Derek Snook, 31, once lived in a Charleston homeless shelter.
He grew up in a home that emphasized Christian values and was troubled by what he perceived was a lack of true empathy among many who worked to alleviate poverty. He decided he would seek to better understand the plight of the homeless. He volunteered at Star Gospel Mission, raking leaves and cleaning floors, then moved in for a year.
At Star Gospel Mission, he met men who were working day labor jobs. This got him thinking more about empathy. He registered with a Charleston agency and learned firsthand how difficult and unstable the work was. Then another idea: What if he started a nonprofit day labor enterprise himself, one that aimed to pay a little better and encourage workers to improve their lives?
So he started IES (In Every Story) Labor Services. Some years later he wrote a book.
Q: You have been on a lengthy spiritual journey that has led you from a childhood of some privilege through valleys of tribulation and despair to charitable work and now book writing and a life in the big city. Please summarize this journey.
A: I voluntarily lived homeless for a year in search of meaningful vocation, the belief that to help others I had to walk in their shoes, and the desire to test my faith. As the son of a Baptist minister in Mount Pleasant, I saw much of my religious upbringing as sincere but limited in perspective. Loving our neighbor felt like it only meant people who looked, behaved and believed what we did.
As a child, while my father preached, I read how Jesus seemed to challenge our behavior. When I graduated from Furman (University, in Greenville), before I bailed on my faith I wanted to try to live in some small way as Jesus instructed. Living homeless became part of that journey.
The biggest surprises of my journey are that, first, I can look into the eyes of any human and see something of myself in them. It took getting close on a daily basis to see that. We all share a common humanity, and God loves each of us. This broadened my perspective. It helped me forgive myself and others. It made me less fearful and judgmental.
Second, I saw how "success" can lead to isolation, which recent studies say threatens life more than both obesity or heavy drinking. It showed me the importance that a rich life of community has, not only on joy, but on health and how to better live this life.
Third, it showed me how to navigate a society that too often burdens us with stress, and how to live a life that's more in line with love and purpose.
I walked away from my experience believing in Jesus but concerned about the Christian subculture I grew up in. I walked away convinced that I must follow my purpose, but torn by our culture’s traditional values of success. I'm finding some answers, but those answers create more questions.
Q: Some years ago in Charleston you started a temp agency meant to provided day workers with better wages and a leg up. How did that idea come about, and what were the results?
A: During that year I noticed that many of the men I lived with worked day labor. I couldn't understand how someone could work every day and not have a home. I decided to quit my job and work day labor myself. I felt that the day labor jobs I saw trapped the most vulnerable members of the labor force.
I started IES Labor Services. At IES, if employees come to work, do a good job, and are drug free, then we pay more, provide coaching and help them get permanent jobs.
IES has helped thousands in Charleston gain better financial stability, hundreds find permanent jobs and increased wages of day laborers by more than 25 percent. At the same time, the challenges these employees face are enormous, and too often the support we are able to provide isn't enough.
Q: Your new book, “The Definition of Success” is part memoir, part self-help. Give me an overview and tell me what prompted you to write it.
A: It tells the story of the year I voluntarily lived homeless. It tells how I questioned our society’s definition of success, how I learned to redefine it, and how others can, too.
It explores deep questions of vocation and purpose. It questions many of our society’s most accepted values through my lens and the stories of those I met along the way.
I had to write the book because I believe it can help others think about how to live a life of purpose. This life helps others ahead of ourselves. It builds communities instead of isolation and polarization. It creates values and not stress.
Q: You moved to New York City a short time ago. What are you up to now? What’s next for you?
A: First, I want to spend some time and energy spreading this message and sharing it with others. Then I want to continue exploring places where I hope I can contribute in meaningful ways to society. These seem to point toward business and public service, but I'm open.
I love co-living. I currently live with 15 other people in Brooklyn and have been co-living for much of my life, including when I lived homeless. I think it can be one of the solutions to problems like isolation and affordable housing. I also believe that when people from different viewpoints live together they are more likely to overcome many of the issues polarizing America today. I want to show more people how it could positively impact their lives and society.