The Streets Are Watching

Although the jaggedly outlined black and white globe has been stamped to the left of this column in every issue of Spare Change for years, it’s likely that many readers have never given it a second glance, nor a second thought to the meaning of the words printed below: North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA). Yet the affiliation that our Cambridge-based publication has with the continent-wide network of this facet of the independent press is significant, and merits a review in light of the 2010 NASNA conference, which occurred from July 29-August 1.
The essential data that define NASNA are such: it operates as a nonprofit trade organization and hosts a total of 31 members—23 in the U.S. and 8 in Canada. The Association offers support to startup street papers, information-sharing services to its members, and functions as the regional affiliate of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), the entity that binds together empowerment organizations like our own across the globe, from Montreal to Malawi, Seattle to Sydney, and Boston to Burundi.
So if you believed that Spare Change is conceptually unique, you were ill informed. In fact, street newspapers have become a worldwide phenomenon, with a total of 106 INSP members in 36 countries, across 6 continents. Still, our local publication is special in several ways. It is one of the oldest modern street papers in the country and indeed in the world. Furthermore, Spare Change remains the rare exception to the norm—it was founded by people who were homeless at the time as a vehicle to carry them forward out of poverty, to circumvent the uncertainties of a complex system of social services, and to enable them to reshape their lives as they themselves saw fit.
Today, Spare Change remains unique among its peers for the continued emphasis placed on vendor participation in the leadership of the organization. Although we—like effectively all contemporary street papers with which I am familiar—rely on professional staff persons for certain capacities, Spare Change remains more grassroots than the majority of its regional affiliates. Our connection to the street was visible at the 2010 NASNA conference in Chicago a few weeks ago, as we were one of the few organizations represented by an active vendor. In contrast to many street papers, whose representation was comprised of several delegates who inhabit roles with titles such as Director, Editor, Supervisor or Manager, Spare Change brought a thoroughly balanced perspective—we were myself, the Director, and Mr. Michael Simpson, the Vendor.
Unlike other street newspapers with operational histories of a similar duration, Spare Change remains relatively small, transparent, and open to significant vendor participation at all levels of the organization. While in Chicago, I was admittedly envious of the resources that other established publications have been able to secure—the creation of multiple full-time staff positions to focus on specialized aspects of the operation, deeply entrenched relationships with community partners, local political influence. Yet I am proud of our ability to remain close to our roots in the midst of myriad trials over eighteen years. In the words of Mr. Simpson, our vendor delegate, “We’re cool.”
Despite this assessment, it will be a constant goal of mine as Executive Director to ensure that we continue to foster the influence of our vendors’ voices in the guidance of the organization over the long term. To do so enables Spare Change to remain close to its mission of empowerment without becoming overly reliant on the ideas of educated professionals—individuals like myself—whose good intentions may be insufficient or inapplicable due to lack of real experience with homelessness or life on the street.
Furthermore, it is important for vendors to have a controlling stake in the direction of the organization for other broad, sociocultural reasons. At Spare Change as at many other street newspapers across the United States, the staff is predominantly middle class and white while the vendors are primarily low-income people of color. It is therefore crucial to remember that values associated with class, race, and other background variables can influence organizational decisions. Ultimately, it is my belief—and Spare Change’s too—that all perspectives have worth, and that knowledge, whether accrued in classrooms or on the street, is valuable.
For the reason of the vitality of knowledge shared, I found this year’s NASNA conference to be highly rewarding. Street papers across the U.S. and Canada outlined their successes, shortcomings, and together we distilled our collective best practices. In the coming year, Spare Change will have an increased interest in collaboration with other street newspaper organizations—as a result of membership elections, I am now a member of the NASNA Board of Directors. I hope to bring to this position the same perspective that I am bringing to my local post—the desire to foster collaborative learning, and to promote the voices of street paper vendors to influence organizational direction.
As always, if you’d like to make yours heard, please email me at director@sparechangenews.net.
– David J. Jefferson

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