PART EX-CON, PART FARMER, PART QUEEN
Each spring, Doron Comerchero walks into Pajaro Valley High School. The farmer-turned-activist is ready to sell struggling teenagers on something they may want in their hearts but don’t know how to access: a ticket to a meaningful life.
Doron runs a youth development program called FoodWhat in Santa Cruz County, California. FoodWhat empowers teens to change their lives through farming and food justice.
Doron doesn’t work with A students or B students. He works with kids who rarely show up to school. Kids with no food in the fridge. Kids on probation, kids struggling with addiction, kids whose lives have detoured off every map to a brighter tomorrow.
Doron believes in them. Doron supports them. And they turn their lives around.
But on day one of recruiting at Pajaro Valley High School, it is not obvious this will happen. Today, there are 30 kids fidgeting in a classroom, talking to their friends, messing with their phones. Doron’s wares, on the face of it, are a tough sell. Come work in the fields, grow organic vegetables, do leadership exercises, and eat healthy food. Most of these youth have bigger issues on their minds: addiction, gang violence, social anxiety, the possibility that they may not graduate from high school or get a good job. Many of them are desperate to avoid the exhausting, low-paid farming jobs their parents hold. Why would anyone want to sign up and be part of FoodWhat?
It starts–every time–with relevance. Doron knows that if his words aren’t relevant, the kids will shut him out. Shut themselves down.
So he starts at the front door, with things that are obviously relevant to them. When Doron visits schools to invite teens to apply for FoodWhat, he gives a five-minute pitch on their terms.
First, Doron throws fruit to the crowd. It wakes the kids up, builds energy, and is relevant on a basic level to anyone who is hungry. Then, he establishes credibility with stories from real kids about the program. He shows a big board of photos of FoodWhat youth at work. Farming. Cooking. Eating. Hanging out. He strategically includes images of students from Pajaro Valley High, so when he asks, “See anyone you know on here?” the likely answer is “yes.” When there are FoodWhat alumni in the room, he asks them to share testimonials on the spot.
The easiest way to establish relevance—especially to something foreign—is to show that people like you, people you know, are involved. This is the front door. All you number threes—all you teenagers—this is the place for you.
Doron shows them the front door. Then he sets up the youth. He gets them to want to open the door. He answers the question on every teen’s mind: “what do I get if I participate in this program?”
Doron doesn’t answer this question with sweeping statements about personal transformation. He focuses on concrete things he knows are relevant to the teens in the room—especially the struggling teens who have the most to gain but are often the most reluctant to commit.
FoodWhat participants get four things. First, they get two school credits. While this may not matter to an A student, many struggling youth are miles away from the 200+ credits required to graduate. Those two credits matter to them. Second, participants get a $175 stipend if they successfully complete the program. It’s not a lot, but still, money is a huge motivator for these teens. Third, graduates of the spring program get first dibs on summer internships—real jobs paying a real hourly wage. Fourth, it looks good on your resume to complete a program like this. Many of the kids in the room may not know what a resume is, but Doron explains how it helps you get a job. He explains that FoodWhat graduates get jobs all over the community—that pretty much any place you might want to work, there’s probably a FoodWhat alumni there. He says he will write a killer letter of recommendation for you, and when an employer is looking at two applications, that letter will move you to the top of the stack. And especially for those kids who know that their job prospects may be shaky, that sounds really good and useful.
Each of these four items is a potential key to the FoodWhat door. After offering up these four keys, Doron sweetens the deal with a challenge. He tells the kids: Don’t take an application if you aren’t serious. And if you are serious, make an impression on me when you turn in the application. Stand out in some way. This is a competitive program to get into, and the competition starts now.
He does all of this in five minutes. And kids come up to him, kids who were reassured that his program relates to them on the surface, kids who want to believe in themselves and have the slightest inkling this might help them do it. FoodWhat’s waiting list is always a distressing mile long.
The recruitment phase is just the start of FoodWhat’s relevance challenge. These are teenagers. When you talk about establishing relevance, teens are the holy grail. They are fickle. They are constantly distracted. They are self-centered. They have finely-tuned bullshit meters. They are not afraid to turn off their attention if something doesn’t seem to apply to them.
Teenagers don’t just need someone to help them open the door once. They need it again and again. For Doron, relevance is a process of constant reaffirmation and reconnection.
At the beginning of the FoodWhat year, it’s all about getting kids to show up. If they show up at the program, they’ll have a good day. Doron’s team spends the first few months helping youth open the door again and again. Texting kids to remind them to come. Picking up kids when they need a ride. Reaching out to kids who seem to be fading away. If they open the door enough times, they’ll figure out how to get into the room, and why it matters.
And that’s just getting in the door. Once they’re in the room, Doron’s team has a whole stack of techniques for going deeper with youth, helping them step into their own power on their own terms. He’s managing a mansion of opportunities for relevance and meaning.
What makes teenagers such a tough crowd? Developmentally, teens are in the midst of a huge shift of agency and self-knowledge. They wrestle to assert their identities and what is relevant to them in a sea of hormonal change and uncertainty.
Before their teen years, children are sponges. They have very little agency, and as long as they are in supportive environments, they are mostly okay with that. They go where adults tell them to go. They are open to learning whatever someone else tells them is important. Relevance is not so relevant to them.
Adults, in contrast, have a lot of agency. They go where they want, choose what they want, learn what they want (within or in defiance of societal norms). Relevance is a heavy guiding hand in how they live their lives. It is the internal voice suggesting what they might and might not want to do.
Teenagers are in the middle. They are developing self-knowledge, setting new boundaries, gaining a stronger sense of what they want and where they want to be. At the same time, their agency is still limited by adults in their lives. They feel the friction of limited agency more acutely than their younger or older compatriots. Whenever they have some agency, they struggle to decide: is this relevant for me? Do I want to buy in? Or do I want to peel out?
In this way, teens are no different from adults who are trying something new. Think of the last time you brought something new into your life—a new activity, a lifestyle choice, even a cuisine. As you sat there munching sushi for the first time, as you sweated it out in kickboxing, as you slid on that pair of skinny jeans, you probably asked yourself: is this me? Do I want this to be part of my life?
Teenagers ask themselves these questions all the time. But while most adults have a somewhat fixed sense of identity, teens’ identities are in constant flux—which leads to more complicated calculus of what is relevant, and why.
Because teens are still developing of their identities and goals, they don’t just care whether something is relevant to them now. They care whether something is relevant to who they may want to be—to their idealized perception of their authentic identity. For teens, every photo they share, every activity they opt in or out of, every outfit they wear, is part of establishing their desired identity. And so even as they seek relevance, they seek relevance to a shifting target. To the person they want to be, not necessarily the person they are.
FoodWhat does this in a deep way, providing teenagers with keys to safe spaces where they can explore their potential. As one FoodWhat alumna said at the 2015 graduation: “I used to steal cars. I was going down a bad path with the wrong people. But since my time at FoodWhat, I’m living differently. Now, I have purpose. I guess you can say I’m part ex-con, part farmer, part queen.”
These personal transformations start small. They start with relevance. Each week, Doron re-anchors the teens’ time together on their terms. He reopens the door to the work they do together, ushering youth deeper into the opportunities before them. Each session starts with something that comes from the heart–not his heart, but the hearts of the kids in the room.
Those starters don’t have to be complex. One day, the kids sit in a circle. Doron asks each teen: take a minute and think of a word that is most important to you. Then one at a time, the youth share their words and why they chose them. I’m Maria. Family is a word that matters to me. Michael. Loyalty. Jose. Happiness. Tawnesha. Trust.
Even farming tasks start with relevance. Instead of saying, “let’s go weed the onions,” Doron will say, “in two weeks, we want big fatty onions to put in the boxes that you take home to your parents or guardians and that we distribute out in the community.” That gets them excited. They want those fatty onions for their families. They want to be proud of their work. And then Doron might layer in some science: “Onions are shallow rooters, and so are these weeds, so if we take out the weeds, we give the onions more room to get big.” So now they know why they are weeding.
In a regular job, teens just get told, “do this.” But by providing twenty seconds of context, the task becomes relevant. Inspiring, even. And it communicates respect to the youth involved.
Doron and his team have shaped the room of FoodWhat into a safe space for youth to step into their own power. FoodWhat’s programming is relevant to the teens’ struggles and dreams. This isn’t superficial relevance. It’s not “let’s talk about celebrities” relevance. It’s “open up your heart” relevance. The program invites youth to explore what matters most to them and who they want to be.