In the Red: Film Captures the Power of Second Chances

In the opening scene, the camera pans across a city skyline at night, sirens wailing in the distance, as firefighter Wellington Jackson asks, “Who hasn’t made a mistake? Are you going to tell me that everybody that goes to prison or is in juvenile hall doesn’t deserve a second chance?”

The documentary, In the Red, focuses on Bay EMT, an organization Jackson co-founded in Oakland, Calif., that provides free training in fire and emergency services to young people ages 18-24. About a third of the participants have prior involvement in the juvenile justice system, many of them recruited while completing time at Camp Sweeney, a minimum-security residential program for adolescent males run by the Alameda County Probation Department.

Wellington Jackson

Wellington Jackson, co-founder and executive director of Bay EMT, looking out over Oakland, Calif., from the top of the training tower. Photo: Mimi Chakarova

In the Red, directed and shot by filmmaker Mimi Chakarova, follows the lives of three young men—Joseph Stubbs, Dexter Harris, and Justin Mayo—before, during, and after the rigorous 18-week fire academy. Not everyone who enters the program completes it, and the film documents both triumphs and setbacks.

Chakarova, who shot the film with no budget over the course of two years, said in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change, she hopes the film will be used as a “tool for change–for lawmakers to reconsider juvenile justice in America, and whether the crimes of kids should haunt them for the rest of their lives by limiting their chance for gainful employment.”

Bay EMT, which is seeking a permanent location, secures sponsorships and donations to provide free class materials, equipment, and uniforms, and collaborates with Merritt College, which covers the cost of tuition. In the three years Bay EMT has offered the fire academy, 41 cadets have graduated; five have been hired by fire departments, with another dozen currently in the firefighter hiring process. Many also complete Bay EMT’s emergency medical services program, and go on to work in healthcare.

In addition to providing opportunities and resources to young people caught up in the juvenile justice system, Bay EMT aims to increase diversity in the first responder profession. The title of the film comes from a motto adopted by African-American firefighters who faced racism and discrimination in their quest to join and advance in the field, and who committed to helping others come into the profession: “All I am, I owe. I live eternally in the red.”

“Historically, if you look at the fire service, people of color and women were not welcome,” Jackson said in an interview with The Imprint. “In some extreme cases, their lives were put in jeopardy because their co-workers didn’t want them there…for me to have this job today, someone decided it was worth a fight…I can never do enough to repay those who came before.”

The Meaning of a Uniform

With a soundtrack by Raphael Saadiq—who grew up in East Oakland with Lieutenant Sean Gascié, director of the fire academy—Chakarova’s film documents the rigor of the program as well as minute details of the cadets’ personal lives, filming them at the training ground and also in their off-hours at home, in the barbershop and at family gatherings.

The young men share their challenges, those they faced growing up and those they are still striving to overcome. For Harris and Stubbs, both of whom spent time at Camp Sweeney, Bay EMT provides that rare second chance. Their classmate Justin Mayo is just looking for a first chance. In one scene, he makes his grandmother a cup of coffee, then sits down to describe how he believes a firefighter uniform will change the way people see him.

“I would get on BART with a backpack,” he says, “and I could be dressed in something simple… people just looked at me as a Black kid, didn’t know what I was about…people would rather stand up for forty-five minutes than sit down next to you, and that’s kind of depressing, honestly…if I’m wearing that uniform, people could see me, I don’t know, as possibly a hero.”

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson, who previously served as the presiding judge of the county’s juvenile court and is a central figure in the film as well as in the lives of many young people who have participated in Bay EMT, told The Imprint she has seen young people transformed by the program.

Trina Thompson

Bay EMT Fire Academy cadet Joseph Stubbs at the training ground with Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson. Photo: Mimi Chakarova

“Transitioning into stable employment means people are happy to see them as opposed to clutching their purses,” Thompson said. “To walk into a room and know that people are glad to see them translates into enormous and intangible benefits for these kids. It’s something you can’t even quantify.”

Something to Say Yes To

Joseph Stubbs, who describes getting arrested during a chaotic time in his adolescence, says, “I’m trying to do something other than the streets.” He later explains that he wants to be a firefighter “because I want to show my kids that they can become anything they want to be.”

“These are kids who want to do something. They are trying to find the road map to get there,” Thompson said. “And the film shows the transformation that can take place when the community stops long enough to listen to our young people, give them something to say yes to and make a commitment to be present in their lives.”

At the training ground, cadets do pushups on pavement while wearing full gear as the instructor calls out: “If you don’t think you can do this, take your gear off and go home. Otherwise, get down and do the best you can do.”

The participants give each other pep talks, one telling his peers not to let exhaustion stop them. “Pass out afterward,” he says.

“We’re not about just creating firefighters,” Jackson says to the cadets. “We’re about creating civic-minded citizens. We’re about personal growth.”

Bay EMT Fire Academy cadets Joseph Stubbs and Dexter Harris recruiting at Camp Sweeney. Photo: Mimi Chakarova

Bay EMT Fire Academy cadets Joseph Stubbs and Dexter Harris recruiting at Camp Sweeney. Photo: Mimi Chakarova

True Civic Change

In the film, Dexter Harris and Jackson travel to Sacramento in 2012 to encourage legislators to pass Senate Bill 1378, which would require local emergency medical services agencies “to evaluate the good character and rehabilitation of an applicant for {an EMT certificate} who has a prior criminal conviction before denying a certificate.” Many fire departments require firefighter applicants have an EMT certificate, the training for which Bay EMT offers in addition to the fire academy.

While the bill ultimately did not pass out of the Senate Appropriations Committee, it “got it on record,” Jackson said, “that there should be a case-by-case review for each individual. Each person should be evaluated and judged based on their personal journey and what they’ve done since the offense.”

The fact that Bay EMT graduates with prior juvenile offenses have made it through the competitive hiring process as both firefighters and EMTs, Jackson said, means that conversation has started.

“I would say I’m a pissed-off citizen,” Jackson says, demurring from the term “hero” toward the end of the film, “who wants to make a difference.” He notes that Oakland is the ideal home for the program, as the city is “the birthplace of the Panthers, the birthplace of true civic change. It happened before, it could happen again.”

Bay EMT and its supporters, including Judge Thompson, are hoping the film will show jurisdictions around the country what is possible when young people caught up in the justice system are given opportunity, resources and support. At a convening of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP)’s Coordinating Council, Thompson shared the trailer with other practitioners and judges, including OJJDP Administrator Robert Listenbee and his staff.

Noting the support and mentorship Bay EMT provides participants, Dexter Harris says, “You can go a lifetime without knowing your purpose. One day I hope I’ll know…maybe it’s to help other people. As a youth I wanted to be motivated and enlightened, and I wanted to have somebody help me succeed. I can provide that to another kid that also wants to change their life.”

After a couple of community screenings in Oakland, Chakarova is submitting In the Red to film festivals in 2016, making it available to colleges and non-profit organizations, and pursuing broadcast opportunities for the film. All profits will be given to Bay EMT.

Your support allows The Imprint to provide independent, nonpartisan daily news covering the issues faced by vulnerable children and families.

Subscribe or Donate

The pick is in and it's @KamalaHarris. Last year we covered her plan to create a federal Bureau of Children and Family Justice...

House bill would send $2 billion to states for emergency help on family, youth #homelessness