Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Ending Recidivism, Brick by Brick

March 7, 2017
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Ending Recidivism, Brick by Brick
This pizza oven in Braddock, Penn., serves as a model for the scaled-down version being built by the #OvCourse Initiative. Courtesy of Trade Institute of Pittsburgh
Students at the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh are working with reused materials to rebuild their lives and their communities.

Slicing and delivering pizzas usually isn’t a living wage job. But building the brick ovens in which to cook the pies? One Pittsburgh nonprofit believes that could be a career.

In the last few months, the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, which offers masonry training to help Western Pennsylvania’s formerly incarcerated back into the workforce, made its first foray into entrepreneurship. Through its #OvCourse (previously called the #TIPizza Initiative), two top-performing graduates from the standard 10-week brick-laying courses, are chartering an oven construction business from scratch. “It’s pretty much the fastest track from a jail cell to a job in 70 days,” says Steve Shelton, the Institute’s founder. Together, Brian and Ronnell will learn how to grow a business and replicate their craftsmanship at scale. Eventually, they might have enough business to hire more ex-cons.

The idea came about after Shelton, a contractor for 44 years, erected a pizza oven in Braddock, one of Pittsburgh’s eastern suburbs, with a group of students in 2008. The oven has contributed to “a narrative of rebirth,” in the Rust Belt town that lost 90 percent of its population over the last century, says Kit Mueller, TIP’s head of strategy and community development. The hulking, wood-burning furnace (based on master craftsman Alan Scott’s designs), is the centerpiece of community events. One baker uses the kiln to produce sourdough bread; locals hold pizza night fundraisers at it.

TIP, along with Carnegie Mellon’s Urban Design Build Studio (UDBS), is creating a scaled-down version of Shelton’s design. Approximately the size of a household grill, the oven is constructed with donated, recycled materials from demolished buildings. Joining architecture students (who lead design in the studio) and ex-cons (who handle installation in the field) together bridges a “huge chasm” between academia and the lived world, says John Folan, the architecture professor who heads UDBS.

“When I see these young kids, I can teach them to be good designers all day long. But when they look down at the urban city, they might not see what makes it a better place. With [TIP] working with my students, not only can they approach the design but get to know the people that are living in these communities.” The collaboration works both ways, Shelton notes, boosting confidence among his bricklayers. “There’s kids from six or seven countries with my guys from just out of jail or still in halfway homes. It’s this kind of collaboration that lets us level the playing field.”

Of the six ovens that have already been ordered, two will be sent to foster homes, where they’ll be used for fundraisers and cooking classes for the kids.

 

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