From a Netflix prison to the Australian coal coast: Meet Yael Stone


Sydney-born Yael Stone spent seven years living in New York City and starring in Netflix hit Orange is the New Black. When she returned home in 2019, Stone settled on the NSW coal coast and began a new role – training Aussies for the jobs of the future.

Yael Stone will speak live at the Forbes Australia Women’s Summit on 26 March. Tap here to secure your ticket.

Yael Stone attends the 2022 AACTA Awards Presented By Foxtel Group at the Hordern on December 07, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for AFI)

“I fell in love with this place as an early teenager. The escarpment and the ocean create this contained village that feels like it can’t get too big,” Yael Stone says, speaking on the phone from her home in Bellambi, north of Wollongong. “I’m not a city person, and after living in New York for seven years, being in a small town was really attractive.”

It’s easy to understand why Stone chose to base her family in a tranquil New South Wales town after years of living in a bustling metropolis. The connection between her work as an actress on Netflix’s hit show ‘Orange is the New Black,’ and running the non-profit she founded called Hi Neighbour was less obvious.

“I’m a private person,” says Stone. “I love acting more than anything in the world. But the showbizzy and red carpet stuff isn’t my favourite.”

Stone still acts, though she chooses the roles she takes on carefully. Trained in theatre, the NIDA graduate starred opposite Geoffrey Rush in ‘Diary of a Madman’ in 2011. When the play moved to New York, so did Stone. She was cast in ‘Orange’ Is The New Black ‘as Lorna Morello the year after.

“A lot of the gang in ‘Orange’ are theatre folks,” says Stone. “The show is about how broken the criminal justice system is in the U.S., and that it’s not an essentially bad human being that makes bad decisions.”

Yael Stone and her Orange Is The New Black castmates attend the final season premiere at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center on July 25, 2019, in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)

‘Orange,’ as the show is known, is set in a New York prison. It was filmed in Queens, Astoria. To sink into her role, Stone began visiting a jail on Rikers Island in the Bronx. She found the experience so powerful that she soon began teaching yoga and meditation at the prison each Wednesday, and kept it up for the next five years.

The 39-year-old says she didn’t grow up volunteering. But the time she spent giving back to incarcerated people while she was at the height of her own fame, was transformative.

“I showed myself that I could be helpful,” she says. Her passion to work on social justice issues grew, in part because of the volunteer work she was doing in real life, and also because of the character she was playing.

“The person who wrote the original book has a real social justice bent,” Stone says.

When ‘Orange’ wrapped early in 2019 after seven seasons, Stone, her Australian husband Jack Manning Bancroft, and their 1-year-old daughter, repatriated to Australia.

They settled on the coast near Wollongong, and Stone began looking for ways she could contribute to the local community. Volunteering at an Australian prison didn’t seem a natural fit.

“My family has not been incarcerated and we are not victims of that broken system. Without being on the show the connection was tenuous. Sometimes it’s not your place to take up the oxygen on the issue,” Stone says.

The southern coast of New South Wales. Yael Stone’s non-profit Hi Neighbour trains coal and steel workers for jobs in renewables. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Later that year, the world changed with the emergence of Covid-19. Stone enrolled at the University of Wollongong to study Sustainable Communities to better understand the transformation taking place on the coal coast area where she was living. A few months into her studies, Stone built the framework for what is now the non-profit Hi Neighbour.

The objective of the social justice organisation is to address the skills gap that exists when coal and steel workers lose the jobs they have held for decades. Reskilling that workforce to qualify for jobs in renewable energy is paramount, says Stone.

“I’m trying to bring dignity and understanding to maligned coal workers. When you reach out across divides, powerful things happen,” she says. It is a cause close to Stone, because of geography, her new community, and also her family history.

“My grandfather was a steelworker. That’s my truth. I live in this town and this is what I have to give,” says Stone. “These days I talk most days to two volunteers I work with closely. One was a former coal worker, one was a steel worker, both are now retired and working to train people for jobs in renewables.”

Stone is a proponent of positive climate action and says the 2019 fires in Australia motivated her to tackle the subject.

“None of us are excused from the impacts of climate and also the cause of climate change. It feels like an issue we should all be speaking on from our different perspectives,” says Stone.

Hi Neighbour has financed two solar rooftops over the last year, taking 200 tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere. The funds from those solar panels are spent on training members of the community for jobs in the renewable ecosystem.

Courtesy: Hi Neighbour

The business model is to use renewable energy to train a renewable workforce and provide jobs and livelihood to families that are most impacted when coal mines and steel factories close. It is also about bridging the divide between generations, and climate-change perspectives.

“There is a great deal of disunity in our community, lots of folks in the northern suburbs, where I live, move in and don’t understand the space and don’t understand why steel and coal are so important,” says Stone. “There is a dislocation between those that have worked in coal.”

Stone is now a mother to two kids, and in addition to caring for them, works 3 days full-time at Hi Neighbour. Her vision for the future of the social and environmental change non-profit is to scale nationally.

“I’m trying to bring dignity and understanding to maligned coal workers. When you reach out across divides, powerful things happen.”

Yael Stone

“We need thousands and thousands of workers to move into the renewables space and we are going to be at the forefront of doing that,” says Stone.

The Rozelle, Sydney-born actress is also working in the trade that brought her international fame.

In 2023, she shot a series in Wollongong for Paramount+ called One Night. Stone also recently wrapped filming a biography of Australian-born journalist Peter Greste who was detained in Egypt. ‘The Correspondent’ was filmed in Sydney and chronicles the 2 years Greste spent in jail between 2013 and 2015, after being arrested while reporting for Al Jazeera on the Arab Spring uprising.

Set in a prison, there are parallels between ‘The Correspondent’ and Stone’s role as Italian-American prisoner Lorna Morello. Stone says she looks for powerful stories on issues that matter when deciding what roles she will step into, both on and off the screen.

“I’m not really motivated by money, my choices are made by my values,” she says.

I ask Stone if she misses the intensity of fame that comes with being on a smash-hit show and living in New York City where it was set and shot.

“I miss my pals,” she says. “It was a beautiful crazy time. But, I still get to act, just in a different country.”

Yael Stone will speak live at the Forbes Australia Women’s Summit on 26 March. Tap here to secure your ticket.

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