Sherry Williams sells newspapers in midtown Memphis every week, in a shopping center with movie theaters and restaurants. She says she's good at selling.
"I like meeting people, getting out there," she says. "I got customer service skills."
Williams, 34, sells a paper called "The Bridge." It follows in the steps of other street papers like "Street News" in New York, and "Street Sheet" in San Francisco that are published to support the homeless, who then sell them on the street to raise money to get back on their feet.
But The Bridge has one major difference: it is the first street paper started and run by college students.
When Williams goes to pick up her weekly supply of papers from a nearby Episcopal church, she is met by sophomores and juniors from liberal arts school Rhodes College in Memphis, where a staff of 60 students produces the paper from layout to accounting to distribution.
College activism and service activities, like alternate springs breaks in which students build Habitat for Humanity houses instead of heading to Cancun, have become de rigueur in the past decade as part of the college experience. But The Bridge represents a bolder entry into college activism.
It's not a short-term project that's over in a couple weeks and allows students to go back to taking their final exams or leave for the summer — people's livelihoods are at stake. Since the paper started production in spring of 2013, the Bridge has trained over 200 vendors, who have sold 55,000 copies, taking home between $40,000 and $55,000.
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At St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis, staff from The Bridge give weekly training and certification classes every Thursday for people who want to sell the paper. Most vendors hear about it from word of mouth, or pitches that Bridge staff do at soup kitchens.
The Bridge uses a nonprofit model similar to other street papers. Each vendor receives 20 copies of the monthly edition for free, and can purchase additional copies for 25 cents. The paper sells for $1 apiece, and vendors keep 100 percent of the profits. The paper is funded through donations from Rhodes College and private donors, advertising revenue and vendor payments.
There are rules and courtesy considerations: don't smoke when selling and wearing The Bridge badge, be considerate of others' turf and read the newspaper to better sell it.
Sherry Williams has been selling The Bridge for a year. She sells all 20 of the papers she gets for free every week, and sells more in the summer months when there are more people outside. She estimates that she brings in at least $100 a month selling papers. It's certainly not enough to live off, but it has helped her move from the Salvation Army shelter into transitional housing.
"If I have extra money, I buy extra papers," says Sherry. "I save it up to help pay the light bill, or buy something to eat."
The Bridge features content about homelessness and provides space for current and former homeless people to share their stories and artwork, paying as much as $200 per essay.
Some vendors make as much as $450 a month selling at festivals and farmers markets in the summertime.
Challenges of commitment
The Bridge was started by three students who saw the success of The Contributor in Nashville, a nonprofit newspaper started by volunteers in 2008, which is now one of the best-selling street papers in the country, distributing as many as 75,000 copies in a month.
Students thought someone should do the same in Memphis, which has about 2,000 homeless people on any given night. But when they pitched the idea to local homeless organizations, no one wanted to take it on. So they decided to do it themselves.
The paper started with a handful of students meeting in a coffee shop. Now, the paper has its own space on campus and boasts a volunteer staff of 60 students who create the monthly edition, handling everything from layout to accounting.
It's a gutsy project for a school to take on — vendors still count on papers to sell when students have final exams and go on summer vacation. Rhodes provides housing and a small fellowship to a handful of students who stay through the summer to keep The Bridge running.
It's also not cheap: the paper is made possible by an impressive buy-in from the school, which provided summer learning fellowships for four founding students to attend a start-up accelerator and come up with a solid business plan, at a cost of about $3,000 each.
"It seemed like an idea worth investing in," says faculty advisor and Associate Vice President Bud Richey. "Even if it didn't take off, it would be a profound learning experience."
Now that The Bridge has taken off, operating and printing costs are relatively low: The paper is about $750 an issue to publish, or about $9,000 a year.
The strength and the challenge of The Bridge are the people who make it and the people who sell it, says Eilidh Jenness, a 19-year-old sophomore from Ohio who will be taking over as executive director of the paper this spring, when the founding editors graduate.
"Both populations are transient: the students who make it and the vendors who sell it," says Jenness, who started blogging for The Bridge as a freshman.
She recognizes the limitations of The Bridge — it provides enough money for a vendor to pay for some food or a place to stay (unlike most cities, Memphis has few free shelters, especially for men), and some vendors have used the money as a boost toward full-time employment.
"But you can't make a living selling the paper," recognizes Jenness, so she needs to find ways to partner with agencies to help vendors transition to full-time jobs.
"This is less like a project and more like a job. It feels like I'm doing something real."
Doing something real
Rhodes, which has about 2,000 undergraduate students, is known for being service-minded: for two years in a row, Newsweek has ranked it as the No. 1 service-oriented college in the country.
About 80 percent of its students participate in community service, which is attributed in part to the private school's Presbyterian roots. "Rhodes is a hub for students interested in community improvement stuff," says Jenness.
The Bridge project would not have worked if it hadn't been student driven, says Bud Richey.
Could the project be reproduced at other colleges? It could, says Richey, but the first thing you need is "a fire in the belly" from the students. "It can't be top-down, with faculty and administrators propping it up."
With a model in place, Richey is confident that The Bridge will continue to have "wings to fly," even with student turnover.
As an educator, the pay-off in learning is high. "Students are getting to know people different from themselves, and will have a lifetime sensitivity to the plight of others," he says.
Jenness says that part of what makes the project work is Memphis itself. She chose Rhodes, in part, because it was located in an urban area. Just before winter break, she dashed from one of her finals to a homeless alliance community planning meeting.
"It has a lot of injustice issues, it's still segregated, it's trudging through its own history," Jenness says of Memphis. "But it's also a place that's open for an extreme amount of growth. Not everyone believes in it, but the people who do can make a large impact."
There's also the challenge of differences in age and experience, but to the credit of students and vendors, so far The Bridge seems to have bridged that gap. It could be strange for someone like Sherry Williams to work with 19- and 20-year-olds who are 15 years her junior, but she said she doesn't mind.
"I think The Bridge is a fun group," says Williams.
"They wanna help somebody else and help themselves. I don't judge."
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