A modest request: Play Run D.M.C.’s hip-hop classic “My Adidas” while you read.
We make a good team, my Adidas and me
We get around together, rhyme forever
And we won’t be mad when worn in bad weather
We travel on gravel, dirt road or street
I wear my Adidas when I rock the beat
Too often, the problem with media today — both web and print, both tomorrow’s and yesterday’s — is not “fake news,” evil intent or even the pernicious concentration of power in the hands of a few.
It’s something far more mundane: laziness.
Yep. People getting paid many multiples of the modest wages I receive as an independent journalist are too lazy to leave their laptop, or office.
They live, and largely stay, in a world of espresso drinks, modernist office buildings and 3,000-sq-ft single-family homes, shining automobiles, powerful technologies, bleached collars and patent leather.
They prefer to talk to and sometimes at one another.
To try to tease another tired trope from over-caffeinated brains.
To stay within a geography of privilege and safety — venturing out, tentatively and in numbers, to capture footage or quotes from the riots in the margins.
I got a simple suggestion for all you who throw up words, images and video on the Web, airwaves and print, on the off chance you’re looking for a new technique or what I call “solutions” journalism.
Try a little shoe rubber.
Put your fear away, lace up your dirtiest sneaks, and just go.
Try walking, or bicycling, the geography of poverty — the limnal zones. Homeless camps. The margins, the bushes, underneath bridges or down alleys, the places where the dumpsters are, or where public transit ends.
The increasingly poverty-stricken countryside and the suburban areas that are receiving those displaced by the privileged hordes who no longer want the “white flight” of two generations ago, but prefer “inner” and “close in.”
Push yourself out of your comfort zone, and see what ideas and solutions are already happening in places where people fight for survival every day and come up with new ways of getting by, getting over, sobreviviendo.
You may think, because those who control the messages tend to promote these myths, that people experiencing poverty or houselessness or marginalization won’t talk to you. That they’ll be hostile, angry, on drugs, mentally ill or weaponized.
The truth is that many of those who are experiencing hardship great and small are not “symptomatic,” and have a voice, and are quite eloquent.
I’ve found that many make amazing sources, and their words, stories and truths often cut through the noise to the heart of the matter.
So I’m grateful to the many sources who have chosen to trust me with their stories, including:
- Willow Paloma, a transgender woman who trusted me with her amazing story of growing up intersex, suffering anti-trans discrimination and leaving Corning, NY to hop freights and hitchhike to Portland and beyond.
- “Eve” and “Jessica,” domestic violence survivors — one a “Dreamer” — who trusted me with their stories of the abuse they suffered and how it led to their losing their housing. Both bounced back, and then some.
- Jay Vincent, Francisco Claudio, Sheila Fitch and the rest of those living in RVs on “The Strip” in St. Johns, for talking about how it makes so much sense for some to choose living in a derelict RV over a tent or a doorstop.
- A woman I can’t name, who spoke to me about problems at the Kenton Women’s Village, which resulted in her leaving. She was unhappy with my L.A. Times story, she let me know afterwards, but so were staff at Catholic Charities, for very different reasons.
- Bob Brimmer and all of those in homeless villages such as Right 2 Dream Too, Hazelnut Grove or Dignity Village, who help the Village Coalition advocate for houseless villages in Portland, such as the coming veterans’ village in Clackamas County.
- Army veteran Mark Nicholas, who explained through tears and yellowed shades over red-white-and-blue suspenders and a fighter jet kerchief how tough it is for returning, and why so many end up on the streets.
That last story about how government efforts that supposedly “ended” veteran homelessness haven’t was received as “snarky,” one official source told me.
I don’t set out to write “gotcha” stories, but veterans’ homelessness is nowhere near “ended” — in fact, I suspect it’s going to become a much bigger story in the years to come.
In the last year and a few months of reporting in dozens of homeless camps around the Portland metro area, I’ve spoken to many, many veterans.
The question of “solutions” journalism, and the related question of what a “snarky” story is comes down to the “story idea” question.
Where do stories come from?
On major websites, at large newspapers and media organizations, the proof is very often in the pudding.
Twitter, for example. President Donald Trump’s Twitter account has spawned a billion stories. As long as people continue to use that as a constant source, no matter how critical or brilliant the story, it’s reflecting and perpetuating the story lines, myths, and talking points.
Advertisers are, despite claims to the contrary, a frequent source for media of all sorts. For example, it would seem we live in a Shiny New Era of dabbing, vaping and Microbrews for All here on the West Coast, Best Coast.
In Portland, we read constantly the overwrought tales of the glorious intricacies and politics of inebriation.
Media releases from government agencies and Big Nonprofits are another frequent source of story ideas. For government agencies, bureaus and politicians, or the big nonprofits that receive billions from government, strategic messages are daily put in play. They invariably reflect well on the good work, and over time the process becomes codified, sacrosanct.
The rest of the time, if you’re talking off-topic, you’re getting crickets.
There are exceptions, of course, and every official, nonprofit and public information officer or spokeswoman is different. In particular Romeo Sosa of Portland Voz and Joaquin Pastor of El Programa Hispano Católico and Martha Strawn Morris of the Gateway Center for Domestic Violence (see “Eve” story, above) deserve credit for transparency.
But if you want to write or report in a way that disrupts the mainstream narratives and is more inclusive of voices that are traditionally absent from TV, blogs and news media — like inmates and houseless people — you have to lace up your Adidas and go listen to people on the margins.
One other crucial question comes into play: who do stories come from?
There’s a myth that’s too often strongly adhered to, that personal identity should determine who does what.
That only transgender people should write about — or report on, be interviewed about, etc. — hormone replacement therapy, women should write about abortion, poor folk should write about TANF, black people should write about hip-hop, Latinos about Dreamers/DACA, Muslims about Muslims, etc. ad infinitum.
The truth is that you don’t have to look exactly like the people you’re writing about and reporting on.
But if you’re a straight, cisgender, white, educated male like me, you do have to practice cultural humility, and you have to think about privilege.
If you don’t know enough about a people, a culture, or a thing, you may not be able to write about it — because you don’t know what you don’t know — and if you do, you may look like a fool.
I make lots of mistakes. So my story about transgender houselessness for Willamette Week misgendered a transgender woman. After publication, I heard about it from activists, and I let editors know.
I didn’t, however, make the same mistake in a more recent story for The Lund Report.
It’s important that “minority” groups — women and brown-skinned people, of course, are majorities globally — not be seen as separate within our society. That stories about them not be separated from “newsy,” “important” subjects.
And that the sociological or demographic identity of the person reporting not be more than one of many potentially important factors.
Yet such identity-driven “Balkanization” still occurs regularly in U.S. media — and so, for example, men often get the big “hard” news stories and women are still assigned education and poverty.
Even though women, far as I can tell, are doing the best work in media today.
And such topics are actually the most fascinating to write about anyway.
Two decades of service to single moms, Latinos, African-Americans, children, disabled and houseless individuals and families taught me that the richest nation in the history of the world must not — but regularly does — forget about millions of Americans who are without food, shelter or shoes.
It taught me to think about privilege and cultural humility — privilegio y humildad — and to trust the goodness of human beings from all walks of life.
My brother Kyle’s suicide taught me not to look away from suffering.
And my Adidas, nearing the end of their lifespan, taught me to go and get the story where the People are, because the People aren’t always in the Medium.