To the Hot Bread Kitchen Community,
Thank you for your support over the past six months as Hot Bread Kitchen has grappled with the complex emergency support required of so many food workers and foodmakers in our kitchens. Much has changed for our community this year, and there is more change yet to come. As Hot Bread Kitchen prepares for the future, we are eager to share our plans and next steps in more detail. First, though, I write to share with you my personal inspiration for where we’re headed next.
I started my career in social justice at the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit supporting underserved people within the justice system. Every day, I would see reminders of underlying institutional racism and ramifications of the criminal justice system: unconscionable forms of public housing; immigrants deprived of citizenship as an asset; high unemployment; and over-policed communities and schools. At the same time, I was inspired by the unstoppable lawyers and social workers who named all of the systemic wrongdoing that led to these conditions. They fought to keep indigent Black and Brown people out of jail and worked to protect families from being separated, doing whatever they could to stop children from being placed into the state’s care simply because their parents were poor, homeless, or struggling with issues like domestic abuse, mental health, and addiction.
Today, 20 years later, the country is confronting, and seemingly coming to terms with, the idea that institutional racism is at the core of what is wrong with our society—the root cause of the lack of wealth, assets, and economic opportunity that disproportionately affect people of color. Anyone can try to earn and learn, but, depending on the shade of your skin, where you were born, or which “side of the tracks” your neighborhood is on, the deck will unequivocally be stacked against you. Many of us who work at Hot Bread Kitchen are here because we know this, have seen it or lived it, and because we know it requires collective effort to get even one person over hurdles so high and numerous.
I do this work because, at 21, I encountered people who had experienced such systemic harm that I could see no way out for them—except helping them achieve economic stability by investing in their education, skills building, and entrepreneurship.
Last November, which feels like a lifetime ago, I walked into our culinary training fundamentals class at Hot Bread Kitchen and a woman I faintly recognized doubled me over with a shriek and a hug. She was Jessica*, whose case was one of my first as a parent advocate at the Bronx Defenders. I recalled that Jessica, a Black American woman, had faced housing eviction and a child welfare investigation case for school absences and tardiness. After Jessica’s landlord had locked her and her two young children, aged 7 and 2, out of their home in the Bronx, she had no choice but to live in a homeless shelter by JFK Airport and had trouble getting her daughter to school on time from such a great distance. While we fought Jessica’s housing case, I borrowed my parents’ car and drove her daughter to school for two weeks until we were able to help her family move to a shelter closer by. Jessica and I had stayed in touch over the years via Facebook and text, but eventually we lost touch.
“I was joyous to see Jessica in our Kitchen because I knew that at Hot Bread Kitchen, she was safe; here, we would be her champion. I also wondered why, in the two decades since I first met her, she had been unable to find meaningful, sustainable work.”
As this wave of memories poured over me last year, I was joyous to see Jessica in our Kitchen because I knew that at Hot Bread Kitchen, she was safe; here, we would be her champion. I also wondered why, in the two decades since I first met her, she had been unable to find meaningful, sustainable work.
Jessica had passed through myriad systems—the education system, the shelter system, the child welfare system, the court system—and none had provided her with the coaching and guidance that could lift her up and give her a real chance on an uneven playing field.
Just a month after running into Jessica, at the end of 2019, I walked into our East Harlem kitchen, which is home base for dozens of bustling small food businesses. One of those businesses, Fauzia’s Heavenly Delights, is a beloved Jamaican food truck that parks outside the Bronx criminal courthouse—a place where, years ago, I had waited in long lines countless times for jerk chicken, curried mixed vegetables, and, if I was lucky, a coveted coconut cake. Fauzia Abdur-Rahman, the owner, was in the kitchen when I visited in December, and as I shared my memories of visiting her truck, she introduced me to her daughter, who now works alongside her.
We talked about Fauzia’s desire to start a packaged sauce in her name and build on the legacy of her food cart business of over 25 years, and about the values she wanted to pass on to her children. Running her business is back-breaking work and Fauzia deserves to retire, but she isn’t sure if, how, or when she can. The struggles and concerns she shared with me echoed those of scores of other solo entrepreneurs I met in the 15 years after I left the Bronx Defenders, when I worked with nonprofit leader Accion to scale small business microlending in the US. The never-ending hustle she described and the incredible dedication she embodied reminded me of so many immigrants in this country, past and present, whose stories have inspired me—including my own mother, who gave all she had to running her small business in Jackson Heights, Queens, for 20 years.
“I have been thinking a lot about Jessica and Fauzia this year. They have reappeared in my life perhaps by chance, or perhaps as a meaningful reminder of why I must continue to work to keep the door of opportunity open for them.”Shaolee Sen
I have been thinking a lot about Jessica and Fauzia this year. They have reappeared in my life perhaps by chance, or perhaps as a meaningful reminder of why I must continue to work to keep the door of opportunity open for them. They have reminded me of the incredible things they can build for their life’s worth, their retirement, to leave for their children—but only if I invest in their economic opportunity. Only if we invest in them.
When we invest in Jessica and Fauzia, we invest in changing the outcomes for their lives. We invest in their ability to build assets they can pass on to their families. When we at Hot Bread Kitchen invest in any woman in our workforce program, we are thinking of her savings, of the college education or down payment for a home she’ll be able to provide for her children. When we invest in entrepreneurs like Fauzia, we think of her retirement, of her daughter taking and growing the business her mother built from the ground up.
These breadwinners are the reason why Hot Bread Kitchen has always existed, and why we are starting 2020 over with renewed ambition. They are why we are confronting the roots of injustice in our country by creating economic opportunity for women, immigrants, and entrepreneurs of color. As we look to the future, we are committing to put Jessica and all 200 of our Hot Bread Kitchen workforce alumni on the path to a living wage within two years. We are committing to investing in businesses like Fauzia’s and transforming Black women chefs’ ability to generate wealth through entrepreneurship. We are committing to investing in breadwinners, and we are asking you to invest with us.
It’s time. Please, join us as we get to work in our Kitchen.
CEO, Hot Bread Kitchen
*Name has been changed