Real Change has never been an easy organization to define. We’re a nonprofit, and yet we’re a business. We help people in need to survive and thrive, but we’re not a human services agency. We create work for about 700 vendors each year, but we’re not a jobs training program.
Even within the street newspaper movement, Real Change is a hybrid. We’re a high-quality newspaper with a professional staff, which aligns us with the more socially entrepreneurial street papers in Europe. And yet, we’re all about the advocacy, organizing and vendor involvement, which is more of an American approach.
We’re a grassroots homeless empowerment organization, and we’re a successful business. We are reader-supported, vendor-centered and mission driven. Real Change is many things at once, and we’re comfortable with our inconsistencies.
We are reader-supported, vendor-centered and mission driven. Real Change is many things at once, and we’re comfortable with our inconsistencies.
When someone wants to join Real Change, they don’t need identification. Their history is never a barrier. There is no presumption of brokenness, or an assumption that we’re here to “fix” anyone. There is no such thing as an intake interview. There is only the offer of opportunity and community.
We’re about meeting the vendor where they’re at. If someone wants to invest their time and energy in us, we’ll invest ours in them. That’s the Real Change way.
One of the contradictions we’ve consistently navigated is the line between helping vendors succeed and offering direct services. There are many human service providers in Seattle, we figure, and we don’t need to be one more.
That would distract us from the mission. Provide opportunity. Be a voice of the poor. Take action. The relationships between vendors and readers are where the magic happens.
Real Change: Treating people like people since 1994. It’s a line we’re used to walking. Twenty-four years in, we’re turning once again toward our vendors. With our new strategic plan, we’re finding new ways to help vendors succeed and find community.
For example, even though we don’t do “case management,” we now have a “case manager.” That means that if you’re a Real Change vendor looking for help — with accessing benefits, getting into housing or finding medical care, for example — we’ll help you with that.
A few months ago, one of our vendor services staff saw one of our guys in pain and gently asked some questions. It turned out that he’d suffered for months from a broken hip. She got him the surgery he needed and into housing after that.
We’re finding ways to do more of that and looking creatively at how to bring the things our vendors need closer to where they are.
Maybe that’s access to dental services. Or just getting a haircut. Maybe it’s just getting clean clothes.
We’re asking people to donate clothes they don’t need to our new “Clothing Pantry.” Does a vendor need a pair of jeans? A clean sweatshirt. A belt? Some shoes? We’re here to help. And so are our readers.
We want our people to feel taken care of, and we’re building a set of workshops this year to get them the information and skills they need.
Things like budgeting, stress reduction and effective communication. We’re asking what they want and providing what they need.
We’re also making it easier for readers to find and support vendors by scouting new spots, promoting electronic payment through Venmo and building better relationships with the many businesses that support our work.
We’re doing vendor orientations on-site at other agencies that serve homeless and low-income people and making it easier for people to find the opportunity we offer.
We’re also working harder to involve vendors beyond selling the paper. Maybe it’s taking an arts and writing workshop and getting their work published in the paper.
Maybe it’s joining our Homeless Speakers Bureau and getting paid to tell their story at schools, churches and other civic organizations that want to learn.
Or maybe it’s getting involved in the other leadership opportunities we offer. Participating in the vendor editorial committee, getting involved in our advocacy work or becoming a member of our Vendor Advisory Board.
Real Change is heading into our 25th year with a renewed sense of possibility and a deepened commitment to vendor success.
Readers like you make it all happen. Thank you for your support.
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 street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
Read the full Jan. 30 - Feb. 5 issue.
Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.