Detroit Food Academy (DFA) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that works with local educators, chefs, and business owners to inspire young Detroiters (ages 13–24) through self-directed entrepreneurial experiences rooted in food — focusing on the types of experiences which open doors, create connections, and spark confidence. Jen Rusciano has served as Executive Director of the Detroit Food Academy for the past 4 years. Why food and why DFA? This tells you all you need to know:
Me: Why are you an entrepreneur?
Jen: I am an entrepreneur in the way we encourage our students to be: undertaking the challenge of building the world they want to live in. Entrepreneur comes from the French for ‘to undertake’, and it is this definition we lift up to our students from high schools around Detroit. Through the experience of building a triple bottom line (people, planet, and profit-focused) food project from the ground up, our students practice taking an idea and making it a reality. This is the fundamental definition of an entrepreneur and the key ingredient in realizing a new vision for our society — one rooted in equity.
Me: What problem would you like solved?
Jen: Where most people see challenge, I see opportunity — in our young people. A young person should be able to be grow up in Detroit and have every opportunity open to them. Today, this is sadly not the case. It is not just the divestment in neighborhoods and schools, the segregation of the transportation system, or the lack of economic security that impact our young people. It is the undercutting of the confidence and support that are so vital to growth and actualization. Young Detroiters are among the most important communities our City has. As we build pathways that inspire confidence, build connection, and lift students’ own innate power to make change, we widen the path for Detroiters to be at the helm and the center of the City’s development.
Me: Advice you’d wished you’d had or had followed?
Jen: I wish I had been told to be humble, to always be a student. Much of my upbringing and education pointed me towards ‘doing something’ without asking who, why, or how. I am so grateful to know that I do not have to have all the answers! I turn to my students, our team, and our mentors on a daily basis to see how we can build something great together.
Me: What does success look like for you?
Jen: Success arrives when all our young Detroiters are healthy, connected and powerful! On a daily basis we see signs of success, when young leaders work with local educators, chefs, and business owners through self-directed entrepreneurial experiences rooted in food — experiences which open doors, create connections, and spark confidence. From cooking delicious healthy meals for friends and family to facilitating complex conversations with community to developing artisan food projects from scratch to market, students learn by transforming their ideas into reality. Success means working myself out of a job!
Me: Who are your heroes?
Jen: Our students and our Detroit Food Academy team, truly. We are always both teachers and learners, and I have lived this reality alongside our community every day. I am also continually inspired by the life and words of philosopher and solutionary Grace Lee Boggs.
Me: What is your best discovery?
Jen: That young Detroiters are more than capable of changing this city for the better! My role is to help create the support for students to take their visions into reality, and to hold space for our team to lead from within.
Me: What would the title of your biography be?
Jen: Growing Roots: Through Food Work to Life Work.
Me: What is your biggest regret?
Jen: That I was not raised with the knowledge that systematic oppression is real, that I benefit from it, and that communities like Detroit are not a blank slate. Communities are rich and complicated, and to be fully a part of any community, we must examine the baggage, abilities, and intentions we come with. I am grateful for the opportunity to unpack and grow each day.