An interview with Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia

Tiny, I owe you an apology. I should have found a way to publish or share this a long time ago. I still check my emails and read some of the articles on PNN. Keep up the good work!
The interview takes place in San Francisco, at some point near Easter in 2001.

Could you introduce us to Poor News Network, please?
What it's about is a lot of things. Poor News Network is a project of Poor Magazine, which was originally founded by my mother and I. We were homeless for many years; we were in a position of extreme poverty that people often associate with the so-called Third or Fourth World. This is happening in the US, as it does with many people in the US, which is that we were outside of, we had no family, we had no money, we had no financial support and we ended up homeless and that situation doesn't get better, sometimes it gets worse. So for us it compounded and that's what's well-known as the vicious circle of poverty. When one thing ends up leading to another and becoming more dire, more serious. So this is a situation that happened with us and I was eleven years old at the time and I had to drop by to school by the sixth grade. I don't have a formal education past that year. Because my mother and I lived in her car and it was impossible for me to go to school for a lot of reasons, but mostly because when you're homeless, there is a lot of reasons in the society why you deal with shame, you deal with discrimination. So that happened to me. I didn't stop until I was 20. In the process of that I - so basically what happened is things became worse. I was incarcerated for what I call “crimes of poverty”, which arguably a lot of crimes are. But in my situation it was warrants for parking tickets, because in this society you get ticketed when you sleep in your car. You get basically harassed by the police. A lot. And you get a ticket called 97A, which is essentially a series of codes and violations that make it illegal for people to be homeless. So that was what happened with me and my mum. I was eventually, the car we were sleeping in was actually towed. And it's interesting because our poetry is not straightforward, it's all regarding awareness and educating, because we are doing a series of poems about people who are vehicly housed, which is in fact what I was. That made us even worse in a lot of ways, but then in another way I got an intervention which is one of the reasons why I'm here today. A civil right attorney who helps people who are dealing with poverty helped me when I was in jail, because they put me in jail for this ticket, and I was in jail for a month in a county lockup which is a very serious, horrible place. He came in and he had my fine (which I couldn't pay) commuted to community service, and he then had me do community service, and in exchange for community service he had to do for his law office I wrote - because I'm a writer. So that's what I did with, like, 22000 hours of community service! That's because he was a very brilliant thinker and a creative person who didn't think in a linear standard conventional way. He became our physical sponsor later on. Physical sponsor is what you have to have when you're non-profit organization. So that became Poor Magazine eventually in 1995. At that point I was 22, and my mother and I went through all kind of moral problems, because things don't just get better. That's not that simple. My mother was disabled and I had to take care of her. I started editing classes and ethnic studies, a lot of studies, African-American studies and Asian-American studies and I started to recognize the connections between communities of poverty all over the world. And I started to develop the notion of pan-poverty, like panafricanism or some of these other notions that bring together. Then from that perspective we developed Poor Magazine, which is a literary visual art and journalism magazine. From that perspective, we did a series of workshops, training people to write, people who were like ourselves, who were dealing with poverty.

How do you relate to newspapers like the Street Sheet, giving homeless people a little work and a little money? With PM you have another goal which is to make the society evolve...
We totally support the Street Sheet. We work with them. That's one of our collaborators. We train a lot of their writers. But the magazine, which is the original thing that we did and we continue to do it, is our attempt to seize this space - like the New-Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly art forum, to seize that beautiful space and put the voices and the images created by low-income and homeless people in that space. So there was an intention to take that beautiful space. That was only one form of media that we do. We also, from the literary magazine - it is intentionally glassy, it's expensive to make, we only do them once a year, we also put a thesis in each magazine about solutions to each of the issues we put forth. But from that we then created the New Journalism Media Studies program, which is a training model to teach people to do journalism and public policy and media organizing to affect these things like police harassment against homeless people, welfare reform or deform as we call it, the issues around housing and gentrification. On other words, we see journalism media as a tool to affect change. We very much support the Street Sheet. But in our mind we want to go one step further and train people to actually be able to write and research the stories the issues that affect them and then by so doing change that. From that, we've then been creating the new journalism media studies program which is an intensive journalism training program for low-income and poor and homeless people. We work with the [Deltan Youth?]. It's a welfare-to-work program, so people coming out of welfare can use it as their training. It's very innovative, it's never been done before. From that we created a KPLA radio show which is all produced and written by poor people. It’s aired once a month, you can hear it online too. We did the, which is the online news service. And we do the Survival Handbooks, which are a combination of the poetry work that we do with the research and reporting. How to survive, strive and stay alive in the face of recent class oppression. And each one is focused on one issue that poor people face when they try to survive. The first one is specifically focused on profiling, class and race profiling. The next one is gonna be on eviction gentrification and homelessness. The one after will be about child abuse and CPS (child protection services, a county system).

Have some of your graduates worked in other newspapers?
That's our goal to have the training program create writers who will then work in other news agencies and bring their poverty scholarship to that agency. In fact the San Francisco Bay View we have a collaboration with them, and they hired our first graduate, Kaponda, and we continue to train him and he continues to work for other agencies.

What is
The whole idea about PNN org is that it become an online news service dedicated to reframing the issues that happen to poor people and low-income people around race, class, gender oppression, police harassment, eviction, all the issues that we deal with, but that they're written by people who have gone through this training program. Lastly, we also take mainstream media stories and create another spin on them which we can call the insider’s. For example, there was a man who drove in the Sacramento capitol a couple months ago, and the mainstream media said he had a grudge against Gov. Davis. Well, that wasn’t the case ; he wrote one line against Governor Davis nine years ago. But the mainstream media wanted to use this simple solution. We wrote another story about him and we investigated his past and he was a low-income person who really had never got mental health care. And he had another message to make. So we wrote that story.

Do you think that mainstream media do not report accurately and truthfully stories involving poor people?
Oh, yeah. Most definitely. They propagate stereotypes about low-income people. They propagate lies. They continue the notion of welfare mums, who are not smart. They actively support the lies being told by PG&E [Pacific Gas & Electric Co.] right now, the utility crisis that we are having in California. None of that appears on how it impacts low-income families. We have a story called “Cold Night” on PNN that specifically talks about if you're a poor family with too many people living in a house, you're penalized by PG&E new rates. Mainstream media does nothing for low-income population but in fact propagates the stereotypes that keep us down even further.

Could you speak about the way rich people think about poor people?
There is a very big gap. And there are a lot of lies being told, don't get me wrong. Even from the State of California. For us, the issue is the poor people are only talked about when there is a problem with them or when they have done something wrong. And their story is always told from one voice. It's never told from the insider voice.

Do you have relationships with other “poor” organizations?
We have collaborations with agencies all over the Bay Area who also deal with issues of poverty. We also have a very sticky alliance with some mainstream papers who sometimes print some of the work of our writers. But it's always a fight, because they don't really want to publish the work of our writers, because it runs counter a lot of times to the lies that they're telling. But we have relationships with very many organizations. One of the things we do at Poor is acting solidarily and report on the issues that many of our economic justice comrades are fighting for. So we work with [Coldish and homelessness, misionaries?] folks in San José, Los Angeles, all over. We also work with people all across the country, in Philadelphia, in New-York, in Miami who are also economic justice organizers, and attempting to get their voices heard. We have some groups in England and mostly in Third World countries like we work with folks in the Philippines, in Africa. Our thing is to get voices told, voices heard, from people experiencing that, not from other people.

Would you like to expand furthermore through the Internet?
We would love to do it. Our thing is to get voices heard of low-income people, locally and globally, that's our model. We have made connections with folks from all over the world through the Internet.

First published the 16th of December, 2004 on
Poor Magazine