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A Commitment to Giving

Over the years Len Riggio has been as active in pursuing his interests in social justice and human rights, as he has been in building one of the largest retail organizations in America. Although the companies he created, including Barnes & Noble, Barnes & Noble College and GameStop, now number more than 12,000 stores, and employ over 100,000 people, Len’s work in public affairs has extended his influence deep into the fabric of American life.   

Long passionate about helping address what he calls the “Unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement,” he served on the Board of the Children’s Defense Fund, where he organized and funded the 1996 “Stand for Children” March in Washington.   Subsequently, together with his wife Louise, he helped build the Freedom School at Haley Farm in Tennessee, whose mission is to cultivate young community leaders. Two buildings now stand as testimony to their generosity and vision: The Langston Hughes Library (Len’s favorite poet,) and The Riggio-Lynch Chapel, jointly named for Len and political activist Bill Lynch.  Both were designed by Maya Lin.

Recently, the Riggios created a program called “Project Home Again,” designed to help rebuild the lives of many of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. In the first phase of the project more than 100 homes were built and given away free to families whose homes were destroyed. The second phase of 100 additional homes is now near completion. In all, Len and Louise are now the largest home builders in New Orleans.

Len is also a tireless advocate of public education, literacy and the arts: interests which have spawned multiple efforts created or sponsored by the Riggios. They include the building of Dia:Beacon, one of the largest contemporary art museums in the world; numerous gifts to artists to create public works; the innovative Writing and Democracy Program at The New School, which explores the vital connections between citizenship and the skills of writing and rhetoric, and includes 25 full scholarships; the Brooklyn Tech Foundation, the first and largest private endowment for a public high school; and the “Close the Book on Hate” program for the Anti-Defamation League, which issued millions of booklets designed to help guide parents with children who were either victims of hate, or felt anger or hatred themselves. 

In all, Len has served on nearly two dozen not-for-profit boards. He has also received honorary doctorate degrees from Baruch College of the City University of New York, Bentley College, Adelphi University, Tusculum College and Long Island University. He has been inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs at Babson College and the Texas A&M Retail Hall of Fame. Recently he has joined the board of The Fund for Public Schools of New York, which serves to create private/public partnerships designed to enhance the performance of the City’s school system.

His commitment to promoting equality and diversity has earned him numerous awards, including the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and the Frederick Douglass Medallion. In 2002, he received the Americanism Award from the Anti-Defamation League, its highest honor. The award cited his work “to celebrate diversity and make the dream of freedom and equality a reality for so many Americans.”

Len’s outlook on life can be summed up with this quote: “To me, a wholesome life should include a commitment to public service. Of course having the means to do so is a plus, but lending a hand requires nothing outside of a good heart.”