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Empowering advocates

Each spring, the Council of the District of Columbia convenes a busy schedule of hearings evaluating the performance of DC government agencies and weighing how best to spend taxpayer dollars in the coming year. This year, this important democratic process has included a powerful new set of voices: the women and men of DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training program.

Testifying before the Council can be intimidating as new advocates make their way through echoing halls to ornate chambers packed with elected officials and seasoned experts. It also requires a good deal of preparation, including registering to testify, producing written copies of one’s testimony in advance, and bracing for impromptu questions directly from Councilmembers. To help our graduates understand and navigate this process, we teamed up with the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates (DCAYA) to plan and deliver a local advocacy boot camp to a dozen current and former DC Central Kitchen students. At the training, participants who had overcome personal barriers to employment learned how they could promote policies and programs with the power to systematically lower those barriers for other members of our community.

On March 8th, DC Central Kitchen graduates Tony and Cora were joined by a current member of our 111th Class, Jose, at the performance hearing of the DC Department of Employment Services. Presenting together as a panel to Councilmember Elissa Silverman, the trio underscored the importance of pairing vocational education with effective ‘life skills’ training, along with fostering relationships between training providers and their students rooted in authenticity, accountability, and respect. They all agreed that an expanded facility for DC Central Kitchen, and the chance to offer more types of hospitality industry credentials, would help put more people back to work in our community – but they each had their own story to tell.

Cora was receiving chemotherapy treatments when she caught a re-run of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode featuring his 2009 visit to DC Central Kitchen and was inspired by his interview with Culinary Job Training graduate Bo Sims (who still works for us today). When she became homeless after beating cancer, she sought out DC Central Kitchen, graduated from our program on “the best day” of her life, and now prepares healthy meals for schoolchildren in Wards 7 and 8 – including her granddaughter, who is enrolled at Houston Elementary. She told Councilmember Silverman about her goal of earning a certification in hospitality management so her career can continue to progress.

Tony’s story, featured in a 2016 Washington Post profile, took him from foster care to long stretches of incarceration in Colorado to a second chance in DC, where he ultimately became a full-time recruiter for our training program. That journey led him to conclude that “every city in America should have a DC Central Kitchen.”

Jose, a recent transplant from Milwaukee, spoke about his struggle to leave street life behind even after his release from prison – until he enrolled in the Culinary Job Training program. “DC Central Kitchen is more than just a culinary arts program,” he said. “They teach us life skills, how to better ourselves, help others in the community. They gave me a second chance.” Now interning with our friends and supporters at Marriott, Jose is slated to graduate from our program on April 6.

The next morning, another panel of DC Central Kitchen graduates shared their thoughts with Councilmember Brianne Nadeau as she and her committee evaluated the performance of the Department of Human Services. Frustrated with street life and interested in cooking, Gary, a native Washingtonian and resident of Ward 7, learned of DC Central Kitchen from a friend. At first, he didn’t appreciate our self-empowerment curriculum, but came to understand that its aim “was to break me down and rebuild me.” Gary’s journey brought him from the streets to full-time employment at DC Central Kitchen, where he’s part of preparing thousands of dignified meals each day to shelters under the purview of DHS. Fellow graduate Dagmawi had attained a degree in Accounting before a series of challenges led him to DC’s Correctional Treatment Facility, and a visit from our recruiter Tony offered him “a second chance…a chance to share in the dignity of work while contributing to our community.”

Each personal story of progress reflected the impact of the agencies being reviewed by Council, because grants administered by the Department of Employment Services and Department of Human Services, along with private donations and foundation grants, help ensure that our comprehensive program continues to equip our students for lasting personal and career success. You can see the compelling video of DC Central Kitchen students and graduates engaging with our city’s leaders here (at the 6:20 mark) and here (at the 2:47 mark).

If you’d like to see Jose and the rest of our current class of students commemorate their graduation, and hear keynote remarks from Councilmember Silverman, please join us at 2pm at the Naval Heritage Center (701 Pennsylvania Avenue NW) on Friday, April 6. Admission is free to open to the public.