This year’s anniversary breakfast on Sept. 18 marks 20 years of Real Change. This edition, Volume 21, Number 38, marks 732 times that vendors have unloaded papers from a truck on a Wednesday morning.
Assuming an estimated print run of 13,000 copies per issue, that’s more than nine million newspapers sold since September 1994. If you overlapped these papers end over end, folded like your vendor sells them, you could walk from here to Juneau, Alaska, on a carpet of Real Change.
Every paper sold has put money into the pocket of someone who needs help. Every paper has brought people together who, without this newspaper, almost surely would never have met.
Every paper sold has spoken up for very poor people, and every paper sold has supported the kind of long, hard and relentless organizing that building a just society requires.
We’re honored next June to host the annual conference of the International Network of Street Papers. Staff and volunteers from papers all over the world, from Denmark to South Africa and Japan to Australia, will come to Seattle University to learn from each other and help grow this incredible movement that we’re a part of.
Real Change is a street paper others want to emulate because we’ve found the sweet spot between passion and professionalism. We’ve learned to meet people where they’re at while asking for accountability. We’ve learned that you can be a voice of the poor and a respected community newspaper at the same time.
Our news staff made our vendors proud this year by winning 16 first-place regional awards for excellence. Real Change is where the issues that affect low-income and homeless people get the full and consistent coverage they deserve.
We’ve learned that audacity is our friend, and our organizing has expanded survival services, stopped construction of a new jail and successfully opposed the criminalization of poverty.
We’ve run initiative campaigns, organized protest encampments and consistently spoken truth to power. We get the vendors involved and show people they can make a difference.
The thing that never stops amazing me is the profound difference that work and community can make in a person’s life.
I remember Ed McClain, a vendor who sold at Safeway in the University District for 18 years. Ed grew up in Chicago’s Southside and had been in and out of prison since he was 13. By the time Ed found us, he’d spent more years behind bars than not.
In 1995, Ed was homeless and had burned just about every bridge he’d seen. He was on crack and was probably one drug bust away from a life term in prison.
Then someone told him about Real Change, and he signed up. He discovered that his customers at Safeway cared for him. He put down the drugs when he got better options. Christmas money came along, and he moved out of his poverty hotel and into an apartment.
He got a part-time janitorial job but kept on selling Real Change, sometimes working 60 to 80 hours a week between the two jobs. All that work bought him a life that made him proud, a life where he could have whatever he needed.
Ed succeeded on his own terms, but had a soft spot for the hard cases: the vendors who didn’t have money for papers because they still made some bad choices. Ed knew what that was about.
He died at home of cancer more than a year ago.
When I visited him before his death, he talked with tears in his eyes about how grateful he was to be able to help support his grandson. That he could give back to Real Change by buying a few hundred free papers each month for other vendors who were struggling.
A few months ago, Ed’s daughter-in-law let me know that she wanted her monthly contribution to keep that tradition going.
This is what happens when you’ve been around 20 years. People start finding new and creative ways to amaze you with their caring and commitment.
Over 20 years, our many, many supporters have helped us grow into an essential resource for those who don’t have a ton of options.
We are humbled by this, and we’re committed to remaining an organization that would make Ed McClain proud.
Our goals are to be a community that feels like home and accepts people for who they are. To be a newspaper that creates vendor success and is valued by their customers. To organize with those who have little or nothing, and to back that up by building for power.
And to still be here 20 years down the road, still helping people like Ed find the success they desire and still expanding the community that is Real Change.
For a look at our past milestones, click here