Why youth impacted by the justice system are serving food during Super Bowl week

This is how we empower the youth of America. Café Momentum is only the beginning.

Café Momentum’s Super Bowl Pop-up for Justice-Impacted Youth

For Tristyn Williams, it doesn’t matter who wins this year’s big game. She has reason to celebrate no matter what. 

She is in Las Vegas for Super Bowl week as an ambassador for Café Momentum, an organization that supports justice-impacted youth with a paid internship program at its five-star restaurant. Ambassadors learn life skills, career development, interpersonal skills, and so much more. The organization has restaurants in Dallas and Pittsburgh. There is additional programming in Nashville and expansion plans for Atlanta, Denver, Houston, and Baltimore. These young people don’t just observe the work of professionals, they plan, organize, and execute a successful culinary experience themselves. At their Super Bowl Media Center pop-up, ambassadors are taking these skills on the road, serving meals to athletes, celebrities, and media members in town.

Williams first entered the Café Momentum program in May 2019 when she was 15 years old. At the time, she was newly released from juvenile detention and three months pregnant. When she left the program in 2020, she had graduated high school, taken parenting classes, worked through childhood trauma in therapy, and begun to carve out a career path. She now works with Café Momentum as an ambassador, sharing the impact of her former experiences.

“I felt like I was in a space where I could grow, I could fail, where I could make mistakes and get back up and not have anyone trying to knock me back down,” she remembered. “They gave me the space and opportunity to figure out who I really am, to unlock all the potential that I had.”

“I got to meet George Kittle last year,” Williams recalled. “He was one of my favorite players. I had him on such a high pedestal, but he was there with me, listening to what I had to say about youth justice and how we can change it. He was committed to it. He was taking time out of his day to do this. Every year, I’m excited to participate in [the Super Bowl Media Center event] because it makes me realize just how big a message we have.”

This is the fourth year that Café Momentum ambassadors are at the Super Bowl for a pop-up event. In years past, they have manned a food truck activation outside during the week. This year, their work has moved inside the Super Bowl Media Center. They are participating in interviews and conversations with the press, including outlining Café Momentum’s plans for expansion. They’re showcasing a crucial tool for empowerment: the power of face-to-face personal interactions have to establish positive relationships with the next generation and support them along the path to transforming their futures. 

“They’re speaking with us,” Williams said. “Informing yourself about youth justice can create a change on a whole other level, a national level, which is what we’re here to do. We’re here [at the Super Bowl] to create a new model, and by [the media] educating themselves and allowing us to educate them, they’re putting their foot forward with us. And that’s all we can ask for.”

Ambassadors create change in the youth justice system

These ambassadors are introducing athletes, influencers, and members of the media to the lived realities of the youth justice system. Through their stories, they are showing that youth who have made mistakes can and should play a critical role in driving positive change. 

At the pop-up activation, ambassadors’ years of dedication and professional development are on full display. 

“I think we’re hoping that what we accomplish is first and foremost a conversation around justice-involved youth and an acknowledgment that all youth deserve to dream — including youth that go into a system that’s not designed to allow them to — that, quite honestly, does the opposite,” said Founder CEO of Café Momentum and the Momentum Advisory Collective, Chad Houser. 

But these conversations go beyond just correcting common misunderstandings about justice-involved youth. Café Momentum’s ambassadors aren’t only highlighting a problem. They’re offering a solution by demonstrating in real time that the power of believing in and equipping youth with opportunities is transformational to their lives and the lives of others — because all youth deserve to dream.

The Super Bowl Media Center pop-up activation requires a lot of effort and focus, but the young adults present are more than ready. Though expectations for them are high, opportunities to rise to the occasion are what instill a sense of empowerment and confidence in these formerly justice-involved youth. This, Houser said, is the most crucial takeaway that visitors can glean.

“I think people in general don’t understand anything about justice-involved youth,” said Houser. “This is what happens when a community comes together, when a community sees a young person for who they are, not choices they’ve made or situations they’ve been in, and sees them for their potential and provides the resources and support to allow them to dream. That’s what Super Bowl week is for us.”

Through open, intentional interactions, those who have otherwise not had reason to consider youth justice reform can see the potential, enthusiasm, and talents of the young people present. This is where advocates are born.

Importantly, this experience isn’t just a benefit to the media and celebrities present: It has a huge impact on ambassadors, too. Having influential people engage with them shows youth that they matter and their stories are worth hearing.

“I think every time we give our ambassadors the opportunity to speak their truth, to speak their lived experience, and to advocate for what they want to see, it becomes very empowering to them,” Houser said. “They do feel heard. They recognize that their voice matters, and it’s not just that their voice matters, but that they are experts and leaders to effect this change. So each and every one of these opportunities just continues to build that level of confidence and drive and focus in each one of them.”

Las Vegas is a preview of a larger movement taking hold

Café Momentum has hosted similar pop-up events in the past, but Super Bowl events provide a platform to spread its message on a broader scale. 

This year’s Super Bowl is a timely event, considering Café Momentum’s model is currently growing — and fast. In addition to its Dallas flagship location and branches in Pittsburgh and Nashville, the organization is establishing new roots in cities across the country, including Atlanta and Denver. It is aiming to establish a presence in all cities with an NFL team to capitalize on the NFL’s link to the professional sports world. 

The further Café Momentum spreads, the more NFL players learn about their message and advocate for bringing the model to their cities. This doesn’t just mean more opportunities for local youth — it means broader public awareness of the power of Café Momentum’s model, allowing more organizations to lift youth by adopting it.

The Momentum model: Where true transformation happens

For Houser, Café Momentum’s impact isn’t found in its already impressive growth statistics. Instead, he looks to the young people and their visible increases in independence, confidence, and hope. 

“We get asked a lot about data, and I always push towards looking at data anecdotally because I think it’s representative of the unique experience that each one of the young lives has had coming into our program and leaving our program,” he said. “To me, that’s where truth is in impact.”

Williams is one of those success stories. Houser watched her transform after Café Momentum gave her the support and opportunity she needed. She has come a long way. Williams is now a mother of two with an education, valuable work experience, and a clear path toward the person she wants to be.

“To see who she is today with a four-year-old son and a 7-month-old daughter and hear her talk about where she was mentally and physically five years ago when she came into the program, compared to the woman she is today,” he remembered. “The empowered woman that she is today, the confident woman that she is today … those to me are the things that happen when a young person comes into a situation and is provided resources, opportunity, hope, and the ability to begin to dream about what life could be and what they want it to be.”

Williams has a message for members of the media and sports world at the Super Bowl: 

“The youths that are going into these systems, we have faces,” she said. “We have stories. We have voices. We have emotions. We have all the things that make us human … We are the products of what love, support, and accountability look like.”

Café Momentum is supported by Stand Together Foundation, which partners with the nation’s most transformative nonprofits to break the cycle of poverty.

Learn more about Stand Together’s Strong and Safe Communities efforts, and explore ways you can partner with us.