Innovator Insights: When Jobs Aren’t Enough

A former high school teacher, Jordyn Lexton recalls telling a student in her English class, “that, with hard work and over the course of time, he could achieve his goal of becoming an architect.

“As the words left my mouth, another student respectfully objected, telling me I was ‘selling dreams’,” Lexton said. “In that moment, I realized I needed to do more.”

Lexton left her teaching job and followed her gut, learning all she could about how to give individuals like her students both quality employment and skill development. She soon found that she would need to find a way to help formerly incarcerated youth overcome the stigma they encountered in society.

“When people are used to being identified for an action in their past, when they are punished, judged and not seen as something larger than a single, often multi-faceted incident, their sense of self is impacted and their sense of worth is diminished,” she explained.

Noticing that a culinary arts program at the local jail instilled a sense of pride in individuals who otherwise felt low self-esteem, Lexton was inspired to launch a food truck social enterprise. For seven months, she worked on a taco truck, while simultaneously learning best practices from different re-entry programs.

Today, Lexton is an Ashoka American Express Emerging Innovator and founder of an organization that uses food trucks to empower formerly incarcerated youth called Drive Change. Lexton knew this idea spanned two very different sectors, and she wanted to be well-prepared.

“Employment is not enough—even employment at a 'livable' wage,” she said. “There are concrete external factors that restrict the opportunities for folks coming out of jail and prison.”

There are factors, rarely acknowledged in the debate about how to boost employment and wages, that create barriers to people who have criminal records. These include the requirement to check certain boxes on applications indicating criminal convictions, barriers to educational opportunities because it is not possible to apply for federal aid, and barriers to housing and voting.

“These are challenges that put a marginalized community further into deficit, and foster the rate of recidivism, which is costly and a public safety issue,” Lexton said.

Lexton was inspired to take action after observing the troubling rate of recidivism among her own high school English students. “I saw too many of my students, full of potential and the desire to live crime free lives, recycle back into the system,” she said.

It was a particularly troubling problem in Lexton’s home state of New York, where offenders as young as age 16 are treated as adults, and go through the criminal justice system rather than the juvenile system.

Drive Change is now on the fast track with its first “state of the art, locally-sourced food truck that hires, trains, and empowers formerly incarcerated youth, ages 16-25,” Lexton said. A for-profit entity, Drive Change is funding its own eight-month re-entry program while integrating youth back into their communities by providing quality employment.

“Drive Change uses the food truck business as a model to teach transferrable skills in social media, marketing, money-management, small business, and culinary arts,” Lexton said. And Drive Change is about giving a voice to the voiceless—raising awareness about a community that so often finds itself marginalized and forgotten.

“Voice is completely essential; voice is where power lies,” Lexton said, noting that advocacy is a part of Drive Change’s vision. “By being out in the community, and sharing a delicious meal with people, we can engage folks in a movement to reconsider what they consider justice, and to help us truck towards a brighter tomorrow.”

Jordyn Lexton was a part of a group of 45 leading social innovators from North America that took part in the 2014 American Express Emerging Innovators Boot Camps. Want to hear more from innovators like Jordyn? Check back here for more Innovator Insights, and follow #emerginginnovators and @changemakers.