Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Women Who Rock (for a cause!) Wednesday: Polly Jirkovsky and Real Change

Before we get to the main event, I wanted to let you know about a guest blog I did with the amazing lit blog Beatrice. I posted up my three favorite "ballad" albums, so if you want to learn about them, go here. Good stuff to add to your holiday list :)

Welcome to Women Who Rock Wednesday! All this month I'm shining the spotlight on women who are doing important work for others, to improve our world and make their communities and our world a better place for everyone. It's the holiday season after all and everyone is thinking about giving, so let's think and talk about giving back!

Last week, I interviewed Katie Corboy about the organization she volunteers for, Keep On Keeping On. If you missed that interview, please check it out, and you can still enter the contest I posted about because it's a month long contest and I'll give you more ways to rack up entries following this interview.

Today, I want you to meet Polly Jirkovsky. She's been a friend of mine since high school (though the photo is from when I visited her last summer). She was a year older than me and became a real big sister figure to me. I truly looked up to her because she was so kind-spirited, thoughtful, political active, and thirsty for knowledge and justice. She is still all of those things and remains a major inspiration to me for the important work she does.

Polly works at an organization in Seattle called Real Change, but I'm going to let her tell you about it.

Q: Tell us about Real Change, how you came to be involved with it and why you feel the organization is so important to support?

Polly: Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project has been a non-profit organization in Seattle since 1994. I've been working there for 2 years now as the Volunteer Coordinator. Real Change is a street newspaper- one of many both nationally and internationally. It's not a chain, each paper is run by a different organization with a different style but we are loosely networked with each other and share ideas and stories. We produce an 8 page weekly newspaper that is sold by our homeless and very low-income vendors. The vendors buy the paper from us for 35 cents and sell it for a dollar. We don't have any rules around how many papers a vendor sells, it's up to that particular person. Some of our vendors treat it like a full time job and are out there for 8 plus hours per day and for some folks it's just one of the things that they do in the midst of their chaotic lives. Our vendors tend to be people who have lived very tough lives. Many of them have physical or mental disabilities which make it hard for them to succeed at traditional employment which is where Real Change can be very helpful.

Our paper is often not what you would expect. I think people have this idea that it's a charity purchase, which lasts until they read the paper. We have three professional reporters and many talented volunteers who cover local social justice issues as well as interviews with writers, intellectuals and activists. One of our reporters, Rosette Royale, won a First Place Excellence in Journalism Award by the Society of Professional Journalists this year, which is huge.

Real Change is also an advocacy organization. It's important for us to not only provide a great community paper and provide a job for people but also to look at the big picture. Poverty is political and we try to inspire our readers to get involved in the process of change. We hold forums about topics such as the economic crisis, or the connections between the criminal justice system and homelessness. We collaborate with other organizations to make a annual visit to our state capitol and our state senators and representatives on MLK day. And when we found out that people who were sleeping outside in the winter were having their sleeping bags and tents confiscated and destroyed by city employees, we organized camp outs in front of city hall and gave away survival gear.

I think for me the heart of Real Change is this idea that we can build relationships across vast social canyons between people, and that those relationships can change things. It's one of those great truths that until a story touches you personally, it's only ever at arms length. I think a lot of people who've never been homeless walk past someone on the street and maybe they want to help but they don't know what to do, and maybe they wonder about what brings a person to that point but they don't know how to ask or how to get involved. And one of the things that happens with Real Change is that vendors often find a spot that they sell at pretty regularly. And so it becomes a part of the customer's routine, on the way home from work or at the bus stop or at the grocery store they see the same vendor. And maybe they buy a paper or say hi or learn each others names and there starts to be a connection. Most of the time it's small but I think even just a hello here and there humanizes the problem. We try to incorporate this philosophy into the agency as much as possible. We have vendors on the Board of Directors, the Editorial Board, and peer-elected Vendor Representatives that are the final arbitrators in firing and suspension decisions. There is still a lot more we could do in terms of vendor participation but it's always a process, right?

Q: What are ways that we can support Real Change? Are there events, volunteer opportunities or ways that people from all over can donate?

Polly: There are lots of ways to support Real Change! If you live in the Seattle area, you may be able to volunteer at our office in Belltown. 95% of our volunteer opportunities are M-F between 9am and 6pm, but we occasionally have events on weekends or in the evening. For more information on volunteering you can email me at volunteer(at)realchangenews(dot)org (note from Stephanie, remove the at's and dots and replace with appropriate symbols, I just didn't want Real Change to get spammed)
Be forewarned that I'm on maternity leave though, so I won't get back to you until January.

If you don't live in the Seattle area, you could always subscribe to the paper. It's $60 for one year (that's a paper every week) and like I said, it's a great paper. For more info on that, you can email Alan Preston at alan(at)realchangenews(dot)org

We also accept donations, and in fact the majority of our funding comes from individual donors, not grants and foundations. For more information on donating, you can contact Katie Porch at development(at)realchangenews(dot)org

The other thing I would say is support your local street paper. Lots of towns and cities have one, from Chicago to Tokyo. If you see someone selling a paper on a street corner or outside a store, buy a paper. Maybe chat with the vendor a little about how the paper works, or how their day is going. If you've ever had a job where you have to be outside all day or have to try to sell things to people, you know how nice it is to just have a few kind words.

Q: I have two questions that I always ask my Women Who Rock, the first is a two-parter. What was the first album you bought and the first concert you attended? Be honest, we don't judge, we like to see the roots of our women who rock!

Polly: I bought my first two albums at the same time: Debbie Gibson's Out of the blue and Tiffany's eponymous album, Tiffany.

Q: Tell us about your biggest rock star moment, perhaps it's a moment of real success in your career, a time when you met someone super cool and had that Wayne's World "I'm not worthy" moment, or just a time where you felt like you got the rock star treatment. I get a huge variety of answers for the questions, so it's pretty much whatever "rock star moment" means to you!

Polly: Well when I was a bookseller I sold books to Peter Buck from REM and the playwright August Wilson. I also got to help out with some great author events including Alison Bechdel, David Sedaris, Michelle Tea and some girl named Stephanie Kuehnert ;) Two of my favorite bookselling experiences have to be the nights that Harry Potter #6 and Harry Potter #7 came out. We had release parties at midnight and lines around the block. We all dressed up as different characters and had cupcakes and butterbeer and tons of people in our little store. It's so great to see a book receive star treatment like that, and I only wish it happened more often!

We're all book lovers here, so I'm sure many are agreeing that that is a true rock star moment and it should happen for books more often!

I hope you found Polly's work with Real Change as inspiring as I do. I hope you'll help me spread the word about it and maybe get involved with the homeless locally as a part of the month-long contest. Here's the deal with that....

This Month's Contest:

This month, I'm doing one big Women Who Rock Wednesday contest. The grand prize winner will get copies of both of my books I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE and BALLADS OF SUBURBIA signed and, even more importantly, they will get to choose which charity I donate to at the end of the month. I'll put together a list of charities to choose from at the end of the month, but Real Change will absolutely be on it, so keep them in mind.

Here are the ways you can tally up entries.

+1 for leaving a comment
+1 for tweeting or linking to this blog entry
+1 for tweeting or linking to Real Change
+5 for posting about Real Change and homelessness awareness on your blog, myspace or facebook page
+10 for volunteering at your local homeless shelter, street newspaper like Real Change, or donating items to a local shelter or food pantry
+15 for donating to Real Change

Please note your additional entries in your comment. Provide links when you can, but obviously with volunteering I'll be taking you at your word. Please also leave an email address in your comment so you can be contacted if you win!

I really hope you are enjoying learning about these organizations as much as I am and maybe they are inspiring some New Years resolutions about helping your own community. Please come back next week to learn about another woman who is rockin' an important cause!


pepsivanilla said...

Real Change sounds like a great opportunity for people who don't get enough fair opportunities in their lives. I'm so glad there are causes like this out there! Thanks for sharing the info about it.


Marjolein Reads said...

this is awesome! I just started 2 weeks ago as a local Unicef volunteer (selling christmas cards and gifts and speaking at elementary schools to learn children what Unicef stands for)
I will post a sidelink on my blog and do twitters about your blog post!

marjoleinbookblog a gmail dot com

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks for your comments Pepsivanilla and Marjolein!

And Marjolein, how wonderful that you are vvolunteering for Unicef! And thanks for spreading the word :)

throuthehaze said...

+1 Real Change sounds like a great organization!

+10 I found this great place to donate recently. I really like it because I know that everything I give will be going to people who truly are in need. I have already donated before but I will be going up there again on Monday with a lot more.

throuthehaze at gmail dot com

prashant said...

will post a sidelink on my blog and do twitters about your blog post!

Work from home India

marina said...

people who do stuff like real change or any other cause are so cool to me. they give a good chunk of their time to benefit others. people who need it. that's just a great thing to do.


Llehn said...

It's really inspiring to hear about organizations like Real Change. Thanks for sharing.


Natalie said...

This is just...awesome. I can't think of another word for it. In high school, I was really involved in helping out local and national charity organizations, but I kind of unintentionally stopped once I headed off to college. I'm thinking I need to start getting involved with them again. It's always such a rewarding experience!

Tweeted it!

Andrea F. said...

Again, do these count even weeks after you posted them? Doesn't matter, they still effect me =]

I love learning about all these organizations. I also like the opportunities to volunteer and donate. I've never felt like I've been able to help anyone, but by learning about these places I have been able to!

+15 for donating to Real Change