Interview with The Uprise Books Project

February 2016



Justin Stanley founded Uprise Books Project in 2011 with a very simple mission: to encourage underprivileged teens to read by providing them with new banned and challenged books. Uprise won an Innovations in Reading Prize in 2013.

National Book Foundation: What inspired your Innovations in Reading-winning program?

Justin Stanley: My family didn’t have much when I was a kid. My younger brother and I were raised by a single mother and when we were in elementary school we were completely dependent on government and community help to make ends meet. I knew what government cheese tasted like and the various ways people looked at you when your mom pulled out a book of food stamps in the grocery store line, what it was like to be we-have-to-skip-the-electric-bill-this-month-if-we-want-to-eat poor.

I also remember the day in second grade when I came to school to find a group of strangers from some place called “RIF” standing behind a table of books, telling us kids that we could have one. For free. I couldn’t tell you what specific book I chose that day, but I’ve never forgotten how great it felt to bring it home.

Fast forward a couple decades…

I enrolled in the MBA program at Portland State University in 2010. During the summer quarter in 2011, the school offered a Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship course when I happened to need an elective. The main deliverable for that course was a market feasibility analysis for a new social business of the student’s creation, one that tackled a social issue that the student felt passionate about. I eventually came around to the idea of taking on poverty, illiteracy, and censorship, and the Uprise Books Project was born.

NBF: What obstacles or challenges have you encountered along the way?

JS: Most are the same obstacles that other nonprofits face: not enough hours in the day or dollars in the bank account to accomplish everything you’d like. The most surprising, though, is how difficult it can be to give books to students by going through official channels.

Yes, the Uprise Books Project promotes books that have been banned or challenged, but many of those titles are beloved classics and award-winners. You’d think it would be as easy as calling a principal in a low-income school and saying “Hey, we’d like to give your kids free books! Where do we send the package?” But, unfortunately, that’s not always how it works.

Case in point… we recently approached a lower income high school in a small/medium-sized city. The school has about 1500 ninth-through-twelfth grade students, roughly 75% of whom qualify for free or reduced student lunches. We had a particular title in mind, a National Book Award-winner for Young People’s Literature, but were told that district policy prohibited them from letting us give that particular book to students of all ages.

“No problem,” we thought, and we sent the person in charge of the district’s curriculum a list of about 200 titles in the hope that they could help us find one that would be acceptable. They highlighted two titles they thought would be a good fit, one of which was written by an author we’d worked with in the past, so we started making calls and sending emails.

We were thrilled when the author’s publisher agreed to donate all 1500 copies needed and we emailed the school to share the good news. To our surprise, though, they asked us to NOT send the books after all, that they needed to re-evaluate the title before we could give it to their students. We’re still waiting for the official decision.

NBF: What are the most satisfying aspects of the work your organization does?

JS: I’ve shared this story with people before, so forgive me if this is redundant…

The first time we sent books to a school, the teacher we worked with told us afterward that several of his students were reluctant to write their names in their new copies of The Catcher in the Rye. It turned out that this was the first time in these kids’ lives that someone had ever given them a book, and they were hesitant to “deface” it in any way.

It’s just bittersweet. These were teenagers, after all, young men and women who’d been on this planet for nearly two decades, and they’d never owned a book before. Of course, it feels great to help change that, but it would feel a hell of a lot better if it wasn’t a problem that existed in the first place. It’s really amazing, though, to think that we (Uprise, our donors, our cheerleaders, the teachers we work with, etc.) can change lives so easily and inexpensively.

NBF: How has winning the Innovations in Reading Prize affected your organization?

JS: We’re still a small, relatively young organization with a tiny budget and an all-volunteer workforce. With everyone having day jobs and families and various other obligations, it’s sometimes hard to justify dedicating those precious few remaining minutes to this project. The Innovations in Reading Prize reenergized us all, though, and reminded us that this is something worth doing. It’s been a shot of adrenaline.

Externally, it’s given us clout that we didn’t have before. It’s so much easier to contact authors, publishers, educators, and potential donors as an AWARD-WINNING nonprofit organization than it was before. We may not have the name recognition needed to convince everyone to take our calls, but the National Book Foundation does, and being able to leverage that connection has already opened doors.

NBF: What’s on the horizon for your organization for 2014?

JS: Expansion. We have three big goals for 2014:

  • 50/50 Plan: In 2014, the Uprise Books Project will reach at least 50 underprivileged teens in each of the 50 states. It’s a pretty significant yearly increase in the number of students we’ve reached, but we have no doubt that our supporters will help us make it happen.
  • The Uprise Books Store: The average nonprofit receives over half its funding through sales of goods and services. Uprise, though, has relied nearly completely on individual contributions. It’s not sustainable, and it certainly won’t let us expand the way we’d like. With that in mind, we’ll be launching an online store filled with banned book-related goodies, sales from which will help us get more books to more kids.
  • Personal Banned Book Stories: Starting in January, we’ll be sharing stories from folks from all walks of life about how banned and challenged books have impacted them. You’ll hear from artists and scientists, lawyers and entrepreneurs, CEOs and stay-at-home moms, each of whom simply wouldn’t be the person they are today if not for that special book.

On a personal note, I’ll be heading back to Portland State University to help the next generation of social entrepreneurs learn about the field. I’ll be assisting Cindy Cooper (the co-founder and director of Impact Entrepreneurs at PSU) in her Design Thinking in Social Innovation course in the winter quarter (the first class in the school’s new Business of Social Innovation certification program) and mentoring students interested in making their social ventures a reality.