Dee Gray would probably want this story to start with the word “I.” Dee thinks the best stories are told in the first person. Her daughter, Tiny, doesn’t always agree.
This is what it might look like, if Dee had her way:
I first heard from Lisa Gray-Garcia, also known as Tiny, in a long, long message on my voicemail machine about living poor in America’s most expensive city. “ A lot of us are affected by gentrification and poverty and how that translates to having to leave this area,” she said, in a voice somewhere between nasal and squeaky. “Oftentimes, poor families are the ones who are leaving.”
Other mothers and daughters may wrangle over literary license, current events and how the media shape the news, but their ruminations don’t often make it into print. Dee’s and Tiny’s usually do. You can read them online at https://www.poornewsnetwork.org, a weekly news service with the motto: “All the news that doesn’t fit.”
Or in the pages of Poor magazine, where they write under headings like “Editors’ Statement by Dee and Tiny.” You can catch them on the last Monday of every month on the Bay Area’s KPFA radio, if you wake up really early.
Or, if you are on welfare in the San Francisco area and fortunate in your misfortune, you can listen to them in person as part of their New Journalism/Media Studies Program. Many media and public-policy experts believe the program, which receives some funding from San Francisco County, is the only journalism welfare-to-work effort operating today.
Tiny and Dee--30 and “I’d rather not say,” who describe themselves as “formerly homeless, currently at risk"--have a few goals. They want to change how the mainstream media portray poor and homeless people. They want to give voice to those who have long been silent, or at the very least not been heard. They want to change how the government gets people off of public assistance and into jobs. And they’d like to make the rent.
They are as likely to march in a demonstration as cover it. They regularly lash out at the institutions that they feel harm poor people in the name of helping; child protective services is Dee’s current favorite target, although Pacific Gas & Electric, the welfare system, the California penal code, most police departments, and city halls on both sides of the bay come under regular attack too.
Their work--and articles by other PoorNewsNetwork reporters--appears in other alternative publications and has graced the op-ed pages of this city’s two mainstream newspapers. The star graduate of their first year in welfare-to-work has a job writing regularly for the San Francisco Bay View, a small community paper covering the region’s African American population.
Their brand of journalism favors advocacy over explanation. But if there is a place in the American media for the likes of conservative commentator William Kristol and his Weekly Standard, there’s a place for Tiny, Dee and Poor.
The question, of course, is whether taxpayers should foot the bill for teaching poor and homeless people to be writers, when most welfare-to-work programs stress far more basic job skills. Not surprising, Tiny and Dee say yes. And San Francisco County agrees.
With funding from the county Department of Human Services, which administers welfare benefits here, the Media Studies Program trained eight people over the last year and will likely train another eight in the next fiscal year, says Amanda Feinstein, the agency’s project director for work-force development.
“They’re tutoring and mentoring one person at a time,” Feinstein says. “It’s small. We expect it to be--small and intensive for the right type of person.”
Mother, Daughter Spiral
Berkeley, 1993. Tiny spent three days in jail for driving without a license, having too many unpaid parking tickets, no registration for the car in which she and Dee were living, and failure to appear on similar earlier charges--what she now refers to as crimes of poverty.
She was eventually sentenced to hundreds of hours of community service, which she worked off at a small nonprofit called Community Defense Inc. Osha Neumann, who runs the organization, asked her what she wanted to do. Survive. He asked her what she knew how to do. Write. Had there been a Media Studies Program at the time, Tiny would have been a perfect candidate.
“She was struggling at that point to just keep it together and needing every moment of her time to try and survive with her mom,” Neumann recalls. “I said, ‘I tell you what. Why don’t you do that writing as your community service for us?’ We do advocacy for homeless people. She wrote this article. I read it and realized that this is a really good writer.”
A surprisingly good writer for a young woman who had dropped out of school in the sixth grade as she and her mother spiraled into homelessness. Dee was a social worker who lost her job, became disabled and then couldn’t work. Their savings ran out in three to four months. Dee was an orphan who had been raised in a series of foster homes and institutions. Tiny’s father was long gone. They had no money and no family.
They were evicted 21 times in Los Angeles and Oakland, Dee says, recalling a time in which they had just enough money to get an apartment but never enough to pay the rent for long. Each time their welcome would wear out, they would look for another temporary home. Lisa, too young to have a bad credit rating, would do the hard part. “I would dress Lisa in a dress and gloves at 13, say she was 18 or 20, and she’d get us an apartment,” Dee says. “We’d stay as long as we could and save enough money to get another apartment. We moved up here, and it wasn’t much better.”
Tiny’s first article was about being poor, and it was published in an East Bay alternative paper, an event that became a turning point. “Not only was I heard as a writer and an artist,” she says, “but I was heard about this.”
Standing in front of the magazine rack at Cody’s Books in Berkeley one day, she realized there were no publications that talked about the lives of poor people--the kind of revelation that would happen only to a person with little interest in advertising revenues.
So, Tiny got together a small group of financially stressed people with artistic or literary bents to meet each month and figure out “how to make literary art out of our lives.” With the help of a group of artist friends, she raised some seed money and Poor was born.
Vol. 1 of the intentionally glossy, almost-annual magazine came out in 1996.
Vol. 4 hit bookstores in April. Each edition explores a single theme--"Homefulness,” “Hellthcare,” “Work,” “Mothers"--through art, fiction, poetry and first-person narrative. Each is an effort to define, and suggest solutions for, the obstacles facing poor people. The writers are poor people. The artists are poor people. The experts are poor people.
Like the Web site, which is updated weekly, the magazine has a mix of harrowing accounts of life on the street and sad tales about the lengths to which men and women are pushed simply to “Survive.” In these pages, the word is often capitalized, a sacred verb, a statement.
The journalism training program for welfare recipients evolved out of the “Work” issue and Tiny’s own experiences on welfare in the years after the Clinton administration passed welfare reform legislation. It was 1998, and San Francisco had implemented its Personally Assisted Employment Specialist program to move men and women from welfare to work in part through skills assessment and counseling.
Tiny was told on several occasions that she would make a fabulous receptionist. She had told various job counselors that she really wanted to be a reporter or writer and that, although she lacked formal education, she would be interested in pursuing a college degree program. The response, she wrote in an article eventually published on Poor-NewsNetwork, was that given her lack of education, earning a degree would take too long.
“‘And besides, is that really a practical career choice for someone in your position?’ I don’t know ... was it?” she wrote. “My mother and I were endlessly battling homelessness--we were deeply entrenched in the so-called cycle of poverty ... one crisis snowballing into the next until you are never really able to fix any one problem, because you are just catching the last one, barely.”
While still receiving welfare herself and working on Poor magazine, Tiny dreamed up her own welfare-to-work program, which eventually was funded by the San Francisco Department of Human Services. At its heart are the mother-daughter team’s strong beliefs about what is wrong with welfare today.
It is impossible, they say, for extremely poor people--especially those grappling with homelessness, substance abuse, mental illness--to learn any really useful skill in the short time most government training programs allow. That same government, they say, shoves poor people into any job that comes along just to get them off of welfare, whether there’s a future in it or not.
Their welfare-to-work program includes a lot of basics: reporting, writing, grammar, graphic arts, Internet design, desktop publishing. And some more advanced skills, such as investigative and advocacy journalism with a focus on race and class.
Along the way, they lecture daily on what they call “poverty scholarship"--the belief that poor people who have lived it are experts in it. And they insist that their students write from their own experiences, acknowledge their own homelessness, banish their own shame.
For Dee, this means using the word “I.”
“Some write in the third person,” she complains. “They don’t have the confidence to tell their story. They write about poor people as if they weren’t one of them. We want to hear their voice.... We teach first-person narrative rather than poverty voyeurism--people from the outside writing about being poor.”
by Mainstream Press
Alan Weil of the Urban Institute, a liberal Washington think tank, believes that the folks at Poor and the Media Studies Program are right about a lot of things, among them that most states emphasize moving people from welfare to work as quickly as possible, “which means [take] the first job you can find.”
“I think they’re right in a different way, which is that our society’s attention to the reality of life for poor people is very shallow,” Weil says. “If they can offer a more complete picture of that life, then they are doing something that not really anyone else is doing.”
Most publications put out by poor and homeless people--among them the 40 members of the North American Street Newspaper Assn.--share a single, central goal: reframing the news, because their staff members believe that the mainstream media either patronize or ignore poor people.
To Dee, it is “poverty voyeurism.” Chance Martin, editor of the Street Sheet in San Francisco, argues that stories about poor and homeless people in the traditional press tend to be formulaic, with the ones that actually talk to the homeless as “the most offensive.”
“They serve to reinforce the personal deficit model,” which says that poor people are broken and need to be fixed, argues Martin, who is on the executive committee of the newspaper association.
Gray, Gray-Garcia and Martin argue that such a model ignores the complexities of lives lived in poverty. The mainstream media, they say, have a responsibility to report those lives fully--whether or not poor people vote, shop or take vacations--and that everyone from employers and teachers to legislators would benefit.
The personal deficit model, they say, emphasizes the failures in poor people’s lives, instead of their tenacious coping. It ignores the fact that those living on the edge might be late for work because old cars break down and buses are unreliable, not because of slovenliness. That poor parents might not show up for parent-teacher conferences because they have multiple minimum-wage jobs, not because they don’t care.
What about the stories that don’t talk to the poor but simply talk about them? In a January report, the Harvard Family Research Project evaluated more than 2,000 articles on health care and welfare issues from 29 electronic and print sources between 1999 and 2000.
The most frequent welfare issues discussed included job training and declining caseloads. The media’s most common sources were researchers and policymakers, the project reported, but current and former welfare recipients were among the “sources rarely or not used.”
Shawn Fremstad, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, looks at the Harvard report as evidence that the media need to improve their coverage of poverty. If Poor’s Media Studies Program succeeds, he figures, it can be only a positive thing both for its students and American readers.
“The tricky part,” he says, “is to what extent can this deliver in terms of someone ending up in a job in the journalism field?”
Many Struggles for
On a purely philosophical level, the people in the program believe that any time a poor person speaks out in print, it is a small success in its own way. On a more practical level, the program is probably too young to judge. It has been funded for only one full year, and its students face many hurdles. Some are struggling with homelessness, some mental illness, some substance abuse and past incarceration. They have a lot to learn about work and journalism.
In this second year of their publicly funded effort, Dee and Tiny want taxpayers to shell out $8,600 to cover training costs for each future journalist in the program. And then they want those fledgling reporters, photographers and graphic artists to get paid $15 an hour, 40 hours a week, for a year as apprentices.
Feinstein didn’t bite for the whole package; it is, after all, a Cadillac request from a government with a used-Hyundai budget. But San Francisco funded them once and will likely fund them again at some level. Feinstein believes the Media Studies Program offers “just the start some people may need.”
Benny Joyner, 51, pen name Kaponda, was the star graduate of the Media Studies Program’s maiden year. Poor taught this former legal secretary and former prison inmate how to write a story, and he learned well.
For various Poor publications, Joyner has written about California’s “three strikes” law and covered a recent demonstration against lodging laws that forbid sleeping outside in public places.
And now he has job writing for the San Francisco Bay View, a small community paper focusing on the Bay Area’s African American population. He has written about environmental justice, police issues and a local black micro-radio station. His biggest accomplishment? Probably the story, based on recent census data, about how San Francisco’s black population has dropped 23% in the last decade. Joyner’s story came out May 29. The San Francisco Chronicle followed Joyner two weeks later.
Joyner is happy; his new boss is delighted.
“This is not fluff, not society news, not feel-good news,” says Mary Ratcliff, editor of the Bay View. “This is real, important hard news, and we’re just thrilled.... We really need good news coverage. Benny is our lifeline.”