Here are two issues Coss Marte started mulling over about a year ago:
- In New York, 53% of formerly incarcerated inmates are rearrested within three years, in large part thanks to a lack of job training and guidance. And, nationally, those who manage to find employment have a median annual income of $10,000, according to the Brookings Institution.
- At the same time, podcasting and new media companies are experiencing healthy growth.
With that in mind, Marte is launching a nonprofit aimed at training former inmates in new media skills and finding them jobs, called Second Chance Studios. Now at the tail end of a Kickstarter campaign, he plans to start the program in January. Cofounders include Ravi Gupta, cofounder of Arena, a consulting firm that helps mentor new political candidates, and Alfred Johnson, cofounder of Mobilize, an events management and volunteer recruitment platform that connects mission-driven organizations and their supporters.
The Covid-19 crisis has only heightened the need for such training, according to Marte. With jobs in industries like restaurants and retail in short supply, learning technical job skills that can conceivably be done remotely has become even more urgent.
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Marte’s interest in the mission is personal. He spent four years in prison for selling drugs, during which time he developed his own workout regimen, one that he could do without equipment in his cell. Three years later, in 2016, he launched Conbody, a New York City-based fitness company that uses those exercise principles, while hiring trainers who also are formerly incarcerated inmates.
About a year ago, according to Marte, he started talking to Gupta about what they could do to help reform the criminal justice system. They got to brainstorming and, in the process, landed on the dearth of job opportunities for people once they’re released from prison. Perhaps they could start a program that would train ex-inmates in audio engineering, podcasting, video production and other in-demand technical skills? They decided to go ahead with the plan.
It wouldn’t be cheap, of course. Such a program ideally would have a digital media studio with video production and audio engineering equipment that students, called “fellows,” could use to produce their own podcasts and videos. The plan is to rent a space right above Conbody. “We’ll have a whole building for formerly incarcerated individuals on the Lower East Side,” he says. According to Marte, he needs around $1 million to get it all started.
The year-long program also will pair fellows with mentors, spending one a day a week at that expert’s company. Plus, Marte is building a job placement arm. Current protests about police brutality and a heightened awareness of Black Lives Matter could help. “A lot of larger companies want to hire people who’ve been incarcerated, but they don’ know how to go about it,” he says. “There’s a large amount of individuals who want to change their hiring practices.”
Of course, the jury is still out as to whether Covid restrictions will force Marte to launch with a more virtual program than originally planned. “If we have to pivot and do classes online, we will,” he says. “We have to figure it out.” He’s weighing the pluses and minuses of shipping audio engineering and other equipment to fellows at home and using editing and other software programs.
The first session will have 12 fellows, who will go through a three-stage interview process before being accepted. “We want to choose a good crowd and change the perception of the hidden talents a lot of people have,” says Marte
Derek Drescher, who has worked as a running coach at Conbody since 2016 and served several stints in prison for drug-related charges, is one person who plans on applying. He and Marte launched their own podcast in January and, so far, Drescher has been figuring out the technology on the fly. “Podcasts, videos, that’s something I’d really like to do,” says Drescher, who is also an aspiring stand-up comic.