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Selling Books while Salvaging Lives: Civic and Social Entrepreneurship on the Cliff’s Edge

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One of the great privileges of my role as Director of the Institute is to work with talented individuals as they pursue vital and often pathbreaking work. I was reminded of this fact recently when I visited a portion of a once vacant warehouse in which one of our research faculty has established an online bookselling business to assist individuals with various difficulties as they seek to return to the workforce. This is not a for-profit operation or a profit center for the nonprofit organization with which our colleague has partnered, as he has designed and implemented this initiative. Instead, this effort’s aspiration and key metric is to serve as a site of hope, employment and opportunity for people who have too often found themselves devoid of all of these.

Given the fact that the project is not being developed foremost to make money, but instead, ultimately for non-economic purposes, it is important to emphasize that our colleague nonetheless has had to learn the ins and outs of the used book business and knows that the operation must break even in the long run to survive. There is no magic source of funds that will sustain it as a money-losing effort, whatever its benefits to those it serves and employs. Acquiring the needed knowledge of the business has included many challenges that might be involved with any such start-up: finding affordable space for the operation; obtaining the necessary computer equipment and software and learning how to use the latter; locating a sufficient quality and quantity of shelves; designing the system by which books can be processed; signing up with, and meeting the requirements of, major vendors, including Amazon; obtaining sources of books; and, not least, doing all of this on a less than shoe-string budget. All of this would make good fodder for texts on social entrepreneurship or indeed, treatments of entrepreneurship without that qualifying modifier.

The things I observed and learned during my visit illustrate the audacity and acumen with which such initiatives must proceed as well as the moral grit and determination necessary to persist in them when success is not guaranteed. More, our colleague, and the nonprofit he works to assist, must press ahead with creativity and perseverance in the face of social and cultural assumptions that persistently question why they are bothering. Many Americans also imagine, alternatively, that such efforts could magically occur otherwise via the market place in the absence of the stubborn struggles of those involved.

On the day of my visit one employee, a young woman in perhaps her mid-20s, was sorting, cataloging and registering books in the operation’s computer system for shelving and possible sale. Another staff member, a young man and skilled woodworker, had devised an ingenious device to move books among the tall shelves for storage and was working to assemble shelves that had been acquired from a library in Alabama for a low price. To obtain those shelves, our colleague had to locate them, purchase them at auction and find a way to pick them up and transport them back to Virginia. He did so, and with a rental truck, two volunteers, including our colleague, spent more than 16 hours on a weekend driving to and from Alabama and disassembling the units and loading them into the truck to ensure that the fledgling operation had decent space for its burgeoning collection. A third employee was out on the day I stopped by, picking up a load of books from a local library. To do so he drove a much-used passenger van that our colleague had found a way to make operable. While this vehicle has so far served the effort well, its driver has learned that he can carry only so many books per trip, since it was not designed for such heavy cargo.

During my visit, my colleague and I discussed how the operation acquired a forklift that has helped employees overcome the difficulty of a relatively high loading dock and the need to move hefty materials on a regular basis. This machine had been abandoned by another nonprofit entity in a warehouse some 75 miles away and it had not run in some time, but my colleague found a way to transport it to its present location and to ensure its repair. He overcame the challenges I have outlined with ingenuity while spending few funds. The forklift now daily moves well-used boxes overflowing with donated books within the warehouse. It also carts them to the tractor-trailer trucks of a firm that accept palettes of boxed books that cannot be sold at retail, but that can be recycled for cents on the pound. Finally, the forklift moves volumes into the warehouse when they arrive from regular donation providers.

I also learned that three of the operation’s four employees (one was out ill) were fulfilling productive roles despite their inability to secure jobs in the market place. Some were fighting opioid addiction and the criminal records and individual and family chaos that narcotic abuse visits on those who fall prey to it. Some had been victims of spouse or partner abuse and returned daily to a shelter protecting them from the danger of additional violence. All of the staff members were seeking to overcome poverty, addiction or social and psychological as well as physical abuse, lack of education or job skills. Our colleague’s book operation represented a way forward for each that enabled them to work as they made their way through the harsh realities in which all found themselves. No one working with the initiative, least of all my Institute colleague, was under any illusion that all would now be smooth sailing for these four individuals. Recovering drug abusers recidivate at very high rates and individuals who have borne abuse of various sorts often have a difficult time recovering from those experiences. Nonetheless, these staff members all were working and productively engaged in a common enterprise and to a person, those I met expressed enthusiasm and pride concerning their respective roles in this project.

This entrepreneurial effort illustrates four broader points or themes that many in our society today often forget or simply denigrate, typically on ideological grounds. First, and most basically, this project is founded on the premise that the bookselling operation’s employees are not alone responsible for their circumstances or for addressing them. This initiative does not assume that society, as many who accept our nation’s now dominant imaginary do, consists of an amalgam of autonomous and autarkic actors. Rather, its organizers view those it employs as Americans and members of a common body politic. My colleague also sees each as a human being with specific capabilities and frailties. For these, if for no other reasons, this initiative assumes that these individuals deserve opportunities to address their life challenges and to move forward if they can. One may take this position without idealizing either the people involved or their chances for success. This stance in effect says, “We will do what we can and without illusions and with our hands out to assist you, if you will summon your own efforts and do all you can to push ahead as well. Together, our partnership allows you an improved opportunity to succeed and society the many benefits of that outcome. We stand ready to work with you toward that end, without knowing how all of this will end up.”

Second, this initiative, and its meagre budget, could not and would not have occurred without public support. Our colleague is providing his vision, energy and knowledge to the nonprofit that has embraced this effort as a result of a government grant. That aid, symbolically at least, affirms society’s commitment to this vulnerable population, however tentatively, during a time when its members are often ignored, or, when acknowledged, are disparaged as “not worth” assisting. Likewise, and simultaneously, this effort is occurring as many elected leaders and Americans profess to believe that no such initiatives are necessary or that they are pernicious, since they will breed “dependence” or displace market efforts to assist the population. But the market plainly does not employ these people or train them, and this and related projects do not breed dependence, so much as confidence and capacity among some share of those they serve that perhaps, just perhaps, the adversities they confront can be overcome. Absent this initiative and the limited public (government) support that has underpinned it, it is not clear that those working at the warehouse on the day of my visit would have been employed anywhere, let alone in so supportive a setting.  

Third, this effort is obviously drawing on the skills and capacities of a university entity’s scholars to work to catalyze individual and social change at the micro-scale. That is, this operation would not be occurring but for the involvement of the Institute and one of its research faculty. It is also clear that those now engaged have been provided an opportunity structure by the formidable knowledge, determination and energy brought by that university partner. Nonetheless, this project also points up how complicated traversing the boundaries between town and gown can be, even as it illustrates how much can be accomplished when such occurs, with all realizing the risks and relative fragility of their shared claim. No one involved in this effort is Pollyannish or cocksure of its success, but all are doing all they can to make it work for the benefit of those whose lives it holds promise to assist. The risks are high, but so too are the potential rewards for those who can summon the determination and adaptive capacity to bear them.

Finally, whether this initiative succeeds or fails in the long pull, it already has demonstrated the complex array of capabilities that must be mobilized to address wicked social problems and to join disparate ways of knowing, even as it daily shatters myths and stereotypes about those who are poor and afflicted. The individuals leading this project must confront a welter of technical concerns every day. But successfully attending to those does not ensure their larger and principal aspiration, which is to secure opportunities for those they seek to assist to reorient their lives. This initiative makes plain that such can only occur with individual and social learning, and meaningful work can play only a part, albeit a significant part, in such change.

Those seeking to make this project successful not only must address its aims amidst all else they daily confront to provide opportunities to those involved, but also in the face of meta-and macro-scale attitudes held by too many people that can only be characterized as scornful and animated by a graceless ignorance.  It is therefore all the more admirable and notable that they are pressing ahead with this special initiative. It represents a notable example of what our society and university should be doing and I am delighted that the Institute is playing a formative role in it. 

Publication Date

April 1, 2019

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