Partner Profile: Liberty's Kitchen
Today is Mardi Gras! In honor of the celebrations, we spoke with New Orleans-based Liberty’s Kitchen, a seriously awesome organization, youth-centered organization that is changing the lives of countless young adults in the area. We spoke with Dennis Bagneris, Liberty Kitchen’s Chief Executive Officer, to learn more.
Before we dig into Liberty’s Kitchen, please share a bit about you and your experience at Liberty’s Kitchen:
As CEO of Liberty’s Kitchen, I’m excited to see where we go in 2019. Since 2008, Liberty’s Kitchen has focused on the importance of getting a job and keeping a job. Now, we’re looking ahead to the coming years.
I’ve been a part of Liberty’s Kitchen for eight years. It has been incredible to see the evolution of our impact over that time period, and the young people we serve are some of the most special people in my life. I am honored to serve as CEO as we enter our second decade.
Thank you, I’m definitely excited to learn more about Liberty’s Kitchen’s evolution, let’s get right into it!
Liberty’s Kitchen Background:
1. Give us your elevator pitch!
- Why was Liberty’s Kitchen formed? Liberty’s Kitchen was founded by Janet Gorence Davas in 2008 as a counterpoint to incarceration. Youth of color, especially black youth, in New Orleans, were and are facing disproportionally high rates of unemployment and court involvement. Our first location was on the first floor of a two-story building directly across from a New Orleans courthouse.
- Who do you serve? Our Youth Development Program serves motivated, talented young adults in New Orleans who are not in school or working. Once graduated, those young people join our Youth Leadership Program, mentoring their peers, advancing their careers, and improving their neighborhoods through increasing access to healthy food.
- What specific needs are you addressing? Our team provides wrap-around case management to address barriers to employment for incoming youth. Housing, mental health care, transportation, and food insecurity are all needs that must be met in order to address employment. Our team also addresses the need that our youth have to be seen, to be heard, and to experience leadership.
2. What is one thing that makes your organization stand out?
The role that alumni play in our programming, on our staff, and in our organizational evolution is what makes us stay dynamic, relevant, and youth-centered.
3. How has Liberty’s Kitchen evolved over the years?
We’ve learned so much these past ten years. We started with job skills and wrap-around supports, and will always provide that. However, we realize the scope of the problem facing black youth—centuries of disinvestment and discrimination—requires an equally large vision. Equity in access to food and opportunity, and quality of life, is what we’re after—and the way to achieve that at scale is for our alumni to carry our impact forward in their own efforts and ventures. For example, our alumna Syrena Johnson is now running her own private chef business, hiring and teaching young people, and another alumna is preparing healthy options for sale in corner stores around the city.
4. Are there any organizations or individuals you look to as a role model in your work? Why?
We are inspired by the many great organizations in the Catalyst Kitchens network; particularly FareStart, D.C. Central Kitchen, and UTEC-Lowell. In New Orleans, there are no shortage of amazing youth-centered organizations to look up to: Grow Dat, UnCommon Construction, Youth Empowerment Project… we’re in an exciting era of innovation and reflection in social change work.
Systems Leadership Approach
5. How does Liberty’s Kitchen partner with others to catalyze systems change?
We participate in several collective impact efforts in the city. In the workforce and opportunity youth space, we work closely with partners in the EMPLOY collaborative to share data and best practices. In the food justice space, we are a partner in the NOLA Food Policy Advisory Committee which is working on a policy and food systems level to improve access to good food. Most importantly, we are co-located with a number of health equity organizations in the ReFresh Project, with partners ranging from the Crescent Community Land Trust to SPROUT NOLA.
Liberty’s Kitchen Learnings:
6. What is 1 key to your organization’s success?
Relationships. With youth, with partners, with peers in the field—these are the key to our success.
7. Given what you know now, what are three things you wish you’d done differently as the organization developed?
Working smarter not harder has definitely become a mantra as we continue to develop in this work. In the last ten years, we’ve done a much better job engaging in effective partnerships. We are aware that our youth require quite a bit of wrap around supports to be successful, and previously we might’ve taken it upon ourselves to provide supports for the gaps that existed. Now we’re doing a much better job resourcing partner agencies to provide those opportunities.
Secondly, we have created spaces to be better informed by the population that we serve, either through focus groups, check-ins, surveys, etc. We have become an organization better informed to do this work, because we are doing a better job at listening directly to the population we serve.
Finally, I think that we are taking a much more active approach to establishing real equity in workforce endeavors for our young adults. While we continue to skill up our trainees for the workplace, we have recognized that we must also address and advocate against the inequalities and disparities that exist in workplace culture, particularly as they pertain to young men and women of color. We must also continue to provide space for them to develop independent leadership and entrepreneurial skills, so that they may have the opportunities to become potential business owners and job creators themselves.
8. What is one of Liberty’s Kitchen’s proudest achievements?
One of our proudest recent moments happened this past week. Top Box Foods hired a third alumnus of our Youth Development Program to join their staff. There are now three LK alumni (all current or former Youth Leadership Councilmembers) managing community outreach, food production, and distribution. Their jobs are allowing them to take care of their families while improving quality of life in the neighborhoods our alumni live in.
9. What is one challenge you’re facing right now?
Anything your fellow FSLN members might be able to help with? We are working on building an incubator program in our commissary kitchen so that emerging entrepreneurs from our alumni network can start and grow their own businesses. We would love to hear from folks who have successfully built a small business incubation program, especially for opportunity youth.
10. Any words of wisdom for fellow food systems leaders?
Whenever possible, make space for those who have been marginalized to be in positions of leadership. Making this choice intentionally, again and again, is the only way to transform systems that marginalize.
Wow - thank you Liberty's Kitchen for all that you do! You sure are an inspiring organization and we're honored to know you. Now go enjoy Mardi Gras!