and a space for people to learn about these things and implement them. It’s something that I know is totally connected to why I ended up doing this work and I think that the fact that the Patricelli Center now exists on campus is a great tool. I mean I didn’t even know what social enterprise was until I was doing it, so I think that it’s great that Wesleyan is thinking about how to be forward thinking. I believe that higher education in this country is moving in that direction of having these spaces where people can do live work while they are in school.