We’re pretty mindful of the lack of racial and gender diversity in the media these days, but when was the last time you heard someone bemoan the underrepresentation of people living in poverty? When, indeed, was the last time you read an honest and unmediated account of what it’s like to scrape by on little to no income or to navigate the maze of social services on which the most vulnerable in our society are forced to depend?
A group of local community activists is hoping to change this. On May 15 they announced a call for submissions for the inaugural issue of The River Magazine, a free publication that will launch later this summer and run four times a year. Each issue will be made up entirely of original submissions—opinion, personal essays, poetry, visual art—from people living in poverty in Peterborough. There will be a minimum of input on the part of the magazine’s five-member editorial committee (in a Facebook post they say they’ll enforce “a minimal threshold of legality and acceptability”). And—this is crucial—contributors will be paid for their work.
I sat down recently with Steven Martin, the originator of the project. As a social worker in Vancouver in the mid-1990s, he used to come across a street zine made up entirely of contributions from low-income youth called Another Slice. He’d long thought of creating something like that in Peterborough. “This city is dominated by corporate media,” he says. “Speech is governed by money, and low-income people can’t compete. They have free speech, sure, but not equal speech.” Creating a forum in which low-income people can actually influence the local discussion, Martin and his collaborators hope, will go some way toward shifting this balance.
If it can manage to do this, The River could well become a powerfully subversive contribution to the public forum in Peterborough—a town that, for all its social services and progressive organizations, sometimes struggles to talk openly about poverty and inequality. Contributors to The River will no doubt speak certain truths that some in the city will find unpleasant, but that’s the point. “We’re deliberately creating a system we have no control over,” Martin says of the magazine. “It’s about supporting the principle more than the content.”
Cover image by Francesco Spatola via Wikimedia Commons. Illustration by B Mroz.