In Conversation with Groundcover: Ann Arbor’s Street Journal
“Something is happening in this room.”
I hadn’t heard many other people talk about a space with as much passion as Groundcover News editor Lindsay Calka talked about their office. I went down late Monday morning to the basement of the Bethlehem United Church of Christ: it was a moving space, a breathing entity. In a text to The Statement’s photographer, I described it as “office, kitchen, living room, storage all rolled into one.” And people always seem to be there. All of these functions blend the character of the space into its own distinct spirit.
Groundcover News is a ‘street newspaper’ – meaning that the paper’s vendors are homeless or house precarious people – and in Groundcover’s case, paper sales serve directly as income for the vendors. Apart from the vendors, the newspaper is almost entirely run by volunteers.
The prevalence of street newspapers may be growing, but still does not constitute a fraction of the news industry. Although the first modern street newspaper is widely considered to be the Street News of New York founded in 1989, homeless people and those afflicted by poverty have used the news as a way to reflect issues not covered by the mainstream. at least as far back as the early 20th century (The start date varies depending on the definition of what qualifies a newspaper as a street newspaper). Today, more than 100 street newspapers are published worldwide in at least 34 countries.
This week I read the October 1 edition of Groundcover News from cover to cover: it costs two bucks. The stories ranged from a touching obituary for community member Brian Coliton, the conflicted social legacy of the Fleming Administration Building as it is being demolished, a contemplative historical piece on the meaning of Peoples Day natives and an anonymous contribution on the disturbing conditions inside Michigan prisons which advocates for body cameras on guard.
The sellers wrote about half of the pieces in the edition. Lindsay described the paper as representing “the voices of the hyperlocal community.” Groundcover doesn’t try to cover all areas of news reporting, although the topics “are still relevant”, Lindsay said. “If it’s a big story related to the social services landscape or conditions of poverty or homelessness, we cover that. Social justice news, community opinion and creative pieces are our niche.
Groundcover’s salesperson, Laurzell Washington, calls Groundcover a “beautiful process of journalism” and its work “satisfying in terms of dealing with people.” You’ll be surprised who you meet… All kinds of people have a story to tell.
Laurzell is a great conversationalist; I met him while he was making a sandwich, having lunch in the press room. He possesses a thoughtful demeanor and an empathy that won’t take crap, but will forgive. We took up residence in two chairs that sat perfectly, sinking into comfort. I asked him what made Groundover work.
“The average person tries to work with each other,” he began. “And a lot of staff come from the homeless sector, so I think a lot of people are motivated by Groundcover. If you’ve been somewhere and you understand where somewhere is, you’re not so quick to put someone else down.
The importance of understanding a place was a common thread running through many of my conversations with the Groundcover team.
As we got to know each other, Laurzell and I realized that we had both lived in Massachusetts and Michigan. We reflected on our experiences in both places, the similarities and the differences. Our conversation also covered politics, from the Russian-Ukrainian war, the FBI seizure at Mar-A-Lago to why people are attracted to Trump. Laurzell recently wrote an article for Groundcover about the war in Ukraine.
In Lindsay’s own words, the biggest element of Groundcover is that “it invites people into conversation and relationships.” Groundcover has a “two-pronged mission of low-barrier-to-employment (and uplifting) community voices, voices that are marginalized,” she asserted. How these two parts of Groundcovers’ mission “meet in the middle is that you have to buy the paper from someone, and that can be game-changing for people.”
When I first bought my newspaper, I was coming back from the meeting to present this article to the Daily. I can’t remember the name of my supplier, but I remember we laughed at the technology. He told me to put his vendor number in the caption of my venmo payment for the paper. QR codes for cashless payment can be found in the bottom right corner of Groundcover papers – a feature Lindsay has worked hard to achieve. That night, I was just starting to get sick, so I rushed home. However, in an increasingly digital world, unexpected interactions tint it a little more pink.
English 126 – “Community-Engaged Writing” and 221 – “Literature and Writing Outside The Classroom” have both developed relationships with Groundcover over the past few years. I spoke with Professor John Buckley, instructor of both courses, who talked about the depth of street newspaper interactions like Groundcover initiate.
“To bring about change in society, everyone has to work together,” he said. “To get everyone working together, you need thousands of one-on-one conversations. To buy the paper, you are a human talking to another human. Swap compassion fatigue for a moment of empathy.
Jay, the other vendor I spoke with, who refrained from providing his last name, also identified the ways Groundcover promotes social good. He highlighted the economic opportunities that Groundcover provides to sellers and how the relative stability of these revenues generates other opportunities. Cleaning services and boober businesses both originated from the Groundcover community, Jay said.
“You learn things about business and money management working here that aren’t understood by the average person… What I like about Groundcover (is) if you want to learn, it’s you learn to fish.” Or, it is better to learn a skill rather than just benefit from it.
Jay emphasized in much of our conversation how transformative it is for your mindset to go from constantly having to think about what your next meal is and where to sleep, to being able to consider your livelihood and the world around you. ‘surrounded. Job centers like Groundcover “bridge the gap”, so people can create for themselves through a community of people who really care.
However, not all services for homeless and precarious people promote the same opportunities for everyone. Sometimes the altruistic people who lead these organizations focus on “help criteria” that do not always respond effectively to the challenges of poverty. One example that Jay points to is the importance of organizations for those struggling with drug or alcohol addiction whose tactics do not always effectively combat addiction.
Simultaneously, those suffering from food and housing insecurity for less altruistic grassroots reasons struggle to obtain similar assistance. Jay concludes his thoughts: “Forget free college. The idea that everyone can eat, that alone, and basic shelter, those things can change the world.
I asked my interviewees how the Daily, a newspaper so intrinsically linked to a gigantic institution, relates to the city of Ann Arbor. Lindsay praised the rigor and investigative work of our journalism.
But because the vast majority of the Daily’s staff changes completely every four years and is, for the most part, not from Ann Arbor, “there is a bit of a missed connection. There is something that can be gained from being in one place for a while… The Daily is very university-centric, not in content, but in perspective, consciously or unconsciously.
Without taking credit from Lindsay, I doubt she’s the first to make this observation. In fact, by contrast, John praises street newspapers for reaching ‘from below’, a quality that is ‘intrinsically more democratic, more socio-economically diverse, and provides a crucial counterweight to corporate stranglehold on the US and global media ladder. ”
It takes time for a space like the Bethlehem UCC basement. Not for desks, telephones, chairs, refrigerators or clothes racks, but for nourishing the air, the invisible qualities that give what it is its name. It also takes time to build an effective community. Relationships have to be built, one brick at a time. Agendas and criteria must grow and be formed together, not by whoever has the most power. And every one-on-one conversation is another step towards a community.
And our community is so much bigger than this school. Often I have found the status quo of most clubs and college organizations I have engaged with to be very insular. The most authentic student engagement with the wider community at this school is through the quirky interactive classes in the Ann Arbor and Detroit areas, most of which are unaware of.
For those who want to see social progress in the world, part of your answer is here, twice a month: two dollars for a paper and a talk. At least when you can. And once you begin to immerse yourself in this process, you will naturally begin to think about how your communities can be transformed.
Activism is local. Don’t harden your face. Buy the paper. Discuss briefly. Or for a while.
Groundcover articles are published on the 1st and 15th of each month. You can find vendors in downtown Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti wearing a badge. Vendors do not wear uniforms.
Laurzell typically sells through the Liberati Bookstore, Food Co-op, or around W Ann and S Main near the Main Party Store and Chapella.
Jay usually sells at Main and Liberty at Cherry Republic or State St in front of Nickels Arcade.
If you would like to learn more about Groundcover and/or are interested in volunteering, here is the link Volunteer Interest Form for Floor Coverings and Linktree Ground Cover.
Statement columnist Nate Sheehan can be reached at [email protected]