Power in Prose: Poor magazine gives voice

Redbeardedguy - Posted on 31 May 2011

Venise Wagner

Monday, April 29, 2002;

Lisa "Tiny" Gray-Garcia and her mother, Dee Gray, take exception with the phrase "those people," as in those homeless people, or those poor people, or if only those people got their act together.
In their minds, this seemingly innocuous phrase divides society and diminishes the humanity of a set of people, particularly men and women who find themselves among the have-nots.
As founders and editors of Poor magazine, they have decided to tackle this expression and the thinking behind it. Setting themselves apart from mainstream media approaches to covering the poor, the duo reports and writes about poverty, and trains its staff to find the universal "I" in them, as in "those poor people." Hence, we.
"I stress that people write in the first person so they don't feel separate from the people they're writing about," explains Dee. "They may not have the experience of sleeping in the doorway, but they may have had the experience of being afraid to speak out or feeling like they couldn't speak out." Both experiences, Dee says, are a form of alienation that most can relate to.
Tiny, Dee and the San Francisco magazine's four staffers and 10 volunteers see themselves not only as journalists, but as advocates, challenging misconceptions about poverty and a system they believe does more to keep people in their place than to help them rise.
A variety of nonprofit organization and private donations provide support. They also get support from the San Francisco Department of Human Services, which sends a handful of welfare-to-work clients to the magazine's Journalism and Media Studies Program for training. Their budget last year totaled $85,000. This year, they're not sure if they will make it through the end of 2002.
Tiny, 30, says she and the staff live in constant crisis. Many of the staff are homeless or living in dire situations and constantly struggling to survive. Tiny tries to advise and support them. She and Dee always worry about the operation making it to the next month. In the midst of these crises, they manage to produce an online publication ( www.poornewsnetwork.org ) weekly and a glossy magazine. Mothers was the theme in the last issue. Others include, "hellthcare," "homefulness" and work. They have published four times so far, one a year.
" 'Poor' usually means we're the subject of the news," Tiny says. "We don't get to shape the news. Until we are heard, there won't be any real change."
From the time Tiny was in sixth grade to about five years ago, she and Dee shuffled from evictions to squatting in abandoned buildings to living in their car.
As a single mom, Dee had always struggled to stay afloat, but when she was struck with severe asthma, she was no loner able to work as a social worker. They were evicted from their apartment in Los Angeles. Tiny dropped out of school. They started living out of their car.
"Mom was an orphan. She had no family," Tiny says. "When you have no family, it's one tier from having no money. In some ways it's worse."
They trekked up to the Bay Area and, for many years, eked out an existence selling T-shirts and soliciting change for their street performances, which usually involve acting out issues related to homelessness.
The year she turned 18, Tiny landed in jail. She and Dee had racked up a bunch of unpaid parking tickets, citations for sleeping in their car, driving without car registration and failure to appear at the hearings on those offenses. Tiny calls those crimes of poverty.
The judge ordered her to perform community service. She hooked up with a Berkeley nonprofit called Community Defense Inc. The man running the operation, civil rights attorney Osha Neumann, asked her what she could do. She told him she could write. He told her to write a piece about being poor. She came back after a few weeks with a piece on the experience of being evicted.
"It was sort of surprising," Neumann says. "Many people say they can write, and you never know what you'll get. She was an incredible writer."
She submitted the piece to East Bay Express, which published it. Tiny calls it an intervention, one of a series that would ultimately take her to Poor magazine. "Oh, my God, I was alive," Tiny says. "It was like someone threw me a life jacket."
She felt the power of being heard and craved more.
Writing had provided a lifeline for Tiny from an early age. She has kept journals, written short stories and chronicles of her life. Being published buoyed her hopes, but the misery in her life continued. She wanted to avoid welfare - in her mind, then, it carried too much shame. But she broke down and applied.
She never gave up on writing, though. While in a Berkeley bookstore in 1996, flipping through the magazine rack, it occurred to her no one spoke about the lives of poor people. She got to work, raising money from artist friends and poor friends who sacrificed what they could. She and Dee conducted writing workshops in shelters, community based organizations and advocacy agencies serving poor people. Within nine months, they had raised $2,000 and enough material to publish a 65-page glossy issue of Poor, with color art, poetry and prose - and no advertising.
It cost $10,000 to print 1,000 copies. They forked over what money they had, and paid the remainder with magazine sales. The latest edition, a run of 3,000 copies published in December, cost $15,000 to produce.
As always, half the run was distributed free to low-income readers; the rest sold for $3.95 each at Modern Times Bookstore and A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco and Cody's Books in Berkeley.
"We wanted to create a pretty product that yuppies would want to pick up," Tiny says. They also wanted a magazine that would raise the value of poverty issues to the status afforded mainstream magazines.
When the welfare-to-work program rolled out in 1998, case workers told Tiny she had to get a job, insisting that she apply for a receptionist position. She explained to the counselors her desire to become a reporter, but they kept telling her she didn't have the education. She told them she'd be willing to go back to school. She says she was told that would take too long.
Tiny developed her own welfare-to-work program. The Department of Human Services signed on. Now, Poor magazine staffers are training welfare recipients basic reporting, writing, graphic design, Web design, investigative reporting and advocacy at a South of Market union hall. It may be the only welfare-to-work training program that focuses on journalism. In the past four years, 15 people have completed the program.
Amanda Feinstein, a project manager for Human Services, says Poor and its media studies program gives clients skills that transfer to other jobs. Clients have gone to work as a desk manager, an administrative assistant and as a peer adviser for a juvenile-justice advocacy group.
"They've had some real successes," Feinstein said. "People get hands-on training in computer software and writing skills, which are helpful in a variety of ways, including self-expression."
From Osha Neumann's perspective, the magazine has a greater social impact.
"We tend to talk about the homeless as a collective noun, as a definite, generic homelessness or homeless condition," he says. "It's a political act to insist on individuality and humanity of a person. ...Tiny and Poor magazine (are) at the center stage of that battle. Giving voice to the poor is both a literary program and a political project."
The politics assert themselves at the start of each article. Every Thursday, Tiny and Dee lead a community newsroom meeting at the union hall. All are invited, especially anyone who has lived in poverty. About 105 people have taken part either in meetings or in producing the magazine.
"The establishment says it's wrong to be poor, and it's something to be ashamed of," Tiny says at the beginning of a recent meeting. The group listens intently. A Poor News Network promotion poster behind her head reads, "Driving While Poor, Part II." The folks at Poor want people to take pride in their ability to survive the toughest of circumstances. During the introduction, Tiny invites people to admit their poverty status.
Twenty people sit in a cramped circle. The group is a mix of races, ethnicities, ages and economic classes. Some participants are City College students or writers interested in social justice issues. Others are "poverty scholars" whose life experiences have made them experts on the subject. As introductions go around the circle, veteran staff members openly state their poverty roots or status.
They throw around story ideas, searching for the poverty angle in each one. The first is about coverage of a Free Tibet demonstration that overpowered an affordable housing protest on the same corner. The issue is finding the connection between the Tibetan cause and the affordable-housing movement. The consensus is that society seems to have more compassion for the oppressed in other countries than the oppressed in their own country.
They eventually map out an angle for the story, which ultimately includes the history of China's takeover of Tibet and draws ties between the Free Tibet movement and the struggles of poor people in the United States.
And so they jump from one poverty issue to the next: the disabled poor may lose their rights; medical marijuana clubs, which often serve the poor, are being shut down; San Francisco is set to renovate and expand a decrepit juvenile hall, in which many poor youth have been held. Every story gets assigned. In some cases, Tiny lets the subjects of the piece become co-authors of the article.
Isabel Estrada, 18, a media intern, has two stories in the works. One is a piece examining the "real" story behind the shooting death of Jerome Hooper in Chinatown in February by an off-duty cop. Though she may not be as poor as some of the other interns, she finds her universal "I" in this story. She tells how, as a child, she watched her mother get into a shouting match with a police officer over a parking ticket in the Mission District. He arrested her, and she went to jail.
"Since then, I'm scared of authority figures than most people, even though I don't do anything wrong," she says. Her distrust of the police pushes her to find answers in the Hooper case.
She also has been assigned a piece about an Oakland family that is being evicted.
A week after the meeting, Tiny and Estrada sit in the living room of Javlyn Woods. Woods and her father, Scott Sloan, recount the Byzantine story of how they got to the brink of eviction. Evidently, Sloan's mother owns the property, but the county took guardianship of her estate a few years ago. Now the county wants to evict the family since one of Woods' children got lead poisoning. Graying beige paint flakes off the walls. The stairs outside sag, and the wood floors are snarled and worn.
Tiny later explains that the interview is more like a conversation, a "crisis dialogue." Before Woods begins her story, Tiny sets the tone with a pronouncement:
"My mother and I were evicted on and off," she says.
Woods shows relief, as if she's found kin, someone who understands. After Woods and Sloan tell their tale, Tiny explains how she believes this is a pattern in Oakland: landlords evicting tenants for small reasons or none at all.
"We'll help you find and attorney and put it in the article that you need a lawyer," she tells Woods. "And we'll picket. We can take action."
Tiny says later: "That's what we mean when we say media advocacy. Connecting the dots for them and, in this case, for her getting an attorney. It means getting involved in her life as much as possible to solve the problem."
For more info
To read Poor Magazine online, subscribe or find out how to donate, visit www.poormagazine.org. Call for the time and location of the weekly community newsroom meetings. (415) 863-6306 or send e-mail to deeandtiny@poormagazine.org.



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