Next week, I’ll be in Manchester, U.K., for a conference of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP). The INSP conference is hosted by a different successful street paper each year. This annual event gives us a chance to see what our counterparts look like and to see firsthand some of the best models for our work.
The international gathering is hosted this year by Big Issue North, which describes itself as “a business solution to a social problem.” Their weekly magazine is sold by more than 260 people in towns and cities across the north of England.
According to their brochure, Big Issue North “gives people who have few other options the opportunity to earn an income. Selling the magazine increases confidence, helps people develop their skills, and creates opportunities for people to change their lives.” All street papers have this in common.
Manchester, appropriately enough, is also the birthplace of the industrial revolution, a displacement and misery-producing event if ever there was.
Symbolically rich sites for INSP conferences are apparently in ready supply. Two years ago, Real Change hosted the INSP conference in Seattle. The tech revolution, with its ever-increasing automation of work, is a more recent challenge the working poor face.
Last year, a street paper called Shedia hosted in Athens, Greece. Professional journalists started that paper after economic collapse eliminated many of their jobs. Shedia’s community-based DIY ethic is very Greek, as is its core value of acting from love.
People I talk to are often surprised to hear street papers exist across the world, and that there is an international organization that celebrates and supports our existence.
I think of this as the “fish on a bicycle” phenomenon.
This applies whenever homeless organizations do things that run counter to the general expectation of dysfunction and ineptitude. A professionally produced newspaper. The use of digital technology. An international news service. An annual global conference. And so forth.
None of these things are, in reality, so surprising. Street papers have been around for 30 years. Many of us have evolved and learned along the way. Real Change has evolved and learned for 23 years. The INSP helps with that.
Street papers, defined as papers that are sold by poor people as an immediately accessible form of employment have been around for much longer. These include papers produced by the Industrial Workers of the World, the Catholic Workers and the Garveyist Universal Negro Improvement Association. There was also the ’60s alternative press, which featured low-income news hawkers as well.
The modern street paper movement began in New York in the late ’80s, and coincides with the growth of mass homelessness.
Into this came Street News, which offered a means to connect with the homeless people who multiplied on our streets. From there, numerous models arose. These included the homeless-run Journal L’Itineraire in Montreal and Spare Change in Boston, which focused on bottom-up organizing.
Job readiness and training models arose with StreetWise in Chicago and Biss in Munich. These combined social services offerings with immediate employment. The Big Issue was the socially entrepreneurial take on street papers, and provided a professionalized, mass-market approach to homeless employment.
The modern street paper movement grew from these early-’90s experiments to include more than 100 papers across 36 countries. Many papers, like Real Change, are hybrids that draw from the different models available. At Real Change, for example, we have a cross-class model for bottom-up organizing and a professionally produced newspaper of which our vendors can be proud.
There is no contradiction here. A street paper can be many things. We are not limited by our roots or our past. The point is to keep learning and growing and doing our work better.
As founder of Spare Change in Boston and this newspaper in 1994, I’ll be presenting at the INSP conference as well. The topic of my talk is Vendor Organizing: Lessons from 25 Years in the Trenches. That’s probably my next column. See you then.
Tim Harris is the founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded the Spare Change homeless newspaper in Boston in 1992 while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
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