A Slice of Life with PIXZA
At The Human Connection Project, we love a good costume party. So when Alejandro Souza pitched Pixza as a, “social empowerment platform disguised as a pizzeria,” we were ready to adorn the Groucho glasses. And, indeed, it was a cause for celebration - we caught up with Alejandro on the first birthday of Pixza’s Roma Norte locale.
Pixza is a superfood-slamming social enterprise designed to improve outcomes for Mexico City’s homeless youth. And for good reason. Unlike the U.S., where homeless populations are dominated by older men and the mentally ill, Mexico’s capitol is plagued by adolescent and teenage destitution. Unofficial estimates of Mexico City’s homeless youth, or “street kid,” population range from 15,000 to 40,000. But in a country where roughly 50% of the population lives below the poverty line (World Bank, 2017), those numbers aren’t exactly surprising.
“If you want to affect change, you have to allow people to co-design it with you.”
Like all great success stories, Pixza’s social potion is distilled in the fortitude of a woman. And not just any woman…mom. Alejandro’s mother is a professional neuro- and executive coach, but, “she’s been coaching me since I was a kid.” So when Alejandro got the idea for Pixza while pursuing his masters in public administration and development at Columbia University, he turned to a lesson learned from mom, “If you want to affect change, you have to allow people to co-design it with you.”
Co-design became the nucleus of Pixza’s homeless rehabilitation program. Alejandro didn’t want to develop a platform that made sense from a classroom in New York or an office in London. He wanted to, “Design a program that makes sense from their (homeless youth) point of view. They know much more about the situation than you do, they’re experts on the topic.” So when Alejandro arrived in Mexico City’s homeless shelters, street camps, and food kitchens, he asked the kids what they wanted - today, a week from now, a year from now.
The answers he received were very…human. For most of us, showering is part of our daily routine. Some of us even do it twice a day. But for an 18-year old living on the street, a rush of hot water and soapy suds can be transformative. So Alejandro didn’t just design a rehabilitation program, he designed a rehumanization program.
The Pixza recipe is simple: one part sustainably-farmed blue corn, and one part social empowerment. Unlike it’s American and Italian cousins, Pixza pies are made with Mexico’s little known superfood - blue corn - and topped with national treasures like grasshopper and tamale. For every five slices sold at Pixza’s Roma Norte or Juárez installation, one slice is returned to the homeless community. Alejandro refers to this dynamic as integrative prosperity: everybody gives and receives at the same time. In Pixza terms, if Alejandro makes a damn good slice of pizza, the homeless community wins.
The Pixza program is an iterative five step process aimed at homeless youth that fit the “socio-abandonment” profile - 18 to 25 years old, severed family ties, a history of drug use or criminal conviction. At the end of each week, the Pixza team delivers sales-generated slices of pizza and customer-written notes to the community. Each slice is accompanied by a bracelet, which Alejandro calls, “the root of change.” The bracelet is an initiation into the program and helps address Pixza’s biggest challenge - consistency. For a young man or woman who has never had formal education or employment, showing up on time, or at all, is an afterthought. The bracelet serves as a daily reminder of impending change.
“The root of change” is decorated with five pizza icons, one of which is punched after each weekly pizza distribution. If the young homeless man or woman, who we’ll call Maria, shows up for five consecutive weeks, the first bracelet is retired.
In order to continue advancing through the program, Maria has to design a volunteer initiative in her community - perhaps therapy for local gang members. If Maria completes the initiative, she receives a second “root of change” bracelet, where the pizza-punching and volunteer initiative process repeats itself. It might seem a bit exhaustive, but for Alejandro, that’s the point. Consistency and commitment aren’t learned over night - they take time to cultivate.
Once Maria completes her second volunteer initiative, she begins the rehumanization and redignifcation process: a haircut, a shower, a doctors appointment, a t-shirt, and a 5-hour life skills training course. If she is present for each of the five redignifcation benefits, Pixza will offer Maria formal employment, beginning with a 2-week intensive training program on how to knead dough, wait tables, and develop interpersonal skills.
Finally, Maria is employed. She has a fresh haircut, smells like pear and aloe, and just had her first flu shot. But she’s still living at the homeless shelter, surrounded by drugs and general malevolence. Alejandro recognized that young adults like Maria were still in danger becoming an unofficial statistic, so he built a long-term program to accompany the “root of change” and rehumanization processes.
After becoming gainfully employed at Pixza, Maria gets one-on-one coaching to help her develop a personal and professional life plan; she’s provided with a small stipend to move out of the shelter into her own apartment - probably for the first time in her life; and she is the recipient of proceeds from a slice of pizza added to the menu in her honor and sold at the shop for one month. In a way, Pixza’s success can be measured by the length of its menu. For Alejandro, it can be measured by the number of kids who leave his shop for alternative employment. He hopes that every Pixza graduate continues to climb the socioeconomic ladder - that the rehabilitation process continues well beyond the doors of a pizza shop.
“…a hand that accompanies.”
Alejandro describes Pixza, “not as a back that carries, but a hand that accompanies.” At the end of the day, its up to the kids to show up - if Maria bails on weekly pizza distribution or her volunteer day, she’s out of the program. Which might seem a bit harsh. But when most these kids have gone through life without consequence - they can always fall back on the streets - an ultimatum is powerful. If Pixza can provide structure and instill good habits, then they are better equipped to face life’s challenges. For Alejandro, this is what social empowerment is all about, “(It’s) a mentality that creates spaces that allow people to identify and use the tools they have to make change.” That, and a good haircut.
In two-and-a-half years since opening, Pixza has graduated 23 young adults from the program. But Pixza’s success has Alejandro thinking bigger. To really affect change in the homeless community, Alejandro says, he wants to take on the service industry as a whole. He has his sights set on an institute that would deploy an intensive hospitality-skills bootcamp for homeless youth and serve as a “conscious hiring” venue for hotels and restaurants. Essentially, a human resource center for the service industry.
Who knows, it could be pie in the sky. But with two established Pixza shops and a third in the oven, Alejandro’s idea might just be fully baked.
World Bank Group, 2017. Poverty headcount ratio at national poverty lines, Mexico. https://data.worldbank.org/country/mexico