This week, I bought a street paper in Trafalgar Square. The vendor looked exhausted and didn’t speak English. I gave him five pounds, which is about twice what The Big Issue London sells for.
It was a small gesture. A way that I could use my privilege for good. We live in an unequal world, filled with uncomfortable contradictions.
For more than 20 years, street papers have reduced social exclusion and offered a way for economically marginalized people to earn immediate cash.
Today, there are more than 140 street papers around the globe. The idea has spread from North America to Europe, South America, Asia, Africa and Australia.
I was elected to the board of the International Network of Street Papers (insp) when Real Change hosted the conference last June, but my engagement began earlier. In the parlance of insp, I was “co-opted” to the board nearly a year ago. Since then, I’ve traveled to Paris, Dubai and now London for face-to-face meetings.
Our board is small and comprised of street paper ceos from around the world: Manchester, U.K.; Sydney, Australia; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Basel, Switzerland. Our staff is located in Glasgow, Scotland.
We are a privileged few, at the top of our careers. Some are paid more than others. We bring a range of perspectives and comfort zones.
As I was leaving for Heathrow, I posted a Facebook photo of my efficiency room at the Hub Inn, located in the heart of London. Within minutes, Real Change’s Dr. Wes responded that he was comforted by the spare accommodations.
“Just don’t be a poverty pimp,” he wrote. “That’s all we ask.”
That’s when I remembered Larry Locke, a board member of Boston Jobs with Peace. Boston is where I started the Spare Change newspaper in 1992.
Larry was a retired labor lawyer who wrote much of the workers compensation legislation that remains on the books today. He said two things that I still remember.
No. 1: Never forget that our movement comrades are truly precious. No. 2: Always behave as though the people we serve are in the room with us.
These are useful maxims for navigating power and privilege in an unjust world. My peers in the street paper movement deserve my utmost respect, especially when we disagree. And, I should always act as if the vendors of Real
Change are looking over my shoulder.
Writing this on my way back from London, I feel a new clarity about my role. Is all this international board travel necessary? I doubt it. Currently, we meet face to face twice a year, in addition to our meetings at the annual conference.
At least one of these could be by conference call.
Our last meeting in Dubai, a glamorous international hub of global capitalism, didn’t pass the vendors-in-the-room smell test. Nor do our plans to meet in Bangkok next spring.
I agreed to these things when my gut was telling me no. I’m now going to argue for less travel on insp’s dime and locales that actually have street papers.
We also agreed that challenging international structures of poverty is up to individual street papers and not a matter for the insp. Board opinion on this was so strong that I didn’t even argue the point.
As I see it now, this is another smell-test fail that needs review.
Perhaps these gestures of resistance are symbolic. Maybe we’re all capitalists now, and capitalism always wins in the end, but we need to be resisting anyway.
We’re using the tools of power for good, and that’s OK. Even with all the board-derived key performance indicators can muster, the good that our street paper movement collectively brings is immeasurably large.
But, to stay true to our values, I need a good angel, like the memory of that vendor I met in Trafalgar Square, perched on my shoulder, showing me the way.