Four Questions with Jodi Rosenbaum, executive director of More Than Words
Jodi Rosenbaum sees treasure where others see trash. The executive director of More Than Words tells us how an abandoned pile of books by the side of the road inspired her to help empower and engage at-risk teens.
What is More than Words and how did you come up with the idea for it?
More Than Words is a nonprofit social enterprise, which means we use business as a vehicle to deliver on our mission to empower youth who are in foster care, court-involved, homeless and out of school to take charge of their lives. Our youth manage an online and retail used bookstore and café and gain marketable skills, including everything from customer service, to shipping out 200 books a day all over the world, to making drinks in the café. They also learn the basics such as how to show up on time for their job consistently despite so many challenges going on in their lives. We talk about how our youth have two jobs -- the Business job working 20+ hours per week learning how to run the businesses and their “You” job, which is the hardest and most important part: taking control of their lives. Our youth are supported by Transitions Managers to get back in school, stay in school, get a GED and map concrete plans for their future work, college, and life. We stick with our youth for the long haul, and after six to twelve months of working on both of their jobs, we continue to support them for 24 months after they transition to other jobs or college, to ensure they hit outcomes and have support.
I started More Than Words after a friend saw a pile of books on the side of the road. We realized those books were worth money and a hands-on way to empower youth with real-world skills. A pile of garbage on the side of the road was worth something. We started with a small office in Watertown in 2004, where we were just selling books online. Then we branched out to Waltham and opened the storefront and then added the café. We just opened a Boston warehouse bookstore nine months ago. We have more than doubled the number of youth we serve and have also demonstrated that this is a transferable model and a more empowering way to do this work and support youth to outcomes. We are primarily an online operation in Boston, but the warehouse hosts amazing events and is open for shopping on the weekends. We also sell at SoWa market on Sundays.
Where does your passion for working with adolescents come from?
I am particularly passionate about adolescents who are system-involved and typically seen as liabilities rather than assets. For over 15 years I have worked in the public schools, juvenile courts, and nonprofit sector and have seen so many kids fall through the cracks despite good intentions. I think too often our efforts to help focus too much on trying to fix problems or remediate. That’s what has ignited my passion. I see youths with skills and untapped potential. It is exciting to be part of a model that focuses on how to empower a spark, a hope, and that gives an opportunity for youth to do it for themselves.
How do you select the teens that that you work with? Are you still in touch with any of your former employees?
The “selection” is two-pronged. Young people need to be referred by places including the Department of Children and Families (DCF), which is the state agency that runs the foster care system, the Department of Youth Services (DYS), which serves youth with criminal charges, schools, foster homes, probation, and community nonprofits. And youth have to want this for themselves and apply to earn a spot. They have to show up on time for their interviews. They will typically self-select out if they are not ready for this opportunity at this point in their lives. And we see lots of youth who have to come back and reapply a second time. We have a dedicated Alumni and Evaluation Department that solely focuses on ensuring youth transition out of MTW and stays in touch with youth for 24 months to track their progress and outcomes. We are in touch with over 90% of our graduates and have strong outcomes, including about 85% with a GED or diploma. About 80% of graduates are productively engaged in work and/or school.
I noticed the store sells more than just books. What's your favorite thing on the menu?
In the café, I order the soy chai latte with a peanut butter cookie, for sure. And I try to remember to use my More Than Words travel mug. We hope readers will check us out at www.MTWyouth.org and please remember that ALL of our inventory is donated, so please consider clearing off your shelves or hosting a book drive. We’d also love for you to visit and shop at our Waltham storefront and café at 376 Moody St. or our South End Warehouse Bookstore at 242 East Berkeley St., 2nd Floor.