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Bill Courtney believes that ordinary Americans can make a real difference. (Adhiraj Chakrabarti for American Essence)

Can Ordinary Americans Solve the Country’s Toughest Social Issues? One Man in Memphis Is Showing the World That They Can

Businessman and pastor Lee Robbins knew how hard it was to return to society after prison. After a company employee committed financial fraud, Mr. Robbins took the fall and was sentenced to prison. Upon release, he encountered numerous obstacles in reestablishing a normal life. He knew he had to do something to help ex-offenders in even more difficult circumstances get back on their feet.

So he set up Vital Signs, a program that provides life coaching, housing, employment, and transportation so that ex-offenders can thrive and not end up in prison again. It partners with employers to get tax incentives for hiring ex-felons, while teaching the program participants how to manage a budget. Eventually, after participants get salaries, they pay program fees—essentially allowing the program to pay for itself. 

This is just one of the many stories told on the podcast “An Army of Normal Folks,” hosted by Bill Courtney. A businessman in Memphis, Tennessee, Mr. Courtney seeks to highlight the work of people making a difference.

Mr. Courtney invites people from all walks of life onto his podcast show. (Courtesy of An Army of Normal Folks)

Mr. Robbins is doing just that. Recidivism rates for ex-state prisoners average 68 percent for rearrest within the first three years after they are released, but of the 1,800 people who have participated in Vital Signs, only 2 percent have been rearrested.

“I tell people I don’t believe in second chances. … I’ve come to understand that they need better chances,” Mr. Robbins shared on the podcast. “You can give them a second, third, fourth, 90th time, and they’ll keep going to prison. Why? Because some of them never had a first chance.”

Mr. Courtney wants listeners to hear from these unsung heroes in the hopes of inspiring people to emulate their work, wherever there’s a problem that needs to be fixed. “The essence of America has always been … we the people built this place and we the people can fix it,” he said.

(Adhiraj Chakrabarti for American Essence)

Finding a Way

It’s not surprising that Mr. Courtney set out on this path; over a decade ago, he spent six years volunteer-coaching a high school football team in a rough north Memphis neighborhood, hoping to instill discipline and nurture talent in teens who come from unstable family environments. 

Having himself grown up fatherless while his mother remarried several times, he knew what that life was like. “Where I came from, I’m a lot more like those kids than my own kids,” he said. Mr. Courtney received loving mentorship from football coaches while playing the sport in school, and it inspired him to become a football coach himself. “When I graduated college, coaching football was more than just liking football; it was a calling, because those were the men that meant so much to me in my life,” he said. But when he and his wife welcomed four children into their lives, the schoolteacher salary was no longer enough to support the family. He started his own lumber company and did volunteer-coaching in his free time.

Mr. Courtney’s first passion is coaching football. He is influenced by the many sports coaches who mentored him during his formative years. (Courtesy of An Army of Normal Folks)

Mr. Courtney wanted to show the boys on the Manassas High School football team that somebody cared about them and their success. Filmmakers documented their underdog journey from repeated losses to entering the district playoffs, and the resulting film, “Undefeated,” won the 2012 Oscar for best documentary.

In 2022, a journalist interviewed Mr. Courtney for a national radio show about the impact of the “Undefeated” film, asking him the question: What should we as a society be doing to break the cycle of poverty and despair in America’s impoverished communities?

The question got him thinking. “There are roads and overpasses in every major city in the United States, that when you drive by them, you think, don’t let my car break down here. It’s not where you want a flat tire … because you’d get mugged.” Instead of just lamenting the situation, Mr. Courtney believed that “We’ve got to tilt that rearview mirror 15 degrees and look ourselves in the face and say, you know, maybe we ought to do something about that one day, because the government has proven woefully inadequate at caring for the most disadvantaged among us.” Six months later, the podcast producer called Mr. Courtney and proposed, what if they went out to look for the people who are actually doing something to address those social problems?

Mr. Courtney and the football team he coached at Manassas High School are the subjects of this Oscar-winning documentary. (The Weinstein Company/IMDB)

They got to work, and they found moving stories in every corner. The “Army of Normal Folks” podcast launched in June 2023, and it reached a peak during which there were 225,000 downloads in one week, making it among the top 10 most downloaded podcasts on Apple. Listeners soon began contacting Mr. Courtney with ideas of inspiring people to interview.

Each episode delves into the specifics of why the interviewee’s project worked. They act as a “blueprint” for whomever wants to replicate the proposed solution in one’s own community, Mr. Courtney said. The interviewee sometimes leaves a phone number so that interested listeners can be in touch.

The hope is that if a listener has the passion and skill to tackle the issue, he or she now has the tools to get started. “You no longer can say, ‘Hey, I’d like to do something good in the world, but I just don’t know how.’” That is how Mr. Courtney envisions they can literally grow an “army of normal folks.” 

Mr. Courtney poses with Luke Mickelson, founder of Sleep in Heavenly Peace, an organization that provides children in need with comfortable beds. (An Army of Normal Folks)

Ripples of Change

Mr. Courtney is continually surprised at the creative solutions people come up with. One recent story came full circle. On one of the episodes, he interviewed Luke Mickelson, who founded an organization called Sleep in Heavenly Peace to provide beds for children who live in poverty and don’t have their own bed. Mr. Mickelson found out by chance how prevalent this issue was. While trying to get his kids off the couch one day, he decided to start a hands-on woodworking project with them and make a bunk bed for fun. He then decided to post on Facebook to offer the bed to whomever needed it. To his surprise, several people replied to his post, explaining that their children didn’t have a bed to sleep on. Mr. Mickelson then pulled together a group of volunteers to help build more. Since he started Sleep in Heavenly Peace in 2012, the organization has expanded to more than 300 chapters in 44 states, and it has delivered more than 140,000 beds to children in need. 

A Florida pastor heard the podcast episode and shared it with a man he knew who ran an orphanage in Haiti—who in turn became inspired because his orphanage had a wood shop; the children at the orphanage started making beds for other children in Haiti who had no bed to sleep on. 

There’s no special criteria for determining whether a person can be featured on the podcast—other than that he or she must be an ordinary American, not someone with influence and power. “We normal people deal with cancer, sickness, sadness, child death. … Each of these people we profile deals with one or more of those things,” he said. Despite their struggles, they choose to continue to serve others. 

Mr. Courtney believes that that spirit is deeply rooted in how this country was founded. “It is always going to be about ‘We the People,’ an army of normal folks, not doing stuff because it’s easy, but exactly the opposite—doing stuff despite the barriers we have to overcome.”

He hopes this spirit—amplified through the podcast—can help us as a nation collectively move past the current divisiveness. “Can you imagine what our culture would look like if that was the narrative about us, rather than the narrative that’s coming out of D.C. and the national news?” 

From May Issue, Volume IV