[Hpn] Fw: StreetWise has come a long way

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Sat, 10 Feb 2001 15:04:39 -0700


Monday, Feb. 5, 2001

Dear members of the StreetWise Board of Directors:

We the staff, vendors and supporters of StreetWise have invested a
tremendous amount of professional, emotional and personal resources into the
publication. We are extremely proud of the quality product we put out and
the wide-ranging support that we have throughout the city, as evidenced in
the many complimentary letters and comments we get constantly. We remain
passionately concerned about the livelihoods of homeless men and women
around Chicago. Regrettably, however, recent events have forced us to send
you this letter in a desperate attempt to prevent an already crisis
situation from further escalating. This situation threatens not only the
output and reputation of the organization, but the reputations of all of
those associated with the organization and its Executive Director, including
members of StreetWiseıs Board of Directors.

During the last year, Executive Director Mr. Anthony Oliver has claimed to
promote the organizationıs mission of "empowering men and women who are
homeless or at risk of becoming homeless as they work toward gainful
employment and self-sufficiency" to those outside of the organization or in
positions of authority over him within the organization. Yet, he has
consistently used the staff and vendorsı orchestrated dependency on him as a
means to manipulate and exploit the collective talents and skills of
StreetWise staff, volunteers and vendors and put the organization at risk.
This letter will attempt to address three critical areas: poor
administrative and economic management that has imperiled the organization
and potentially put it at liability; a pattern of exploitative labor
practices and unethical policy implementation; and critically low staff
morale as a result of one-way communication flow and deceptive management.

In the last three weeks, various members of the organization have been
trying to ignore calls by outside reporters, inquiring as to the
circumstances behind the firing of Editor-in-Chief Jalyne Strong and
allegations of a cover-up by members of the Executive Committee of the Board
of Directors for these and other matters pertaining to prior staff. Members
of StreetWise have subsequently been informed that the organization has been
threatened with a wrongful termination lawsuit and staff could be called as
potential witnesses in an unemployment hearing and other litigation, putting
the organization at liability and creating a conflict of interest for
current staff. 

Several members of StreetWise knew that Strong had initiated grievance
proceedings with the Executive Committee against Mr. Oliver on Jan. 8
including allegations of misappropriation of funds and harassment, and that
she expected retaliation. 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. On Jan. 22, Ms.
Strong was required to get a police escort to collect her personal
belongings. We have also been informed that the Executive Committee has yet
to officially respond to her grievances; several lawyers have told us that
her firing violates both federal labor law and StreetWiseıs own Employee
Manual. 

Further legal or media investigations would find that abuses are rampant
within the organization. Mr. Oliverıs mismanagement, unconstructive
leadership style, and refusal to deal forthrightly and directly with staff
have yielded consequences that we believe to be damaging to the immediate
and long-term viability of the organization. Turnover at StreetWise is
astronomical. Of the six key full-time staff members with supervisory
responsibility that began the transition to weekly, only one remains. The
signatories of this letter represent the overwhelming majority of remaining
staff and contractors that were employed at StreetWise since it increased
the price to vendors by 10 cents. This employment situation has created a
work environment overwhelmed by disorganization and lack of continuity, and
made it difficult to retain qualified and committed individuals.

StreetWise DC, launched with the intentions of being a monthly newspaper,
has been scaled back first to a semi-monthly and now to a quarterly
publication because of Oliverıs refusal to address production and other
resource needs both in DC and Chicago. Additionally, editorial contributors
to prior DC issues are still awaiting payments for their articles and
pictures, while recent actions by Oliver have left the DC operation without
confirmation on when the next issue will be available for distribution.

In Chicago, recent non-negotiable policy changes jeopardize the organization
and newspaperıs financial future and reputation. Relationships established
with businesses have been damaged by outstanding debts accrued because the
funds to pay them have yet to be released. A cursory look at recent issues
of the newspaper shows that regular advertising content and revenue has
dropped dramatically, especially in the last month, yet monthly advertising
special sections initiatives have been proposed. These special sections have
recently been made editorial priorities and are questionable both in their
aim and in their potential for success. Mr. Oliver has stressed several
times recently 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, especially its emphasis on attracting advertisers who
might find critical editorial coverage objectionable. He has also stressed
in a recent management meeting and on the editorıs work plan outline that
editorial content must be approved in management meetings. Additional plans
for providing advertisers with access to editorial exposure threaten to
damage the integrity of the paper as a journalistic news source and raise
serious questions about the objectivity of our coverage. Attempts by members
of editorial to raise this issue with Mr. Oliver are dismissed outright and
met with accusations regarding our presumed "political agendas." Regardless
of the serious ethical questions such planned policies raise, Mr. Oliverıs
refusal to allocate the resources necessary for the successful production of
such special sections ensures that they will flounder and already stretched
staff and technical resources will be diverted from the production of the
paper, compromising its quality.

The lack of adequate support staff is a problem that afflicts all
departments, including the departments headed by newly acquired managers. A
Board inquiry would reveal that many new staff and managers recognize this
already and have attempted to address this with Mr. Oliver to no avail. For
several years, almost every department at StreetWise has been told to cut
departmental costs and redistribute increased work responsibilities among
already overextended staff without managers or staff ever seeing a budget or
any financial statement as to the organizationıs progress or current
financial status. Since the increase to weekly production, members of
management had been engaged in an arduous negotiation process with Mr.
Oliver for staff increases that we said needed to be implemented before the
transition, but were told would not be secured until after it was underway.
Following this work increase and months worth of unresponsiveness, denial
and intimidation by Mr. Oliver, a November Managerial Retreat was held at
the recommendation of Board President Pam McElvaine after we informed her
that the organization had reached a crisis point. As a result of that
retreat, we told Mr. Oliver that staff increases had to be implemented
before any further expansion of responsibilities was even a realistic
possibility. But it was not until this past month that the promises that
were to have been implemented over nine months ago were filled, and other
staff and resource increases that are required before further expansion is
possible have been denied.

A review of recent staff, benefits and payroll allocations reveals that
vendors and entry-level employees are the ones who are most vulnerable to
exploitation within the organization and whose concerns are the least likely
to be attended to. The recurring pattern of neglecting those who are
considered expendable to the organization can be readily seen in the
inequitable distribution of pay, benefits and job security and by Mr.
Oliverıs unrelenting insistence that they perform at ever-increasing levels
of productivity without adequate compensation. This includes the members of
the Quality Assurance Team and the cashiers who have been ignored, denied or
intimidated in their attempts to address with Mr. Oliver their compensation
and workplace needs‹needs that include heating, lights for their work areas
and adequate attention to other occupational hazards that could additionally
put the organization at liability.

Continuing turnover in staff and Mr. Oliverıs shifting priorities have seen
the absence of staff, support for vendor volunteers or instructors in the
Work Empowerment Center for the last five months and a recent focus on
revenue-generating initiatives that neglect to respond to the immediate
concerns of vendors. Since the departure of former Work Empowerment Center
manager Ms. Paula Mathieu, members of editorial have stepped up to assist in
the completion of projects for which funding was already secured, including
the production of a vendor poetry book that was to be produced with a $6,100
allocation from a $26,000 grant obtained by Ms. Mathieu. However, no
definitive budget has been provided for the book and amounts that have been
approved for its design and production total well below the $6,100 allotted
for it; no budget for the Work Empowerment Center has ever been produced to
account for the remaining money from that grant. Since the sudden
announcement of the organizationıs restructuring‹for which no input into its
viability or desirability was solicited from staff, to which veteran
management expressed skepticism and refused to support when it was brought
up at the Managerial Retreat‹the organizationıs ambitions have been
concentrated on developing a costly and high maintenance Socially
Responsible Advertisers (SRA) initiative. This initiative, which will
presumably benefit vendors indirectly, has been prioritized over much
discussed and developing distributions aims‹aims that are more economically
feasible; serve several of the same purposes regarding partnership
development, marketing and image as the SRA initiative; and would directly
benefit vendors.

Such financially and ethically unsound measures are compounded by the fact
that at the beginning of January, the "promised" staff increases that were
delivered and that required that the personnel budget be nearly doubled
included the addition of unnecessary and high-cost upper-level management
positions, which serve primarily to create a buffer between staff and the
Executive Director, isolate departments from one another, and ensure that
the only full-time staff at StreetWise is management so as to prevent staff
from organizing against these working conditions. Oliverıs actions over the
course of the last year served to consolidate all authority and input for
making and executing vital decisions regarding the organization under him
directly, yet delegate blame for the organizations many problems among
managers and staff. This obstruction and has already created a gridlock that
threatens to halt the functioning of both the newspaper and the
organizationıs operations and sees company morale at a critical low.

Because of these collective and other individual problems, we implore the
Board of Directors to take immediate action. We have contacted the Board as
a whole with deep reluctance and only as a last resource after repeated
rebuffs by the Executive Director and because these matters need immediate
and comprehensive attention. We demand that a meeting be called that will
include all members of staff and the Board, and that a neutral party such as
a nonprofit board consulting firm like Future Search be present to mediate
the discussion and provide guidance. We also demand a full, independent
investigation into any outstanding grievances or issues concerning Mr.
Oliverıs activities that put the future of StreetWise and all of those
associated with the organization and newspaper at risk. Additionally, we
request that Mr. Oliver be immediately relieved as Executive Director and
that the organization be placed in receivership pending a full
investigation. We anticipate retaliatory action, as Mr. Oliver has
prohibited anyone on staff from contacting the Board without his permission.
As outlined in the problem-solving procedures section of the Employee
Manual, we expect a written response from Board by Monday, Feb. 12‹five days
from the submission of this letter.

We want you to know that all of us are committed to staying at StreetWise
and working to improve the organizationıs capacity to empower men and women
who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless as they work toward gainful
employment and self-sufficiency, but that the organization can not thrive or
even maintain its current level of productivity if it continues to operate
in this manner.

Sincerely,

Charity Crouse, Editor
Rayford Allen, Freelance writer
Allan Gomez, Production Chief
Darlene Bunch, Cashier
Kari Lydersen, Associate Editor