Tim Harris Oral History, Part 1: Real Change -- How It All Started

  • Posted 10/22/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10947

After dropping out of high school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, running away from home, and serving four years in the air force, Tim Harris entered the University of Massachusetts, where he founded a monthly alternative newspaper. He moved to Boston after graduation to work on issues of poverty and homelessness and saw the potential of using the alternative press to provide income and a voice to those most in need of both. In 1992 he started Spare Change, an early member of the growing international "street-paper" movement. With lessons learned, Harris moved to Seattle in 1994 to found Real Change, a weekly newspaper whose mission is "to provide opportunity and a voice for low-income and homeless people while taking action for economic justice." On August 28, 2014, with Real Change now 20 years old, Harris was interviewed by HistoryLink.org intern Alex Cail, and that interview is presented in three parts as People's Histories. In Part 1, Harris describes the long road he traveled from Sioux Falls to become the founder and executive director of Washington's only street newspaper. The interviewer's questions are not included, and the transcript has been slightly edited for clarity and length.

Turbulent Youth

I grew up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is a very working-class town. I was a high school dropout. I got kicked out of all three high schools in Sioux Falls in 10th grade, mostly for truancy. I was diagnosed as ADD at 46, which explained a lot about growing up and my aversion to school, and that sort of thing. I never, never liked school. I was very bright; I tested off the charts on the standardized tests, but I was a C student at best. And by the time I got to eighth grade I was a chronic truant, and I basically blew off high school.

I ran away from home when I was 17. I spent a couple of years bouncing around various low-wage jobs that were available to 17 and 18 year olds in Sioux Falls, and wound up joining the air force when I was 18 -- I was about to turn 19 when I joined. And at that time I was living in the Sioux Falls version of Skid Road, I was living in sort of a room that was above the Arrow Bar and across the street from the Nashville Club. I had been working for about nine months at a mobile-home-rafter factory, which was driving me insane, because it was very boring.

So I went into the air force, my idea was that this would get me out of Sioux Falls, that it was a possible route to college. I got a GED, just took the test, and got a GED, so I had a high school diploma. I started going to community college when I was in the air force, and I got accepted, after my four years, to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. There, I majored in social thought and political economy, and I minored in journalism.

Learning the Ropes

I started my first newspaper when I was at U Mass. It was a monthly alternative paper called Critical Times. I had learned how to do type-setting -- a friend of mine taught me -- and I got a job at this thing called the Student Government Communications Office. And I basically produced flyers and brochures for the 300 student organizations at U Mass. I decided that I knew how to produce a newspaper, and pulled together a bunch of volunteers that I knew through my work in the Radical Student Union -- I got very involved in the Radical Student Union, and while I was at U Mass I more or less majored in student activism. And that's where I spent all my time, was at the Radical Student Union and the communications office, producing the newspaper. So I did Critical Times for the last two years that I was in college.

I think another signature event when I was in college was in 1985, when about a dozen of us went to Washington, D. C. and we got arrested in support of a 51-day fast that Mitch Snyder was doing with the Community for Creative Nonviolence. He was a major figure in the '80s and early '90s, a major national figure that was doing direct-action style organizing with homeless folks. And homelessness was exploding over the '80s, and that was an issue that really spoke to me. Because it was the outsiders -- you know? It was the people who were, sort of the social rejects that had been marginalized for various reasons, and I really identified with them. Partly, I think, because of where I had come from, and my time being poor, and struggling to survive in Sioux Falls, and I think, growing up with this sense of myself as an outsider, and a bit of a loser. And getting to know folks in Sioux Falls' Skid Road.

Empathy and Involvement

I've always had this sense that it's just good fortune, really, and being born smart, that separates me from a lot of the folks that I work with, a lot of the homeless people. You know, I had a serious drug problem when I was a kid. I put that down when I was in my early 20s, when I was in the air force. I decided that wasn't working for me and got straight. But it's easy for me to imagine my life going in a different direction where I didn't have the options that were open to me -- that I didn't wind up going to college, that I continued to struggle with drugs and alcohol, continued to see myself as somebody who really didn't have prospects. So I think that that's a big part of why I've been drawn to the work that I do.

I graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1987 and I moved to Boston. I started working with a publication called Street Magazine, which was a sporadically published, alternative, poor-people's publication. That was kind of a cross between The Stranger and Real Change, except published by a handful of anarchists who lived in a squat. I mean, we literally lived in this squat. We stopped paying rent, they tried to kick us out, but we refused to go. I remember during the winter there was actually frozen water in the sink, because they had turned off the heat in an attempt to move us out of there.

I was doing that, and I started doing organizing with homeless folks. There were a couple of people in Boston, Jim Stewart and Stuart Guernsey, they were both ministers, and they were both sort of Northeast lieutenants of Mitch Snyder. They were kind of dialed in to the national network of activists that kind of radiated outwards from Mitch Snyder at the CCNV. They were mentors to me, and I became very involved in doing direct-action-style organizing with homeless folks.

And I managed to get work as the director of an organization called Boston Jobs with Peace. I started doing that in the late '80s. It was a small organization that was dedicated to doing grassroots organizing with very poor people, and making the connections to federal budget priorities, and the military budget in particular. So we did things like organize tent cities at the federal building, on Boston Common.

I was involved for a long time in a thing called Operation Home Front, which was a homeless people's protest encampment that lasted about four months. I sort of became their organizer, and that was where I decided that organizing homeless folks was what I wanted to do. And I had work, where I was the only staff at this organization. I had a board that pretty much let me do whatever I wanted, so I had this platform where I could actually get paid to do direct-action organizing with homeless folks.

I'd been doing that for a couple of years, and I was very much a sort of an Alinsky-esque organizer, you know, I mean my framework as an organizer was not so much to be a decision-maker in the organization, but to facilitate the decision-making by the people most affected. And to develop leadership among homeless people, and have them running their own organization.

We did a number of organizing projects. We did this Homes Not Bombs Project, which was focused on direct-action organizing and protest, we did a Homeless Civil Rights Project, which was about dealing with police abuse of homeless people, and homeless people being shut out of [places] like fast food joints because they were homeless, and discrimination that they were facing, and fighting back around that.

This was during the Reagan years, and we were seeing ... some fairly radical cutbacks in human-service programs. So, we were fighting against that, and during this it occurred to me that the horizon for social-justice organizing and economic-justice organizing is very long and uncertain. And that homeless people's needs are very immediate and pressing. And that if I wanted to realize my ambition of really having our organizing being by and of homeless folks themselves, we needed to do it in a way that helped them to meet their most immediate needs while they were involved in social-justice organizing.

Learning by Doing

[The newspaper] Street News in New York had come up in the late '80s. They're widely regarded as the seminal newspaper in the modern street-paper movement. A lot of folks looked at what they were doing and were inspired by that -- not that Street News was all that great; it was a really problematic project. But the basic idea of homeless people buying a newspaper up front, selling at a profit on the street ... , an alternative to panhandling, a way to connect with the broader public, a way of elevating the issue of homelessness that built relationships between very poor people and the broader middle class, that was very attractive to a lot of people.

There was this first wave of the street-paper movement that was inspired by Street News, and I was part of that. I started Spare Change in Boston in 1992, and that's still publishing. About the same time, the Big Issue started in London, Street Wise started in Chicago, Journal Itinéraire started in Montreal. And none of us were really talking to each other, it was one of those things where it was just kind of the right idea at the right time. Different people were taking it in different directions.

In Boston, my idea was a street paper as a platform for community organizing, with homeless folks in the leadership. And that was a very difficult project because it was one of the places where I learned that my model of basing the organizing solely in homeless people, and having all of the leadership development there, and not involving a broader mix of people, didn't really make for a very stable organization.

There were a lot of problems with that organization. It was tremendously unstable, and it also, being an organization of homeless people, wanted independence from the parent organization that created it, because we weren't always crazy about the decisions that they were making. Many of them were poor decisions. When you had crack addicts who had access to the bank account it was not good. So we wound up spinning that organization off to become independent, and giving them a lot of support. Other organizations, like the Boston Foundation, gave them support, and helped them to work through that.

But out of that experience, what I realized was that the street paper was a really solid foundation for doing community organizing, building relationships across class, and empowering homeless people, and I was real interested in developing the street-paper model in a more stable, long-lasting way. I wanted to move to a different city, and just start over with a new street paper, so I moved to Seattle in March of '94 to start Real Change. And we had the first issue on the street by August 20.

To go to Part 2, click "Next Feature"


Alex Cail interview with Tim Harris, Seattle, August 28, 2014.

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