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August 1, 2017 Vol. 72 No. 13 Back to Bulletin Main Page

David Emond, Liberty’s Kitchen: Empowering New Orleans Youth

David Emond is Executive Director of Liberty’s Kitchen, a nonprofit social enterprise dedicated to providing pathways for vulnerable New Orleans youth to create and achieve their vision of success through workforce training, leadership development, and support of healthy lifestyles. Mr. Emond, who will be delivering the keynote address at this year’s Trademark Administrators and Practitioners Meeting (TMAP) in New Orleans, began his career in education, serving as Dean of Admissions at Saint Sebastian’s boys’ school in Massachusetts for nine years. But when he led a school trip to New Orleans in 2008 to assist with the recovery effort for Hurricane Katrina, his life was set on an unexpected course south. “The experience had such an impact on me,” says Mr. Emond. “We got back on a Friday, and by that Tuesday I knew I was about to quit my job.”

After one year of volunteer work in New Orleans, Mr. Emond was hired as Development Director for Café Reconcile, where he worked for more than four years before joining Liberty’s Kitchen in 2014. Today, he is helping the organization to expand its reach and achieve its vision of ensuring that every young person is given a chance to succeed.

In addition to workforce training, Liberty’s Kitchen provides access to fresh, healthy food for kids across New Orleans, serving 3,500 meals per day to low-income children in public charter schools. The organization also has exciting partnerships with big brands like Whole Foods and Starbucks, and its staff of 65 operates two restaurants, as well as a full-service catering business, and serves school food at five sites across the city. Mr. Emond spoke with the INTA Bulletin in more detail about Liberty’s Kitchen’s mission and what TMAP Meeting registrants can expect from his keynote address.

What is Liberty’s Kitchen, and how does it work?

Our vision is simple—we exist because we believe every young person in our community deserves a chance to succeed. In far too many cases, the institutions that exist to support them have let them down—the school system, the criminal justice system, and sometimes even the family structure have failed them. We’re there to help them pick up those pieces.

Our mission is to help young people access pathways to success in three ways: (1) workforce training; (2) leadership development; and (3) support of healthy lifestyles. They work with us for four months on a full-time basis to help develop the skills and also the confidence to go out into the workforce, and, in the vast majority of cases, get their first entry-level job. So much of a first job is about attitude more than aptitude. They learn how to show up on time, take direction, and have a positive outlook.

Is the workforce training focused exclusively on the food service industry?
The training takes place in the kitchen, but it’s not about a kitchen. The kitchen environment is just really conducive to teaching soft skills, like communication and teamwork. New Orleans is uniquely positioned because we’re a food city and hospitality is the number one employment sector here. There are always jobs available. We anticipate that at least half of the youth we serve are not going to want to stay in hospitality, so a part of our youth leadership program efforts is geared to helping them create those bridges to other employment sectors. The one thing we do know is that hospitality is a great entry-level job because it doesn’t require any kind of credential or certification right off the bat. However, there are opportunities to earn those over time if you want that, and we’re positioned to help.

What happens once they secure a job?
Once they secure that first job, we continue to focus on leadership development with them—that has to do with developing a voice, being advocates for themselves and the issues most important to them, being engaged in the community, and understanding that they have value and—if they want to—they can be the future leaders of the city.

We also help them to develop a network. One of the things we’ve learned is that having a network is such a critical factor in success. And finally, the support of healthy lifestyles is where our school nutrition program fits in. We’re also working on a healthy corner store initiative right now. If you walk into a typical corner store, all you see is sugar, so we’re trying to help corner stores offer more fruits and vegetables to their customers and to develop marketing plans to make that a profitable piece of their business.

Is there a direct connection between healthy living and broader success?
Absolutely. We don’t’ have exact data, but certainly what we’ve seen in the schools we’ve partnered with is that the commitment to offering healthier options has resulted in considerably improved attitude, attention span, and energy. We see this in our workforce participants as well. It can be really empowering for a young person to take control of what they put into their body.

What do you think makes the Liberty’s Kitchen model work so well?

A food service setting is a great environment for individual development. When you add to that the opportunity for community engagement by having a business that’s open to the public and welcomes them in every day, that then puts us in the business of winning over hearts and minds. It helps us to overcome stereotypes about the population we’re here to serve, which is another important aspect of our mission. These youth we’re serving are our most precious resource, but when you go home at night, all you see on the news is stories about who shot who. It shows how undervalued this population is.

Have you considered expanding to other cities?
We have a lot of work left to do in New Orleans, but that day certainly may come. We’ve had conversations with a couple of other cities, but that’s more like a five-year plan. Our city alone has about 7,000 young people who are disconnected from school and employment between the ages of 16 and 24, and there are far too few services available for them, so we’d love to continue to grow our services here. We are a member of a larger network of similar organizations called Catalyst Kitchens, based in Seattle, which is an outgrowth of FareStart—the original food service–based social enterprise.

Can you give us a glimpse of what you’ll discuss at the TMAP Meeting?

It’s my objective to help people gain a new appreciation for this generation that is so often overlooked. We want themselves to start seeing them as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. It’s incumbent upon us to make the investments that are going to have such a clear and dramatic return for the community. We need to acknowledge that and commit to it, and then we will truly be a city of infinite possibility.

Early bird registration for the 2017 Trademark Administrators and Practitioners Meeting closes Friday, August 4.

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