When Zach Stone talks about bus drivers, it’s with a reverence and respect often reserved for veterans of foreign wars. That’s because Stone, co-founder of Red Kite Project, which does trauma and resiliency training, sees their work as equally trying, in at least one respect: “They witness society in some of the most devastating ways possible,” he says.
SEPTA busses and trolleys travel from the city’s most safe and affluent neighborhoods, to its poorest and most dangerous. Drivers see it all out their big windows, and inside their own vehicles: Hit-and-runs, assaults on the corners, teenage moms with multiple children, parents teaching their kids to skip the fare because they can’t afford it, child abuse, domestic abuse, even assaults on the drivers themselves. “Some drivers say, ‘Good Morning,’ and are the only person a rider has talked to,” Stone says. “They can end up hearing someone’s whole life story of trauma in the course of a day. Over and over.”
This takes its toll. Around 2009, SEPTA started to take notice of a few unsettling trends among its drivers. Though new drivers underwent the same screening and training as always—primarily technical—SEPTA continued to get a “ridiculous amount of customer complaints,” says Mike Liberi, the agency’s chief officer for surface transportation. SEPTA found that about half of its drivers were struggling with customer interaction, in what is, primarily, a customer service industry. They were increasingly dissatisfied with their jobs, assaults were on the rise and driver turnover was at an all-time high.
Liberi says much of the problem was what drivers brought with them to the job. “If you’re brought up in environments that are conflicting, adversarial and disrespectful, that becomes your norm,” Liberi says. “A lot of our new hired operators struggled with skills they needed to resolve issues with customers.” If someone came on the bus acting belligerent or disrespectful, Liberi says, drivers often responded with their own belligerence and disrespect. That not only led to tense rides, but sometimes to assaults on drivers—86 in 2011.
So starting in 2010, SEPTA embarked on an unprecedented experiment in employee and customer service. It hired Red Kite, a then-new family-run resiliency training firm to teach deescalation and conflict management skills to every new SEPTA driver. Now, in addition to their regular technical classes, every driver spends five days with Red Kite, exploring how they deal with conflict in their lives, how to recognize an escalating situation, how to counter a verbal attack, how to keep calm and how to reset a tense encounter. In the first couple of days, Red Kite takes drivers on to the street, to talk to folks about SEPTA, bracing them for both the praise and the abuse. Then they role-play high stress scenarios, helping drivers navigate a peaceful solution. Throughout, drivers are learning coping skills to bring both on the bus, and back into their home lives.
“This started as a way to raise the expectations of new hires, and how we expect they should act,” Liberi says. “But this training is teaching life skills they can use in interactions with family members. When drivers realize that, that’s where you get the buy-in.”
Liberi says the last several years have been eye-opening. Since 2012, assaults on drivers are down 55 percent, a result of both the Red Kite training and stepped up policing on busses. Driver attrition is down, reflecting a more satisfied workforce, as are customer complaints. (The agency has embarked on several different efforts to improve relations with riders.) Since the first year, SEPTA has broadened Red Kite’s mandate, to also include training for seasoned drivers, who bring actual scenarios they’ve experienced to the session, and a modified version for managers as well. “We realized the manner in which we treat our operators has a direct correlation to the way they’ll treat their customers,” he says. In all, Stone says the company is at SEPTA 200 days a year, and has done training for 2,000 SEPTA employees.
SEPTA was Red Kite’s first big client, the enactment of an idea Stone and his mother, Charlotte DiBartolomeo, had worked on for years. When Stone was growing up in Lancaster, DiBartolomeo was a gang mediator and crisis interventionist at the local high school of 5,000 students. Later, she studied conflict transformation at the School for International Training, where her classmates included survivors of the Bosnian genocide and the man who would become the first post-war president of the Rwandan parliament.
“Respectfully, Philadelphia during a 30-year period had more murders than Ireland did during their entire Civil War,” says Stone. “Even though we’re not designated as a war zone, we have more violence than many places in the world. It just gets thought of as the state of things. It doesn’t have to be.”
Stone, who became a peer educator at his mother’s urging when he was 13, moved to Philly, where he worked in juvenile justice while getting a behavioral health degree from Drexel. Both mother and son worked with youth and adults in Philadelphia who have experienced violence. Stone says they felt that many of the organizations doing this work seemed ill-equipped, or ill-trained, to deal with what’s really happening here.
“They’d say we were coming from the perspective of a war zone,” says Stone. “But, respectfully, Philadelphia during a 30-year period had more murders than Ireland did during their entire Civil War. Even though we’re not designated as a war zone, we have more violence than many places in the world. It just gets thought of as the state of things. But it doesn’t have to be.”
Stone and DiBartolomeo started Red Kite in 2008, when Stone was 22, adapting a post-war model for developing skills to deal with—and perhaps more importantly, prevent—trauma. SEPTA was the company’s first major client, and like the work they do with the transit agency, most of their efforts of the last eight years have focused on adults on the front lines of dealing with traumatic situations, like drivers, doctors, nurses and veterans.
As an example of why this is needed, Stone recalls a trip to the emergency room with his mother several years ago, when a woman in the waiting room was informed by doctors that her son had died of an overdose. She started wailing—and kept screaming and wailing for, Stone says, two hours. “No one knew what to do,” Stone says. “There’s no protocol for this sort of thing.” With the right training, though, Stone says doctors, nurses, even security guards can learn not only how to help patients and family members cope, but can guard themselves from the trauma of repeatedly witnessing horrific events.
“If people are trained for these situations, they are more likely to not get traumatized, to not get burned out, and to know what to do,” Stone says. “A first responder’s reaction to trauma informs how a person they are treating heals. If they can react well, we can create this culture of healing and compassion instead of something that just makes it work.”
SEPTA hired Red Kite to teach deescalation and conflict management skills to every new SEPTA driver. Every driver spends five days with Red Kite, exploring how they deal with conflict in their lives, how to recognize an escalating situation, how to counter a verbal attack, how to keep calm and how to reset a tense encounter.
Red Kite now works with healthcare workers at CHOP, and nursing students at Drexel University, where DiBartolomeo teaches Trauma Informed Care. It also operates youth programs at Jane Adams Place shelter in West Philadelphia and works with the Veterans Multiservices Center, using martial arts to teach resilience in survivors of trauma. Like the rest of Red Kite, this is also a family venture: Stone and his brother, Sam, are longtime practitioners, who base their body treatment work on research that shows yoga and martial arts can foster healing. (Sam Stone, 27, is also now studying for his behavioral health degree.) Now, Stone says the company is starting to look outside the city, to work with transit authorities around the country, and that they hope to start creating “Safe Spaces” around the country, where people could walk in to receive the same kinds of services Red Kite performs for clients.
Red Kite is a for profit business because, Stone says, they’ve witnessed the struggles of nonprofits existing on government grants and foundation funding. (The company is considering becoming a B Corporation, which emphasizes doing good while doing well.) In the last year, the business has started to explode: Since 2014, the staff has quadrupled, going from $150,000 in annual revenue to $1.8 million in new contracts. The corporate money—from SEPTA and hospitals—helps fund the work they do with veterans and at shelters.
For much of the past eight years years, Red Kite has been quiet about the work they do, and the success they’ve found at SEPTA and elsewhere. “We found people either thought we were nuts, or loved what we were doing and wanted to take it because they had more money to do this,” Stone says. But they have since become public about both promoting their business, and proselytizing about this type of work in general. “We see our work more as a movement, than a training,” Stone says.
Red Kite’s work with SEPTA is emblematic of the kind of change Stone and his family hopes to instill in the city. When he talks to bus drivers, he tells them of an 11-year-old he worked with in the prison system, who’d been arrested for selling cocaine. He asked the boy what he wanted to do for a living. “I want to be a bus driver,” the boy said, explaining that his dad died, his mom is sick, his brother is in jail, and he has to take care of his siblings. “On the bus is the only place I feel safe,” he said. “‘That bus driver makes me feel safe, he looks out for me. I want to be a moving minister; I want to travel around and help people.’”
“When I tell that to bus drivers, they understand their higher purpose,” Stone says. “That’s the post-war model in effect: They have a purpose to make change.”
Correction: The story has been amended to note that Charlotte DiBartolomeo went to school with the first post-war president of the Rwandan parliament, not of the country. And, to say that Red Kite has worked with 2,000 SEPTA employees.
Photo Header: Red Kite Project