Started At The Bottom, Now We’re Here
Allen Fahringer is yelling at me. “You’re not pulling your [expletive] weight. You’re being [expletive] lazy. Everyone in the house thinks so!” He’s standing over me, yelling so loudly that it hurts my ears, and he’s spitting in my face as he enunciates each word as if to make his point clear. Shape up or ship out, his eyes seem to say as he glares at me with anger.
Mr. Fahringer isn’t actually mad at me. He’s demonstrating what happens twice a week when the 90 former convicts living at The Other Side Academy get together to rag on each other. Called “The Games,” these mini-interventions function in place of performance reviews and give everyone who lives and works at The Academy a chance to air their grievances.
It works. As I tour the building. I meet former meth and heroin addicts, violent criminals, and even a man who tells me that he almost killed someone while attempting to rob their house on drugs. These men and women faced incarceration sentences of up to life in prison. But they aren’t incarcerated. Instead, The Other Side Academy gave them a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) chance. And their peers are ready to hold them accountable.
Hiring From The Bottom
Considered an alternative sentence by the courts, former convicts can choose admission to The Other Side Academy as part of a two-year rehabilitation program. If they can follow all the house rules until the end of their residency, their sentence will be waived, if not, they’ll return to prison to serve their sentence. But there are a lot of rules, and this is no typical rehabilitation facility.
The average student—as they become called—at The Other Side Academy has been arrested 25 times, has served a prison sentence three times, and has been to rehab three or four times. 90 percent have been homeless at some point, and 10 percent have been homeless for more than five years. And yet, once a student is admitted into the academy, they are given strict orders not to discuss their past. They aren’t here for therapy, Mr. Fahringer says, they’re here to work.
You heard me correctly. The Other Side Academy runs three businesses: The Other Side Movers, The Other Side Thrift Boutique, and The Other Side Food Truck, and all three of them are run by former convicts. From accounting to website creation to manual labor, the students at The Other Side handle every aspect of the businesses they are responsible for. And the businesses are thriving under their charge. The Other Side Movers will make $2 million this year in revenue and the new thrift store is expected to hit $800,000 in its first year of business.
“As someone who was a rip-roaring drug addict and criminal, I think this program works better than therapy,” says Mr. Fahringer. “When you get out of prison you are clean and sober. But then you start using again. So, it’s not addiction that is the problem; it’s a character problem. We don’t allow people to talk about drugs or addiction once they’re here.”
Creating Trustworthy Employees Means Trusting Them With Responsibility
This can prove challenging. During my visit, I met Tiffany Blair, a woman who told me she didn’t know what to do with herself when she arrived. As part of the program, students are required to remove all piercings, shave all facial hair, aren’t allowed to wear makeup, and must adhere to a strict dress code. Then they’re not allowed to talk about their pasts. “For so long, my past defined me,” she told me. “When you can’t talk about your past, what do you talk about? You talk about who you want to be going forward.”
By removing everything they once were, students can only focus on who they are in the present. Even more so at first. They’re not even allowed to workout since physical fitness is how felons gain status during incarceration. Instead, the students are forced to remove all aspects of their egos and start over. During the first three months at The Academy students are only responsible for the basics: getting up at 6AM, showering each morning, and adhering to a routine. Once they’ve mastered the key tenets of living, they are given a job.
At first, students might be assigned jobs that are just around the house. There are five buildings on campus, and all of them are self- sustaining. Students do all the cleaning, all the cooking, and all the chores. When I make my way into the kitchen, one of the students—who had never cooked before his time at The Academy—is baking cakes for the entire community. They are getting ready to celebrate everyone’s birthdays so he found a recipe and taught himself how to make it.
The businesses too, are self-sustaining. Though they do have donors, donations are typically used for startup capital—they had just purchased one more building at the time of my visit—and for facility maintenance. The Academy takes no government funding and pays 100 percent of their expenses through their business operations. In fact, it could be said that The Academy saves the government money. “It would cost $21 million to incarcerate all these students for two years,” Mr. Fahringer says. Instead, they’re footing their own bill.
But how exactly does it work? After all, why should homeowners trust their household possessions to someone once charged with grand theft? The answer, says CEO Tim Stay, is trust and accountability. “Our customers are trusting students with their homes. And the students come home talking about the Rolex watches they packed away and put in a box. It gives them a sense of authority. A sense of pride and belonging.”
“Not to mention,” he adds, “if a student pockets something, another student will call them out for it.”
Radical Honesty Holds Everyone Accountable For Their Work
Enter “The Games.” The Games are essentially a giant game of tattletale where even the smallest of transgressions can be raked over the coals and brought out into the open. If a man so much as winks at a woman in the hallway—men and women aren’t allowed to speak to one another during their first year at The Academy—the woman can call him out for it. And women who have experienced similar treatment might decide to jump on the bandwagon as well.
“Everyone is responsible for everyone else,” says Mr. Stay. “We support the house and the community, we feed 90 people three meals a day, and every three months we have new jobs, whether that’s in the kitchen, working for one of the businesses, or doing something behind the scenes. So, there’s pressure on everyone to do those things.” In other words, he says, the whole community relies on one another, and if someone doesn’t pull their weight, they’re going to get called out for it.
And there are consequences for bad behavior. Especially for lying. One student, Eric Morgan, told me he got called out for lying about how many times he was in prison. He was forced to wear a yellow shirt, work between the hours of 6AM and 10PM, and refrain from speaking to anyone for one week. The entire time, he said, he felt so humiliated that he contemplated taking the life sentence that was hanging over his head. But two dogs live at The Academy and, he reasoned, he wouldn’t get to have a dog in prison. So, he decided to stay. And to learn how to stop lying.
The result is radical honesty, and I witnessed it firsthand. At one point, Mr. Stay gently reprimands Mr. Fahringer for saying something off-color in front of a journalist. Later on, Mr. Fahringer catches himself in the middle of interrupting Mr. Stay and quickly corrects himself. When I meet with Mr. Morgan and Ms. Blair I’m shocked to hear them call out each other’s faults in front of one another. “She’s not patient,” Mr. Morgan says. Ms. Blair agrees.
I can’t even imagine the same scenario played out against a corporate backdrop. In the world of politically correct memos and meticulously worded emails, there’s no space for transparency. Only a mild passive aggressiveness. I’ll be the first to admit to using such tactics. No one wants to offend or be offended. And a boss who expresses his or her displeasure has become such a rarity that when it does happen, it makes the receiving party feel as though they’re on the chopping block.
That wouldn’t be the case, I’m reminded, if there wasn’t a hierarchy. If an employee had the authority to call out a boss for being too demanding, just as easily as a boss could call out an employee for spending too much time on social media. Instead, we live in repressed comfort. One where everyone can express their praise, but no one can express their frustration. “That’s how Harvey Weinstein’s happen,” Mr. Stay says. That’s why, at The Other Side Academy, the hierarchy doesn’t exist. The CEO gets called out just as often as the convict.
I ask Mr. Stay if the practice has flooded over into his personal life. “Absolutely,” he says. “We used to let the little things slide. Now if our kids try to lie or cheat we blow it up into a big event.”
Setting Employees Up For Success
“I’m a felon,” Mr. Fahringer says, “and because I have to check the felony box I will never be given a chance.” He’s referring to job applications and apartment leases, two things that prove challenging when you’ve spent your life in and out of prison. “They have no problem working,” Mr. Fahringer continues. “They have a problem staying employed.” But The Other Side Academy doesn’t just give students a place to work and a place to live; it provides them with an environment that allows them to excel at both things—and for the long term.
Many corporate work environments can’t say the same. Despite the cereal bars, unlimited vacation days, and onsite gyms available at many Utah establishments, most workers switch jobs every two to three years. Perhaps that’s because what employees actually want is the kind of trust, respect, and accountability offered to the students at The Other Side Academy. Perhaps, if we were a little more honest in our work, our employees would be willing to stick around for the haul.
Perhaps if we’re going to keep hiring from the top, we should start learning from the bottom.