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Strength in Unity
Street Newspaper Must Not Be Its Own Enemy
The following is the text of Real Change Director Timothy Harris' speech at the founding conference of the North American Street Newspaper Association, held in Seattle on Sept. 11-14, 1997


I'm supposed to talk about visions of the streetpaper movement here, and I'm going to do that, but I'd also like to talk about divisions within the streetpaper movement. I'd like to give some of these divisions a name, and talk about whether they are healthy or hurtful to our movement as a whole.

Our movement was first noticed in 1989, when Street News began publication in New York City. During that time, I was living in Boston, editing Street Magazine (you can see that already the proliferation of publications with the word Street in their name was beginning to be a problem). Our Street was an alternative newspaper with an irregular publication schedule and a barebones budget. By that point we had started giving it to homeless people to sell for a dollar.

Street News, founded by rock musician Hutchinson Persons, was then getting lots and lots of major national media as an innovative new way to help the homeless.

We in Boston were not impressed. It was a rag, full of filler and right-wing rants about individual responsibility. Persons actually had new staffers read Atlas Shrugged, the popular book by right-wing-libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged was about how liberals and socialists were undermining the strength of our nation; a nation built by heroic visionary capitalists who were not ashamed of their greed.

To make matters worse, Persons and his business partner, Wendy Coltun, a ballerina, were paying themselves about $45,000 each as start-up salaries, which, in 1989, struck us as excessive to say the least.

My friend Jon and I had just been evicted from a rathole in Alston-Brighton for non-payment of rent, and had moved to better circumstances, but were living on a diet of potatos, shoplifted cheese, food bank groceries, and the occasional charity items from Carolyn Frimpter, who married me a few years later despite all evidence of chronic financial instability.

Persons was then talking about franchising Street News to other cities, including Boston, and we wrote an editorial declaring war on the invaders.

We couldn't understand why the media was all over Street News and couldn't care less about us. In hindsight, the reasons were simple. Our paper was subversive; theirs supported, and was supported by, corporate values. Their circulation was huge. They claimed a million a month in their first year. We were printing 10 and 15 thousand at a time. Their's put business first and social activism at a very distant second. I, on the other hand, was once told by a loan officer that he liked our Street Magazine, but would not give us any money because he had, in his own words, "never met anyone less interested in making a profit."

In any case, Street News, which I am happy to say no longer bears any resemblance to the orginal, was undeniably the catalyst for a movement. In 1991 and `92, several new projects started, all, so far as I know, without talking to each other. Street Sheet started in San Fransisco. StreetWise started in Chicago. Spare Change began in Boston, and the Big Issue started in London.

Each of these took the basic notion pioneered by Street News and modified it to their own ends. Some were more grassroots and activist, and others more social servicey and entrepreneurial. Our present streetpaper movement, of well over 100 papers around the world, has in just 5 years grown from these seeds. And, inevitably this movement has retained the tension, and the antagonism, between entrepreneurialism and activism that was present between papers like Street News and Street Magazine in 1989.

Fortunately, the North American newspaper movement has few papers that could be considered outright exploitative of the poor, and I don't mind saying who they are, or were: The Outrider and Outreach Connection in Toronto were disasters. They were full of rightwing politics, and often contemptuous of the poor and homeless. They have both ceased publication but have given street newspapers a bad name that will haunt any effort in Toronto for years to come. TheGrapevine in Phoenix, not to be confused with the Grapevine in Cleveland, has also folded. The Phoenix paper was another profit-oriented venture that was also full of right-wing wacko rants, but with a weird Masonic twist.

In my opinion, these papers, which promote ideologies that are openly hostile to the poor and serve only the interests of their owners, do not belong in our movement.

With these unfortunate examples more or less out of the way, we are left with a tension between papers with a liberal entrepreneurial vision and papers who have a more radical, grassroots activist vision. I firmly believe there is room in our movement for both of these visions, and that we can learn from each other. Furthermore, I think there is much more to be lost than gained from fighting over who has the purest vision, or pointing fingers at which of us is the biggest sellout.

The driving idea behind the liberal entrepreneurial vision is that job creation is primary, and that streetpapers should strive for large circulations to increase employment opportunities. These papers also see themselves as a vehicle for social service delivery, like job training, housing search, and drug and alcohol treatment. While this may be more of a top down vision than some of us are comfortable with, and less of an activist vision than some of us would like to see, they are a positive force for the poor and should be supported.

I only get really annoyed when the statement is made, and this has actually been said, that entrepreneurial street newspapers will end homelessness by creating employment for the poor. This is, of course, self-congratulatory crap, and is a great example of what is wrong with liberalism: it elevates what is essentially an individual solution to being the answer to a structural problem. Individual hard work is not, and never will be, the answer to instituitionalized inequality.

There are, on the other hand, numerous activist streetpapers who see their role as a voice of the poor as being their primary mission. These papers are interested in being "of" the poor rather than "for" the poor. They are, at their cores, activist projects that are in this to create social change. These papers tend to have smaller circulations than the more entrepreneurial papers. They tend to have less staff, less money, less equipment, and often, less visibility in the movement. Yet, in my opinion, they are the papers that do and should define our movement.

I believe that these different types of papers should not be seen as being at opposite poles, one labeled "corporate" and the other "radical." I think we are all, at bottom, about the same thing, trying to create social change while we make an immediate difference in the lives of individual people that sell our papers. We have differences of opinion about the most effective way to do that. We are allies who sometimes disagree about tactics.

There is a phrase I really like that is often used to describe what is wrong with the sectarian left: "The Narcissism of Insignificant Differences." That is when we take the relatively small differences that divide us and blow them up into huge barriers that keep us from talking. This, I believe, is always destructive. We need to be able to have our differences without villainizing each other.

My own preference is for a grassroots streetpaper movement, where our newspapers promote activism, build leadership from among the poor, and help create the institutional basis for a broader poor people's movement. At the same time, we need to reach people. We do need to be concerned with readability. We do need to be concerned with circulation, and we do need to be effective as small businesses.

I think the streetpaper movement is, at most, in its early adolescence, and that we have much growth and maturing ahead of us before we acheive our political potential. I see ourselves as being an increasingly important component of a broader poor people's movement. We are an important tool for nurturing that movement into its historic role.

We do not need to waste our energy at this point in trashing each other over our differences. We are not going to change anyone's mind by disrespecting them. I think there is a human tendency to define ourselves by what we are not, and to hold the other at arms length. It is more creative, and useful, I think, to define ourselves by what we are, and by what we hope to become. This is all we need to be concerned with.

In conclusion, our enemies are those who exploit and denigrate the poor, and are not those who create opportunity for self-help and educate the public to be a part of the solution. We can, and if we are to build a strong movement, must, respectfully disagree over tactics without turning our allies into our enemies.

I think that if we can learn from each other, and find strength in our differences, we are on the brink of creating a movement capable of changing history. I'm proud to be a part of that movement and proud to be here in this room with all of you. Thank you.

 

 

 

 

       

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