Photograph by James Braund
Pedants, proofreaders and sticklers for style can get surprisingly animated about three words: “the”, “big” and “issue”. Should those words be italicised or not? The Big Issue or The Big Issue? That is the question. A sort of truce has been negotiated for this edition: if the reference is to the magazine sold by vendors, italics wins; if it’s the broader organisation, well, no italics are used. This is not a debate that raged 20 years ago. In June 1996 – when John Howard was only a few months into his stint as Australia’s prime minister, Bill (not Hillary) Clinton was the US President and the internet was still an infant (Facebook was eight years away) – The Big Issue was the magazine. All the efforts of a small and remarkably dedicated group of pioneers were directed, at first, to creating and then sustaining a distinctive publication that could help the people who sold it.
Now, in 2016, the magazine is celebrating a milestone. So too the not-for-profit organisation committed to helping homeless, marginalised and disadvantaged people all around Australia. And there’s another change: in the beginning, this was a Melbourne-only operation. Now it is truly national. It’s also global, through its affiliation with the International Network of Street Papers, which unites 122 street publications in 41 countries around the world.
Since 1996, The Big Issue organisation – now Australia’s longest-standing and most significant social enterprise – has developed programs such as the Community Street Soccer Program, the Women’s Subscription Enterprise, The Big Issue Classroom...and more. They are all different ways of helping marginalised people to change their lives, by providing different ways to earn money, feel part of a community and boost self-esteem.
This is admirable, but the range of achievements presents challenges to anyone putting together a 20th anniversary magazine. As we mapped out this edition it became apparent that it would not be feasible to make this a Best of The Big Issue, because of all the other things deserving a mention. Soccer. Fiction. All the things vendors can create with a bit of encouragement. Educational initiatives: informing young people about homelessness and disadvantage so that, perhaps, they can educate parents and older people. Programs to give women work. Inspiration for the next generation of social entrepreneurs. Practical solutions to the lack of affordable housing.
Gradually it became clear that, really, there’s only one Big Issue – with or without italics. Wherever we’re based, whichever enterprise we’re most closely aligned to, we’re dealing with much the same things. And they all tie in together.
There are soccer games played on inflatable pitches; stories about soccer and stories written by players. Vendors sell the magazine; they also write for it and contribute pictures and photographs. Cover stories on affordable housing underscore the reasons for the Home for Homes initiative. After time on the street, magazines find a new life in The Big Issue Classrooms. Meanwhile, women pack copies of the latest edition to be mailed out to subscribers.
Over 20 years, much has changed. We’ve come a long way. But some things are not so different. Early editor Simon Castles has recalled how, in his office, it was impossible to have both a computer and heater on in winter. A little later, I learned that a circuit blew if I tried to boil a kettle in similar circumstances. But, in the end, these are little things in the context of wrestling with the big issues.
Alan Attwood was editor of The Big Issue from 2006–2016. He still works for The Big Issue Classroom program and comes back to the office to make sure the fuchsia is being watered.
This article first appeared in Ed#513 of The Big Issue, our special 20th Anniversay Edition!