America’s “independent sector”—its civil society—is the best-funded and most robust in the world. It consistently develops new and effective approaches to some of the nation’s most serious social problems. Since 2001, the Manhattan Institute has sought to identify and recognize some of the most promising social entrepreneurs and the new non-profits they’ve founded, based on their own original ideas. The more than 50 winners of the Richard Cornuelle award, named for the writer who coined the term independent sector, have addressed challenges as diverse as teaching English to new immigrants, building facilities for charter schools, helping older Americans “age in place,” developing science and engineering curricula for high schools, and helping African-American college students continue through to graduation. Most are supported entirely by private philanthropy. This is the first of four columns in which I’ll profile this year’s winners of the Cornuelle award.
Milwaukee zip code 53206 holds an unenviable designation: a greater percentage of its population has been incarcerated than any other in the U.S. Its far from unique in the city, though: There are, in fact, 26,000 ex-offenders in Milwaukee, a city with a total population of just 600,000. By the age of 34, 62% of African-American men in Milwaukee will either be in jail or have served time in jail. While the overall unemployment rate in Wisconsin is less than 4%, the city’s black unemployment rate is, at 19%, the highest among all 50 states. What's more, many return to neighborhoods on the city's North Side which are physically and, one might say, spiritually dilapidated.
It's the sort of situation that can seem impervious to improvement. That, however, is not the sort of sentiment that occurs to Nick Ringger, who leads an institution addressing the areas ills, both physical and human. The Community Warehouse formula can seem simple--but it's original and powerful. Its warehouse--a recycled one-time tannery building on the Menominee River-- is filled with top-quality, donated construction materials--from lumber to dry wall--and staffed by ex-offenders, there to find both employment and purpose. As Ringger puts it, “We look at assets—products and people—that others don’t see.” That means that surplus construction materials that formerly took up space in landfills, in the hands of small neighborhood contractors, become valued tools for improving homes. And the "background-challenged" individuals who unload, sort and sell them (at below-retail prices), learn the habits of work and personal responsibility.
CEO Ringger became the first paid director of the Warehouse, founded in 2005, two years ago. That he'd find himself working in Central City Milwaukee cannot be said to have been obviously predestined. Raised on a farm in Indiana, a crisis of faith in high school resulted in his excommunication from the family’s Mennonite church. Marrying right after high school, he worked as a farmer while also starting a trucking company and a sporting goods store, eventually entering college at age 26—a Bible college in Alaska. Bringing along his wife and five children, they lived in the Alaskan bush, they home-schooled the children before moving back to Indiana to complete his studies because the Bible college wouldn’t allow him to complete his degree quickly enough. “I get bored easily,” he deadpans.
Howard Husock is the Vice President of Research and Publications at the Manhattan Institute. From 1987 through 2006, he was director of case studies in public policy and management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.