The Kids Are Alright, and They’re Fixing Their Neighborhoods After Natural Disasters

Andrea Colon spent her Halloweens making the journey to the far side of Rockaway Peninsula, an 11-mile length of land jutting out of Queens, New York. She knew that the west side of the peninsula was where the rich families lived. And their wealth meant a bigger, better haul of treats than the one she would’ve earned had she stayed put on the east side.
But when she entered high school, she realized the holiday wasn’t just a night of costume and treats: It was a reflection of the myriad of disparities that divided the lives of the 127,000 residents of Rockaway Peninsula. 
The houses along the west side tend to belong to wealthy, white families. Residents on the east side are typically minorities and lower-income residents. People who live on the west side have private beaches, yacht clubs and the Rockaway Farmers Market. The east side is regarded as a food desert lacking in options for affordable, fresh and healthy food — perhaps one of the key reasons why its residents face high rates of obesity and diabetes. Whereas wealthy commuters on the west side are better positioned — financially and geographically — to get to work, commuters on the east side are more likely to rely on public transportation, where the dearth of options means they must face commutes averaging 53 minutes in each direction a day, the longest commutes of any New York City residents.
The more Colon learned about the chasm of inequality in her own backyard, the more the high school student realized she had to do something. So in 2016, during her junior year, she joined the Rockaway Youth Task Force (RYTF).
RYTF is a “for youth, by youth” group of 60 young people organizing at the grassroots level to equalize outcomes across race and class lines within its community. 
“It’s about coming together as young people and trying to get access to spaces where these things are talked about,” Colon, now 18 and lead organizer for the group, told NationSwell. “The youth voice is just not very present.”
When RYTF was founded in 2011, it initially focused on neighborhood beautification projects and community improvements. Then, in the year following the organization’s founding, Hurricane Sandy hit.
“I think that’s when it all came full circle, and we all just started having more of a social justice lens in thinking about issues that impact our community,” Colon said.
The devastating superstorm left parts of Rockaway without electricity or access to medical attention for weeks and subway service was suspended for seven months. Local grocery stores were destroyed. Colon said families turned to bodegas for food, and despite their best efforts, those corner stores weren’t able to reliably provide fresh produce to customers.
So in 2013, the youth group rallied for access to a vacant, half-acre lot on Beach 54th Street and transformed it into something thriving: the largest youth-run urban farm in New York City for the past six years, bringing the possibility of fresh produce — and therefore healthy food — to a community where such offerings were a rarity. 
But RYTF grows more than good greens. Its organizers pride themselves on helping young people grow into the kind of leaders who actually better their communities. 
In 2013, the group became a nonprofit and grew to expand its focus into four core areas: food justice, educational equity, criminal justice reform and civic engagement. Those core areas extended out into hosting campaigns around voter registration, lobbying for restorative justice practices in schools and organizing Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the city. 
Among its accomplishments was the successful campaign to extend the Q52 bus line 18 blocks east. This gave over 10,000 more residents access to the route, and therefore, access to jobs, schools and resources.
Young people across Rockaway can join the task force by going through a 12-week course on the history of organized movements and basics of movement building. Then they get to work: The members attend community council meetings, lead rallies and organize protests. 
Colon said other communities can and should create similar groups so young people’s voices can be heard. 
“All these issues impact young people,” Colon said. “This is the world that we’re going to be living in for quite a while, so our voices should be validated and we should be given a seat at the table.”
RYTF was founded by the simple model of finding a problem, rallying people together and creating change. Its website provides an in-depth look at how the group approaches issues and theory of change. It’s a model that communities across the nation can adapt to their own unique neighborhoods. Colon’s advice is to get people together and act — or else. 
“We’re going to be the ones either suffering from the consequences or reaping the benefits,” she warned.
More: Brooklyn Middle Schoolers Are Launching Homemade Boats to Test Their Stem Skills
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Andrea Colon is 22 and joined the task for in 2015. She is 18 and joined in 2016. NationSwell apologizes for these errors.

Congestion Pricing Works — and It Might Be Headed to Your Town Next

Anyone who’s been to Midtown Manhattan during rush hour — or seen it depicted on TV and in movies — knows it’s nothing short of a nightmare to navigate. As pedestrians clog crosswalks, buses lumber down 42nd Street seemingly in slow motion, plodding along at an average rate of 3.2 miles per hour. Car riders don’t fare much better; at an average pace of 4.7 mph, they might as well be walking.
And things are only getting worse, says traffic expert and engineer Sam Schwartz. “People are starting to cry uncle,” Schwartz says, likening the growing fury over the gridlock to a scene out of the 1970s movie “Network.” “They’re going to start screaming out of their cars, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!’”
As a member of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Fix NYC panel, Schwartz was instrumental in the passage of New York’s congestion pricing program — the first in the country — which the city plans to roll out in 2021. Though details of the plan are still being ironed out, like how much to charge motorists and who should qualify for exemptions, Schwartz has high hopes that other U.S. cities will follow its lead.
Once considered too politically untenable to be embraced by car-loving Americans, the idea — which imposes a fee to drive on certain roads during peak times — has been slowly inching closer to the mainstream, as cities from Boston and Philadelphia to San Francisco and Seattle debate congestion pricing plans of their own. While public support of such measures remains mixed, it’s clear that something needs to be done.
Americans are driving more than ever. In 2018, we collectively traversed a record-setting 3.3 trillion miles on our nation’s already shaky network of roads and bridges. We also spent an average of 97 hours sitting in traffic, which cost each of us about $1,348 in wasted time and fuel (for unlucky Bostonians, that figure spikes to $2,291, the most of any U.S. city). On Chicago’s crowded Stevenson Expressway, commuters face a grueling 26-minute delay every workday.
Enter congestion pricing. Though it has a long and successful history in global centers like Singapore, Milan and London, Americans are loathe to pay for the privilege of driving. (Worth noting: When Stockholm announced its congestion pricing plan in 2006, there was little to no public backing. After six months, support skyrocketed as residents in Sweden’s capital began to fully appreciate the thinned-out traffic.)
“We have a tendency not to charge motorists what they cost to society,” says Schwartz. At the same time, several states haven’t raised fuel taxes in years, if not decades, while the federal government hasn’t touched gas tax rates since 1993. Add to that the fact that cars are more fuel-efficient than ever, “and there’s barely any money,” he says.
That leaves major metropolises in a lurch as they work to improve the crumbling infrastructure that so many of their residents rely on. As a measure to strengthen and advance existing transit options, most congestion pricing plans recommend reinvesting the revenue from tolls back into the transportation system. In New York, where motorists could be charged up to $25 for driving in Midtown and lower Manhattan, that translates to an estimated $1 billion per year redirected to the city’s decaying public transit system.

A 2018 study showed that Boston is the most congested city in the U.S. and eighth in the world.

Besides boosting revenue and easing traffic flow, congestion pricing also has proven benefits to public health and the environment. In Stockholm, the tax reduced common air pollutants by up to 15 percent and led to a significant decrease in acute asthma attacks among children. (In the U.S., the heavily trafficked Bronx has the highest levels of childhood asthma.)
Despite these positives, pushback to congestion charging exists, and not only because Americans dislike paying for something they historically haven’t had to pay for. Critics of pricing plans point to an undue burden on the city’s low-income residents, who often don’t live where reliable mass transit options are available and thus are more likely to drive in to dense urban centers.
Still, that’s not a one-size-fits-all argument, says Annie Nam of the Southern California Association of Governments, who spearheaded a recent study on establishing congestion pricing zones in Los Angeles. There’s a lot of misconceptions around who drives where, when and why, she says.
“The predominance of low-income people [in the zones we studied] are actually already using public transit or carpooling. So the question is more, ‘How do we better facilitate the sustainable travel that they’re already taking?’”
In the past, local governments turned to new construction or expanded existing roadways to deal with traffic overflow. But studies have shown that, as the Brookings Institute put it, “more road building in order to try to move vehicles faster often makes traffic worse.” Express or carpool lanes, whose popularity has risen over the past several decades, also don’t necessarily live up to their congestion-reducing hype.
Though they live on opposite coasts in cities with very different traffic patterns, both Schwartz and Nam see congestion pricing as the next logical step in the evolution of designing road systems that operate more efficiently.
“There’s a lot of energy around the idea,” says Schwartz, who points out that even Uber, whose rise has contributed to clogged streets from Manhattan, New York, to Manhattan, Kansas, poured millions into lobbying for the adoption of the plan.
With New York moving forward, Nam is betting that a ripple effect will take hold. “The general public becoming more aware of what it is and how it can work [leads to] a sense of normalcy,” she says, “and that there’s an opportunity to do this in the U.S.”

NYC Airport Workers Receive $19 Minimum Wage — the Highest in the Country

New York City labor advocates just achieved a huge milestone for workers’ rights. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey recently approved a plan to increase the minimum wage for airport workers to $19 per hour, the highest in the nation. The wage hike would affect some 40,000 baggage handlers, security guards, catering staff and other workers at the three major airports in the region.  
The announcement comes after years of research, protest and advocacy from unionized workers. Proponents of the increase faced severe pushback from airline companies, which argued that higher wages would mean higher prices for customers.
However, labor advocates noted that high turnover rates fueled by insufficient wages were making the travel experience less safe and efficient for passengers. New York City’s airport worker turnover rates are exceptionally high — more than 30 percent annually, and even as high as 160 percent at one company, according to a report issued by the Port Authority.
New York City’s airports are vulnerable on multiple levels. Together they serve more than 100 million travelers annually, and they have faced overwhelming crowds and inclement weather in recent years, not to mention several thwarted attacks.
“The new policy will benefit the traveling public by reducing staff turnover and providing an experienced, well-trained, motivated workforce that can better assist in responding to an emergency, identifying security issues, operating equipment safely, and providing experienced customer service,” reads a statement from the New Jersey governor’s office.
The Port Authority modeled its plan after other airports around the country saw success improving operations and safety by increasing their minimum wages. “Lifting airport workers’ wages is now a tried and tested tool for responding to a recurring set of problems at airports around the United States,” the agency noted in its report.   
Airport workers in New York currently earn at least $13 per hour under state law, and workers in New Jersey earn a minimum of $10.45. Beginning on Nov. 1, New York workers will receive $13.60 an hour and New Jersey workers will earn $12.45. The wages will increase annually until they hit a minimum of $19 an hour in 2023.
Raising the minimum wage is a hot-button issue. While proponents argue that an increase will lift people out of poverty and reduce turnover rates, thus saving millions in training costs, critics say that wage hikes will ultimately lead to massive job loss.
Nonetheless, the airport workers’ wage bump has been hailed as a triumph for the American worker. “Their struggle will send a message around the country that when workers stand together and fight for justice, they can win,” said Senator Bernie Sanders.

This Program Helps Homeless Students Stay in School

During the 2016-17 school year, over 111,500 students in New York City experienced homelessness at some point. For the past decade, S.I.M.B.A — which stands for “Safe in my Brothers Arms” — has been helping that same population overcome their struggles with homelessness.
Operated by NYC’s Department of Education, S.I.M.B.A. offers academic resources, extracurricular activities and college- and career-readiness training to a current class of 50 young men. In 2008, it launched a sister organization, A.S.E.T. — or “All Sisters Evolving Together” — to serve female high school students. This year, A.S.E.T serves a cohort of 38 young women.

“High school students, above all other homeless cohorts, were dropping out at an exponentially higher rate,” says program director Wayne Harris. “So when I took this position, I said, ‘If that’s what the data says, that’s the population that I want to work with.’”
Since its inception, S.I.M.B.A. and A.S.E.T together have served over 1,000 high school students. Last year, it celebrated its 10th anniversary, and its most recent class of seniors all graduated high school with multiple offers to attend college.
Watch the video above to learn more about S.I.M.B.A. and A.S.E.T.’s work.

The Ghost Bikes Project Gives Voice to the Dead

Since New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed Vision Zero in 2014 — a program with the ambitious goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities by 2024 — traffic deaths are down.
But that’s cold comfort for Mirza Molberg, a volunteer with New York City’s Ghost Bikes Project, an organization that commemorates cyclists killed while biking via ad-hoc shrines of “ghost bikes” chained to street signs near accident sites.
Molberg feels that city officials should invest more resources into preventing the deaths of the dozens of bicyclists and pedestrians who are killed each year by motor vehicles. That’s because two years ago, Molberg’s girlfriend, Lauren Davis, was hit by a car and killed while biking in Brooklyn.
That morning, Davis was biking to work when she was struck by a driver who had failed to yield while making a left turn. According to the victim’s sister, medical records show that Davis sustained lung trauma and rib fractures, as well as blunt force trauma to the head.
“[When a loved one is killed], you feel helpless,” Molberg says. “I was looking for anything to help.”
Molberg’s involvement with Ghost Bikes predates Davis’s death. He had been volunteering with the organization since 2010, constructing memorial bikes in his local church parking lot in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. From the start, Molberg says that he “had a strong emotional response when building the bikes, and especially when meeting family members of the dead cyclists,” though at times he also questioned the usefulness of the project. But after David died, he says, “any doubts I had [about the effectiveness of the project] were blown out of the water.”  
Ghost Bikes are made by stripping brakes and chains off of beater bikes and then spray-painting them white. After a dedication ceremony, they are marked with a small plaque and decorated with flowers that are left to wilt. The memorials may be adorned with candles, small gifts and sometimes photographs of the victim.  
Since June 2005, 164 ghost bikes have been installed in New York City to commemorate 198 known fatalities, including 54 for individuals who could not be identified. Ghost Bike offshoots exist worldwide, and memorials have appeared in over 210 locations throughout the world, such as in Mexico, Singapore and Ukraine. Their mission is to advocate for cyclists — both living and dead — and to ensure that those who have died don’t become just another forgotten statistic. In addition to constructing memorials, Ghost Bike organizes a yearly memorial bike ride and advocates for street safety. They also provide a supportive community for survivors and friends of the dead.

Bicycle 2
Activist Mirza Molberg with his girlfriend Lauren Davis, a cyclist who was hit by a car and killed in 2016.

While the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration estimates there were 840 bicyclists killed in motor vehicle accidents in the United States in 2016, Ghost Bike charges that limited news coverage, changing statistical counts, and the lack of publicly available information make it hard to learn about every single death. And that lack of visibility has a lot to do with how accidents are presented in local news, they say. Research supports their claim that media outlets often blame cyclists for their own deaths or describe such tragedies as being the result of an “accident,” rather than a preventable collision.
Which is exactly what happened with Davis. She was initially “at fault” for the accident that killed her: Early news reports claimed Davis was riding the wrong direction down a one-way street. (The NYPD later conceded that was not the case and that the driver was at fault.)
The year Davis was killed, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams led Ghost Bikes’ memorial ride and spoke to the importance of combating victim-blaming and creating safer streets.
“We should not assume that the cyclist was always the person responsible for a crash, or had accepted the risk simply by climbing on a bicycle,” Adams said.
The memorials, probably most importantly, give a voice to the dead and to their families.
“If it wasn’t for the Ghost Bikes Project NYC, Lauren would be invisible in the public domain,” Davis’s sister, Danielle, wrote on Medium. Danielle describes the memorials themselves as “somber and sometimes violent reminders of lives lost to traffic crashes.” Ghost bikes, she says, “push cyclist deaths from the fringes of the roadway to the forefront in public spaces.”
In addition to setting up memorial bikes, Ghost Bikes volunteers pressure the city to conduct full investigations of crashes. Early in its inception, NYC’s Ghost Bike Project stood with the family of 14-year-old Andre Anderson, who was killed while riding his bike on a neighborhood street near his home in Far Rockaway, Queens, demanding a complete investigation of the Anderson’s death and safer street design of the parkway where the accident occurred.
In Maryland, Ghost Bikes Project volunteers pressured legislators to change state laws so that HAWK lights could be installed, after two bicyclists were hit and killed attempting to cross the same five lanes of fast-moving traffic. In studies, HAWK, or High-Intensity Activated crossWalK beacons, have been found to significantly reduce crash rates. That legislation, known as House Bill 578, passed the Maryland House and is currently with the Senate.
It’s hard to calculate the impact of ghost bike memorials. In spite of Vision Zero, cyclists continue to die, and they’re frequently still “at fault.” Some residents even complain the Ghost Bikes put people off cycling entirely.
But for Molberg, Davis’ death and his work with Ghost Bikes has only strengthened his passion for cycling. “It’s almost like Lauren’s death ignited something in me,” he says. The very day Molberg found out about the accident, he says, he rode his bike home from a friend’s house. “They were shocked and questioning whether I should do that, but I feel empowered being on a bike. I won’t let deaths keep me off the streets.”

Make Music, Change Lives

Since 2013, New York-based Building Beats has been cultivating the next generation of passionate leaders though digital music production. Founded by DJ and music enthusiast Phi Pham, the nonprofit introduces low-income students in grades 3 and up to digital music production using free cloud-based software.
The goal of Building Beats is two-fold. On one hand, it aims to fill the music education gap that affects many New York City schools. At the same time, the class doesn’t just teach young people hip-hop in a vacuum; Pham sees these workshops as an opportunity to inspire in students universal skills like problem-solving and collaboration.
“We want to empower young people with the technology they have available around them,” Pham says. “The 21st century is all about remixing different tools, different products together, and we think music is a good starting point to teach students those fundamentals.”
In the five years since it began, Building Beats has partnered with over 50 schools in the New York area to serve upward of 3,000 students. Watch the video above to see some of Building Beats’ young producers at work.

They’re Helping to Keep Families Together Just by Showing Up

Ravi Ragbir is ready for a fight. For the past two decades, the Trinidadian immigrant has been living in bureaucratic limbo and now, is even more unsure whether he will be able to remain living in the U.S. with his American wife and child.
“Imagine that you can be ripped apart from your children and families without their input. Don’t think that because it’s not your fault, your children won’t feel abandoned. Your children will feel abandoned,” Ragbir says, which is what many immigrant parents and children feel under the current tide of immigration enforcement.
Even though the stakes are seemingly higher than ever under the Trump administration, it wasn’t necessarily any easier for immigrants under the tenure of President Obama, who was coined the “deporter-in-chief” by UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza), the nation’s largest Latino advocacy group.
Ragbir, who came to the U.S. in 1991 under a visitor’s visa and received a green card in 1994, is the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City. The nonprofit organization provides non-U.S. citizens support and protection via its unique accompaniment program, which pairs immigrants with American citizens that attend legal proceedings with them.
The group’s consulting and outreach services and community events reach 700,000 immigrants and their family members, a hefty number for a small office based inside a church in Manhattan’s West Village.
“Because we’re an all-volunteer and pro se legal force, the number of people really goes beyond our capacity, but we can handle it by the way we manage the program,” says Ragbir, explaining that he personally trained many of the staff and volunteers on everything he knew.
“I had to download my brain completely. In case something happened to me, this place needed to be self-sufficient,” he says.
Religious leaders and elected officials often participate in the accompaniment program, standing in solidarity with immigrants when they go to naturalization interviews or check-ins with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.
“Imagine you have a pastor watching,” Ragbir says. “It changes the whole process. It’s more working within the system so they aren’t deporting the person.”
In March 2017, Ragbir participated in the accompaniment program himself. Since his 2001 conviction for wire fraud, he’s been fighting a deportation order and is mandated to meet with immigration officials annually. Sen. Gustavo Rivera, City Councilmembers Jumaane Williams and Ydanis Rodriguez, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and other religious leaders stood alongside Ragbir during his yearly check-in, where it was determined that he could stay in the country for another year.
“I have you guys, and you are all here for me. But imagine those who do not,” he said to a crowd of supporters before his meeting that day. “We need to protect them, we need to protect each other.”

They’re Learning STEM Skills by Dancing to Destiny’s Child

At the start of the L train in the upper-class Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, there are 10 city-funded Wi-Fi hubs within two blocks. When the train hits Brooklyn, two miles east, there are another six Wi-Fi hubs being installed in the hip East Williamsburg area. But the numbers start to fall as the train dives deeper into Brooklyn, where poverty is rampant. By the time it hits the neighborhoods of East New York and Brownsville, there are none.
Out here, almost a third of homes don’t have internet access — the gateway to a community’s broader participation in STEM industries and the jobs they offer. High schools, meanwhile, are under-equipped with the basic infrastructure needed for internet access and technology education. Music, dance and the arts, in contrast, are well established in the community.
This disconnect — in the midst of a national trend to move funding from the humanities to STEM — is what led Yamilée Toussaint, a mechanical engineering graduate from MIT, to start STEM From Dance, a program for high school girls that merges the local culture of dance and music with a future in learning complex science and technology concepts.
“Students who would be a natural fit for, say, a career as a coder don’t necessarily know that until they are introduced to it,” Toussaint says. “Through dance, we’re attracting them to a different world that they wouldn’t otherwise opt-in themselves.”

At STEM From Dance, students learn to code stage and costume lighting along with visual effects for their performances.

Toussaint, a tiny woman with large hair and a soft voice, created the program five years ago. Normally it spans a full semester, but this year she increased the number of girls she can reach with a summer intensive curriculum focused on circuitry.
During the course of one week, participants practice a dance routine that they pair with lessons on building and coding circuits.
“It was hard at first,” says Chantel Harrison, a 17-year-old participant from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “I didn’t know what it was about, honestly.”
Harrison and a couple dozen other girls are taught to wire battery-powered light circuits. They sew them into their dance costumes to create splashy light effects synced to a song’s beat. For many of them, this is their first introduction to computer science and coding.
And that is a stark reality check. In New York City, where technology often seems boundless — and where there have been huge strides to build up “Silicon Alley,” New York City’s own version of the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley — kids educated in the city’s outer borough’s face significant barriers to a future working in the tech industry.
“If we cannot allow our children to have first-class computer equipment in a first-class city, they’re not going to be prepared to be employed at a first-rate corporation,” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams tells NationSwell. “We cannot have a digital divide in our borough and in our city.”
Both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have pushed for high-speed internet access and STEM course integration into the city’s high school curriculum by 2025. But in Brooklyn, a study published in December 2016 by the Brooklyn Borough President’s office found there is progress to be made: Internet access is subpar (the average rating is 3 out of 5) in the district’s schools; there are only enough tablets and laptops for 7 and 20 percent of the borough’s student population, respectively; and 70 percent of schools don’t have an established computer science curriculum.
“The mayor has a very strong goal, but the question is, are we set up to meet this goal based on current investments in schools?” says Stefan Ringel, a spokesperson for Adams. He adds that reaching the 2025 goal will require more investments in infrastructure upgrades as well as in the curriculum.
“There is a lot of talk around getting these students active in STEM education, but I’d say for our program, if we have 12 girls sign up, maybe one has actually been exposed to coding,” says Toussaint, as she watches a group of six teenagers practice a dance routine to Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor.”
“We’re not trying to make engineers or professional dancers within a week,” says Arielle Snagg, an instructor with STEM From Dance who also has a degree in neuroscience. “But we are hoping to give them an idea on how they can use technology within this art.”
Snagg, originally from Bushwick — another impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood — says she understands the plight of students who live in these parts of New York. Of those who work (and only about half the population does), just 5 percent do so within the tech and science fields. And getting more women into technology can help a labor force that is desperate for diversity, especially when it comes to women of color.
After a week in the camp, Harrison, who will be a senior at Achievement First Brooklyn High School in the fall, says she gained a new appreciation for the integration of dance and science. “And I’ve gotten better in math — I’ve even learned to love it.”
Next spring, Toussaint will see her first group of students graduate from high school. And though she hopes that many of them pursue technology in college, more than anything she wants them to enter any career with confidence.
“The point is to let [these girls] know that they can do anything, and they don’t have to do one thing,” she says. “They just have to open up their minds a bit.”

A Food Truck Run by Former Inmates Charts a New Course

Since 2014 the New York City–based Drive Change has been operating a food truck, called Snowday, as a way of reducing recidivism rates among young people. The organization hires and mentors formerly jailed young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. And so far, it has ushered more than 20 of them through its paid fellowship program, which provides both specific training in the culinary arts as well as broader professional-development skills. Graduates of the program have gone on to work as line cooks in upscale restaurants and catering companies.
Now Drive Change is ready to scale its operations for greater impact as other cities, including Baltimore and Pittsburgh, have expressed interest in launching similar programs. With a commissary set to open in 2018, Drive Change hopes to increase the number of fellows from roughly eight a year to 40.
Also on the menu for the nonprofit: a re-branding and a new look. Beginning in July, the award-winning Snowday will be called Drive Change, though it will still feature a seasonal menu with locally sourced food. In addition, the company is adopting an affiliate model where other food trucks that hire young adults coming home from prison can get Drive Change–Certified.
Founded by 31-year-old Jordyn Lexton, Snowday was originally conceived as the first in a fleet of food trucks. But the re-branding was necessary, Lexton says, because marketing different trucks while still promoting the organization’s social-impact mission proved too resource-intensive.
“We were constantly trying to figure out how to put our resources behind one brand versus the other,” says Lexton. “We recognized it caused more confusion than we had originally envisioned.” There was also a concern that Drive Change could be perceived as exploiting the very group of people it aims to help, adds Lexton. “We’ve been able to have young people we work with take ownership of our mission and what we stand for, and that’ll be forefront in our [new] brand identity.”
As Drive Change transitions, it is only accepting event bookings from organizations working directly in the field of social or racial justice, including re-entry from the criminal justice system. Says Lexton, “We’re really trying to raise awareness around those issues so change can happen.”
Homepage photo via Drive Change.
Continue reading “A Food Truck Run by Former Inmates Charts a New Course”

NYC’s ‘Green City Force’

Growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Edna McKay never expected she would one day have a full-time job in the sustainable energy industry.  She lived in public housing where crime was very high…and opportunity very low.
But now McKay has a full-time job installing free, energy-efficient light bulbs for Franklin Energy to people in her neighborhood. “With this position, I’m earning more money than I ever did in my life,” says McKay, who earns $17 an hour.
In this episode of NationSwell’s 8-part mini documentary series on service years, watch how McKay transformed her future by participating in a program called Green City Force, which empowers young adults from New York City’s public housing developments with the highest crime rates.
“We started Green City Force in 2009 with the idea of connecting the dots between two major issues, youth employment and the need to transition to sustainable cities,” says Lisbeth Shepherd, founder of the organization.
The organization’s mission isn’t lost on McKay, who is now considering options that she previously viewed as unrealistic: “In the next few years, I would really love to earn a bachelor’s degree, because I feel like I’m capable of doing it,” she says.
NationSwell asks you to join our partnership with Service Year Alliance. Watch the video above. Ask Congress to support a service year. Do one yourself. Together, we can lead a national movement to give young Americans the opportunity to help bridge the divides in our country.