Uplifting Youth: An Interview with Irene Juarez-O’Connell of FoodWhat

Irene Juarez O’Connell, Programs Manager for FoodWhat

 Irene Juarez O’Connell is the Programs Manager for FoodWhat, a youth empowerment and food justice organization that was named the California nonprofit of the year in 2019. Irene was interviewed by Arty Mangan, Director of the Bioneers Youth Leadership and Education Program.

Arty: How are you coping through these challenging times?

Irene: My job at FoodWhat keeps my creative juices flowing and helps me stay positive. When we got the official notice that schools would be closing, we came up with – in what felt like a blessed brainstorm – a social media campaign to take all of our programming that we would normally be doing with the youth on the farm and translated it to our social media on Instagram. The staff is filming videos of ourselves leading workshops. It’s really been a lot of fun because on Instagram you can go live, and people can come in and engage with you in real time. It’s kind of a bummer that we can’t be with the youth in person, but It’s pretty sweet that we can still connect with them.

Arty: What attracted you to work with youth?

Irene: I was working at the Resource Center for Nonviolence [in Santa Cruz], which I loved. It opened me up to so many movements and ideologies. I realized that, at age 22, I was the youngest person there and the only intern who was under 40. I was like, “Where are the young people? Where is the next generation who will be reading these books and sharing these kinds of conversations?”

So at the Resource Center for Nonviolence, I helped start a youth program called Project Regeneration. Every January for Martin Luther King weekend, we put on a big youth day in conjunction with the NAACP and other local organizations. That’s how I first came in contact with FoodWhat.

At the same time that I was working at the Resource Center, I was also working for Barrios Unidos as an outreach specialist in the high school. In the morning, we served breakfast and we provided food in the afternoon. During lunch, we were a space where youth could hang out and feel safe and feel their identity and culture reflected and affirmed. That was so important for me having gone to a high school with predominantly Latinos and Mexicanos, where being Latina was kind of looked down upon. There was a sense that it was inferior somehow. There was a lot of discrimination and white supremacy, frankly.

Having that space at Santa Cruz High opened me up to how incredible the young people in the community were. From that opportunity, I got a chance to work inside the juvenile hall with Barrios Unidos. Twice a week I led circles on culture and spirituality. I saw my role as offering hope to the young people inside, offering stories, art skills, activities and history lessons. I was really just someone to talk to who had a heart and was willing to listen. I realized that this is what I want to be doing. I feel grateful to be someone who young people tend to trust and want to open up to. I slowly saw that as a gift that not everyone had. I wanted to be able to do what I could to leverage power systems or create access points, but more than anything to just be present for young people particularly those who felt like they were alone or those who were feeling like the world had turned its back on them.

After three years in the juvenile hall, I found out about an opening at FoodWhat, and I thought, wow, what an amazing program. I get to do the same kind of outreach, but on a farm and with food. And hopefully work with young people before they get inside the juvenile hall, which is what we have been able to do. We have been able to work with the probation department to create diversions. We’re still just getting our relationship going, but they really love FoodWhat. They see the value in a young person participating in FoodWhat as opposed to sitting in a cell. To me that feels really amazing. FoodWhat has given me the perfect avenue to embrace that gift and share it.

Arty: That’s an impressive trajectory and resume of service. Tell me more about FoodWhat. What do you do? Why do you do it?

Irene: Our program is designed to work with juniors and seniors in high school. That tends to be a critical age for young people as they are transitioning out of high school and into either college, or community college, or the workforce. There are a lot of youth-serving programs in our county, however, there seems to be a gap across the board for young people ages 18-25. There’s not a lot of programming out there that directly serves that age group. We find that’s one of the most critical times in someone’s life when they’re beginning to make formative decisions about the trajectory of their lives. So, we work with that age range.

Our process is based in an empowerment setting because we want youth to choose to do our program; we don’t want it to be mandated. From the very beginning, we frame it as a choice.

We give presentations in schools to share what we’ll be doing in our spring program – one hour of cooking, one hour of farming and one hour of a workshop. 

We emphasize to the teachers that the folks we want to make priority are the ones who are experiencing the most struggle. We don’t want the A+ students. We want the ones who are falling through the cracks, or who are struggling with attendance, or are in the foster system, or are on probation, or are in recovery, or experiencing any kind of barriers or challenges at home. There is a learning curve for some of the teachers. At first, many of them say, “Oh, that person’s never going to follow through,” or “You’re not going to want to deal with that person.” We have to pause them and say, “Wait, tell us more about that young person. We want to work with that person.”

FoodWhat creates a different paradigm from the classroom setting. Partly that has to do with the fact that the program is on the farm. We have two farm sites, one at the University of California, Santa Cruz on the CASFS Farm. Our other partner location is Live Earth Farm in Watsonville. Starting in the spring, about 75 students come once a week for three hours for 11 weeks. It’s a lot of young people, a lot of stories to remember, a lot of names, but it’s a lot of fun.

We also offer a robust eight-week summer program that is a paid job. We’re doing a lot of farming, we’re cooking with professional chefs from across the county, we’re doing workshops, we bring in partners, we’re doing field trips, and we participate in a youth summit.

About midway in the summer, the students have the opportunity to apply for fall jobs so they can continue on with adjusted hours, considering most of them are back in school. They can choose what aspects of the farm or what aspects of FoodWhat they want to focus on. We offer around 10 different jobs including catering and culinary. We also offer farm management for those who enjoyed being on the farm and want to learn more about agriculture. We have a flower business; we cultivate, harvest, arrange, and deliver bouquets for local businesses in town. And we offer an event-planning job. There’s a range to allow for the myriad of interests and the gifts that the youth have.

We also take them to Bioneers. They are always excited about an opportunity to go camping. For many of them it’s their first time camping. It’s a critical opportunity for us because at that time in October it feels like a turning point where the relationships between staff and the youth who attend really blossom and deepen in ways that don’t normally happen. For those of us who get to camp and cook and experience the world that is Bioneers together, it really helps to build a deeper relationship and trust with the young people.

In the winter, when the farm is under cover crop and kind of asleep for the season, we roll out our community educator’s program, which is an opportunity for young people to share our FoodWhat workshops with other youth groups, peers, and other high school students. Those workshops range from Trace Your Taco, where students talk about the conventional, industrial food system through the lens of a Taco Bell taco. Another workshop is called What You Think, What You Drink, where youth share how to read the labels of sugary drinks. Fast Food Jeopardy is about the fast food industry.

There’s a long trajectory throughout the year. It is a graduated leadership model. The farming and the food content is the vehicle for the space. Some people consider FoodWhat a job-training program, some people consider FoodWhat a farming program or a cooking program, but it’s really hard to pin down the one thing that FoodWhat is. What we like to say is that we’re a space to uplift the well-being of youth and community in our county. Food is just a way to get youth present and engaged, but more than anything, we want to create a space that youth feel safe in and affirmed in.

Arty: I went to a FoodWhat celebration dinner a few years ago. In the testimonials from the youth, the thing that seemed to be consistent throughout their stories was that FoodWhat had become family. In some cases, they had never before had a positive relationship with an adult.

Irene: Absolutely. It’s real. It’s very sweet to see youth build family within FoodWhat. We never say, “Okay guys, we’re your family now.” Because family holds so much weight and can be a very challenging thing for so many. Youth decide for themselves that they see FoodWhat in that way. It goes beyond any particular staff member. I think it really has to do with the memories and the experience they cultivate during their one-year cohort, their physicality experience on the land, and the physical space they can come back to. Anytime they want to come to the FoodWhat office, we all put down our work and focus on that person. That kind of space is something they continue to come back to, even years later.

We have an annual alumni gathering, and some people are coming back 10 years later, and they have kids and spouses. This space is so impactful that they want to bring your family here. It’s been really remarkable to witness and be part of.

Arty: Can you share a story of a youth who was challenged coming into the program and some years later has put their life together in a positive way?

Irene: Jo Jo is now 27 or 28 and has a daughter. She now works for the Farmers’ Market Association as their accountant. She’s also running the summer camp with Life Lab. It’s so amazing to see Jo, who when she was in the program was deep in struggle when she was 16 or 17. Now she’s totally blossomed into a young professional who’s running programs and as an accountant for the farmers’ market. We had a series of conversations with panels of youth sharing their experience. Her level of insight, reflection, self-awareness and maturity about her journey blew me away. She attributed the pivot point in her life to FoodWhat.

Arty: You mentioned Bioneers. Has Bioneers impacted you as an educator/mentor?

Irene: Huge impact. It taught me a lot. I feel there’s been so many life-learning moments at Bioneers. I am in awe of the expansiveness of the Bioneers network, the level of expertise that was present in the rooms, and the whole breadth of topics that were covered. It was really affirming for me because so many of the things that are talked about at Bioneers are things I care passionately about. Bioneers was very eye-opening; it was very motivating and inspiring. It helped me put language to things I couldn’t quite express.

It actually helped me reflect on how I personally show up in a space, things I’m personally drawn to learn, and how to create a supportive experience for the young people that I’m bringing. As much as I get out of it, my priority is to make sure the young people I’m with are feeling safe and that they’re feeling welcomed.

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