I was stranded in Seattle when I came to the Belltown office of Real Change, where I sold a few newspapers over the next six months. I will never forget the $19.00 tip I received Christmas season ’03. Twenty bucks is not a lot of money but it was the most money I had seen in a little while, and there were no prospects of other funds either. That person’s generosity made such a huge difference in my life — the money was not the result of some act of charity, cueing up somewhere, or applying for government benefits. It meant someone cared. Maybe everything did not have to be all doom and gloom.
I had limited funds when I arrived here; a former employer held up my final check ... so ... I ran out of minutes on my phone, and gas, food. I ended up sleeping in the car. If Shaw Industries ever called me back, I missed the call. I was truly at a low point in my life.
My Canadian wife had gone home, and my dog who had been with me for 14 years disappeared. I was only supposed to be in Seattle until I could gain legal entry into Canada to join my wife’s enormous family. Once again, the best laid plans of mice and men. Life is just a sad country song sometimes.
My story is by no means unique. I have heard one rendition of it after another over the 11 years I have worked with folks streaming through our Vendor Program.
Some of you may be aware of my second job at Seattle First Presbyterian Church, where I served as Shelter Coordinator. A revolution took place there, pushing shelter toward privatization. The irony of a church subcontracting with the county to do charity was not lost on me. The leadership had no heart for justice, at least not at the doorstep of SFPC. This was a huge disappointment — it was the point to me. Sometimes the Church can get a little too clubby.
Another setback I have experienced recently was my intrigue with the book “Jackson Rising,” in 2017; I wanted to open a Street Paper in Jackson, Mississippi. My partner in that endeavor did not appear as committed to truth, democracy and the American way as I am, and I got cold feet.
It is from the remnants of that business plan that I am resurrecting a project to build low-income housing. I am writing a proposal for a Workers Owned Cooperative, building manufactured homes.
This is my life’s work, serving others, and a Workers Owned Cooperative serves the employee/owner and the community. In sales, I learned to emphasize the win/win nature of a sale. Here, I have a chance to promote triple the benefits to our local economy.
My work here at Real Change has broadened my horizons, challenged me and sharpened the acuity with which I see pain and suffering. There are many hands working for justice — you can read about it in our paper, every customer. Even a $2 customer could be seen as a witness to those standing in solidarity with the poor, the homeless, LGBTQ rights activists, #BLACKLIVESMATTER, immigrants and all of the legions of villainized people paraded across the screen of Faux News.
You never really know what motivates people to buy a paper, but you need to know that the number one reason people buy the paper is to support you, the Real Change Vendor. You are the secret sauce of Real Change Success.
People are often here at the tip of a spear. They have never sold anything, much less thought of standing on a corner. There will be setbacks and disappointments. This is a lot like waiting tables in that you will need to put on a game face to make real money. If you are in a crummy mood, your public won’t ask why. Unsteady, they will gingerly step right on by. Susan McCoy taught me every person who walks by is a future customer. SMILE, make eye contact, easy on the humor, bathe, don’t swear on your post, and WEAR A MASK, DAMMIT! It would be smart to keep the $1,000 smart phone to yourself. Trust me, poor people aren’t supposed to have shit. Why risk judgment? You need money, right?
I would urge you to get involved, read the paper, learn about our community. One of the best things about Real Change, though, is that virtually anyone can come into orientation. We don’t demand adherence to a creed or agreement with our editorial viewpoints. You can thrive simply by treating others like you would like to be treated, selling a boat load of papers, happily voting Republican. We would be happy you could take advantage of this poverty-alleviating opportunity. Isn’t that beautiful?
Life as a field organizer
By Kamna Shastri
Lampi has been our long-time field organizer and brought his humor, positivity and encouragement to the Vendor Program for the past eleven years. Last week, we had to say goodbye because he’s taking the next step toward the Workers Owned Cooperative — yea!
Even before he accepted the job as our field organizer, Lampi experienced firsthand the way Real Change can make an actual difference. As he explained, he spent six months in 2003 selling papers after becoming stranded in Seattle. He also went on to work at Plymouth Housing and the Seattle First Presbyterian Church shelter.
Lampi’s last day was July 7. His next adventure is the passion project he is bringing into fruition.
We sat down with Lampi to hear his reflections on 17 years of work with Real Change.
How would you describe yourself?
Philosophically, I am a human being having a spiritual experience, but I prefer to think about myself as upper-middle white trash, mostly because it would annoy my mother.
What brought you to Real Change?
Somebody told me about Real Change, I believe at shelters. I didn’t stay at shelter very much, so it’s really lucky I found this connection. I came, I went through orientation and I was very excited to find Real Change. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of people out there advocating for the poor. It’s all about me, mine, money, marbles and I. Everybody’s in a scramble to make more.
So, to find Real Change was like an oasis in that scramble.
One of the things I noticed at Real Change: There was no graffiti in the bathroom. Every place else you go, especially there’s graffiti, and it stuck in my mind that people care about this place. They wouldn’t deface it. I don’t know why that was important to me, but I still remember to this day. The fact that the vendors cared about the paper.
What will you take from Real Change as you move forward?
The most important thing probably is, when I came here, I was organizing a forum on racial injustice and I had invited three white panelists and I didn’t see anything wrong with that. And this is the first place that I ever heard the two words put together in connection with me: white privilege. I wasn’t crushed or offended. ... I couldn’t believe I had privilege! I was like, come on, I’ve had a series of rotten shit happen to me. But everyone does!
I would have described myself as very liberal when I came here, but this is an aspect of my life I hadn’t really examined or ever had to deal with, and I’m glad I was forced to deal with it.
What are your upcoming plans and how did you decide to make this change?
When I went to Mississippi, I wanted to start a paper, but I wanted to take the part that we depend upon from our customers and get that from a workers-owned cooperative, building shipping container homes.
I’m taking an academic approach to writing this business plan, and it’s helped. I would say I am two-thirds the way into it, maybe more. There is a lot of technical information I still need to research.
I’m very excited about it, but first things first: I’m going to go swim and walk and read and meditate in the woods.
There has been so much violence that I have witnessed since COVID started, and it’s kind of changed my experience of anxiety.
It is just sort of a baseline anxiety, and I need to clear the decks. It is time for something new.
What message would you like to impart to the Real Change community?
Never give up hope. How do you find the ability to be able to connect people to their public? Every vendor has their own public. When I first started this job, I lived in Bremerton, so I rode the ferry. I always had five dollars of Susan B Anthony coins on outreach.
I didn’t always give away five dollars, but I always gave away two or three dollars if I came across a vendor who appeared to be having a hard time. I just pressed that dollar in the palm of their hand and told them to keep their head up.
Because I know how hard it is for people. When my wife and I were first here, stranded in Seattle, a person shuffled in front of the car and I just looked at my wife and I said to her “that looks like when you just give up hope,” and she put her hand on my thigh and she said, “We aren’t going to give up hope, are we?”
Don’t give up hope. The best is yet to be. You can’t sell papers today, you’ll probably be able to sell them tomorrow, or maybe you need to go sell shoes!
Neal chuckled. We sure will miss him. And we wish him all the best and even more!
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at email@example.com. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more in the July 15-21, 2020 issue.