One month from now, two self-described outdoorsmen and an ex-convict will embark on an eight-week adventure that will include mountain climbing, art classes, and yoga lessons.
Jesse Spiegel and his friend Vitek Linhart are taking one formerly incarcerated young man from New York City on a road trip across the country, and filming the whole thing for a documentary titled "Rewilding." The goal of the trip is to explore leadership, health, happiness, and sustainability, according to the film's website. If this first trip goes well, Spiegel and Linhart hope to repeat the experience with more convicts released from prison, eventually connecting them in a "Rewilding" alumni network.
"The problem is that we have a totally unbalanced system where people are born into circumstances beyond their control that are basically funneling them into a direction and a path that is so hard to change," says Spiegel, who is the film's producer, in a promotional video. "In fact, we're punishing them for following that inevitable path. We aren't providing them with the tools that they need to find opportunity."
The film is raising funds for the project on Kickstarter.
The ex-convict who will accompany them is Anthony Dejesus, who grew up in a series of foster homes in New York City before becoming involved with a gang and eventually ending up in prison. After his release at age 23, which left him homeless, he decided to abandon gang life and worked his way off the streets.
Dejesus, who has never been outside New York, compares cross-country travel to "going to the moon" in terms of unattainability for young people from his background. Especially foreign to him are his upcoming lessons in yoga, something he says he never thought he'd do.
"In my community, most of my peers when I was younger, we would look at that as a weakness or a feminine kind of thing," Dejesus says in a video interview. "Growing up in my community, if you weren't tough, you couldn't survive. Things you did made you tough. Being violent, or the amount of money you had, made a person feel like they were tougher and in power. And it's not. It's doing other things, being open to other things, other knowledge, is what really gives you that power and really makes you tougher."
Other unconventional approaches to rehabilitating formerly incarcerated people by immersing them in new environments and activities have met with success. At the similarly outdoorsy Dismas Family Farm in Worcester, Mass., ex-convicts live and work on a small farm. The Rubicon Bakery in Richmond, Calif. is staffed by more than 100 people who were once in prison, and the non-profit Defy Ventures offers ex-cons a condensed business school education and one-on-one mentorships with top business leaders. Countless other halfway houses, some of which encourage rehabilitation through religion, also provide refuge for recently released convicts hoping to escape a toxic environment.
While the "Rewilding" project is a kind of rehabilitation on a much smaller scale, starting with just one person, the production crew hopes the film will affect other disadvantaged youths through a ripple effect. Dejesus plans to use what he learns to help other at-risk young people in his community.
"It's about legacy," Dejesus says. "I want to be able to say 'I've done this, and you can do it. I've done it. I came right from where you're at.' That's my biggest dream."