One October day in 1835, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was hard at work publishing his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, when a riot broke out. A pro-slavery mob caught Garrison, and dragged him by a rope through the streets. He had to be rescued by the mayor, and spent the night in jail to avoid further torment.
Two centuries later, the founding editor of this newspaper used Garrison as a standard. “[Garrison] attacked the system of slavery in his news columns in such a profound way that there were often riots by pro-slavery forces when he spoke in public,” Terry Messman, who co-founded Street Spirit in 1995, said an interview. “That’s journalism to me!”
As I have taken Terry’s baton and assumed Editorship of Street Spirit, his words have lingered in my mind. Through his pioneering career as an activist and an editor, Terry earned his confidence in the definition of journalism. That’s journalism to me!, he said, exclamation point and all.
With the publication of my first issue of Street Spirit, I realize that the task of defining journalism falls to me, and the paper’s assorted team of contributors. With just a few edits, Terry’s declaration becomes a question. What is journalism to me?
I take up this mantle with much to learn, and—I hope—much to give. After spending the last year writing full-time for The Atlantic’s CityLab, I have experience reporting on many aspects of urban life, from city government and policy change to their human impacts. At California Magazine, I learned the delicate art of writing an obituary. As a weekly columnist for The Daily Californian, I wrote about student life and fear of the future. I come from a big family, which has taught me that winning the argument is never as important as fighting fair.
A graduate of UC Berkeley’s English Department, I relish storytelling as an instrument of change. I have often been changed by stories, both fictional and true—from Murakami’s novel, Kafka on the Shore to Alex Tizon’s essay, My Family’s Slave.
To me, a good story should warp the world as you know it. It should reach inside of you and stir up the comforts that have settled in your soul, in service of understanding fuller truths. In my view, it is a writer’s responsibility to tell the unsettling stories in ways that captivate, inspire, and when appropriate, amuse. It is a reader’s responsibility to embrace the stories that challenge their regular comforts, and the fear that often follows.
I am motivated—as both a reader and a writer— by the fact that the subjects of Street Spirit know this fear well. The intimate lives of poor and homeless people are regularly written out of the mainstream narrative, which erases these individuals from our cultural consciousness. Usually, we speak about them only as a mess that must be cleaned up. In this, they are denied the comfort that comes with feeling heard or seen.
But it does not have to be this way. Good storytelling can ensure that homelessness does not result in the excision of personal narratives. It can give writers the space to decry their losses and celebrate their triumphs, and subjects an opportunity to share new and unexpected parts of themselves. It can empower readers to assume a more comprehensive vision of our shared world.
All over the world, street newspapers like Street Spirit do the work of publishing challenging and compassionate stories. This part isn’t complicated— poor and homeless people have an incredible depth of stories to tell. The real work is in demanding to be read—especially by people who have never experienced homelessness, and have never considered these stories.
I grew up in San Francisco in a house that was also a home. I will not claim to know what it’s like to be homeless, but I do understand the power of a good story, both for the reader and the writer. For 23 years, Street Spirit has worked to give poor and homeless people a voice. It is my honor to do that work, and our community’s responsibility to help that voice ring as loud as can be.
Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.