After 26 years at the helm of Real Change, it’s time to step aside. In this time of rising movements for social and racial justice, I believe the organization needs new eyes, fresh energy and more diverse leadership. Real Change deserves that.
And while part of me is sad to go, I know that Real Change will be just fine without me. I know that our amazing staff will continue to build from strength to strength, and that the caring community that supports our vendors will always have our back.
Truth be told, I have grown tired. Since 1994, I’ve seen homelessness in King County quadruple. Seattle, with its great wealth and relentless poverty, has broken my open heart more times than I care to say.
I have seen many good friends die too young. People like Robert Hanson. Michael Garcia. Ed McClain. Darcy Day. Daniel Long. Michael Wiggins. Robert Wojtkiewicz. Raven. Sharon Jones. Evie Lovett. There are many more. The list goes relentlessly on.
Each of these people have brought immeasurable joy into this world and made me a better person. I am deeply grateful for every vendor I have known and for the remarkable community that sustains them.
I will, in time, find other ways to support and empower those who have the least. But this is not about me. This is about the remarkable organization that I lovingly leave behind.
As my parting gift, I’d like to dwell for a moment on what makes Real Change special. I’ve always thought of us as a work in progress. Our job, as always, is to continually evolve and be the best street paper we can be.
I’ve found that progress, in both life and history, is seldom linear. The arc of history may bend toward justice, but the path often wanders. We move forward with one eye on the future and the other on the history that shapes us.
We do best, I think, when we hold onto that which most represents our ideals.
For Real Change, this begins with our mission: Provide opportunity and a voice to homeless and low-income people while taking action for economic, social and racial justice. Three buckets, each equally important: opportunity, a voice and taking action.
Opportunity means ensuring that our vendors have what they need to succeed on their own terms. It means being alert to new ways of operating that adapt to shifting circumstance. Things like offering electronic payment, building relationships with store owners or selling hand sanitizer during a pandemic.
It means being that radically nonjudgmental place where people can experience community and success, however the vendor defines that.
Like the T-shirt says. Real Change: Treating People Like People Since 1994. This foundation of opportunity and respect is where our work begins and is the soil from which it grows.
Real Change, at our core, is a vehicle for creating street-level community between those who would otherwise be strangers. Each of our supporters is an essential part of the opportunity that Real Change offers everyday.
Being an effective voice of the poor is no less important. This is represented in our commitment to building vendor leadership. This means being seen at City Hall and other public forums. It means participating in decision-making structures in advocacy and editorial, building an authentic and representative vendor advisory board and having vendors on our Board of Directors.
It means actively listening to our vendors, especially when times are hard and everybody is stressed.
And this brings us to the taking action piece of our mission, which is inseparable from providing opportunity and a voice. Each element of our mission builds upon and strengthens the others.
Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward wrote in “Poor People’s Movements” that “If there is a genius in organizing, it is the capacity to sense what it is possible for people to do under given conditions, and to then help them do it.”
This has looked like signature gathering while selling the paper. It has looked like protest encampments and marches that speak truth to power. It has looked like collecting and displaying a pair of shoes to represent every unsheltered homeless person outside of city hall.
Real Change, at our best, has engaged in bold, intersectional advocacy and organizing that brings big results. The most far-reaching wins in our history — stopping a new municipal jail from being built and foiling an attempt to criminalize panhandling — were organized in alliance with organizations like the ACLU and the NAACP.
We are most powerful when we operate at the intersection of race, gender and class and when we recognize that we are strongest when allied with others.
This organization is powered by those of you who have generously supported our work and our vendors. I will never stop being moved by the extraordinary kindnesses I have witnessed here and the beautiful people I have met.
Real Change is a place where every vendor is a hub of community and every paper is like a stone tossed upon a pond. The ripples spread outward and intersect and interrupt the complacency that keeps us apart.
I am profoundly grateful to everyone who has supported and built this organization, and to the more than 14,500 vendors who have courageously stood up for themselves and others over the last 26 years.
Our future is in good hands. In closing, I urge you to show Real Change some love right now by supporting the Winter Fund Drive at tinyurl.com/RCWinterDrive. We rise together as a community, with each of us doing our part to keep the others whole.
This is not goodbye, but farewell. I will carry this organization in my heart for the rest of my life, along with my deep gratitude for all your support. Thank you for keeping the love alive.
Tim Harris is the founder of 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 more of the Nov. 18-24, 2020 issue.