After twenty years entangled in drug use, homelessness, crime, and incarceration, Justin Allen became part of the first cohort of participants in The Other Side Academy (TOSA) in Salt Lake City.
Here, intensely consistent feedback and immediate responsibility create a crucible of change for everyone and anyone serious enough to commit to the process.
Today, three years after his start, Justin is clean, honest, reconciled to his family, and playing a key role in expanding TOSA’s work to Denver where dozens of students are finding help, community, and the accountability they need to transform themselves.
Whether you’re late, cutting in line, or stealing socks, no one here gets away with anything. Instant feedback and intense twice-weekly ‘games’ create a culture of rigorous accountability and high expectations. The vast majority of transformative growth happens in these games, when students share direct and personal feedback in small groups.
“I wasn’t sure if he was going to make it,” remembers Dave Durocher, TOSA’s Managing Director. “At the beginning, you could see the veins in his neck and forehead bulging. It took him probably a year before he could sit in a game and listen to feedback.”
“I finally learned that I don’t need to explain myself,” says Justin. “I just need to listen and accept it and respect it and apply the changes. They don’t care about the explanation, they care that you own up to your mistakes and how you make people feel.”
Once that switch was flipped, Justin began to grow in responsibility and learn leadership.
Like most TOSA freshmen, he spent his first year doing custodial and housekeeping work, scrubbing toilets and doing laundry. Increasingly able to work with others and maintain a good attitude, he was promoted to Freshman Crew Boss, helping to guide other freshmen through their program experience. In his second year, Justin was hired by The Other Side Movers, where he began to learn customer service and leadership skills.
Now, just a few years later, Justin is one of the first graduates to be hired full-time and is taking a leadership role in The Other Side Academy’s recent expansion to Denver, Colorado.
Under the leadership of TOSA co-founders Lola and Steve Strong, Justin will now oversee The Other Side Movers—a social enterprise designed to create employment opportunities for participants and fully sustain the academy within just twenty-four months. The staff is further supported by a core of experienced students capable of leading others in journeys of transformation and recovery.
The wheels of this expansion began turning in 2016 when a delegation of business, community, and political leaders from Denver visited Salt Lake City to see ‘what was working’ in the way of social transformation. The visit concluded with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock stating that Denver needed the TOSA model and right there on the spot asking for community leaders to step up and lead the effort. Several in attendance rose to the challenge and with the strong support of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and the leadership of Andrew Schmidt, the Other Side Academy is now on the other side of the Rockies.
“We’re a non-governmental response to the incarceration, opioid, and homelessness crises—and it’s a self-sustaining model that works. Our goal is to expand it across the United States,” says CEO Tim Stay.
At the entrance to The Other Side Academy, in both Denver and Salt Lake City, is a bench. To get help, all anyone needs to do is sit on the bench. It’s available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and the only criterion for acceptance into the academy is, “Are you serious?”
“Until 2015, I missed my whole kids’ lives—about 10-12 years of their lives—choosing drugs over everybody, including myself,” says Justin. “I’d like people to know that change is hard, but if you put in the work, you can change for the better. I’m an example to my kids. I’m where and who I’m meant to be.”