A trip to the grill for Darren Young these days is about much more than just a meal. It’s the place community organizer, youth pastor, entrepreneur, and chef all meet.
The Neighborhood Leadership Academy is improving communities one project at a time through a neighborhood education program that has quietly been operating in St. Louis for nearly two decades. They have another set of graduates ramping up in south St. Louis with a combination of good food and jobs for teens.
Young and his wife, Charlene Lopez-Young, completed the program in autumn of 2018.
“How do we look at our gifts?” he asks when talking about his new project. “How do we also recognize our weaknesses, but how do we leverage the things that we’re naturally good at? For me that’s when the light bulb came on.”
Finding a way to take all those strengths and put them to one use began when he and Lopez-Young signed up for the Neighborhood Leadership Academy (NLA), a joint venture between the University of Missouri Extension and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
At the NLS, participants come with an idea for a community project, and learn how to best execute it. The couple wanted to do something to help their south St. Louis neighborhood – they just weren’t sure what it would or should look like.
“We love food, but we love people more,” Lopez-Young said. “So that is woven out throughout our business plan, throughout our mission statement, throughout everything that the Fattened Caf does.”
Through the Filipino barbecue food service business the launched with the assistance of the NLA, they will be partnering with the St. Louis Public Schools and helping kids they were already working with in their “day jobs”.
“I have a background in youth development, more specifically youth ministry,” Darren said, talking about his work at the faith-based, nonprofit organization, Young Life, where he works with teenagers in South City. Lopez-Young says that work in the schools led them to a conclusion about community needs.
“We realized that a lot of our students are not equipped to go into college with a lot of skill sets because their schools may have focused on behavioral issues to begin with. So we felt that letting them know what it feels like to be an entrepreneur sets them up for more experiences.”
At NLA, they learned the organizing skills more than any kind of business tips. That’s why people usually attend the 10-week program of college courses taught at UMSL focusing on community level organizing. Some students pay tuition, but scholarships are available, too.
“The people who attend Neighborhood Leadership Academy are the ones who are really ready to roll up their sleeves and do something great for their neighborhood or with their neighborhood, “Claire Wolff, one of the organizers of the academy told us. “Sometimes people run for office. We’ve had people become St. Louis City Aldermen, local municipal mayors. Sometimes people launch community concerts or something that really bridges social capital. Sometimes people start a new business.”
The trick is helping the students, aspiring community organizers, identify their own strengths and match them with the true needs of the neighborhood where they’re working. In the case of the The Fattened Caf, it was partially their work with teens.
“But also taking this love for food, for community, for bringing people together, and really it was out of NLA that kind of birthed this idea of Fattened Caf,” Young said.
The Fattened Caf began with pop-up locations at farmers’ markets and met with what they describe as great success.
“Almost every event we’ve done we’ve sold out. We’ve done catering on the side as our schedule allows, and we’re now figuring out the next stages to do a more permanent location,” said Young.
That permanent location, and some more stability, would allow them to go to the next phase: bringing on those teenagers. That part of the program will be called “YeSTL” and will allow high-school students to come on board as managers – doing the basic items of food entrepreneurship – cooking and cleaning – but also building specific managerial and entrepreneurial skills.
“I think the common denominator is the engagement you need to be successful,” Wolff said of their over 300 graduates. “To connect with everybody in your community. To build relationships.”
“I think the more programs that exist that are like this, the more we set ourselves up for success,” Young-Lopez told HEC. “And not just young professionals or entrepreneurs, but also the youth in St. Louis city. When you have a social enterprise or business that puts its people first, I think you can just get more good than anything from that.”