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The Word on the Street: Writing as Personal and Social Transformation

Darshana Patel's picture

London’s Big Issue often features interviews with famous movie stars like Kate Winslet while the latest Big Issue South Africa features a review of a recently released local movie about 1950s apartheid.

Bogota has La Calle, Manila has The Jeepney magazine, and Washington, DC has Street Sense. Similar publications are found all over the world and have one thing in common. They are all written by people who are either homeless or living in vulnerable, temporary housing.

Many of these publications are part of The International Network of Street papers (INSP), a network of 101 street papers in 37 countries on 6 continents. The readership of these papers is at an astounding 30 million globally. 

“Working not begging” is the philosophy behind these publications. The business model is innovative in that the poor are principle writers of the content and also vendors of the publications.  They can buy copies of the papers at a certain rate and then sell them on the street at a higher fixed rate.  The profits usually go towards buying a meal or saving it to pay rent. 

But the most powerful aspect of these publications is that they reflect a longer transformative and empowering process. Sometimes when I buy a copy of Street Sense in D.C., a vendor will proudly point out his or her story in the issue.   These moments are full of hope because the process of putting pen to paper and seeing these words published is a long one. 

For people who are living on the streets or in temporary housing, the bonds of community are difficult to build and sustain. But as writers, they join a community of people just like them who are learning to build their capacity to express their concerns, fears and hopes.   They learn to become better leaders by supporting others amongst them who sometimes need more help.  At the Street Sense office, the writers attend regular editorial meetings to decide which stories have the most resonance with them and their community. 

Quite often, those of us in the business of development are accustomed to defining poverty through a hundred different means.  We try to exemplify it through graphs and powerpoints, conduct surveys and agonize over writing reports to get the words just right.  But experiences of poverty are usually not our own. 

Publications like those in INSP provide a space for these experiences of poverty to be expressed firsthand.  (And let it be known that the writers use this space to talk about issues that have nothing to do with poverty, such as politics and art.) These publications simply legitimize the issues that matter most to the poor. 

The next time you spot a vendor on the street, I recommend you pick up a copy.  Better yet, buy two and share it with a friend.  I guarantee you will read stories that you will find nowhere else.  

Photo Credit: Flickr user Shavar

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