Ed#450: Power to the People

24 January 2014 Alan Attwood

Ed#450: Power to the People

On the wall in my office I have a photocopy of a timeline created by Michael Weldon for the 200th edition of The Big Issue, published in April 2004. It’s up there because I used to consult it regularly for the answers to such questions as ‘When did the magazine hit the streets in Brisbane?’ (September 1997) or ‘When was the 50th edition published?’ (July 1998). In the end, I got tired of fossicking for that increasingly crumpled edition of the magazine and simply copied the timeline for the wall. I still look at it regularly.

It reminds me where we’ve come from and the location of some milestones along the way. Michael Weldon, a Big Issue veteran, is still part of our team: he illustrates the ‘Quick Fix’ column (p46) and created the cover for our recent New Year edition. For this one, our 450th, he has revisited that timeline, incorporated new facts and figures (collated by Lorraine Pink), and brought us up to date (p 16–17). I suspect this will end on my wall, too, though I’ll probably keep the old one up as well.

Reflecting on our latest milestone, I have been struck by a consistency of purpose. As it was back in June 1996, when the very first edition appeared, The Big Issue exists for the people who sell it: our vendors. On p19 you’ll find a story by a former NSW vendor, Mark Richardson, who writes: “It is important that readers understand how much help they give to whoever they buy from. They are giving much more than their monetary generosity to many people needing a hand up.”

The payment received is just part of it: equally valuable for a vendor is the interaction with somebody else and the feeling this can give them of being part of the community. This is true not only for Big Issue vendors in Australia but also for people just like them selling street papers all around the world. These are people and publications linked through their association with the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary and supports 122 publications and 28,000 vendors globally. In a neat bit of timing, our 450th edition will be on the streets during the INSP’s Vendor Week (3–9 February).

We’re seldom enthusiastic about designated days or weeks or even years; the problem is that such things can license people NOT to think about a cause or campaign outside the specified date. But this week can unite us all. The comments of former vendor Mark, or the courage and honesty demonstrated by a Melbourne-based vendor, Peter Barry, describing his struggle to stay sober (p22–24), could be shared by disadvantaged people everywhere. In Germany, for example, Patrick Jansen says that selling the street paper fiftyfifty in Düsseldorf has given him a sense of purpose after a heroin addiction led to health complications. “I’m focused on the future now because the past can’t be changed,” he says.

In England, vendor Emma Folan suffered depression for years and escaped a violent relationship. She says: “Selling The Big Issue in the North helps with my mental health issues. It gives me a reason to get out of bed… It really is a lifeline.” In the US, meanwhile, Reginald Black sells Street Sense in Washington DC where, despite being the epicentre of American power, one-fifth of residents live in poverty. “I may be homeless, but I have so much to offer,” he says.

Different people in different places share similar problems, plus a commitment to improve their circumstances. Think of them not just during Vendor Week, but as we continue on towards another 450 editions.

» Alan Attwood is The Big Issue's Editor.

This article appeared in Ed#450 of The Big Issue magazine.