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Hillel chef Troy Harris was a juvenile delinquent before becoming an Ivy League cook and acclaimed entrepreneur.

Photo: Susanna Jaramillo

Troy Harris was 15 years old when his best friend was shot dead. 

He was at a house party in the heart of West Philadelphia, not all too far from Penn’s fraternity row. Energy pulsed through his veins as music raged. “Everybody was dancing, doing things you shouldn’t be doing with the lights down low … drinking, smoking, illegal drugs,” Troy said. When his friend stole a pair of the host's glasses, he knew trouble was coming. Soon enough, Troy heard the deafening rattle of nearby gunfire. As he ran up to his friend's body, his friend looked him in the eyes, took three short breaths and died.

Now, 26 years later, most of Troy's friends are dead or in jail. Despite his circumstances, Troy has made it to the Ivy League, where he has been a beloved cafeteria cook at Penn Hillel’s Falk Dining Commons since 2000. Last year, his picture appeared in newspapers and websites across the country — and it wasn’t a mug shot. Troy was profiled for launching a campaign called Grassroots to revive his neighborhood and get young people off the streets. But his journey from the streets of Philadelphia to the dining halls of the Ivy League was anything but easy.

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Troy's early years were defined by the abusive home in which he was raised.

Coming home to see his alcoholic stepfather beat his mother to the point where she suffered brain aneurisms was too painful for Troy, so he escaped the chaos of home for the streets of West Philadelphia. “I wanted to be away from the problem, but I ran with the problem,” Troy said, shaking his head and cringing. “I was in criminal activity, like stolen car, aggravated assault, young knucklehead getting into things, being a follower. We ran the streets all night.”

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Photo By Susanna Jaramillo

Hillel cook Troy Harris prepared dinner for hundreds of Penn students, many of whom he has built strong friendships with over the years.

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Photo By Susanna Jaramillo

Sitting in Penn's Hillel, Troy Harris reflected on the cultural difference between West Philadelphia and Penn's Jewish community.

Troy was first sent to a juvenile corrections facility — the Youth Study Center at 18th and Vine streets — at the age of 15 for not going to school and for stealing a car. Until he was 18, Troy was locked up on and off in the St. Francis Correctional Facility in Bucks County, Pa. Every time he was released, all he had to do was look on the corner and see “people making easy money,” and it didn’t take him long to return to crime. “I was doing negativity, getting in a lot of mischief, getting in trouble but not getting charged with crimes — poisoning my community with the madness,” he said.

For Troy, things changed when he had his first child at the age of 19 with his then-girlfriend and now-wife Debbie Harris. He stopped running the streets and got his first job as a janitor at West Chester Arms Nursing Home in West Chester, Pa. “I took real pride in the job, because I knew I could take care of my family,” Troy said. 

But a year later, he lost his job when he couldn’t get to the nursing home in time during a storm, and he went back to his old ways.

“I seen my son growing, and I seen him looking at me," Troy said. "He was young, and he didn't know what was going on, but he knew that daddy wasn’t home when he was supposed to be, and you know, things was different. It was living inferior. It wasn’t happy. It was getting up and watching your back and thinking, ‘Who is going to hurt me or my family?’”

Troy stayed away from home most nights in fear that he would be followed home. “When you’re out there doing the negativity, your best friends could be your worst enemies," he said. The number one piece of advice Harris' dad used to give him, he said, was to be self-sufficient. The message rang clearly for Troy after his dad died in a car crash on what Troy said was the hardest day of his life.

Troy second chance at a job came in 2000, when his friend Elijah Wingate, who served food at Hillel, got him a job “working kosher” at Penn. He grabbed onto it and never let go. 

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The way Troy tells the story, working at Hillel changed his life. “From where I come from, I’d never seen that many people … be that nice. The Jewish community, they really embraced me,” he said. “They’re like a family.”

15 years since starting at Penn, Troy is a fixture at Hillel. Every day, hundreds of students greet him with a smile as he serves them his famous stir-fry or prepares a custom wrap. Students passing by ask him about his family, and he in turn asks about their siblings, many of whom he has served over the course of his career.

“He’s always smiling," said College senior Benjamin Bolnick. "He knows everyone by name. He makes coming into the dining hall a joy. I consider him a friend, even though I’m a student and he works here." 

His coworkers agree. “Troy is a fun lovable guy," said Lonnidell Pratt, a fellow cook at Hillel. "He makes sure we laugh. We get the job done. He cares about you, asks you how your day is going."

Marty Bates, who has worked with Troy for the past nine years, said that "Fast Hand Harris" — a name he's received for his speedy food preparation — is also one of the most hardworking people she knows. Before he starts his seven-hour shift at Hillel at 1 p.m., Troy cleans Penn houses, moves furniture and works other odd jobs to make ends meet. During the summers, he works for a local roofing company.

But for Troy, the biggest change that came with working at Penn wasn’t the hours or the type of work — it was the people. At Penn, he said, he has a community of hundreds of students and staffers who care about his well-being and encourage him to pursue his ambitions. 

“I’ve never seen a whole community that sticks together," Troy said. "Everyone’s willing to help everyone. Where I was raised everyone is to themselves."

The benefits of having this community really hit home for him in 2005, when his house burned down in a fire and his family was forced to temporarily move into a Red Cross facility. Word spread through Hillel that Troy was in need of help — and within days, he had the seeds of a fundraiser that lead him to buy new furniture and clothing. 

“They did a fundraiser right here, and they got my family back on track," he said. "Got us TV, a refrigerator. I had nothing.”

Troy has never forgotten their support. A couple of years later, when he came up with an idea to help his coworkers, he turned to students for help.

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It was the fall of 2012 and the Student Labor Action Project was holding a dining staff appreciation reception. Among the speakers was Troy Harris, who told students about the working conditions at Hillel. Despite over a decade of working at Penn, Hillel employees were paid just $11.50/hour by Bon Appétit, the contractor operating the dining hall. They were not offered affordable health care options, had no paid sick leave and were told to ‘go work at McDonalds if you’re unhappy’ if they ever asked for a raise. 

Despite these conditions, few members of Penn’s dining community were willing to risk their jobs to fight for better working conditions — after all, as at-will employees, they could be fired without just cause. But Troy was fearless. Former SLAP organizer and College graduate Eliana Machefsky said that Troy often walked from his home in South Philadelphia to Penn’s campus to meet with the SLAP team and organize their approach to addressing these issues.

From their collaboration, the “Justice on the Menu” campaign was formed. The initiative fought for a union, higher wages and guaranteed paid sick leave for Hillel workers. Troy mobilized the Hillel community and SLAP activists and organized a march down Locust Walk to protest. And he won. Hillel was unionized. 

Eliana says she’ll never forget the day the renegotiated contract was read aloud and voted on by the Hillel staff.

“They read out this clause that was called the Dignity Clause, which said that it was a requirement of the management to treat all employees with dignity and respect,” she said. “And that was so special because what the staff said they wanted more than anything was to be proud of the place they worked.”

Other dining halls on Penn’s campus followed Troy’s lead and asked for renegotiated contracts. But Troy's mission to give back to his community was only getting started.

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Troy smiled at his friend, co-worker and business partner Kareem Wallace, as they rode up the elevator to their lawyer’s office in a skyscraper in Center City.

It was the fall of 2014, and Troy and Kareem were about to receive some of the best news of their life: Their business, Grassroots, was officially incorporated. Their dream of opening a food truck to employ teenagers from their community was becoming a reality. They owed the success in part to their lawyer, Ted Siegel, the father of College graduate Gregory Siegel, who Troy says believed in him when few others did.

“I said, 'Look Mom, I made it!'" Troy said. "And me and Kareem laughed real hard. Ted said, ‘Shake hands, you are really a business.’"

Since the incorporation, the duo has raised more than $42,000 to help fund their dream of opening a food truck. But Troy says that he hopes Grassroots will be much more than a business — he wants the organization to be a vehicle for change.

Grassroots started as an idea: Troy and Kareem wanted teenagers to have an alternative to crime, so they proposed starting a business to employ at-risk youths. They partnered with Consult for America, a student-run consulting group that works pro bono to help small local businesses in West Philadelphia.

Led by then-Wharton junior and CFA co-founder Samaira Sirajee, the CFA team conducted a market analysis and food tasting to determine how, where and what should be served.

The next step was to raise money, and this time, Eliana joined up with Troy once again to lead the charge. She helped Troy and Kareem launch a Crowdtilt page where they raised most of their funds. With the money in hand, the pair bought a food truck and the necessary insurance to start their business. 

Troy is grateful for the support he has received. "I want to thank my partner Kareem Wallace for believing in my vision ... and all the donors who made this dream possible," he said.

Grassroots still has to get its truck wrapped, necessary licenses and permits and a commons area for preparing its food before Troy and Kareem can go out on their own.

Troy's family is hopeful that the truck will be a success. “I think he’s doing good. I’m hoping and praying that he can fulfill his dreams and make a better life for our family,” Troy’s wife Debbie said, her grandson laughing on her lap. “Troy’s a great guy. He’s caring and lovable and a very good papa.”

Even if Grassroots does succeed, Harris says he’ll never forget how he got to where he is. “I went through all the bitterness and emotional strain," he said, sighing. “If I do make it it’d be more of a relief.”

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