Homelessness Marathon blog

... ending homelessness isn't a matter of charity, but a matter of changing the way our society is structured. -- Homelessness Marathon founder, Jeremy Weir Alderson, aka Nobody.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

True Dilemmas and Popularity

I usually feel about the obscurity of this blog some admixture of self-pity and relief.  "O' woe is me," I say to myself, "I am sixty and my genius still isn't recognized."   That's not exactly what I think, but who'll blame me for trying to make myself look better?   Yes, I am a pathetic specimen, but I also feel that I am fortunate, because I get to write anything I want without the hassle and constraints that would come with people caring what I say. Just the same, today is a day when I could use a lot of people weighing in with their opinions.  I am facing a decision, and I don't know what I should do.
          Perhaps I have put that too simply, because I am really facing a wending-winding path of decisions that  I don't know how to traverse, but it all begins at the ending of a previous entry, where I mentioned that I might have more to say about this most recent broadcast later.  Well, this is later, and I can tell you that there was a major flaw in the last broadcast, something that absolutely must be corrected, even though, by all accounts, the broadcast went well.   That flaw is that we did not achieve our principle mission.
            Every so often I have to write down the Homelessness Marathon's "Mission" for potential grantors.  It's not something I take too seriously, because our enterprise, like any other, is more of a living, breathing entity than something that can be summed up in a sentence or two.  To me,  formulating a mission statement has a quality about it like taking cash for your children, but on this point I have long since capitulated.
          The mission statement for the Homelessness Marathon goes something like this:  "Our mission is to promote a national dialog about poverty and foster a consensus to address it."  In our last broadcast, we did not do either of those things, so we did not succeed at our mission.  We did, however, achieve other organizational goals.
           From what I've heard, the homeless people involved were happy with the event and with their participation.  We had more affiliates than ever before.  The technical quality of the broadcast was good, and through this broadcast, the door opened to some potential alliances.  That's not to say that there couldn't have been people dissatisfied with what we did, but I haven't actually heard from any.
          I didn't hear from the press either, and there's a lot that may be said about that.  Cass Community said it was using its publicity people to try to interest the press in the broadcast.  Just a month before they had conjured up a TV truck for the opening of their new "Green Gym," the exact same site where we originated our broadcast.  Dennis from WHFR told me that he personally placed calls to the print and broadcast media.  I saw e-mails from the MWRO, forwarding a release I had sent out to two Detroit weeklies.  I, myself, made a couple of attempts to interest publications, and I even had an Op-Ed on the Detroit Free Press's website (http://www.freep.com/article/20100223/OPINION05/100222041/1336/OPINION/Poverty-Is-anyone-listening)  So it is reasonably certain that the media had every reason to be aware we were in town.  They just didn't show up, and the question is, why not and what can we do about it?
           Partly, this lack of interest is anomalous.  We got less attention from the Detroit media than we've ever gotten anywhere before.  But the lack of interest in us is mostly chronic.  We don't usually get much press. 
          Yes, you never really know what impact you had.  I hope we inspired someone somewhere to do something good.  I hope we uplifted a spirit or two.  I hope we put on a show that will be remembered in the annals of broadcasting, but none of those things is our mission.  We're supposed to be promoting a national dialog and fostering a consensus to end poverty.  If we come into an impoverished city and the vast majority of its inhabitants never even know that we were there, we haven't succeeded.
           I must say this outcome plays into the irritating tendency of some people to dismiss us out of hand.  Why shouldn't WDET have thought it was all right to not even answer my letter?   They corrrectly identified me as someone who wouldn't have much of a platform from which to denounce them.  Sure, I could have said anything I wanted on my own show, but the TV and newspapers weren't going to pick any of it up, and they're the real media players in town.  Similarly, if Mitch Albom never responded to my invitation, well, he isn't required to answer every message from every no account crackpot with a radio show.
          And what can I do about it?  Here is where I start to get into trouble.  My first instinct is to get frustrated with the local activists.  In Detroit, they didn't see much reason to make a big deal out of the Marathon.  As a rule, the activists we've worked with have made little effort to get the broadcast noticed.  They have been very helpful with getting homeless people to the site or even providing the site -- Cheri Honkala, then the head of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, and now of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign as well as the Marathon's board -- provided the venue for our first national broadcast (our second broadcast overall).   And activists have been helpful with networking and defining issues.  But they haven't done much to get us noticed.
          No one builds a campaign around our arrival, no one even pickets us, which would, at least, get us publicity, no matter how unpleasant it might be.  It always seemed to me that the activists ought to see possibilities in our arrival, but they don't.  In reality, I don't think the activist community understands much about putting on a show, but I have sought to involve them in it anyway.  I could give a thousand reasons for this, but in the end, it all comes down to limited choices.
          Choice number one is to motivate activists to support us.  This is what I've been trying to do for years, without success.  Paul Boden -- the director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project and also on our board -- told me that organizing is not a matter of doing the same thing tomorrow that didn't work yesterday, and he's right.  I have to give this up, and what makes me really undertand that I have to give it up is realizing that it would be a bad thing if I succeeded.  If I ever want to lead an advocacy group, that is my right, and I may want to do just exactly that someday.  But as long as I am in reportorial mode, I cannot be creating the events I am covering.  And trying to directly motivate activists would make the Homelessness Marathon look manipulative no matter what.  It's just a bad idea, and I should finally recognize it.
          Choice number two is to just keep doing the show without worrying about the impact.  The problem with that is that doing the show is a ton of work, for which I don't get paid, and my main associates get only a tiny sum (this year I paid Michael, our technical director, and Jessica, who could have just about any title she wants, a wopping $500 for their weeks of work, so they, at least, wouldn't lose money on the work they were missing to come to the broadcast).
          Choice number three is to find some other way to bring the Marathon to the public's attention.
          Choice number two is, of course, an acceptable option, and it is not incompatible with choice number three.  When my efforts to get the show noticed fail, I am consoled that I at least did the show, and I feel good about that.  But at the end of the day, what is my strategy for making the dialog of the show a dialog for America?  I wish I knew.