Acceptance into and attendance at college is for many not just the next step in their academic progression but also the first portal to adulthood, to “real life.” It is where problems must be solved and challenging experiences encountered, often without the safety net of parents and lifelong friends standing by to break the falls. A college degree does not just signify that one has completed a rigorous period of educational growth but also indicates that one has learned how to stand amidst life’s ups and downs, to bend but not break when faced with failures, disappointments and hardships. For Emily Faber and the 69 other student volunteers who work on Memphis’ only street newspaper, The Bridge, this exposure to “real life” is exponentially increased as they cross paths with and learn lessons from those who have endured some of life’s worst.
Published monthly with a circulation of approximately 5,000 copies, The Bridge “focuses on homelessness and poverty and is distributed solely on the streets by independently contracted homeless vendors who keep the profit from the papers they sell.” Vendors purchase the newspapers for 25 cents per copy and sell them for one dollar. All production and printing expenses are paid for by donations, including donated time by the 70 students who run the paper’s seven departments of publicity, fundraising, content, layout, photography, distribution and hotline. Emily, a Rhodes College sophomore, writer and Executive Director of The Bridge, explained during a recent interview the powerful impact this venture has had on her life and how the stories shared by vendors and contributing writers have helped shape her own life story.
Having begun as a distribution volunteer, which entailed being present to collect articles and sell The Bridge to vendors, she quickly learned the importance of words, word context and the complexities faced by those who are homeless. For example, saying something during casual conversation such as “it sure is cold today” evokes entirely different reactions with someone who might very well be sleeping in that cold, than with a fellow student who will fall asleep in the comfort of a warm bed. She learned that “space is so important” and we all need a piece of it to call our own. For those who have none personally to claim the occasional spat over the “claiming” of public spaces, such as street intersections, ensues because our space is a need fundamentally tied to our emotional security.
For Emily the realities of homelessness and those transitioning out of homelessness have helped mold her approach to both life and storytelling as a writer. She has listened to many vendors share their experiences and while much of it is tragic, “it is not all doom and gloom.” She has been privy to the honesty in their narratives when some say “I am a recovering alcoholic” as they show up faithfully every week to purchase their papers and fight to stay on the road to recovery. Some have taken this opportunity with an organization willing to hire them without the catch-22 conundrums (such as no permanent address and gaps in employment history) and made the most of it. Vendor Randy White recently purchased a car with the money he made selling The Bridge. He now has transportation to get to a place of employment and to earn a paycheck that will enable him to lease an apartment.
Those affiliated with The Bridge invest countless hours so that change can continue at both the personal and community level. The Rhodes students who volunteer their time do so with the sole expectation that they might help those who have suffered from years of instability find their own space. They put together all of the fundraisers benefitting The Bridge, including bake sales and the annual Under One Roof event that features a silent auction wherein all items have been donated. It is the only street paper in the WORLD run entirely by students, who are often mentored by former student volunteers and now Rhodes alumni. Emily shares that, as current Executive Director, she has a meeting pertaining to The Bridge every evening and spends time every morning answering emails, returning phone calls and conversing with others in the community about how to make things better. “I could think about this forever,” she says in regards to keeping the paper afloat, thriving and in the hands of those who need its benefits the most. And she says it with a sincerity that shows her dedication to this project whose stories are changing her story, her fellow students’ stories and the stories of Memphis residents affected by poverty and homelessness. Not every story has a happy ending but because of The Bridge, the gap is getting smaller between those that do and those that do not.
This month The Bridge celebrates its fourth anniversary and this week students commemorated Bridge Week on the Rhodes College campus. If you would like to be a part of the change in narratives, fight poverty and homelessness in Memphis and enable those transitioning out of homelessness to become more self-sufficient, please visit www.thememphisbridge.com.