A sun-drenched commercial test kitchen bursts with energy as a group of young people call out orders to each other, warning of hot pots and pans swinging around the room.
The newly renovated metal-clad kitchen smells of cumin and raw onions, as a tray of sizzling chicken and charred green peppers makes its way into to-go boxes of chicken fajitas.
Lunch is being prepared for the fellows and local community at the headquarters of Drive Change, a Brooklyn, New York, nonprofit organization that provides culinary training to teens and young adults who have previously been incarcerated or impacted by the criminal justice system.
Throughout the year, fellows enter a paid, four-month program where they learn kitchen basics like proper knife skills and how to sauté.
The organization also provides mental health services and professional development in an effort to provide more stable options for its fellows.
“People will always have misconceptions,” Dupree Wilson said, adding that “people just think we’re all, like, violent murderers and killers who don’t have no self control, which is not true.”
Wilson is now a culinary associate with Drive Change but began as a fellow in the organization’s first cohort in 2014.
He found success in commercial kitchens shortly after he finished the program, but lost his cooking job during the pandemic. Wilson found his way back to Drive Change and now serves as a mentor to current fellows.
“I always say I got bad blood. Like my pops went to prison, his pops went to prison, I’ve been in prison. It’s a cycle,” Wilson said.
“With my son, I don’t want him to have that experience. … My motivation for everything I do is to make sure my son grows up better than I did,” he said.
Wilson’s story is one that millions of Americans are familiar with. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that more than 1.2 million people were incarcerated as of Dec. 31, 2022. And finding full-time jobs after being incarcerated can be difficult. Only about 40% of incarcerated people released since 2010 were able to find full-time employment, according to a 2021 report by the U.S. Department of Justice.
As far as young people are concerned, the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately affects Black and Latino children, emphasizes harsh punishments in schools, which can often lead to the criminal legal system, according to the ACLU. One study by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center found that in many states, as many as 80% of juvenile offenders cycle back into the system within three years of their initial release.
“A lot of times, people are being incarcerated because of lack of something: lack of access to employment or food. Maybe the education system is broken for a variety of different things, and so we need to tackle the systemic issue,” said Kalilah Moon, Drive Change’s executive director.
While these issues may seem insurmountable, Moon said, her goal is to invest in one person at a time, in hopes of a larger ripple effect of change.
“When you see them walk through the door, it’s not their cell number or their prison number, right? That’s an individual there,” she said. “And it’s really important that people understand that there are human beings behind this.”
It’s a mission that’s personal for Moon. She said her work is inspired by her family members who have previously been incarcerated.
“Every time I walk through these doors, I’m thinking about my first cousin, and how I wish we had this for him,” she said. “Because I want to be able to do this work for those who might not have had the same investment as I did.”
Drive Change aims to bring a healing-centered approach to its work, while allowing fellows to talk honestly about past trauma.
“When you’re walking into someone’s home, you wipe your feet beforehand, but oftentimes, some people don’t have the ability to leave it outside there,” she said. “These spaces allow our young people to talk about that more and see themselves and be able to dream really expansively.”
Outside of the fellowship program, Drive Change hosts seasonal grocery and meal drives for the residents of the Marcy Houses, a public housing complex in Brooklyn that has historically been poorly resourced.
“We believe that food is a right,” Moon said. “Everyone should have the ability to have access to great food. And our young people are coming from neighborhoods that may not often have the best quality food, and so culinary is a way that we can reel folks in through their bellies, but also through their soul.”
Once fellows finish training, they are transitioned into professional jobs through Drive Change’s partners in hospitality, sustainable catering and commercial kitchens.
Moon said her fellows are inspired by Wilson.
“Knowing that people look up to you, and they look at you as a way, as a success story,” Wilson said, “anybody here can attain that same thing, as long as you’re willing to put your mind to it and work hard for it. I’m not nobody. I’m not nobody special. All I did was the work.”
For more from NBC BLK, sign up for our weekly newsletter.