Interview with The Uprise Books Project

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.

Interview with The Uni Project

The Uni Project, a winner of the 2013 Innovations in Reading Prize, is a portable reading room for New York City conceived of and run by Leslie and Sam Davol. The Uni provides a new kind of amenity for city residents, while fostering a stronger, more prominent culture of reading and learning at street level. Below is our interview with Leslie Davol, co-founder of The Uni Project.

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

Leslie Davol: We started sharing books and creating outdoor reading rooms because we love the city. When you walk through different cities, you pick up on different priorities. Are you dodging bicycles or cars? Can you find a place to sit down? Where are the playgrounds? Look closer and you’ll see differences in the prominence of books. At one end of the spectrum, Paris comes to mind—there seems to be a book store every couple of blocks.

New Yorkers love books and reading. They say that education and learning are top priorities for themselves and for their children. But sometimes, the urban environment of New York can make you think that we’re more interested in just about anything else, from cell phones to shoe shopping. The Uni reading room is simply a way to unleash New Yorkers’ passion for reading and learning by using available public space to gather around these activities. It’s a simple but powerful idea, especially in the middle of a city of 8 million potential readers.
NBF: What obstacles or challenges have you encountered along the way?

LD: It isn’t always easy to set up a reading room in a public space. We like to surprise people, amaze them even, by finding ways to put books in places you wouldn’t expect. But we also want people to feel like a reading room in the middle of the city is a feasible, sensible solution that could be an ongoing part of public life. So ideally, our installation should appear dramatic and practical all at once. We’re constantly working on that balance.

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

LD: Most of our staff and volunteers say the same thing: we love meeting fellow New Yorkers, especially the ones who like books and enjoy public space. The Uni certainly makes it easy to find those folks.

There are moments when we’re packing up the books when there’s a kid who seems to be more than just disappointed that the day is over. Maybe even distraught. Is this a love of books, or maybe a love of a safe, pleasant place to be? Maybe both. We’ve learned that the Uni can be a haven, a kind of oasis in a very busy and sometimes challenging city.

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

LD: It was great to meet fellow prize winners. We’ve started a collaboration with The Uprise Books Project to bring banned books to NYC streets, for example. Of course, the Prize has also let us share our work with thousands of people who follow the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards. That has strengthened our own work, opened new opportunities, and hopefully added something back to the book world as well.

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

LD: We’ll bring open-air reading rooms to even more spaces in New York City, including special initiatives aimed at plazas and play streets. We’ve also designed new infrastructure—a kind of kit for creating reading rooms—that we’re producing for libraries and other organizations across the country. Just recently, we were brainstorming ideas for curating our collection next year and someone suggested highlighting National Book Award authors when we’re out and about next fall. Good idea. See you on the street!


Why is reading vital?

Reading brings out the best in people. Reading together in public brings out the best in our communities.

Tell us about some accomplishments or successes you’ve had since winning the prize:

In 2014, the Uni Project

– offered 430 hours of reading rooms on the streets of New York City in 26 locations;
– helped launch five portable reading rooms in other cities run by others, including Seattle Public Library and DC Public Library;
– won the Mayor of Boston’s Public Space Invitational and created a Uni reading room for downtown Boston;
– partnered with National Book Foundation to create two special reading rooms in NYC Parks; and
– launched a new reading room activity that helps New York kids write mini book reviews on the side of our carts!

In 2015, watch for Uni reading rooms in parks, plazas, play streets and other public spaces in New York City. Stay tuned for more Uni reading rooms that pop up in other cities, run by libraries and community organizations. See you on the street!

Interview with Little Free Library

Little Free Library, a winner of the 2013 Innovations in Reading Prize, is a free book exchange and social movement. Volunteers build and install creatively-designed book boxes for their local communities to share books with one another. There are now more than 10,000 Little Free Libraries installed around the world. Below is our interview with Rick Brooks, co-founder of Little Free Library.

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

Rick Brooks: Funny how the Innovations in Reading program focuses on “thinking outside the box,” because the prototype Little Free Library was just that—a box of books in my partner Todd Bol’s front yard. Both the structure itself and its contents had value. What we soon realized together was that what happened outside that box could establish a rich combination of purposes—new cultural norms for giving and sharing, friendships across generations and cultures, new dissemination channels for books, new ways to extend the reach of public libraries, and much more. To be honest, our inspiration came from many different directions—our mothers and teachers, book lovers and favorite authors. Illiterate farmers and poor families in developing countries also fit into the mix, as do young people with an indefatigable desire to learn, neighbors who are lonely, and people who have a yearning for a sense of community. So do people like Lutie Stearns, the Wisconsin librarian who delivered nearly 1,400 wooden boxes of books to tiny communities throughout Wisconsin between 1895 and 1912. Storytellers and pioneers who knew they had something important to offer and refused to give up.

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

RB: Because this family of ideas was neither high-tech nor intended to make millions of dollars, it grew almost organically from the ground up.  There was no start-up capital or venture funding; no precedent or business model; and no large institution that stepped up to take the enterprise under its wing and protect it.  So when the word got out through national media and the potential benefits of Little Free Libraries became more obvious, our two-person, then five-person group of volunteers and modestly paid staff found itself in much higher demand than anyone could rightly expect to meet.

That was both the blessing and the conundrum: how do we stay true to our nonprofit mission and grassroots origin but stay ahead of the massive—yes, worldwide—interest in recreating the magic that got us “out of the box” in the first place?  Early adopters of this innovation became our heroes and advocates. We believed then and now that the name they have earned—stewards of Little Free Libraries—accurately represents the heart of this movement.

Anyone can build a box and fill it with books. They can be proud of their work, even though the roof might leak and they run out of books every once in a while. But there is an almost spiritual aspect of Little Free Libraries that transcends the very temporary trends of popular culture.

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

RB: Every week we receive hundreds of photographs and messages from people around the world who have brought Little Free Libraries to their communities. We are amazed at the diversity of interest: from a state health department and community health clinics who want to use Little Free Libraries as a key part of their outreach efforts on lead poisoning and early childhood development to elderly housing programs, food pantries, and after-school programs in small towns. There are now Little Free Libraries in countries that we did not even know existed three years ago. Handwritten notes of thanks as well as tearful requests for help getting books in the hands of kids who have never owned one. Grandpas stand proudly beside the Libraries they built for their grandchildren. Survivors of hurricanes and tornados show us the Libraries they built from storm debris. Above the Arctic Circle and in the jungles of Latin America and Africa, Little Free Libraries offer something to do in refugee camps, orphanages, and village squares. Seeing such expressions of goodness and commitment can be extremely gratifying.

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

RB: We honestly don’t know yet. We hope that it will help us find partners and support that will relieve some of the pressure to keep up with the huge expansion. We also hope it will help Little Free Libraries to be perceived as an important part of the wide spectrum of service that publishers, schools, and public libraries have fulfilled for years.

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

RB: Our four primary programs, Little Free Libraries for Small Towns, Books Around the Block, Good Global Neighbors, and Friends Through the Years, now offer a coherent framework to reach three to four more times the number of people who already know us. Our Give It Forward Team (GIFT) is gaining momentum, too. We’re looking for underwriters and partners helping those who could not otherwise afford Little Free Libraries.

Our primary goal is not necessarily to GET BIG.  Instead, we want to provide both the inspiration and the tools for people everywhere to get involved at their own pace for the common good.  We would like to share the neighborhood and small town experience of Little Free Libraries personally, and see the creative ways that this concept has come alive.  Will there be beautifully crafted boxes of books in art and history museums and folk festivals? We have no doubt. And will they touch the lives of all kinds of people—readers and non-readers alike? We hope so.