Academic journal article Communication Studies

Organizing for Survival and Social Change: The Case of StreetWise

Academic journal article Communication Studies

Organizing for Survival and Social Change: The Case of StreetWise

Article excerpt

Most of us can only imagine, from a comfortable distance, the survival stratagems developed by individuals living on the periphery of mainstream society. Liberation theologians, in discussing the "preferential option for the poor," highlight how marginalized people can transform the world in unexpected, even profound ways (Loeb, 1999). For example, Duneier's (1999) ethnographic portrayal of the informal economic life among vendors in Greenwich Village poignantly illustrates how, in the face of exclusion, poor (mainly) black men create and maintain a moral order. Yet, our prevailing tendency in research has been to focus on the problems of the homeless rather than searching for organizational, economic, and cultural factors coalescing to enable individuals to weave together survival and social change (Dail, 2001). Description of grassroots organizing among people without homes could make valuable contributions toward program intervention and other assistance; however, the discovery of effective survival techniques "requires a paradigm shift away from viewing the homeless as helpless victims" (Dail, 2001, p. 7). Embarking from a standpoint that privileges the lived experiences of individuals who are navigating pathways out of poverty, we explore StreetWise--an organization whose mission is to empower men and women who are homeless or otherwise at risk as they work toward gainful employment and self-sufficiency.

Through the publication of a street journal by the same name, StreetWise provides employment opportunities for men and women without homes. At the same time, StreetWise strives to expand societal awareness of homeless issues. Underscoring the importance of the consciousness-raising discourse of StreetWise are criticisms, scholarly and otherwise, that point to our culture's failure to enact the democratic potential of public sphere(s). Contemporary perspectives on the public sphere observe that historically people have been formally and informally excluded from participating in the discursive construction of social and political issues (e.g., Fraser, 1990; Rawlins, 1998). Of particular interest to feminist scholars are the variety of ways in which subordinated classes organize access routes to public political life despite their exclusion from official deliberative arenas. Fraser (1990) introduces the notion of "subaltern counterpublics" to illustrate how members of subordinated social groups have repeatedly found it beneficial to organize alternative public discourses. "I propose to call these subaltern counterpublics," argues Fraser, "in order to signal that they are parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs" (p. 66). We explore StreetWise as the creation of a subaltern counterpublic.

In response to recent calls to explore the "counter" in counterpublics (e.g., Asen, 2000; Mumby, 2000; Squires, 2002), we highlight the discursive moves that reinforce StreetWise's standpoint as counter to the practices and structures of the dominant culture and provide alternative ways of thinking about the issue of homelessness. While we see this body of discourse as a text to be read and deconstructed from multiple standpoints, we are engaging the dialogue guided by feminist theorizing about organizational communication. We begin by (1) articulating our use of feminist concepts to theorize about the discursive aspects of subaltern counterpublics, and (2) positioning the discourse of StreetWise as an interesting site in which to explore organizing for survival and social change. We then present one reading of the discourse and discuss theoretical and practical implications of our analysis.

FEMINIST THEORIZING AND SUBALTERN COUNTERPUBLICS

At the heart of feminist theorizing and praxis about organizational communication is a moral commitment to critique patterns that reproduce and resist "othering" (i. …

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