The Kitchen of Liberty
Two self-evident truths: one, young people – particularly of color – face plenty of challenges in today’s New Orleans. Two, the hospitality industry – particularly the restaurant sector – faces plenty of challenges hiring and keeping staff in today’s New Orleans.
Working to solve these problems simultaneously, while throwing in good measures of life training, community building and systems change, is a remarkable nonprofit organization called Liberty’s Kitchen.
“Liberty’s Kitchen is a safe haven for young people who have not been treated fairly by the systems, whether they be educational, social or judicial,” stated the organization’s CEO, Dennis Bagneris. “We create a loving environment and provide job training, with access to food and to the food industry. We want to bridge that gap where we see the social system failing.
“We believe in broken systems, not broken children,” he concluded firmly.
Participating in the organization’s programs means a lot more than showing up for training and an apprenticeship. “We have a culture that provides a freedom to fail,” Bagneris elaborated. “On the outside, when young people make a decision that fails, that can be life-threatening. We create a safe space, starting where they are, with mentoring and training, so they can learn decision-making without severe consequences.”
Addressing personal issues of trust and self-esteem are also critical. “Young people don’t trust a lot of people,” observed Bagneris. “We help them to believe in their own opportunities for self-empowerment, to unlock the potential that they all have.”
Focusing on an industry that is at the core of the local economy has always been a logical path to jobs and careers. “New Orleans being the food and hospitality city that it is, it makes sense to create opportunities here,” Bagneris pointed out.
However, he added, “We have found in the twelve years that we’ve done this work, racism and classicism in the restaurant industry is real. We have had to advocate for equity, diversity and opportunity in the industry.”
Few sectors have been more impacted by the COVID pandemic than food and beverage. Liberty’s Kitchen felt those impacts very strongly itself, being forced to close its café on Broad Street and lay off a significant number of its staff. In turn, this eliminated its primary source of direct revenue. Fortunately, a combination of private donors, business partners and philanthropic grants enabled the organization to stay afloat and continue some of its programming. The most recent training class included more than sixty new graduates, with one of the lowest dropout and highest post-graduation employment rates ever.
Indeed, this is the silver lining. “The industry has great need post-pandemic,” Bagneris said. “Hotels and restaurants have reached out in a way they hadn’t done previously. This has opened up more venues for our graduates, and enabled us to advocate for more opportunities in management roles, better benefits and better pay. We are now truly vital for the local industry.”
Liberty’s Kitchen is committed to maintaining close communication with as many of its graduates as possible, for reasons going beyond continuing to help with job placement and tracking their successes. “We help them develop life plans,” Bagneris related. “We encourage them to be mentors to new participants. We work with them to do community projects. We want them to feel a responsibility to give back to family and community.”
This last point is critical to the organization’s approach and mission. Most participants come from serious poverty, among other substantial disadvantages. “Most are in debt themselves, including court fees,” Bagneris said. “They need the opportunity to earn wealth, not just for themselves but to address generational wealth gaps. They become a source of support for their families.”
Taking on everything from systemic racism to individually struggling young people requires energy and optimism, and Bagneris possesses both. Now he is beginning to see not just light at the end of the tunnel, but real long-term progress.
“I think we’ve gone through the worst of it,” he stated. “We’ve gotten smarter, learned a lot. We are seeing more opportunities for young people. I think New Orleans is on a path to be more open to new conversations around inequities and systemic racism.
“We believe in a better future,” he concluded, “and we’re working towards it every day.”
The Liberty’s Kitchen Café remains closed due to the pandemic. Absent this revenue, the organization has launched a major year-end giving campaign. More information may be found on its website, www.libertyskitchen.org.