Blair Philogene, a QA Technician who has been with Greyston Bakery since early 2022, had spent six years before that in prison. We spoke with Blair to learn more about his journey, and how his life has changed since starting his work with Greyston Bakery. A few themes emerged: trust, loyalty, hope, and community – some words that aren’t used often enough in the work environment.
Greyston Bakery (GB): What prompted your relationship with Greyston Bakery?
Blair (B): Well, I had just finished doing a six-year prison sentence in 2021. And in the last couple of months, I was trying to figure out where I'm going to work, places that accept people who’ve got felonies and criminal backgrounds. And my sisters sent me some information about Greyston. So, I knew that was one of the first places I was going to check out when I was released.
GB: Once you were released, did your employment situation feel more secure because you knew that you were going to check out Greyston?
B: Well, it was secure mentally, it gave me some comfortability. Like, okay, maybe I have some hope not to come back to prison. Maybe there's a chance. It helped me sleep better at night. And so I got out, went to the [Greyston] Foundation, and I did the Rangers apprenticeship program with them. And then I'm, you know, still searching for other employment. And I found something good. I was hired somewhere but once they did a background check they had to let me go. So, I came back to Greyston, and they took me in with open arms. I've been with them ever since.
GB: That's a beautiful story. Before your employment at Greyston Bakery, you started with a program at the Foundation? What was that like?
B: Yes, I started with the Greyston Foundation. They had a program where they were letting us do street cleaning and stuff like that. That actually humbled me a lot. But it was a temporary program so, once you're done, you hope that Greyston will keep you or that you’ll find other employment. When my Rangers apprenticeship ended, Dr. Penny [Vice President of Strategic Programs & Partnerships} referred me to do another program at Greyston Bakery. That was a huge relief, because I was like, oh my god, what am I gonna do now? But she looked out for me, and then when I got to the Bakery warehouse, I met April [Director of Research & Development and QA]. And she's just been helping me so much since I got here. Like, she is an angel sent from heaven. She actually got me to start work at the bakery and then a promotion, too. I got lucky. Greyston is an amazing place with amazing people.
GB: What is the community like among the employees?
B: It's beautiful. You have people from all over [Yonkers, and the world] – people that just got to this country, and it's like a big family. When you're working on the floor you might be working with somebody who doesn't speak any English. You're teaching them English, and they’re teaching you Spanish and they don't know anything about your background. But when you do tell them [your history], they don't even look at you funny, because you already did a month of laughing and working hard with them. It opens their eyes to the fact that not everybody who goes to prison is a bad person, they just made some wrong choices. It's a beautiful, family-oriented kind of place, in my eyes.
GB: Well, I have goosebumps. Before you went to prison, how did you support yourself?
B: In the streets. Haha. Well, I went to college. And when I was in college, I was engaged in some illegal stuff. Right before I was supposed to graduate, I got arrested and that was the first time I went to prison. From there, I did try to go back [to school]. I worked some jobs here and there, but I really went full-time doing illegal stuff. I started feeling kind of hopeless. I had a felony now and I wasn’t able to find a good job. So, when I came in here [Greyston Bakery] and they gave me a promotion, I was taken aback. I was just like, wow, this is crazy. To come to a place and get a promotion. They’re trusting me and giving me a lot of responsibility. It was eye-opening for me. They’re really helping people. They’re saving people. They’re not only saving me, but they’re saving my family, my kids, we’re able to do certain things that we probably wouldn’t have been able to do before.
GB: Is Greyston, or Open Hiring® in general, something that was commonly known about in prison?
B: Yeah, I mean, they talk about Greyston a lot, and they do talk about open hiring, so you know, people try to flock to it. But some people try it, and they don't make it through. It's a lot of hard work in the beginning [as a Bakery Apprentice]. But once you make it through, you kind of feel like, if I could do this, there's a lot of other stuff I could do. If I could commit to this, be disciplined enough to get here early in the morning, do a 12-hour shift and come back every day. You know, it does something to you. It gives you more discipline and a lot of what people who go to prison are missing is discipline and commitment to something.
GB: You kind of answered my next question, but what was it like at the very beginning when you started working at Greyston Bakery?
B: It was a lot of long hours. It was hard in the beginning, coming from that [prison] straight to this [Greyston Bakery]. It was a little hard for me to transition, you know, I wasn’t just in prison for a little while, you know, I was in there for six years, so the transition was hard. But they make it so easy for you. They work with you, they understand where you're coming from and what comes with hiring us [individuals with justice-involved backgrounds]. Once I got through that transition phase and got back to being in the real world, other people come in, and you help them transition. You even meet people that you were in prison with, so it makes it easier to be like, okay, I can do this. There is a lot of support here, and nobody's talking down to you. Everybody's talking to you, no matter what position they’re in.
GB: Looking back at the past year that you've been at Greyston Bakery, how do you feel like you've changed? And specifically, how have the people there helped you to facilitate that?
B: Well, I had a lot of anger. I snapped really quick. When I had talked with Eddie [Production Manager], he was just very welcoming, and made me feel comfortable. He wasn't chastising like a parent to a kid saying, ‘Don't do this or that’, he just spoke to me. Clearly, he was like, you got to try this and this. And April’s energy is always amazing. So, when you start talking to her, it kind of calms you down and makes you relaxed. And there's a supervisor here, Dion, he's been in prison before. When you see that he's there, you're like, okay, if I calm down, listen, and trust in the process, maybe I can get there too.
GB: What do you think has been the most rewarding part about working at Greyston?
B: There was a lady working downstairs when I was on the [production] line. She didn't know anything about my background, and she barely spoke English. But we became like, the bestest of friends. And you would not think that - you know what I mean? I was coming from prison, and she was coming from another country and doesn’t speak English. When she found out I was in prison she was shocked. And she said, wow, you really helped change my perception of people who have come from prison. She's about 60 maybe and I'm 37 and we're like best friends. So that was the most rewarding thing. There were a lot of rewarding things: getting a promotion, people coaching me, and believing in me, but that friendship was the most rewarding.
GB: Wow. What a beautiful story. I mean, I’m saying that again and again, but it's just so heartwarming to hear. Do you have any advice to share with other people who are getting out of a similar situation (to the one that you were in) or are looking for work after getting out of prison?
B: Oh, my own advice would be if you feel like you're not ready, just wait. Some people are not ready to jump right into work and be around this type of environment. They’ve got to acclimate to the new world, It's different rules up there [in prison] than out here. My second advice is trusting the process. If you see somebody that came from the same place you came from, and they've given you sturdy evidence that you can get there if you want to, you have to trust in the process. And that's what’s helping to guide me through life. There’s a process, just trust it, go through it. And be patient.
GB: And now that you're at Greyston Bakery and are a little bit more established, what do you think about your future here?
B: I would love to grow with Greyston Bakery. You know, I was only here for about four months before they asked me if I wanted to try a new position so there's definitely opportunity here. My loyalty is with Greyston Bakery right now. I feel comfortable, not worried, I just want to excel here and in whatever else. A lot of pressure was alleviated because of Greyston Bakery, not just for me but for my family.
GB: Well, thank you so much. Do you think that there's anything else that's a key part of your story that we didn't touch on yet?
B: Just that Greyston Bakery has accelerated my growth. For what it took to get to where I'm at right now mentally, and maturity wise, I think Greyston Bakery helped me save two years. I had to get with the program.
GB: Thank you for articulating your story so beautifully. I really appreciate you talking with me.
B: Thank you.
Interview conducted by Miranda Lipton.