The Southwest Center for Economic Integrity's People Around Us was published in 2005. The goal of the book was to shed light on the lives of homeless and low-wage workers through poetry, stories and photography. Deputy director Kelly Griffith says she put out a call for submissions when she first started with the center, back in 2003. The most interesting submission to her was a poem written by a waitress on a worn guest ticket. Copies of the book are still available; proceeds are split between all the writers and photographers. For more information on the center's work and/or to order copies of the book, visit www.economicintegrity.org.
Copies of the book were sold at Nancy McCallion's recent CD-release show and fundraiser for the Primavera Foundation. Are those the kinds of events at which you typically sell People Around Us?
In this case, Nancy had seen some of the photographs in an exhibit that stopped in Tucson a few years ago. She was inspired and asked us to be there. We do sell them at Antigone Books. We want this to be on someone's coffee table. The people at Nancy's CD-release party are a different crowd than we normally attract, but maybe that's good.
What does the center do?
We focus on research, education and advocacy for folks who are living paycheck to paycheck—especially those who, without one paycheck, are facing immediate dire financial circumstances. We look at corporations and industries that need to be held accountable to local communities, and we encourage ethical practices (at businesses) that can affect marginalized communities, like predatory lenders and payday lenders. Day labor is another focus. Here in Tucson, we worked with Primavera to start Primavera WORKS, a day-labor project using a social-enterprise model to bring other options into the market.
What is one your biggest challenges?
There are a lot of prevailing misconceptions that people who are homeless don't work, and that's just not true. If you want to believe that notion that this person who is homeless doesn't work, it justifies (the homeless person's) invisibility, when the truth is that they work, and they work hard for very low wages with no guarantees that they are going to get those wages at the end of the day. Also, when you see workers lining up at 4 a.m. at Labor Ready, waiting to get a work ticket, keep in mind they don't get paid for all those hours standing out in line.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
When I first got here, it was one of my first projects I undertook. I'm an amateur photographer, and I've worked in the past as a teacher. I like the idea of bringing a curriculum into different projects. We went to the Southside Presbyterian Church homeless drop-in center and recruited people interested in a photography class. We had classes once a week, and we brought pizza and a bunch of disposable cameras from Walgreens. And these guys were so great. We'd look at photos each week and bring in more cameras so they could take more photos. There was a traveling exhibit that came through Tucson called Unseen America, and we were able to donate our photos to that exhibit, and to this day, they are still part of those traveling exhibits.
How can individuals or organizations get involved by helping to get these books out?
If someone has a strong affinity for this project and what we are trying to do with it, all they have to do is pick up the phone and call me. We aren't a big organization. Just call me. Nancy McCallion went to that exhibit, and she was so moved by it (that) it became part of the inspiration for her new CD. In that sense, (the book has) already served its purpose. But the more people we reach, I think, the more people understand that the economy and low-wage earners—we are all connected. We can say these people no longer exist, or that it's OK to treat them poorly, but what happens to them has an impact on our community. We shed light on that in different ways through our work. The book was an example that sometimes, there's no better way to shed light on something than pointing a camera at it.