30 Minutes with Quintin Pastrana
30 Minutes with Quintin Pastrana
We caught up with the man behind Library Renewal Partnership, a social enterprise with a mission: to build free libraries throughout the country, offering every community a refuge for creative thinking.
Interview by Chiara de Castro
Photography by Fruhlein Econar
In between running a renewable energy company and reporting as a news anchor, Quintin Pastrana manages to find ways to create libraries around the Philippines. At an early age, the social entrepreneur found solace and freedom for his creative imagination in places like the outdoors and libraries. He would later identify these as third spaces—a concept he proffers to a nation brimming with overpopulation and untapped potential.
FINDING FREEDOM IN LIBRARIES AND THIRD SPACES
The Turkish novelist and 2006 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, Orhan Pamuk, was once talking about libraries and reading novels, and how all that helps one imagine themselves into being. And to me, there’s no closer definition of what you feel like in a third space—which is the most democratic space. You don’t have to be defined as rich, poor, LGBT, or anything. There’s this idea that your environment shapes your outlook and your thinking, your sense of hope, your sense of aspiration. Some of the greatest minds birthed their masterpieces in the sanctuary of a sacred space, outside in nature or in the solace of a beautiful library: DNA was conceptualized while James Watson and Francis Crick were on a long walk, and Isaac Newton had a breakthrough when an apple fell on his head while he was sitting in a garden; JRR Tolkien, Lewis Carrol, and C.S. Lewis all found inspiration to write their works within the gardens and libraries of Oxford. So that fertile corner is because of these third spaces where people can imagine themselves into being and create their best work.
Here in the Philippines, especially in the urban areas, our nature is pretty much decimated. The next best thing [for that third space as a refuge] is a quiet space. But in an informal settler area, where a family of five has to fit in a 30-square meter hovel, you don’t have that. So the urgency and exigency of a third space becomes even more acute. Having been diagnosed with a learning disability [ADD] and discovering that I was able to channel this in the refuge of a third space, in nature and libraries, where my imagination could be free, I felt the need to share that experience with other people, especially back home.
THE GOVERNMENT’S ROLE
Our first library was in my hometown in Kalibo, which was close to my heart because that’s where my family is from and my great grandmother was a librarian. We went through many trials and errors, but we made it work. We tried roadside libraries, daycare libraries, and we found that the ones with local government support are the most sustainable ones. So we are deeply rooted in the community because we have a local partner. In Marawi, we now have 10 libraries in a span of five months, all because we have a logistical partner, we have great donors, we have a strong social media presence, and this urgency to help Marawi rebuild before it backslides into another conflict zone. We have never had to close a library; in fact, they have all grown and that’s because the community takes ownership. We have a very simple formula to make it work that people can take up, build on it, and call it their own.
There’s a Library Development Act (Republic Act No. 7743), wherein you can hold the government accountable to build a library for the community. The biggest argument against libraries is that it’s a big waste of public funds. I said, no, that’s not the case because studies around the world show that for whatever currency, your investment goes fourfold in terms of economics. Nobody has to build a building or buy one; we just need to repurpose an existing one, such as a munisipyo or a barangay hall, into a library, into a third space. Strategically, you use them as hubs and reposition them for midwifery classes, for rotary club meetings, for learning, and such. For anyone with a learning disability, or anyone deprived of a space to imagine themselves into being, [these spaces] provide it for them. You see the libraries in Tondo, they’re not the best looking ones, but they are the biggest public spaces in the informal settlers area. It is a sacred area for them. What I can also add is that we use a contingency approach where it’s designed by the community, it meets the community’s needs. Because we have a coalition of providers, from logistics to publishers to librarians, it’s designed accordingly. Our growth has been so organic because of the nature of the business model and the ecosystem of people helping out.
ON GROWTH AND THE FUTURE
We’re now pushing towards our 850th library, in a village called Panlaitan, as well as Bulalacao in Palawan. But the bottomline for us is to expand—virtually and geographically. Internationally, we have reached Bhutan, where we currently have 80 libraries, as well as Tamil Nadu in India. Virtually, we aim to create a dominant platform for crowdfunding. We have a partnership with GavaGives, one of the best crowdfunding platforms in the Philippines and in Asia. What we’re doing with GavaGives is customizing, where we’ll have a website that basically offers a menu of options, because we don’t want anyone to suffer from donor fatigue, so vendors can still earn, and at the end of the day, it’s a one-stop shop solution. We want this to be less personality-driven, as is often the case here for politics and most social enterprises, and we want to change an example that is institutional and sustainable.
I believe in aspirational politics; Robert Kennedy is a peg of mine universally, so as an aside I’m often asked, “Are you just using this to run for politics?” and the answer is no. My mentor, Raul Roco, used to tell me, “Just be a technocrat, don’t be a politician. The world needs more technocrats than politicians.” I always say, “I’m not running for president or prime minister or any political office, but you know what, somebody in that library across our multitude of libraries, some kid will be president.” Because he would have nurtured the imagination to understand what the community and what the country needs and so chances are, my prediction, that we will have one of the greatest states person coming from one of those libraries. Because it would have all started with an unbridled imagination and what books give you, whether it be an eBook or a journal or a physical book, is the sense of the other. And so, I have no political interest but my interest is to make sure that someone who is interested [in politics] will come from that library.
THE MEANING OF HAVING A GOOD LIFE
This is paraphrased from JFK: “True happiness is the full use of your powers along the lines of excellence and a life affording them scope.” And that is the best definition [of a good life]. I feel that us, our partners, our beneficiaries, our community of movers, are on that path. Wherein, fine, donation has its problems; we’re beset left and right. [But] I’m a short-term cynic and long-term optimist. We do what we must and we do what we can.
I can sleep well at night knowing that there will be a generation nurtured by this sense of enlightenment and inquiry and compassion that is coming from the way they engage with a text in a book—notwithstanding this current generation, or perhaps the current generation’s leaders taking us back to the dark ages.
That sense of the other that is driven by the imagination that’s been unbridled, allowing ambition and compassion to come together—that sense of the other is going to guide them through life. That to me is what I feel in my limited capacity right now. And as this movement grows beyond ourselves, to another generation of leaders or beneficiaries, [what will happen] is that they’ll take this [idea of a] good life [forward]. More importantly, that scope will increase and make a bigger impact. It won’t happen in this generation, but it will flow into the next, hopefully not too late. That is my dream.