BY KATELYN LUSHER
Early on in my career as a PhD student, I knew I wanted to focus on community writing (writing that takes place outside the classroom, often within a specific group), but I wasn’t sure where to start or what I should do. A friend of mine connected me with Chris Wilkey, a professor at NKU who has conducted writing projects in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood since the early 2000s, and my work took off from there. After meeting Chris and hearing about his work, I became very interested in how OTR has actively protested against gentrification, lack of affordable housing, and racism in Cincinnati for decades and wanted to know more. I became involved with the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition in early 2018 when I expressed interest in volunteering. Much of the scholarship I read on the subject strongly encourages university affiliated researchers to allow the community partner to guide your level of involvement so I set up a meeting with Mona Jenkins, the outreach and development coordinator, and she told me that I would be a good fit with Streetvibes, the street paper the Coalition has produced since 1997. At the time, I knew very little about the paper; I just knew that they needed someone to help contributing writers edit their work before submitting.
At first, I was completely on my own. Streetvibes distributors who were interested in publishing their writing in the paper would come to me for consultation, we would review and edit, and I would send their piece to the editor at the time, Justin Jeffre. Admittedly, I had no idea what I was doing at the time and leaned on my experiences as a writing tutor to guide me. Over time, however, I learned that the tutoring had done in the past with college students was not quite
sufficient when working with a street paper. In the university, students are expected to meet the requirements set by their professor, write in a particular style and format, and are often discouraged from personal writing unless they are explicitly told to do so. In a street paper, on the other hand, personal writing is strongly encouraged; strongly opinionated and sometimes controversial articles are often published and there are no set requirements—aside from the fact that the writing featured in the paper must not work against the mission of Streetvibes, which is to empower people and push back against negative views of homelessness. This difference has had a profound effect on me and has made me a better scholar and activist as I learn more about homeless advocacy. Working with people outside academia has forced me to question my own privilege and challenged me to do research that has real impact—a departure from the “ivory tower” that many academics hide in.
My involvement with Streetvibes led to an invitation to join the OTR book project committee. The book, which is still under construction, will be a collection of writings from people writing in and about Over-the-Rhine. As someone heavily involved with Streetvibes, I was asked to cull some articles for inclusion in the book from the print archive. A couple committee members had very specific articles in mind and Chris offered to help me find them. When we did visit the archive though, I was completely overwhelmed.
The “archive” consisted of three large metal filing cabinets with rows upon rows of Streetvibes back issues crammed in manila folders with handwritten labels indicating the print year and month and no possible way of searching for the specific articles requested. No catalog, no index, nothing. It was late June and the attic of the Coalition—where the print issues are stored—had no
air conditioning or air flow. I was sweating and covered in newsprint, frustrated and miserable at the seemingly impossible task of manually searching through 300+ issues, several of which were in rough shape. After almost an hour of searching, I finally asked Chris if there was any way this search could be done digitally. To my surprise, he told me that the digital versions of most issues are either lost or in an unknown location.
This experience led me to start making plans for a Streetvibes digital archive. Streetvibes has published social justice and activist-oriented material for over 20 years from its distributors, prominent local activists, and community members who may not have a voice otherwise. Without a strong digital archive, however, those voices disappear once an issue goes out of print and their activism stops circulating. With a digital archive, I hope to highlight the people behind Streetvibes and their efforts to speak out about topics that mainstream outlets rarely cover in much depth, such as homelessness and racial injustice.
The Cincinnati Project allowed me to start the process of digitizing Streetvibes issues that were only available in print. With the help of an undergraduate student worker in the Digital Scholarship Center, Johnathan Avant, and the guidance of Dr. James Lee, I have finished scanning the issues dating from 1997 to 2003. I am also exceedingly grateful for Gabriela Godinez, the current Streetvibes editor, for her enthusiastic involvement in this project. During the grant period, Gabriela helped me find the digital copies of the issues dating from 2004 to 2011 and also discovered boxes of original photos from the late Jimmy Heath, which will also be featured in the archive. The digital archive is currently a work in progress, but the funds provided
by The Cincinnati Project provided me with the opportunity to start the project which will eventually be the basis of my dissertation. I look forward to continuing this work!