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  • Help conduct informational interviews with Neighborhood’s interns.  Contact Dan Walser to learn how.
  • Arrange for Dan Walser to consult on how to integrate the principles of The Apprenticeship Blueprint (the manual that Walser wrote on internships for returning citizens) into your company.
  • Donate to the Working Film Establishment, the nonprofit arm of Neighborhood Films.
  • As a company, connect with the Supervision to Aid Reentry Program run by the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Email Cyndi Zuidema, the Reentry Coordinator at the United States Attorney’s Office, or call 215-861-8463.

Video

Ricky Staub's TEDx Lancaster talk

Cheat Sheet

Quick stats on the challenges faced by returning citizens

  • Every year there are 17,000 prisoners released from Philadelphia prisons. That’s 46 every day.
  • A year after they’ve been released, between 60 and 75 percent of re-entering citizens are still jobless.
  • Having a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a callback or a job offer by 50 percent.
  • The negative effects of a criminal record in the hiring process are twice as bad for African Americans as for whites.

Sources:
http://www.philly.com/philly/news/The_struggle_outside_the_prison_walls_in_Philadelphia.html
http://www.nij.gov/topics/corrections/reentry/pages/employment.aspx
https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/228584.pdf

Read more

Including Neighborhood's Apprenticeship Blueprint

Download The Apprenticeship Blueprint, Walser’s manual on incorporating internships for returning citizens into your company.

Read Emma Eisenberg’s recent story on eliminating bail for nonviolent crimes, which could keep thousands of people from spending unnecessary time in jail.

Meet the Disruptors: Neighborhood Film Company

Ricky Staub was on his way to becoming a Hollywood giant. So why is he in Brewerytown mentoring the recently incarcerated?

Ricky Staub was on his way to becoming a Hollywood giant. So why is he in Brewerytown mentoring the recently incarcerated?

By the time Ricky Staub was 24 years old, he was living the Hollywood dream. Just a few years out of college, he was an assistant producer for Sam Mercer, who co-produced most of M. Night Shyamalan’s films, including The Sixth Sense. In 2007, Staub was with Mercer in Philadelphia, working with Shyamalan on The Last Airbender. In a couple years, Mercer’s team would be headed to London, for work on the Charlize Theron film Snow White and The Huntsman. It was the sort of rarefied opportunity for which aspiring filmmakers everywhere clamor. Staub knew this. He appreciated this. But he was also miserable.

NFC's Ricky Staub, on set. Photo: Nell Hoving
NFC’s Ricky Staub, on set. Photo: Nell Hoving

“I was having a midlife crisis—at 24,” Staub recalls. More than that, Staub was having a spiritual crisis. Away from everything and everyone he knew for the two years of Airbender filming in Philadelphia, Staub felt isolated and out of his element. And he started to question his life: Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? Is there even a God? A Christian since high school, Staub picked up a Bible and for the first time, really read it. In particular, he was struck by passages in which Jesus cared for the sick and poor—no matter who they were or what they’d done. “It was contradictory to what I had learned and saw in the church, and from Christians,” Staub says. “I loved everything I was doing in my work. I was on the path. But my desires started to change.”

Eight years later, Staub no longer works in Hollywood, or for Mercer (who just produced Steven Spielberg’s new movie). Instead, he’s ensconced in a renovated factory in Philly’s Brewerytown—as far from a Hollywood studio as one could get—where his Neighborhood Film Company makes commercials for the likes of Nike, Coca Cola and Anthropologie. They’re beautiful short films that have made Neighborhood successful and sought after. But Staub’s real mission—the reason he’s here—has nothing to do with camera work: Through his business, he is training the recently incarcerated—those everyone else has given up on—for successful, sustaining careers.

“Most of filmmaking is project management,” Staub says. “I realized I could teach those skills. There are a lot of individuals who just need opportunity. That’s what we offer: An open door to learn the skills they need to move forward.”

Staub’s journey from burgeoning Hollywood producer to reentry mentor started in a small park at 9th and Pine streets. One afternoon, while he was working on Airbender, he made a bunch of sandwiches, and headed over to the park, where he offered lunch to a scraggly older man in a wheelchair. “Fuck you!” the man replied. “I’m not homeless. But that guy over there is, and he’ll be happy to have your lunch.” Staub made his first homeless friend that afternoon. He kept going back, and eventually found his way to Sister Mary Scullion at ProjectHOME, with whom he shared his spiritual struggles and his growing desire to help his new friends. She told him to follow his heart, advice he couldn’t shake, even after he returned to Los Angeles.

“I had a weight on my heart that was almost oppressive when I thought about not doing this,” Staub says. “A year went by, and it was always there.”

Each year, Neighborhood hires three apprentices after a lengthy screening process. It’s not actual skills the partners are concerned about. They look for two things: Humility and gratitude.

Staub was about to leave for London to work on Snow White when he finally quit his job—then went outside and nearly threw up. “It was one of the hardest things I ever did,” he recalls.

Within a few months, he’d packed up his things and returned to Philly, where he moved in to Kate’s Place, a ProjectHOME shelter in Center City. He lived there for eight months, while he started Neighborhood Films. (It was probably the first—and last—time an Anthropologie commercial was edited in a homeless shelter.) “Sister Mary was the only one who thought I wasn’t crazy,” he says.

Scullion encouraged Staub to immerse himself in the people he wanted to help, to truly understand their lives. He learned several things from the experience: Philly’s homeless population is filled with men who have been released from jail with no home to go to. They were more likely to return to jail than get a job, costing the American economy around $1 million each in government assistance, prison costs and health care by age 65. Many made poor decisions, were broken and lonely—but had potential. And it’s not just that there is little opportunity for the formerly incarcerated; there is what Staub calls “fake opportunity:” Vocational training and interview classes and recovery programs that are well-meaning, but that don’t provide the sort of real-world experience people need to succeed.

Neighborhood Films takes a different approach. In 2012, Staub recruited a high school friend, Dan Walser, to create a formalized apprenticeship program at the company. (Walser is now a partner in the business.) A former teacher who quit to work with the homeless in L.A., Walser moved to Philly, and took a crash course in the business of filmmaking—which, he learned, is mostly just business.

“People get the idea that the commercial film business is a guy walking around with a beret filming stuff,” says Walser. “But most of it is emails, calendars, Word docs, Excel spreadsheets, budgets. Every few weeks, you start a business; you run it; you close it out. Over and over.”

Walser’s curriculum, such as it is, has one prevailing idea: Only teach something that can be used the next day. Apprentices learn how to write a professional email and record receipts and call clients and, eventually, run entire jobs—real life work skills that translate to any job. Staub likens the program to any sort of internship at any sort of company.

“How many companies are already doing internships that are pretty fantastic training programs for people?” he says. “It’s not like we’re having Monday morning prison recaps. It’s an internship that’s really hard, with a lot of opportunities, and we happen not to draw from Penn, but from the prison system.”

NFC's Dan Walser. Photo: Neighborhood Film Co.
NFC’s Dan Walser. Photo: Neighborhood Film Co.

Most of Neighborhood’s apprentices are nonviolent offenders who are part of the Supervision to Aid Reentry Program run by the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to give certain formerly incarcerated individuals a way to start over. Each year, Neighborhood hires three apprentices after a lengthy screening process—a college-like application; essays and recommendations; an aptitude test to gauge work ethic. It’s not actual skills the partners are concerned about. They look for two things: Humility and gratitude. “If those are present, you can do a lot,” Staub says. “If you don’t have humility and gratitude for the opportunity to pay your dues in order to have opportunities down the road, then you’ll flame out.”

The apprentice program is eight months, divided into three phases: Intense instruction for the first several weeks; then managing real projects for Neighborhood; then, looking ahead by taking 25 to 30 informational interviews with contacts they get from Walser and Staub—a way to access the social capital these men don’t have. Along the way, the apprentices earn real money: From $250 to $900 per week, depending on how many days they are in the office. So far, Walser has run two complete apprenticeships, whose four graduates have gone on to get jobs or start their own business—including one who is now a graphics coordinator at Neighborhood.

“We want to dispel a lot of the preconceived notions about formerly incarcerated individuals and their potential for businesses,” Walser says. “Any kind of training DNA in your company that goes to training, could go to them.”

Neighborhood’s goals are modest but steady. They plan to stick with no more than three apprentices a year, despite continuously being asked: How do you scale it up? “We’re not going to,” Staub insists.

Neighborhood is not a charity; it has a nonprofit arm for raising money, but the apprenticeship program is part of its business—intentionally. “As a society, we are sold on the idea that nonprofits should be doing this work,” Staub says. “But they are only a starting platform. ProjectHOME is a great example: They have amazing facilities, connections, social workers, money, all for getting people off the street. What they don’t have are my business connections, or my office, or work for people to do. That’s why businesses need to be responsible if we really want to see change.”

Staub wants to “scale up” in only one sense: Spreading the word to other businesses that they can do this too, with little disruption to their norm. In fact, Staub says implementing the apprenticeship program actually saved Neighborhood money: The act of figuring out how to teach what they do forced them to analyze how they work, and where to create efficiencies. (Neighborhood has been profitable since its first year, but Staub will not say how much money the company earns.) They took this year off from running the apprenticeship program to restructure the company and to make the curriculum more on point. Walser also wrote a manual, The Apprentice Blueprint, and says he is willing to work with other businesses to help them start an internship program for the recently incarcerated.

“We want to dispel a lot of the preconceived notions about formerly incarcerated individuals and their potential for businesses,” Walser says. “Any kind of training DNA in your company that goes to training, could go to them.”

Already, they have one taker. After Staub gave a TedX talk earlier this year, a Minnesota businessman called to ask for the Blueprint. He told Staub he’d spent years hiring interns out of college. “And not one of them has been successful,” he said. “They’ve all flaked on me. Maybe I’ve been looking at the wrong pool.”

Which is exactly the point. “It breaks my heart when I think of someone like the apprentices we’ve had having no career opportunities,” Staub says. “Not only are they missing out. But the world is missing out on all that they can bring to the table.”

Header photo: David Lindwall

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