[Hpn] Hard News

coh coh@sfo.com
Mon, 23 Jul 2001 10:59:10 -0700


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http://www.latimes.com/features/lifestyle/la-000060036jul23.story

Hard News

Poor magazine gives the Bay Area's needy a forum. Its 'formerly homeless'
mother-daughter editors have also created a journalism welfare-to-work
program.

By MARIA L. La GANGA
TIMES STAFF WRITER

July 23 2001

SAN FRANCISCO -- 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
http://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 Into Homelessness

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.

One Theme Per Issue

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."

'Povery Voyeurism' 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 Program Participants

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." 

Copyright 2001, Los Angeles Times
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