In January of 2014 bestselling business author Joseph Grenny and his wife Celia got an unexpected letter from Zach Fausett, an inmate at Utah County Jail. Weeks earlier Zach had been arrested with a car full of drugs, guns and forged documents after a high-speed chase – a chase Zach said he initiated hoping the police would be provoked in to shooting him. For months prior to the arrest Zach had become disgusted with his life. He had spent twelve of the previous sixteen years of his life incarcerated. He had father a child. He had no real friends. He was alienated from his parents. In his own words, “I would find myself in motel rooms alone at times and couldn’t stand it. I would sit and cry not knowing what to do with myself. I started to think that going back to prison would be the best thing for me.”
A decade prior to receiving this letter Joseph Grenny was doing research for a book he would eventually write entitled, “Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change.” The research took him on a journey across the world to study a wide variety of remarkably effective behavior change interventions – campaigns to stop AIDS transmission, reduce violence against women, and stop medical errors – among others.
In the course of the research Joseph met with a friend and mentor–the legendary psychologist Albert Bandura in his office at Stanford University. Bandura urged Joseph to drive up the peninsula and study the work of Mimi Silbert. So he did.
In his book Joseph wrote about Delancey Street – the organization Mimi Silbert ran. “It was astounding” Joseph recalls. “I’ve driven by it in San Francisco dozens of times and thought it was just a bunch of Mediterranean villas owned by tech millionaires. It is a gorgeous 300,000 square foot complex on some of the priciest real estate in San Francisco. It was built entirely by convicts. It was paid for by convicts. It receives no government funding. No one pays a dime to enter. It sustains itself entirely by running businesses that constitute the therapeutic process that helps students change their lives. It was unbelievable.
In the past 45 years Delancey street has helped over 20,000 people who would otherwise be in jail or prison transform their lives. It has helped the State of California avoid the expense of over 100,000 years of incarceration expenses. “The irony is,” Joseph comments, “that we have this system called the ‘Correction’ system that does precisely the opposite. It is perfectly designed to take offenders and turn them into career criminals. But at least it’s expensive!” he adds wryly.
Joseph is a realist, “I get it that many people are not ready to change. The public deserves to be protected from them. But there are many who want to change—but lack the tools. These people often come from very damaged lives—sexually abused as a child, given meth by mom, children of addicts, and so on. They don’t need rehabilitation, they need habilitation. They don’t know to live an orderly and decent life because they’ve never seen one. When they want to change they don’t need more motivation in the form of threats, fines and penalties, they need more ability—mentoring, training and full-contact coaching. That’s what I saw at Delancey Street.”
Fast forward ten years. Joseph and Celia received a letter from Zach Fausett who had found a copy of Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change… in jail. He read it. He learned about Delancey. As a long shot he wrote to Joseph. Fausett figured he would do 15 years in prison. He wondered if when he got out Joseph would introduce him to Delancey Street. “I know I can’t do this on my own,” he said. “I think this might be what I need.”
That night Joseph and Celia read over the letter. A feeling began to form that fifteen years was too late. Coincidentally, Joseph’s brother-in-law was the Utah County Attorney. Joseph called him and asked if Utah would even consider sending someone to Delancey Street in California as an alternative to a prison sentence. Jeff Buhman, the County Attorney, was skeptical. “I think it’s a great idea, but there are too many people who would have to be convinced to make it realistic for Zach. Let’s start building support so sometime in the future someone will be able to go.”
Joseph hung up, discouraged. But the feeling didn’t leave him. He called Jeff again, “Let’s just try one guy. If we strike out, we strike out.” Buhman agreed. A few days later he called back, somewhat incredulous, “They’ve all said yes,” he reported.
While the commitments came quickly, bureaucratic wheels turned slowly. It took months for Zach to clear all the approvals required to go to Delancey. He willingly plead guilty to all his charges—a requirement for all students who receive this alternative to incarceration. If they leave before finishing the two-year minimum commitment – they are automatically required to serve their full sentence. In the intervening period Christine Scott, the prosecutor assigned to Zach’s case, became a regular visitor to Utah County Jail – encouraging and mentoring Zach.
“The more we worked on Zach’s case, the more it became clear the vision was bigger,” Celia adds. “We started to feel that this was not just about Zach – it was about taking a proven idea and making it much more widely available.”
Joseph gained agreement from Mimi Silbert to allow four people from Utah to be sent to Delancey Street. “We knew we had to build awareness and support if we wanted to bring something like this to Utah.” Christine Scott worked with Zach – who became the recruiting officer for the idea in Utah County Jail. The delays in his departure to California became an asset as he vetted candidates to ensure three others were found who seemed sincere in their desire to change.
The four understood the responsibility they had as “pioneers.” They felt a special burden to make this work. And they did. All made it through the challenging first few months – and have made remarkable changes in themselves.
As doors continued to open, Joseph and Celia made a personal commitment to bring the program to Utah. Others began to join the effort – and progress happened with breathtaking speed. In January 2015 a group including John Curtis, the mayor of Provo, Parker Douglas, chief of staff to the Attorney General, Ted Broman, a prominent Utah businessman and other influential Utahans was led by Joseph and Celia to Delancey Street for a two-day “replication training.”
Afterward the group met over dinner in San Francisco. “We felt both committed and terrified” Ted Broman remembers. “We knew it needed to be done, but we were stunned at the complexity of it.”
Which is why all who attended the January 2015 trip marveled when in December 2015 the fifteenth student of The Other Side Academy arrived from Weber County Jail. In a few short months:
- Charlotte Harper, a 38-year veteran of Delancey Street, has joined as an advisor.
- Four highly qualified Delancey graduates (Dave Durocher, Alan Fahringer, Lola Zagey and Steve Strong) left friends, family and careers elsewhere to move to Utah and lead the effort
- Tim Stay agreed to bring his rare mix of for-profit and non-profit expertise as CEO
- Dozens of generous Utahns donated seed capital, labor and goods to launch the effort
- The historic Armstrong Mansion in downtown Salt Lake City was procured
- A moving truck and food truck were purchased
- Students began to arrive from jails and broken lives began to be mended
The mission of the Other Side Academy is to make this kind of “therapeutic community” available across the world to all who want and need it.
At the entrance to The Other Side Academy is a bench. This is the potent symbol and invitation of The Other Side Academy. We no longer live in a world where you have to have friends, connections or money to get what you need to change your life. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all someone need do to get help is sit on this bench. Anyone who does is interviewed. And the only criterion we are looking for is, “Are you serious?”
This bench—and many more in the future—exists because an inmate in Utah County Jail had a sincere desire to change. To all the men and women of the world like Zach, The Other Side Academy now has a bench for you.