In its ongoing efforts to create fresh unscripted non-fiction series, the Sundance Channel is premiering a new program on August 13 called Get to Work. The network calls the hourlong, eight-part show "an unfiltered, uncompromising look at the work of Second Chance in San Diego and the STRIVE program, a workforce training model dedicated to getting America back to work."
Get to Work seems designed to strike a chord in a country plagued by joblessness. But the STRIVE program targets a particularly challenged segment of the population: the chronically unemployed America of ex-cons, drug addicts, the homeless, the working poor, the welfare dependent, people who have spent so much time on the streets or in the system that they now lack interpersonal workplace skills as rudimentary as smiling, looking people in the eyes and giving a proper handshake. The stakes here often involve training people to show up at work on time, not to curse at their bosses when stressed, and to stay sober so they don’t quit or get fired and can build the skills necessary to survive in the law-abiding, 9 to 5 world.
"STRIVE has a great track record with the chronically unemployed. It’s an intense four-week boot camp and in each episode we get an unfettered, candid, very tough look at the issue of joblessness," says Sundance Channel Executive Vice President and General Manager Sarah Barnett. "Within that there are some genuine seeds of hope."
STRIVE started in Harlem and now has some two dozen affiliates around the country and in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Israel. The producers chose the San Diego branch for the diversity of its clientele.
Rob ("The Enforcer") Smith is one of the program trainers featured on the show who graduated from the program 12 years ago and oversaw all the STRIVE satellites before moving to San Diego to settle down once he became a father.
"In my opinion, for years in this country people of color and minorities have been portrayed as the poor, the jobless, the drug addict," Smith says. "Our site has one of the most diverse populations of any other site. Here we have just as many poor uneducated white people as we have poor uneducated blacks, Hispanics, Asians."
Each episode follows three students over the course of the rigorous monthlong program. In episode one, two of the three make it to graduation; on average, about half of any given class drops out before the session is over.
"We went into this and shot it as a documentary," says showrunner Jeff Grogan (Intervention, Relapse). "So we wanted to show that not everyone does make it, that some people aren’t ready to make a change in their lives."
The producers focused on students of various genders, ages, ethnicities and backgrounds, filming every day for four months. How did they choose which characters to focus on?
"We paid attention in class," Grogan says. "We followed what was going on, and the people, where they had a struggle, where there was something they had to overcome, where there was a challenge, or a blind spot, those are the people we focused on."
Smith says: "The way we conduct the classroom, everything comes to the surface. We didn’t say to the producers or the team, this person would be a great candidate. But once we went in and we shook up the room, you could see."
Get to Work mixes classroom footage with on-camera interviews and follows some of the students home and outside to paint a deeper picture of their lives. Did the producers have a hard time getting people to open up?
"It was surprisingly easy," Grogan says. "They wanted to tell their stories, they wanted to share with us, because we’re objective, we just want to know what they’re feeling, there’s no judgement. They feel misunderstood, they feel that nobody wants to listen to them and we did."
Many of the STRIVE trainers are graduates of the program who have turned their lives around, which helps build trust and understanding with students.
"I grew up in the system," Smith says. "My mother was an alcoholic drug addict in and out of prison and suffered from severe mental illness that went untreated for several years and her children pretty much suffered the outcome of her not dealing with her own issues. We ended up in children’s homes, foster care, juvenile detention and prison."
Smith says he had no problem being himself in front of the camera.
"I didn’t do anything any different because the cameras were there," he says. "I’m used to me and where I am in my life. I’m comfortable with my mistakes. We want our students to get to that point where you might not be proud of every mistake you’ve ever made, but you need to be comfortable with it enough so that when you articulate where you are today in your life it doesn’t sound like you’re ashamed of the mistakes you’ve made and the lessons you’ve learned in life. I try to teach the students, don’t do anything in the dark that you don’t want in the light. And the things you’ve done are in the past, that’s who you were, not who you are today."
Were his students similarly unfazed by the cameras?
"They didn’t come here because they heard we had this great opportunity to be on television," Smith says. "They came to us from prison because they know that they need something different and they couldn’t go back to prison because that wasn’t an option. They came here because they wanted to leave a life of drug addiction and to stop walking the street and prostituting. Those are their reasons for being here."
But what about someone like Adam, a mouthy smart alec who got kicked out when he broke program rules by taking unprescribed pills? Did he act out more for the camera?
"Adam wanted to be a cocky arrogant ass and given any opportunity to do so he was gonna do it," Smith says. "I mean if you look at the story of Adam, he wanted to get high, that was his motivation. Could Adam have made a different turn? Absolutely. But he didn’t. He made a choice; he didn’t get to choose his consequence."
Smith points out that most of the students are so preoccupied by hard circumstances that they simply don’t have the mental bandwidth to worry about something as trivial as being filmed.
"Our students are in class and they’re worrying, ‘I don’t know if I’m gonna eat later,’ ‘I don’t know if tonight I’m gonna find a safe place for me and my child to sleep,’" he says. "That distraction is worse than any camera crew."
Smith, the rest of the staff and board members from Second Chance had a screening of the first episode along with Andrea, one of the students featured in the show, a formerly drug addicted woman who had difficulty holding onto a job and who struggled but made it to graduation.
Smith says he found the first episode to be an accurate mirror of his everyday reality and pointed out that he wasn’t the only one.
"At the end, Angela stood up and was in tears," Smith says. "She said she knows there is so much more work that she has to do on herself and the person she wants to be is not the same person she was in the classroom."
The message of STRIVE and the show seems to be that no matter what your history or circumstances, with positive thinking and a positive attitude, the American dream can be yours. But what about all the Americans who already know how to smile and shake hands and show up for work on time, those without criminal records or disadvantages who still find themselves out of work?
"There are people out there who don’t have that same baggage that our clients are walking around with," Smith says. "But I think one thing that they’ll relate to is that moment of real honesty with themselves. They’ll look back and go you know was I really the best employee that I could have been? I hear people are being laid off because the economy is bad, but somebody is still doing your job. If the company closed and went out of business then I understand, you had no control over that. But when they downsized and they downsized you, you may want to look at that."
But is there ever harm in the rhetoric that if you believe in yourself, you will succeed, when even those people who have done everything right sometimes fall through the cracks?
"It’s like a casino, it’s a numbers game," Smith says. "So unfortunately some people will fall through the cracks. Hopefully we’ll catch a few of them and we’ll be there to help them when they do."