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About a year ago, James Severe was attending college and trying to get his life together after spending more than four years in prison and on home arrest for drug possession and other charges. Then he got an unexpected call: He’d been accepted to the first cohort of Second Chance Studios, a six-month New York City-based multi-media paid fellowship program for formerly incarcerated people.
Majid Aliyev Photo
After much thought and consultation with his professors, Severe decided to sign on with Second Chance and juggle both the program and college. It was just too good an opportunity to turn down. “Especially having a record, I knew I had to think outside the box,” he says. Now, Severe is about to complete the program and start working for MTV on a short-term contract. He also hopes to get his college degree, from The Roc Nation School of Music, Sports & Entertainment, in another year.
Second Chance Studios was co-founded by Coss Marte in 2020, himself a once-incarcerated individual, who started CONBODY, a fitness studio, six years ago. Its mission: to employ people who were also justice-involved. Marte conceived of Second Chance as a way to help formerly incarcerated people to develop critical life and technical skills with which to start a new life and beat the high recidivism rate for those who have served their time, but have few options once they’ve been released.
With that in mind, CEO and co-founder Lajuanda M. Asemota built out a curriculum including classes in such soft skills as networking and creating presentations, software expertise and technical knowhow, from video production to podcasting. The six fellows in the 35-hour-a-week program, which started last October, also receive pay and benefits. Classes are led by the staff of three, along with volunteers, like a retired HR executive who helps with resume skills and interview prep.
The program also helps with everything form housing to mental health care. “One common misconception is that just getting a job with solve everything,” says Asemota. “That’s why we also help our fellows develop life skills.” There also is a big emphasis on experiential learning: Participants worked on projects for outside clients during the program.
Fellows completed a final project focused on their particular area of interest. Severe, for example, created a video about music students at his school.
Marte and his colleagues funded Second Chance, which is a nonprofit, with a Kickstarter campaign in 2020 that raised $60,000 in three weeks and funding from donors, corporations, including Verizon and AT&T, and foundations, such as Schusterman Family Philanthropies. The original plan was to run the program for 12 months. But raising sufficient funding proved to be tough, so the time was reduced to six months.
Of the six fellows, some attended in person, while others, who weren’t vaccinated, worked remotely. The next cohort will launch next year, with applications open in about a month, according to Marte.