Tim Harris Oral History, Part 2: Real Change -- How It Grew, What It Does

  • Posted 10/22/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10948

Real Change, a leader in the "street-paper" movement, was started in Seattle by Tim Harris in 1994. Its declared 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 the newspaper 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 this Part 2, Harris explains the street-paper movement, tells of the growth and success of Real Change, and describes its development into a significant voice for social justice. The interviewer's questions are not included, and the transcript has been slightly edited for clarity and length.

In the Beginning

It's been a long time. It developed slowly at first, and then we started to pick up steam, really, when we shifted to weekly publication -- I think it was 2005 that we went weekly.

You know, at the beginning it was just me and some volunteers who helped. And over the first two or three years, we added part-time staff to help on the vendor desk, we hired a part-time editor -- those were the first hires. And by the time we were five years old, we were still a pretty small organization. At five years old our budget was still somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000, and we had three or four staff. But by then we were stable, and it was clear that Real Change was going to last.

From the beginning Real Change was really embraced by the broader Seattle community. The first three or four months were pretty touch-and-go, but I remember when we first came into the holiday season -- and this is something that always happens with us. Beginning mid-November, when the holiday season starts, about a week before Thanksgiving, our vendors start doing really well. And that happened that first year, when we were just really kind of eking by and it was really unclear whether I was even going to be able to pay myself in doing this work, and how sustainable it was going to be. And we got a huge boost during the holiday season of people buying the paper from the vendors, and the vendors doing really well selling it, and that attracted more vendors.

That was the beginning of knowing that this was going to be viable and accepted by the broader community. And every year our base of grassroots funding support has gotten stronger. The circulation consistently tends to grow. And most of our support from the very beginning has been through grassroots fundraising and earned income through the circulation of the paper. Those two things are still 90 percent of our budget.

More Than Just a Paper

We've just grown over the years as we've gotten better and better at doing what we do. I think there're two things that are a big part of our success. One is that street newspapers in general tend to follow one of two models. One is the grassroots paper that is about being a voice of the poor, and is about organizing and movement building, and those papers tend to be smaller and less professionalized. And then there's the other model that has been kind of pioneered by the Big Issue in London, which is the highly professionalized, socially entrepreneurial business that sells a paper on the street that homeless folks are hawking. And those tend to be highly professionalized, and have larger budgets, and operate on a very different scale, but often don't have the social justice values, or being a voice of the poor piece involved.

The street-paper movement has always been kind of polarized between those models, and we helped to launch the North American Street Newspaper Association in the early 90s, we hosted the founding conference here in Seattle, in 1997. And I chaired that organization for about seven years. And one of the things that I took away from that was that this polarization in the street- paper movement, between these two . . . ideals of how to do a street paper was, was misguided, and that you didn't have to be either/or. That you didn't have to choose between being a grassroots paper that has social values and is a voice of the poor people and cares about poverty issues and is about movement-building, or being a professionalized business. That you could do both. That you could take the best of both of those ends of the spectrum.

And we've learned to do that. Particularly over the last 10 years, where we [now] have a very stable organization, and we have 15 staff, and a budget of over a million dollars, and weekly circulation of 12,000 to 13,000 copies of the paper in the greater Seattle area.

Last year we won 16 regional first-place awards for our journalism and the paper. We're a quality community newspaper that operates in a very professional manner, but is still committed to movement-building and grassroots organizing and being a voice of the poor. And our donors have really responded to that. Sixty percent of our funding comes from grassroots donations, and that grows every year. It's a very stable basis to have the organization rooted in, and it gives us a huge amount of political freedom in the sorts of advocacy issues that we work on.

The Power of the Press

We can afford to be that uncompromised voice on behalf of poor people because we don't take any government funding. We take foundation funding [but] it's a very relatively small amount of our budget, it's less than 10 percent. So we are uncompromised by our funding sources, and that allows us to be edgier, more risk- taking in our activism, and we find that our donors support that. So it's an exciting way to run an organization.

We've had some real successes. We ran that [homeless shelter] initiative campaign in 2002, which we won. We qualified it for the ballot, and we were going to take it to the ballot, and we had an opportunity to reach a compromise position with the city council that gave us about half of what we wanted, and we didn't have a lot of money to take it to the ballot and run a campaign, so we took the win, and moved on. And that expanded youth shelters in Seattle at the time, in particular. But it was a significant win for what was, at that point, still a very small organization. And that was the beginning of us really understanding that the newspaper was potentially the foundation of some fairly significant political power.

I think one of the wins that we're most proud of is when Seattle wanted to build a new municipal jail for misdemeanants -- that was in about 2008, 2009 -- and we took on that campaign, and we did an initiative campaign to stop that jail from being built. And when we started that campaign, it was broadly considered inevitable that this jail was going to be built, that this was the speeding locomotive with unstoppable momentum.

What we did was take an issue that was being discussed in terms of its inevitability, and bogus numbers to support the need for it, and in a very value-neutral way that supposed that it was going to happen, and that just reduced it to a matter of zoning, where they were going to site the thing. And we turned that into a racial-justice issue, and this community-wide discussion of incarceration and race, and poverty crime. We allied with the NAACP on that, and we ran that campaign during the election cycle where Greg Nickels lost and Mike McGinn, and Pete Holmes, and Dan Satterberg won. And all of them were committed to stopping the new jail from being built. Our campaign basically shifted the political environment and killed that jail; stopped it from happening. So that was something that we're really proud of.

Then there was the anti-panhandling campaign, where Tim Burgess on the city council was carrying water for the Downtown Seattle Association, and trying to get something through the city council to basically outlaw panhandling. Not completely outlaw it, but give the police a whole bevy of tools to prosecute and issue citations for bogus poverty crime. And again, we allied with the NAACP, because it was clear to us that this was legislation that was not aimed just at homeless people, but was aimed at marginalized communities in general, and particularly youth of color.

The turning point in that campaign was when . . . the Seattle Human Rights Commission, issued a report that rejected this legislation on the grounds that it wouldn't really accomplish anything, but would just make life a lot more difficult for very poor people by imposing a whole new set of legal barriers to success in their lives. And we were able to get a majority of the city council to uphold a mayoral veto of that legislation. It's one of the very, very few instances, it's, in fact, the only instance that I'm aware of, where a municipality has defeated proposed quality-of-life legislation that's aimed against panhandlers, and has been able to stop that.

Again, that really changed the environment in Seattle. And led to what we have now, which is a much less polarized approach to visible poverty on the street, and human service interests and downtown interests working together more for long-term solutions, and not reaching for these sort of bogus short-term fixes that just amount to the criminalization of the poor.

To go to Part 3, click "Next Feature"


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

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