Walking back home one day with a few acquaintances, I was approached by a man on the street selling Groundcover, a newspaper that same homeless and low-income people sell to help with their transition from homeless to housed and employed. I didn’t have any money with me, so I declined to purchase a paper. But as we walked away one of my acquaintances turned to me and said, “Did you see he had a gold ring? I am not sure what that was all about.”
I was taken aback at her insinuation that he wasn’t homeless because he had a gold ring. I sheepishly responded that I didn’t have money on me instead of explaining to her that I knew from his nametag that he was a vendor for Groundcover News. The stigma that surrounds people who are low-income or who suffer from homelessness makes it even more difficult for them to bring themselves out of their situation.
Last Thursday, the Groundcover News student group on campus hosted Poems for Change, a poetry slam where Groundcover News vendors and University students shared their poems on socioeconomic status, ethnicity, mental health and identity. The student group helps the Groundcover News of Washtenaw County fundraise and bring awareness to the paper as well as host events such as this one. Jennifer Crorey, the group’s founder, explained the aim of the event.
“It started off because many of the vendors write for the paper and some of them write poetry and some of them write opinion pieces. The purpose behind it was to give them a voice that isn’t heard in Ann Arbor very much,” Crorey said.
The gathering was beautifully heartfelt and honest, pushing against stigmas that surround the people who shared their personal stories.
Bruce Corson, a Groundcover News vendor, shared a poem about the importance of education to the University students, accompanied by jokes that had the audience roaring with laughter. Joe Woods, another vendor, wrote a poem titled “Costumes” about being judged on appearances. He introduced the poem by explaining that when selling his papers, he has tried different clothing to see how it changes onlookers’ perceptions of him.
The feeling of being judged or discriminated against based on appearance was universal among performers and audience members alike, capturing the crowd and fostering understanding between the students and the vendors. It helped paint a picture of what the vendors who sell Groundcover Newspapers on the street are people like anyone else who have a voice and something to share.
Some students spoke about their own experiences with mental health, anxiety, depression and the strength they have gained from working through those issues. Social Work student Meghan Norsigian spoke about mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder. She said, “Dealing with PTSD or panic disorder in general is not easy. … The poem particularly speaks to me because of the way it starts from a very large global scale and then micros down to an individual person. It connects the world in a way, in a sad way, but in way that’s honest.”
Other students spoke about their racial or religious identity. Engineering senior Donovan Colquitt recited a poem on his experiences as a Black student at the University. With regard to how he hoped his poem, “Founded on Inequality,” would impact the audience, Colquitt said, “It was important for me to write this piece to let people who may not experience these same things to get just a glimpse of what it’s like to be discriminated against or treated with inequity.”
This identity is often misunderstood at the University, as Black students expressed throughout the year and recently in a demonstration on the diag.
But the most touching story of the night came from LSA senior Meredith Burke, who started her poem by talking about how during a difficult time in her life, she found inspiration and friendship from Groundcover vendor Lonnie Baker. She and Baker remained friends, and she spends time with him every week. Speaking about their friendship brought tears to her eyes. She looked past this vendor-buyer relationship and created something truly special. This genuine expression of human compassion made the room feel warm in a crowd of people with different backgrounds and different struggles.
These students and vendors had the courage to share their stories in a space that resulted in positivity as the night ended. It gave me hope that one day the people across identities can reach this level of understanding instead of making assumptions about one another. It encouraged me to be more open-minded so that next time I see someone with a background I am not familiar with, I will approach them with an open heart.
Rabab Jafri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.