Friday, May 30, 2008

From the Editor

Dear readers,

This issue marks my last week with Street Sense. Effective June 2, I’m resigning from my position to start an exciting new chapter as a full-time mother. Thank you to the vendors, volunteers and readers who have in the last year helped grow our paper’s biweekly circulation to nearly 12,000 and practically doubled our traffic at I’m confident Street Sense can only continue to get stronger and better from here.

Koki joined Street Sense as editor in chief in June 2007.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Different Sort of Privilege

by Sarah Nydick Cheshire

I guess you could call me privileged. I go to a private school, live in a lofty suburban house, eat healthy and go to the dentist regularly. I wouldn’t say I was handed life on a silver platter, but it’s not as if I go to bed hungry.

At my small Quaker high school in Durham, N.C., I am distinguished by my peers as "the political girl,” or sometimes even “the annoyingly political girl.” I am the one who can be found organizing lunchtime vigils for victims of genocide, posting flyers about some peace march or another, or obstinately telling a guy off for a supposed sexist comment. I guess you could say that I am your average “privileged white girl who wants to change the world.”

My school allots a small period of time at the end of the year for students to participate in internships at occupations that interest them.

When it came to organizing mine, naturally, I wanted to do something political. I e-mailed a few social justice coalitions and human rights organizations, all of which either didn’t respond to me at all or e-mailed me back saying something along the lines of “Thanks for your interest, sweetheart. Come back when you’re in college, okay?”

I came across Street Sense as a last resort; a product of desperate late-night Web surfing a week before my internship proposal was due. But the vibe I got from them was different. Koki Smith, the editor of Street Sense, called me back almost immediately and seemed to be at least borderline enthusiastic at the prospect of having two high school students hang around.

Several weeks later, my friend Naomi and I buzzed the intercom into Street Sense just 45 minutes after stepping off the train at Union Station, heavy duffel bags afoot and sweating in the mid-May heat.

“Hey, are you guys vendors?” A lady opened the door and led us up the stairs into the main office.

“No, interns actually.”

Over the next couple of days, we answered the door, organized the office and, most significantly, got to hear the stories of vendors coming in and out of the office.

Before coming to Street Sense, whenever I would walk past a homeless person on the street, I would either downgrade his life as something worthy of pity or see him as the tragic product of some larger-scale political issue.

None of the people I met at Street Sense were in any way the “helpless and disillusioned by society” image of homeless that I expected. Each one had a different story, a different ambition and a different reason for being where they are.

The only real difference I found between myself and the vendors at Street Sense did not have to do with differences in personality or social surroundings, but with my own label as “privileged.” They don’t have that status on their side.

After my experience at Street Sense, I am working toward putting a face with my politics and seeing homeless people not for the identity of the system that has failed them, but for their own identities as people.

Sarah Nydick Cheshire is a sophomore at Carolina Friends School in Durham, N.C. She and Naomi Eliza, also a sophomore, recently spent two days volunteering at Street Sense.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

From the Editor: Take Two

by Kaukab Jhumra Smith

We’ve received a number of e-mails, phone calls and personal reactions from readers and vendors about our coverage of drugs and homelessness in the April 16 and April 30 issues of Street Sense. I wrote about some early reactions in my last column (“Cracking It Open,” 4/30) and we are printing several representative letters on these pages.

However, I think it’s worth another short note to document the distinction in many vendors’ heads between our decision to publish the stories by Brittany Aubin and the decision to publish close-up photographs of a man smoking a crack pipe (4/16) and of a pair of hands loading a crack pipe (4/30). For many vendors, the photographs are the problem, particularly on the front page of the paper. They were taken in downtown D.C. by a volunteer, Dan Wilkinson, who spent an hour and a half with the subject, disclosed his assignment with Street Sense and received his consent to photograph him. The man told Dan he was not homeless but came to the area near Franklin shelter to buy and use crack.

I’ve listened to enough offended vendors now to understand that these photos could serve as a trigger for individuals already struggling with a substance abuse problem. And while I apologize for any inadvertent harm the photos may have caused, I don’t know if I would change my original decision. Because I also received a call from a woman last week, who thanked us for printing photos that helped her identify the instruments she had seen lying around different places. “You have no idea how many families out there you are helping,” she said.

Thanks to everyone who shared an opinion. Your perspectives strengthen Street Sense into a paper that fosters debate and understanding on difficult community issues.

Confessions of a Volunteer

by Colleen Dolan

Unlike most Street Sense volunteers, it was neither my selflessness nor my willingness to sacrifice my free time that got me here. Contrarily, I was brought here to satisfy a basic course requirement. That, and the fact that I wanted to expand my social life.

I am a first–year student at George Washington University. This semester, I signed on to take a “Writing for Social Change” course – a course I registered for based on the fact that it did not meet on Fridays. For the class, we were to spend 20 hours at a community organization which, I figured after painstaking debate, would be a small sacrifice for having Thursday nights free to expand my social life.

Day 1 of the class proved to be a rude awakening, however. Participants in my small seminar went around the room discussing community service they had already participated in.

“President of the community service club.”

“I went to Africa with Seeds of Peace.”

“I raised thousands to feed children in poor countries.”

Suffice it to say, I was in way over my head.

It was on this day that we chose the organizations we would work with. As a declared journalism major, I was in luck and immediately signed on to work with Street Sense.

It was my first meeting with Koki, editor of Street Sense, which made me slightly unsure of what I was in for. She asked about my history in journalism and I gave her a brief description of working on my high school newspaper, slipping in the fact that I had a few stints on ABC–TV in New York. Naturally, she asked how I had managed to be on arguably the biggest news channel in New York City. I gave a response that has become almost mechanical, explaining that my parents work as TV journalists. But the usual response of “Getting into the family business?” or “Really? What are their names?” didn’t come.

Needless to say, I was surprised but also rather relieved. In fact, it was this implication that I needed to prove myself that led me to agree to come into the office six hours a week, rather than the one hour required by my course. This was a decision for which I was immediately grateful.

Once I walked into the office, I knew this would be an experience entirely different than what I had anticipated. Usually an outgoing person, I was rendered unsure of what to say in front of the extroverted vendors and volunteers.

I spent my early hours at Street Sense quietly running toward the stairs when the doorbell rang and issuing vendors their papers. I was taken aback by their “Hey pretty girl, how are you?” attitude, and unsure of what to say.

After my first few weeks, I realized my nerves were getting the better of me. At this point, I began making a clear effort to know the different vendors – quickly being able to say hello to them by name as I greeted them at the door.

The vendors were genuinely unlike anything I expected. On a busy afternoon, Conrad Cheek Jr. took the paper sign–out sheet from me. “Look, I’ll show you how to do it faster,” he said, proceeding to teach me a superior way to give out large numbers of papers. Jeffery McNeil asked me for advice on what to put on posters and in his articles, while cheerfully telling me about the job interview he had later that day. Brittany Aubin, the intern I worked side–by–side with on Wednesdays, wrote article upon article, fixed Web site glitches and then jetted out just in time for evening classes at American University. I was truly surrounded by remarkable, exceptional people.

After receiving only a B– on the paper for my writing class (on which I had slaved away endlessly), I found myself on the verge of giving up the class. It was only my time at Street Sense that encouraged me to reconsider.

With classes now ending, I’m not looking for an excuse to get out of this last week at Street Sense, which will not count toward any class credit. Rather, I am looking forward to sitting in the office a little longer and getting to know the intelligent, charismatic vendors and volunteers a bit better before saying good–bye.

Friday, May 2, 2008

From the Editor: Cracking It Open

by Kaukab Jhumra Smith

Things got a bit heated at the Street Sense office recently.

At least three vendors – Francine Triplett, Conrad Cheek Jr. and Alicia Jones – were offended at the photo essay, “The D.C. Streets: The Other Side,” that Street Sense ran as a color spread in its April 16 issue.

The photo essay, by volunteer photographer Dan Wilkinson, was the result of many hours spent patiently cultivating sources downtown. It included an extreme close up of a man smoking crack near Franklin shelter on 13th and K streets, NW. Only the man’s lips and part of his moustache were in the frame; the focus was on his hands and on the glass pipe held to his mouth.

Francine was upset because the photograph played into a stereo-type, she said: “People already think that homeless people do nothing but drugs.” (Dan says the man told him he is not homeless and does not live at Franklin but only goes to the area to buy and smoke crack.)

Alicia said there were plenty of positive things in the city that the photographer could have focused on instead.

Other objections were that the photograph was unsuitable for children and would upset teachers and parents who use the paper as a teaching tool on social matters.

However, the same issue of Street Sense features a front-page editorial by vendor Jeffery McNeil, “Drug Use Cuts Across Class and Race,” which argues that drug addiction can’t be blamed just on the homeless or the poor. Taken together, I think Jeffery’s editorial and Dan’s photos provide an interesting counterpoint and illustrate our mission of “elevating voices and public debate.”

Other Street Sense vendors have actively helped guide our reporting during the weeks that reporter Brittany Aubin and photographer Dan Wilkinson have explored the subject of drugs and homelessness for our April 16 and April 30 issues.

“People need to know why the shelter system isn’t working and why transitional housing isn’t working,” one vendor said, pointing out how hard it is to escape addiction when drug dealers frequent the spaces right outside shelters. He wants readers to understand.

Meanwhile, Brittany has faced similar objections during her work on this issue’s cover story on the obstacles to recovery for homeless addicts. “I have consistently faced hurdles to getting information, or even maintaining a conversation,” Brittany wrote recently.

“Despite working from tips given by vendors, I couldn’t help but feel at most a reluctance, and at worst a hostility, to stories that could perpetuate stereotypes of drugs and homelessness from both home-less individuals and the advocates serving them,” she said.

It’s worth repeating that Street Sense editorial policy, laid out on page 2, is to reflect a multitude of perspectives on poverty. Street Sense does not exist to “sanitize and castrate” community issues, as Brittany eloquently says, or to project “a shiny, grateful and presentable image of homelessness.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself, so I’ll let Brittany complete her thoughts.

“As a news outlet, I believe Street Sense has an obligation to present the fullest, most complex view of issues as possible. This cannot happen in a framework that permits only one archetype of a homeless individual,” she writes. “Homelessness should not merely be unacceptable when it happens to the ideal archetype – to the single mom, to the repentant former playboy, to the elderly woman forced from a gentrified home.”

She continues: “I have spent hours at Franklin Square Park, I have talked to city officials, I have asked vendors. I have called shelters and surveyed service providers. I have pored over studies and crunched numbers ... I do believe that it is right to communicate what I view. For many, this investigation has hurt feelings, or seemed intrusive or to have served narrow sensationalistic interests. To that, I can empathize, but not apologize. I sincerely hope that others will step forward to add the complexities of their viewpoints to my own.”

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