[Hpn] POVERTY PIMPING --Chicago style

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Fri, 09 Feb 2001 13:36:59 -0700


http://www.chicagoreader.com/hottype/index.html

For Week of February 9, 2001
By Michael Miner 

StreetWise Boss Feels the Heat

The editor of StreetWise and other staffers went into open rebellion against
executive director Anthony Oliver this week, asking the paper's board of
directors that he "be immediately relieved." In a letter to the board, they
described their appeal as "a desperate attempt to prevent an already crisis
situation from further escalating."

But escalate it did. The letter was faxed to board members Monday. The next
morning, when editor Charity Crouse and production chief Allan Gomez, both
of whom had signed it, reported for work, they weren't allowed into the
StreetWise offices, at 1331 S. Michigan. Crouse told me operations director
Dianne Kenner notified them that the paper feared sabotage, and therefore
they should consider themselves on leave until the board dealt with the
situation.

A party Tuesday night for the staff and board was canceled, as word spread
that the so-called leave was a prelude to dismissal. John Ellis, a former
editor, was known to be flying back to Chicago from California to take over
for Crouse on an interim basis, and I was reliably told that Kenner, who
would not talk to me, was telling others at the paper that no one who signed
the letter would go on working at StreetWise. That would include vendor and
writer Rayford Allen, who says that when he came to work Tuesday he was
handed a letter telling him his "contracting services" were no longer
needed; the language puzzled him, as he had no contract with StreetWise and
had vended that day. It would also include associate editor Kari Lydersen, a
part-timer who didn't come to work Tuesday, and cashier Darlene Bunch, who
reported and worked. Also working Tuesday, but by some accounts on Kenner's
dismissal list, was John Sanbonmatsu, the recently hired director of the
job-training and literacy programs. Sanbonmatsu submitted a separate letter
Monday every bit the equal of the others' for blunt criticism.

The divide between Oliver and his staff had been widening for months. At the
urging of board president Pam McElvane, a weekend retreat was held last fall
at the home of editor in chief Jalyne Strong, but it settled nothing.
Staffers remember with some bitterness that the "facilitator" was Oliver's
friend Sharon Allen, whom he subsequently hired as an executive assistant.

A month ago Oliver fired Strong. McElvane tells me Strong left voluntarily,
but the former editor showed me a letter she'd received from Kenner that
said, "You were discharged from StreetWise for insubordination."

That insubordination was, in the view of Strong's former colleagues,
legitimate protest. Their letter to the board recalled that on January 8
Strong had "initiated grievance proceedings" against Oliver and expected
"retaliation" for doing so. Four days later it came. "During her departure
on Jan. 12, Strong announced to members of the editorial department that she
was being forced to leave the building by Mr. Oliver, and other staff
members claim that they were told to prevent Ms. Strong from re-entering the
building."

The charges in the letter to the board this week ranged far beyond Oliver's
treatment of Strong. It accused him of "mismanagement, unconstructive
leadership style, and refusal to deal forthrightly and directly with staff"
and of tactics that "consolidate all authority...yet delegate blame." It
complained that he failed to provide extra resources when StreetWise shifted
from biweekly to weekly publication last March and again when StreetWise DC
was launched last July, yet added "unnecessary and high-cost upper-level
management positions, which serve primarily to create a buffer between staff
and the Executive Director." It told the board that "of the six full-time
staff members with supervisory responsibility" when weekly publication
began, "only one remains."

Furthermore, the letter claimed, the editorial standards of StreetWise were
in peril. "Mr. Oliver has recently stressed several times to the editor and
other editorial staff that the content of the paper needs to be refined to
be more in line with the `future vision' of the organization -- a vision
which includes pursuing advertisers who might be turned off by critical
editorial coverage....Additional plans for providing advertisers with access
to editorial exposure threaten to damage the integrity of the paper as a
journalistic news source....Attempts by members of editorial to raise this
issue with Mr. Oliver are dismissed outright and met with accusations
regarding our presumed `political agendas.'"

The staffers, who asked the board for a written response by next Monday,
added, "We anticipate retaliatory action, as Mr. Oliver has prohibited
anyone on staff from contacting the Board without his permission."

The letter from John Sanbonmatsu agreed that Oliver had to go. Sanbonmatsu,
who told the board he was still waiting for a job description, claimed he'd
arrived three weeks earlier "to find the most grossly mismanaged
organization that I have ever seen." Working conditions on the first floor,
where vendors pick up newspapers and money is counted, were "wretched, and
perhaps illegal....Of the three bathrooms there, only one was working, and
this lacked toilet paper, paper towels, or a soap dispenser....The
temperature ranged from between 45 degrees Fahrenheit near the front to
perhaps 50-52 degrees in the back hallway. Fully one third of the overhead
lights were not functional....The rear office, where I initially chose to
set up shop...was unheated. By contrast, the upstairs was fully heated and
brightly lit."

But what bothered Sanbonmatsu most, he continued, was "the attitude of the
Executive Director when faced with complaints about these conditions." He
said Oliver responded with "defensive outbursts" and "as recently as the
last managers' meeting (January 31)...repeatedly rebuffed my and others'
efforts to ameliorate the situation, claiming that the organization lacked
sufficient funds."

If that truly was the case, Sanbon-matsu wondered, where had the money gone?
"Why is it that, after years of receiving ample grants, the Work Empowerment
Center [the job-training arm of StreetWise] has been moribund for months?"

McElvane didn't comment on the two letters. Oliver refused "to confirm or
deny" that he'd read them and wouldn't discuss any of the issues raised in
them. "I believe in economic empowerment for homeless men and women," he
said. "It begins with the vendors, it ends with the vendors, it's all about
the vendors."

When I first spoke with Strong two weeks ago, she refused to speak publicly
about StreetWise because she believed that any criticism could imperil it.
The readers who buy 90,000 copies of StreetWise each month from its 270
vendors (the figures are Oliver's) do so in large part as an act of charity,
and many would happily keep their dollars in their own pockets if they had
an excuse to. But some of the colleagues Strong left behind felt
differently. They concluded that publicity was a necessary component of
their own protest. "Collectively, we in editorial have been talking about
whether we should approach the board in writing pretty much since Jalyne was
fired," Crouse told me. "We waited to see if the board would respond to
Jalyne, and the executive committee did not respond."

Oliver, who's 40 and has been at StreetWise more than seven years, was
described to me as intense, passionate, and persuasive, and also as polished
and ambitious, with an idea of someday running for Congress. He is clearly
entrepreneurial. He's been pitching the idea of some sort of investment club
to vendors, some of whom wondered where the money to invest was supposed to
come from. "He cares about StreetWise and wants to help the homeless,"
editorial board member John K. Wilson told me, "but he may be taking
StreetWise down the wrong track. The focus is moving toward doing anything
to get some money." Wilson said he was not around to sign the staff letter
but supported it.

This past Sunday, Oliver held a "state of the organization" meeting at the
newspaper and passed around brochures for a huge, two-sided video billboard
he wants to hang from the side of the StreetWise building. He also brought
an information sheet touting SRA -- for Socially Responsible Advertiser -- a
new proprietary trademark created to lure advertisers. "Research shows that
smart consumers are likely to shop at businesses or financial institutions
they feel good about," said the sheet. "Keep the emotional edge with your
customers, the SRA emblem on your ad tells them: YOUR company is invested in
community. YOUR company is interested in your customers' need to make a
difference. YOUR advertising dollars are working to improve the community."

The StreetWise staffers tend toward the idealistic. Sketchy as the details
of this SRA branding were, they sensed a commodifying and retailing of their
newspaper's image of altruism. Not until the very bottom of the information
sheet was there a mention of using SRA revenues to "put Chicago's homeless
to work with dignity."

The SRA proposal "doesn't show any direct connection to the vendors," Crouse
told me. "The vendors seem to be factored out."

One plank in the proposal stood out: "Use the StreetWise newspaper to
publicize your company's philanthropic support to community organizations
and social events." This sounded to Crouse and other staffers like an
invitation to exchange advertising for news coverage. "The barrier between
advertising and editorial is in jeopardy," Wilson says. "The editorial
department has always been under pressure to be less critical."

Oliver acknowledged to me that the new Washington StreetWise has not been a
success. Begun as a monthly produced in Chicago under Strong's supervision,
it was recently scaled back to a quarterly. Oliver's man in Washington is an
unpaid volunteer from Germany who will have to go home unless he's admitted
soon to an American graduate school.


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