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How One Man Takes On Society’s Toughest Problems—and Gets Results

Sam Roberts discusses "A Kind of Genius," his biography of "social entrepreneur" Herb Sturz.

As an urban affairs correspondent for the New York Times, where he has worked for two decades, and before that as a reporter and city editor for the Daily News, Sam Roberts has had a good perch for viewing New York’s many problems—economic, racial, criminal, developmental. Reporters are great on problems, of course, and rarely get credit for being interested in solutions. But in his new book, A Kind of Genius, about Herb Sturz, a legendary problem solver in New York for the last half-century, Roberts, 61, has gone over to the solution side.

Sturz has been involved with inventing programs that affect every sort of New Yorker in need of help: the old and the young, criminals and the victims of crime, those who seek affordable housing and those who want to create it, the homeless and drug-addicted and those who want their neighborhoods free of them. Sturz has worn an astonishing number of hats, both inside city government, where he was among other things director of the planning commission, helping to clean up Times Square, and outside, where he is best described by the catchall term “social entrepreneur.” He has even pulled a stint as an editorial writer for the New York Times and made a foray into international development, working with the philanthropist George Soros to build housing in South Africa.

Two programs he has helped to invent, Easyride, which provides rides for older people, and ReServe, which pays retired people to volunteer skills they have developed in a lifetime of work, have had a particular impact on the city’s aging population. At 78, Sturz himself is going strong, still inventing ways for government and the private sector to work together for the greater good.

AARP Bulletin Today talked to Roberts about his new biography. (Read an excerpt from A Kind of Genius.)

Q. What is the Herb Sturz story?

A. It’s an object lesson, a pure biography and a how-to manual for people who either think they can no longer be useful for some reason or think people can’t make a difference individually, because he has proved on both counts that he could do that.

Q. Is he a good object lesson? He sounds like such a one-of-a-kind person that no one else could do what he does.

A. Oh, I think he is unique. What distinguishes him as a social entrepreneur or a social engineer is the length of time he’s been doing this—close to 50 years, which is incredible. Before the term was even invented or popularized, Herb Sturz was doing it, which presumably takes a kind of genius. The scope, the breadth of the projects he has done, from bail reform, from housing in South Africa, from ReServe, realizing that people are much healthier, much more able to work, more able to contribute in later years than they might have been in the past. He also realizes that government is not an adversary, that it’s something that is out there and needs to be used. Those are things that have really distinguished him. But they are not beyond replication by any means; other people can do the same thing. You do have to have that kind of temperament.

Q. When you talk about social entrepreneurship, what do you mean?

A. It’s one of those gobbledygook kinds of terms, quite frankly. It is getting good things done, using the government to get good things done, finding the right streams of revenue to get things done. Herb Sturz employs what he calls double or triple social utility—getting things done in ways that help more than one group of people. So he will create a system called Easyride that takes elderly people to their doctors appointments and the people who drive them are former convicts or drug addicts who otherwise would have trouble getting a job, who wouldn’t be accepted for employment, but who are monitored closely, who are trained closely. This double utility saves government money, provides services and gives people the kind of self-respect they might not otherwise get. The self-respect applies both to the people who are being helped and the people who are doing the helping.

Q. That also applies to ReServe, right?

A. Absolutely. The whole notion of “paid volunteerism” may seem like an oxymoron, but Jack Rosenthal [president of the New York Times Company Foundation and ReServe’s board chairman] and Herb Sturz realized that you get a much better commitment from people—and you also get a greater sense of self-confidence, self-awareness, self-worth—when people are paid for what they do. Here are people who have experience who might otherwise just be sitting at home enjoying themselves or be bored to death. Now they are able to play much more useful roles than they ever imagined playing because they’re simply not old enough to really retire or old enough to retire from life. Maybe they don’t need a full-time job anymore, maybe they have left their job but still have an enormous amount to contribute. ReServe has been able to harness that kind of energy and in a very creative way.

Q. Tell me a little bit about Sturz’s personal qualities.

A. He’s very, very smart—some people would say Machiavellian—because he knows what people need to get from a situation. And he’s willing to put himself in the background; he’s self-effacing, he’s willing to not only share but give credit, especially to people in government who so rarely get it. He finds the common ground on which everyone can meet. He’s not an ideologue by any means. He wants to get things done rather than to make a statement or have a platform, and he wants to help people.

Q. And it sounds as if he’s willing to stand up and take the blame, too.

A. Well, as someone said, he’s not afraid to fail. That’s a very rare characteristic, in anyone who puts himself forward in either the private sector or the public. He is willing to take chances, willing to try things. Not everything he tried worked, for sure, but most of the things did, and most of them had an impact. When you look at people who were retired and are working again, when you look at people who would’ve been thrown in jail and sat there because they couldn’t make bail, when you look at people who lack housing or whose homes would have been foreclosed, he clearly has had an impact.

Q. Why does Sturz get results when someone else might not?

A. One reason is he approaches problems with a totally open mind, without the usual preconceptions, without the predispositions, either ideologically or historically, without depending on what other people have said, but much more doing his own research, his own spadework, and going out into the field and looking at things for himself.

Q. Talk a little bit about what he did in South Africa. They were freeing up the credit markets, right?

A. Exactly. Which is precisely what everyone is talking about right now—a somewhat different situation. Post-apartheid South Africa was going through a very depressed economy, and banks were terrified of lending. With some input from George Soros and others—and with the confidence that Herb managed to instill in his organization there—they freed up the credit and got land available for people to build on. They built a quarter of a million or more units, making housing more affordable for all groups of people, elderly and others. It was sort of a novel approach that he applied in New York as the Land Bank.

Q. Has the current financial crisis dried up money and created an impassable roadblock?

A. There is a lot of money around, in a way, because of the stimulus bill. Herb has always been terrific at leveraging money, taking relatively small amounts of money either from the private sector or through pilot projects with government and turning them into full-scale operations that have had a much larger impact, that can be replicated, that other people can model their efforts on.

Q. What is Sturz up to now?

A. He’s working on ReServe; he’s working still with TAS C, the afterschool corporation [to give schoolchildren meaningful things to do in the afternoon]; he’s working on finding ways to prevent foreclosures, dealing with the housing market, and finding ways to let people keep their homes. Those are the major things, but knowing Herb there are all sorts of other things that I’m not aware of. He never stops thinking, and thinking with the sense that almost anything is possible. He doesn’t have a utopian vision by any means. But he knows that at least at the margins things can be made better—and a lot of people are living at the margins.

Robert S. Wilson is the editor of American Scholar magazine.

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