Working at Detroit Food Academy, I feel very lucky to visibly see the impact of the program. At DFA, I’m not just sitting as a desk with my laptop all day. I’m hanging out with Jaylin and Eddie at Eastern Market on Saturdays, in the kitchen learning about popsicles with Daria and Sarah, visiting Xavier after his shift at Pizza Plex or Shawndrea after her shift at Ochre Bakery.
While I am constantly surrounded by the tangible impact of DFA, I didn’t realize my impact until John and I held our fellowship workshop last Thursday. During the workshop, we worked with the DFA fellows on professional development to help turn the leadership and entrepreneurial skills they have learned during their time with Detroit Food Academy into confidence as they enter the workforce. But in order to fully understand why this was so impactful, I want to explain my experience from my favorite class from last semester.
In my PubPol 302 class, Policy Choice as Value Conflict, my favorite unit was on equality of opportunity. We spent multiple classes discussing the structural inequality embedded in our society and how the luck of the birth lottery leaves many people thinking they deserve more, when two people never truly had the same opportunity. For example, with formal equality of opportunity, two individuals have the same right to apply to a school like Harvard, but if one student went to a private boarding school, had a college counselor, access to academic resources, and plenty of time for sports and extracurriculars, and the other student had to give up school in order to get a job and provide for their family… who do you think has a better chance of getting in.
And this isn’t just an academic theory. In my class of about 50 students, my professor showed us videos of 4 different types of schools. One extremely wealthy boarding school in Massachusetts, one public high school with insane amenities in New York, one average public high school from Chicago, and one public high school in a beat-up building with no running water, from none other than Detroit. My professor asked us to raise our hands when he called on the school that most resembled our high school experience to reflect the type of schools that Duke students come from. Many came from the boujee private school. The most popular group was the upscale public school. No one raised their hand for the Detroit level public school.
I say all of this because this feeling struck me during the mock interview part of our workshop. Shawndrea, one of the DFA fellows, is only a few months younger than me. When I was asking her practice interview questions, I found out her dream is to open her own bakery and in the fall she will be attending School Craft college in their Culinary Baking and Pastry Arts on a full scholarship. I was so impressed with her two years of work experience and the fact that she found something she’s really passionate about. For the sake of interview practice, I was answering questions as well, speaking about my time at Duke and other life experiences.
That’s why is broke my heart when Shawndrea said to me “you’re so accomplished. I’m just not as accomplished as you.” I tried to reassure her that even though our accomplishments are different, hers are just as, maybe even more, valid than mine. In this moment, I truly understood the inequality in education opportunity. Shawndrea worked just as hard, if not harder, than me. In a perfect world, we would both have the opportunity to study at a prestigious school of our choice. But sadly, this is not the case.
I know this is a very long post, but once I started writing I could not stop. While John and I have a multitude of other projects for the summer, I believe I will have the most impact on the fellowship program.
I could not stop smiling the entire workshop. After we took headshots of the fellows, we created LinkedIn accounts for them and watched their professional network grow in minutes as they eagerly connected with every name they recognized. They engaged in conversations about professional dress, going back and forth on appropriate interview attire. They stood up in front of the room and gave a short answer to the question “tell me about your self” as I watched them gain confidence with every word. After the workshop, John and I were showered with thank you’s as they fellows walked out of the door with their new skills.
I’m not naive. I know I will not be able to fully fix the problem of youth unengagement or inequality in opportunity. But if I can use my knowledge and experiences to build on the foundation of DFA skills and empower the fellows to get a job they love, it will be more than enough.