For this episode, host Lia Howard in joined by Jarrett Stein, a two-time Penn alumnus and a staff member at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. Stein is the director of social enterprise and health partnerships at the Netter Center, where he oversees the health education and social-entrepreneurship partnerships between students, staff, and faculty at Penn and at the Netter Center’s University-Assisted Community Schools. To support kids’ access to healthy foods and meaningful jobs, he co-founded Rebel Ventures, a youth-driven health food business run by high school students. In 2018, Jarrett was selected as a TIAA Difference Merk 100 honoree for his efforts to improve nutrition for the young people of West Philadelphia.
Excerpts from Edited Transcript
Dr. Lia Howard: Welcome to the Park podcast, where dialogue across difference is vital to community wellness. I’m Dr. Lia Howard, your host in the space where open dialogue, the free exchange of ideas, and civil and robust expression of divergent views is valued. Here we will explore the research, the practical applications, and the benefits of effective, ethical and civil dialogue in a diverse world.
We hope to model respectful conversation that accurately and authentically frames contentious issues, hoping to reach an ideologically diverse audience. Gen-Z is remarkable in terms of their social activism. Before they could vote, many had already participated in protest marches, letter and social media campaigns and outspoken advocacy around issues they are passionate about. Direct action can be empowering and marching with others can produce strong feelings of cohesiveness and connection around shared ideals. And at the same time, social and political change can be slow and advocacy without results can be deeply discouraging, especially if the issues at hand are essential. How do we care for ourselves? During the slow, challenging work of social change? This series interviews Penn alumni working to change some of America’s most intractable social problems. To ask them how are they taking care of themselves so they can sustain their fight on behalf of others? It examines the intellectual, social and contemplative practices that leaders in the arena of social change are embracing to inform their work, offering examples and real world experiences.
This series speaks to current Penn undergrads hoping to better understand their own social action with integrative and sustaining practices. We are so delighted to welcome Jarret Stein, a two time Penn alumnus and staff member at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships in 2017.
He earned his master’s degree in nonprofit leadership from Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice. Today, Stein is the director of Social Enterprise and Health Partnerships at the Netter Center, where he oversees the health, education and social entrepreneurship partnerships between students, staff and faculty at Penn and at the Netter Center’s University Assisted Community Schools to support kids access to healthy foods and meaningful jobs.
He co-founded Rebel Ventures, a youth driven health food business run by high school students. The Netter Center describes rebel ventures as “An educational activity. Students learn about the food system by competing in the real world, competitive food marketplace. The pedagogy is deep engagement through projects, problem solving and partnerships.” In 2018, Jarrett was selected as a TIAA Difference Mark 100 honoree for his efforts to improve nutrition for the young people of West Philadelphia.
Jarrett, welcome. Could you tell us a bit about your career journey since your time as a Penn undergrad? What work are you currently involved in and what led you to this type of social change?
Jarrett Stein: Yeah, of course. Thanks again. It’s awesome to talk with you. So my career journey, like the idea of what I was going to do, definitely started when I was an undergrad at Penn. I came to Penn really with like only knowing that I was passionate about food and liked cooking shows. And sort of started my course search based off that. Looking at what classes were related to food and media and just took every single class that sort of like fit into that category. And one was called Psychology of Food. And the professor, Paul Rozin, really had all these different aspects of learning in the class that were hands on and went to restaurants and did experiments. And I joined his lab as an undergrad and then also took a class on the politics of food with Larry Summers, and that was an academic community service class. I didn’t know at the time, but when I got to class that first day, and got the syllabus, and saw that there were opportunities because it was an ABCS class, which is a class partnered with the Netter Center, I would be able to do cooking workshops in person with people, and that was so exciting to me. It was at Lee elementary school with this project called the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative, a unit which is part of another center. It’s a nutrition education program. And so as a senior at Penn I, as part of this course, would go with a staff person at a unit and help make sure l do these cooking workshops that lead with families and they learn and had a really tremendous experience doing that.
It felt right in terms of how to apply what I was learning and what I really cared about. And so I graduated, had a summer camp with AUNI. And then that fall after graduation I was a nutrition teacher with a unit in West Philadelphia. I was teaching nutrition in three middle schools and one K-8 elementary school in west, and southwest, and Shari mentioned neighborhoods of Philadelphia and that was my first couple of years after undergrad was just like in classrooms teaching and learning with kids about food. The beginning of that was extremely challenging for kids. Me not knowing what I was doing and kids being very clear about that to me and not really wanting to participate and then just learning with the kids and with my colleagues at the Netter Center and so I was still very connected at Penn. So with all of my former professors we were sort of learning together about how to do some of the teaching in the classroom differently and was then doing that for a couple of years and then those projects grew and I kind of grew with them in my career. One of the projects, Rebel Ventures, grew into its own nonprofit, and I helped start that with students and other board members, staff, and colleagues. And I taught a class at Penn with one of the co-founders of the AG Urban Nutrition Initiative, Frank Johnston. It was like the faculty co-founders around nutritional anthropology then, and now continuing to grow these projects and support them around food, education and social ventures with the Netter Center and University Assisted Community Schools and knowing K-12, or K-12 public schools, that were partnered with and designing curricula and recruiting and training staff and overseeing lots of cooking and gardening and food social venture projects here and at the Netter Center.
And that is the main work I would say, that we’re involved in. In terms of social change is really working together as a community to really support young people in schools, to create better food systems in those schools. So whether it be through growing food or learning about food or cooking food and sharing food or selling food, there’s all of these different opportunities to do these activities. And our whole sort of approach is how can this be student led? And that’s the work that we’re doing.
Dr. Lia Howard: What a wonderful journey, and a really cool mission, and so great to hear. Can you tell me a little bit more about the problem that you seek to address? I can infer it from what you’ve said, but I’d love to hear more about the problem.
Jarrett Stein: When I was a nutrition teacher, I first was coming into like my middle school classes, and being like apples are really good for you, what about carrots and hummus? And that wasn’t going over very well the whole me saying. Well actually the whole idea is, I guess, nutrition is focused on here and eating good food and preventing sickness through good health and building more sustainable food systems and more community around food. But at the beginning it was sort of telling. And then I asked a class of students, how would you make your school healthier? So I would say maybe that is the core of the issue is how would you make your school healthier? And that class identified this issue of lack of good, healthy snacks. There was a lot of access to chips and cookies for kids, going into school and in the school, leaving the school and around the school. But not a lot of access to something quick and tasty and good for you. That was affordable or accessible. So that was one aspect of this bigger problem around just how can we create a healthier community? And a lot of that’s such a huge thing there. There’s so many things that are connected to health. So sort of what I’m most focused on and passionate about is the food connection to this. So the problems around lack of access to nutritious food, and lack of access to fun opportunities to learn about good food and to learn about how to grow good food and having role models that are positive around good food and just good fun happy experiences for kids that are around food.
Dr. Lia Howard: What is your motivation speaking to what you just said just now? Why do you do the work that you do? What drives you and helps you to continue to do the hard work of social and community change?
Jarrett Stein: Yeah. So I had a pretty good childhood. I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee and went to private school and was pretty healthy my whole life. And I played soccer, and stuff, and when I was 14, just sort of out of nowhere was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was straight into the hospital, and chemo, and surgery, and dropped out of school. I had to stop going to school for a few months and just sort of stopped everything. And it was a traumatic experience and a lot of different things happened during that time that sort of created this motivation. And as I reflected on it in my life, I sort of had grown through. So one of them was just I was super underweight and my doctor said, you know, we’re going to have to feed you with a tube in your nose unless you can gain weight. And it’s like “oh that sounds horrible.” So, I have to figure out how to gain weight. And with chemo, you don’t eat you’re getting nauseous a lot and you are so very tired. So I just started watching TV a lot, and watched the Food Network a lot, and watching the Food Network kind of got me a little bit hungry and then started asking my mom to bring the food that I saw. And then I realized, I’ve got really nothing to do and I’ll do some cooking. So I started watching food on TV and then doing a lot of cooking. But I was sick and I really, really, really loved cooking and learning about food and all the different gadgets. And the Food Network is perfect for sort of introducing one to different ingredients and gadgets inside.
It’s something that just sort of was forged in me during this experience. Is this deep passion for food, and cooking, and sharing food and growing. You know, I had through my childhood, no special relationship with food. I didn’t eat particularly good food or anything. And so it’s just sort of through that experience with cancer. And then also just again, kind of upon reflection in terms of when I was at Penn, trying to learn about what I really cared about and wanted to do with my life. I think that just recognition around anything can happen to anybody at any time. And we have some things we control, but not as much is out of our control. That’s random and so, you know, we have what is in our control is what we choose to do with our time. And, I really felt and feel it’s very important for our own health to do things that are very meaningful for us. But also just in terms of why we’re here and we’ve got this life.
So through that kind of time with cancer and experience in the hospital with seeing lots of young people, me going through lots of these sort of random horrible sicknesses was, okay, we got to do something really meaningful with the time that we have. And then I think just in terms of learning at Penn and having experiences, you know, through AUNI, just recognizing that there’s so much that we can do in terms of more fruits and vegetables for kids, in terms of learning about them and growing them. Some schools have gardens, but some schools don’t. And those that do, more kids need to get out there. And some schools have cooking programs and some schools don’t. But those, you know, we can make them more fun. School food, there’s a lot of opportunity here. I love school food and I think it’s really important and incredible program and there’s a lot of opportunity to make that food and have kids be more excited about eating it because there are a lot of fruits and vegetables in it. You know, consuming more fruits and vegetables and all of that is real important in preventing us from being sick. And that for me is why, you know, just really how can we have more kids, really anyone, but particularly I think there’s great opportunity in school where kids are learning and having all this food being served to them to really have these initial experiences and answers that are very positive with food and try to foster them.
So that sort of is what is built into why I do this work.
Dr. Lia Howard: Your story is so profound. Thank you for sharing with us, and it’s exciting why you do this work. Really wonderful. So I want to think about how you care for yourself during the slow, challenging work of social change. How do you integrate personal wellness, work, life balance and self-care with your professional work? And I also want you to, you know in this answer, if you don’t mind, considering what’s discouraging about the work you do, what keeps you centered despite that?
And then how do you practically manage the psychological and emotional stressors of this work as you care for vulnerable populations? How do you continue to maintain your own core emotional strength?
Jarrett Stein: Yeah, well, I definitely wake up thankful and appreciative and try to just sort of take each day as something to be joyful about and then to do my best. I am fortunate to have incredible colleagues at the Netter Center and in the schools that we work with and around Pen. And other organizations in Philly and beyond that I work with. They share similar values and we spend a lot of time at work. And so having that alignment and understanding of the why, why this is important, we’re all working together, you know, we’re all doing the best that we can and having that understanding, you know. Good communication, I think is really, really valuable in terms of being able to to be whole in your life and work. And specifically at Netter Center, there’s a program that we do called stress lists that is, I think, a partnership with CHOP. And it’s monthly gatherings that we do to talk about secondary traumatic stress and work together as a team to think through strategies of, well, this and share stories with one another and so building it into our life to what we do and recognizing the importance of being as whole as we can be.
That’s so, so, so vital to be able to do the work that we do effectively and consistently. So, I think that, you know, the workplace itself is like very much founded on its core value of respecting the whole person and ensuring that there is as much as possible. This balance, I guess, I just happen to get a series of how to situations. Everyone’s got their stuff. So I don’t know if that’s unique or profound or whatever. It’s just is what it is for me and I deal with it and I think it’s important to share when given the opportunity. So I appreciate it. So I was very motivated by post-traumatic growth, and in an incredible position in this work and so fortunate to be able to find meaning in what I do and building rebel ventures and co-founding a nonprofit and having all of this, it’s very exciting.
Hands on work with kids is amazing and it’s a lot of physical effort. And I maybe have sort of neglected some personal physical health things, and I didn’t realize that I was sort of sick at some point. This is in my professional life. And then when I ended up going to the doctor, we found out that I had Crohn’s colitis, which is a whole GI thing. Your colon doesn’t work very well, and for six years I had this and just three months ago have started a three surgery process to remove my colon and create what’s called a J pouch and sort of just fix this really devastating chronic disease. And it’s unbelievable what they do at Penn Medicine. Big shout out to them. But I just say this to say that nothing is more important. I’ve realized that nothing is more important than our physical, mental health, and emotional health. And we can’t be productive or impactful or what we want to be if we don’t have that or you know, if we’re not able to focus on that.
Some of us aren’t fortunate to have perfect talent for being able to feel like you can have some level of comfort. And so, I was able to take this step back and now have really, and again, I have this unbelievable team of colleagues and support system and family and stuff that really build in the importance of the balance in your life to ensure that you’re eating well. And I calendar all my meals now, you know. I don’t joke around just having an hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner at specific times and stuff and time to walk and to stretch. And I think, you know, I try very intentionally to balance my meetings with kind of on site work and kind of research and planning and administrative work and just really try to think about how I can ensure that. All of that, as much as I can control around feeling good, I’m doing this the only way that we can do the work well. And then you know with doing that, and this is again kind of something, is then I think I was very fortunate to be in a position to do this. But building some of that mindfulness into the actual activities that we’re doing. So like my role is to create food, education, curricula and, you know, support our implementation of these different activities and projects and coordinate partnerships in our schools and that actual work around food and cooking and gardening.
It’s really important to have mindful practice and build that into what students and staff are doing on site. So we recently got to encourage stuff that I originally created this GSC, a garden mindfulness warm up, and closing activity curriculum which are stretching and Tai Chi inspired exercises that are kid friendly and also outdoor appropriate. For the idea we designed it for garden club students, for kids that are working in the school gardens. But we’re excited to use these exercises and lots of our different program to really center ourselves, you know. While we’re doing prior work, and we’re doing all of this work. So those are some of the ways that I try to think about self-care and help in the professional work that I do. And I mean, you try to be very centered and joy and fun is important with food especially, you know. In terms of our attitude matters a lot when we’re eating. And so there are a lot of things that are sometimes discouraging. And I think that the one that comes to mind first is the physical infrastructure of a lot of the schools that we work in, a lot of the public schools in Philadelphia. And there’s incredible work that individuals and teams of people are doing across the board around education pretty much everybody. And there have been whatever has happened for whatever reason that has led to the reality. I’ve seen difficult places to work. And if you’re a kid, or an adult, and wanting to be in a school, I mean, I think what we try to do or say here whatever the infrastructure is and whatever the resources that we had and thinking about this in a very asset like sort of a story how can we co-create better environments? And it can be discouraging just recognizing that, you know, this is how we value public education in our country and in Philadelphia or in Pennsylvania, all these different things. But I mean, we have this incredible team and community of people from the Netter and Penn and the schools that we work in and the students and their families and our community partners. That really, I think, that’s what keeps everything in the same sort of forward momentum and positive trajectory.
Dr. Lia Howard: I appreciate your transparency and describing how your own health concerns have led to real intentionality around these issues, and then also your very clear examples about how you’re putting things into practice. I want to go if staff can ever come to garden club exercises, I will be there. But we’ve been thinking a lot, in the SNF Paideia program, about the concentric circles of care. How our self-care, community care and social activism are connected. We’re trying to better understand how an individual’s ability to be an effective change maker is connected to a wider circle of community wellness that we are not, as individuals, fully in control of the social structure. But we can draw strength from others as we fight for social change together. Could you share about how and if you’re able to look to the community that you’re advocating for, to provide you with support when your individual efforts to change power structures seem fruitless. Does and can your community contribute to your own personal well-being?
Jarrett Stein: Absolutely. I think first about this, just in a professional realm, and I think if that has been the approach of Netter Center and the Center for Community Partnerships, so it’s all about how are we working together? And as you described them, concentric circles or these different layers of community and we have different approaches and values that we’re always trying to have in place to ensure that we’re, you know, really grounded in our efforts. And so one of those is participatory work, and democratic work, and doing what we can to have a mutually transformative impact. And it sounds good. And, in practice, it is not even my work with food. It’s the only way that it actually does work. So when my rebel ventures, this program nonprofit that has students designing where students across the city are eating in schools in terms of school food, began when students voiced their desire and motivation to participate in how to create a healthier school. We want healthier snacks. We’re going to create a healthier snack company in our classroom. We’re going to, you know, co-manage our peers and try to do this work together and so I feel like having that sort of participatory, listening oriented session is…what it’s all about in terms of the work that I’m involved in with food and that sort. Where in many times sort of, you know, throughout my career just working together with students and sharing power and sharing responsibility with young people for who I mean this is who I am tending to work with.
But I think this sort of, reflective in most environments, is super important too. I think we were talking about sort of going we’re continuing to work on the power structures seem fruitless. You know, it’s that sort of we’re all in this together sort of approach and yeah, I think that’s how we do it. And I think that also is super important and I think that is how we affected professionally and personally is this sort of just being as open and participatory and sharing and listening as we can to work together to get through some of these challenging things?
Dr. Lia Howard: Well said. So finally, Jared, what gives you hope?
Jarrett Stein: I mean, what’s happening on the ground every day in the schools and these different projects is just absolutely awesome and smile inducing and help create hope. Generating, kids growing, harvesting, tasting, you know, be excited about keeping their school gardens clean and, you know, taking that ownership and beautification of these spaces that they’re cultivating around food. And then harvesting, you know, being excited about using them and teaching people about how to, you know, make salsa with them and all these different things. It’s so awesome. And it’s, you know I study this stuff, the research says it’s important for peer education happen. It’s that effective to have good, positive peer role models. It’s effective to have, you know, kids repeatedly exposed to things that they initially didn’t like. And then after that repetition, kids eventually like things. And it’s effective to have kids take ownership of making things. And you can read all about that stuff in papers and things, but then being able to go into a school and seeing the sign that was created by the fruit stand school team of fifth graders advertising and the yogurt and frozen fruit parfaits that they’re selling and getting super excited about explaining what’s in it and what their role is that day to make it. I mean, it’s awesome. And, yeah, you should totally come in the garden. Mindfulness activities is very hope generating.
Dr. Lia Howard: Jarrett, thank you so much for joining us today. Please join us next time for our next interview with a Penn alum active in the social change space as they give us further insight on how they care for themselves and their communities to sustain their good work.