International Street Papers - Homelessness and Poverty
Glasgow, Scotland & Cape Town, South Africa
A young guy with a bright green mohawk trained me at the vendor desk on my first day volunteering for Real Change Homeless Newspaper. He introduced himself as ‘Leprechaun,’ and wore a faded leather jacket crawling with studs and silk-screened patches. I struck up a conversation with him about The Misfits, one of my favorite bands during my short-lived and half-hearted ‘punk’ stage in early high school. He was assertive, articulate, and patient with my technological ineptitude. I asked him how long he had been volunteering with Real Change and where he went to school. “Six months” and “nowhere” were his answers. He had been homeless since his early teens.
UW. This experience would go on to shape the rest of my undergraduate education, leading me toward a number of international exchanges, independent research, and giving me insight into where I would like my life to go in the future. Most of all, however, these experiences have encouraged me to merge my academic goals and my personal interests to the point at which I can no longer distinguish between the two. Through this, I have come to ardently believe in the university’s potential to play a substantive and engaged role in the betterment of both local and global communities.
After a year of selling papers to homeless vendors at Real Change, I wanted to find a way to contribute in a more engaged way to the organization. I approached Tim Harris, the founder of Real Change and asked him about any possibilities. Also the chairman of the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA), he invited me to work with him as a volunteer intern for this organizing body. I was responsible for carrying out a diagnostic survey to all NASNA members, the goal of which was to determine where support was needed and what street papers might be available to provide it. Through this experience I became interested in the diversity of North American street papers and learned of the expansive network of similar organizations existing elsewhere in the world.
volunteer intern position during the period of my study abroad.I split my time between writing and editing tasks for the editorial side of the organization and working with the homeless vendors’ art and writing group, setting up a cross-cultural poetry exchange between Real Change in Seattle and The Big Issue South Africa. Through this experience I got to know amazing individuals like Bongani, who travels every day from his township home to sell The Big Issue just to put food on the table, somehow finding time and motivation to head up the homeless soccer team, practice amateur photography, and work toward starting his own computer business. I also developed a broader interest in street papers as an international movement and wanted to find out ways to involve other UW students in such local and international service learning opportunities.
I set up a meeting with Tim Harris of Real Change and Jim Clowes of the CHID program to discuss such possibilities. Out of this collaboration sprung the Street Paper Focus Group, a joint Honors and CHID seminar focused upon the street paper as an international tool in the fight against poverty and homelessness and how the model is adapted to different cultural, social, political, and economic contexts throughout the world. The CHID focus group is structured as a student-led collaborative learning community. I was charged with the task of leading the group two-weeks upon my return from South Africa. Little assistance was available, as Tim’s and his wife had recently been blessed with twin daughters and Jim’s schedule was in its typical state of overworked havoc. I compiled a set of readings, asking for further input from students throughout the quarter, and facilitated discussion and student research. The Honors/CHID mix drew a group from diverse academic backgrounds from Social Work to Journalism to Environmental Studies. As of June 2004, this focus group has run for three quarters, produced a breadth of engaged research, and is currently in the development stages as a global classrooms project. I am proud to have been at the forefront of such an exciting and quickly growing program.
This was a trip that I set up independently of any established UW programs, though it was closely related to my work in the focus group and my CHID senior thesis on narrative discourse as ‘homeless placemaking’ in the international street paper movement. Through the BUNAC student work program, I was also able to get a blue card and work part-time at a pub to finance my travels. I worked with INSP for four months helping to fundraise and plan for their 9th annual international conference, in which 65 delegates from six different continents attended.
Throughout the course of my involvement with international street papers, I have had the privilege to meet countless inspiring individuals, and the narrative of my own life has become gradually entangled in these stories; I have become a listener, an advocate, a researcher, and a friend. Upon graduating with my joint degree in Comparative History of Ideas and Media Studies, I have accepted an Americorps VISTA position at Real Change, in which I will be providing support to their homeless vendors and helping to develop a literary arts workshop group in collaboration with the Seattle Public Library.
While I do not know in what form I will be involved with street papers in the future, they have sparked my interest in further pursuing questions of new social movements, cultural resistance, collective memory, and narrative-based identity formation. Having no clear idea of where I wanted my life to go at the outset of my undergraduate education, I am now strongly considering the field of academia as a path. I used to see the university as hopelessly out of touch with ‘real life.’ I felt a strong sense of discordance between what I thought was important in the world and what I thought I could accomplish as a scholar. Through my involvement with the CHID Program and, subsequently, international street papers, I have come to understand the enormous potential for meaningful change and community involvement through the avenue of academia and scholarly activism. Looking back, I find my short time as an undergraduate at UW to be very well spent and I look forward to where it will take me next.