I took leave from all things Seattle last week for the 25th anniversary conference of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP). All over the world, it turns out, there are abandoned people with things to say.
The street paper movement, at bottom, is about daring to experience uncertainty and discomfort, because that’s how we come alive and grow. It’s about crossing boundaries. There’s a reason love isn’t easy. When we don’t extend, we go a little dead inside.
Some of our papers are gritty street fighters, while others are multi-faceted, sophisticated businesses. We get along anyway. We share an annual conference, a news service, and a resource hub where we pool our best ideas. We all do the same work, and have many ways to go about it.
We are a movement of the existentially courageous. That’s what makes us all so damn lovable.
I attended my first INSP conference in London in 1997 as one of two delegates from the just-formed North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA). There were about two dozen of us then, assembled around a table at a university wearing simultaneous translation headsets.
Now, we have one global street paper movement. This time, there were 120 of us from 25 countries: Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Serbia, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States and the United Kingdom.
While headsets would be nice, the numbers make that prohibitively expensive. For some, that’s a struggle. The street paper movement is still rather underfunded, so we make do. I suppose that’s not surprising, but it’s not a choice I prefer.
This year, the publication Asphalt, in Hanover, Germany, celebrated their 25th anniversary by hosting the conference. There’s been a rash of those lately, ours included. Our movement has grown up, and spawned its share of community institutions.
There was a time when these conferences were a place to argue over who had the best way of doing things. Who was most pure and radical at heart and who was the biggest sellout? While there’s still healthy tension, we’ve learned to all get along. None of us are the enemy anymore. Mostly, the various models have cross-fertilized and become hybrids of each other.
Real Change was forged in this exchange. Back in the day, when the arguments raged about whether it was better to be an authentic voice of the poor or a professionally operated business, we aspired to be both and reader-powered to boot. With your support, we can both empower our vendors and take care of our staff. We can be a voice of the poor and a quality newspaper.
There is a middle ground. It is not comfortable. It is not moderate. It is not safe. It is a constant act of invention and reinvention and letting go of certainties.
This year, the conference theme could have been “Things Fall Apart.” Between Trump here and Brexit there and racism everywhere, no one knows the future. We are all experiencing great uncertainty, navigating the world one perilous day at a time.
Across the world, we face the challenges of moving both too fast and not fast enough. Our digital culture both unites us and divides us into tribes. A politics mired in racism tries to trap us in a dead and dying past while a better, more equitable, future struggles to emerge.
Here in North America, street papers are organizing within the INSP to strengthen our work on this continent. From Mi Valedor in Mexico City, to StreetWise in Chicago, to Journal’Itineraire in Montreal, we are looking at how we can all grow together. We are a community that cares for our own so we can all do better by the vendors.
I look forward to the day when more of the world’s appalling surplus wealth finds its way to those of us doing the work of love. If there’s one thing the INSP shows, it’s that we can fight together, be inspired, and grow.
I say bring it on. There’s a new world being born.
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.
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