By Julia Burgi
Saturday morning, 11am, Starbucks on 41st and Broadway: the day's volunteer work with the Street Vendor Project begins! From my past three experiences, about a dozen people show up altogether, including the volunteer coordinator, Neera (a volunteer herself!), and the SVP's director, Sean Basinski. What Neera and Sean help volunteers do, once a month, is called "vendor outreach," where volunteers talk to vendors in a given neighborhood to invite them to join SVP and have their voices heard and struggles addressed.
We volunteers are offered a hot cup of coffee and kick of the pre-outreach discussion. Previous volunteers share their experiences and tips and everyone is briefed on what the issues vendors face are. We are reminded that not all of them speak fluent English or are comfortable discussing sensitive topics such as ticketing and police harassment. Some of them may not even have licenses, but our focus is on ameliorating conditions for ALL vendors. More specifically, our goal for the day is to find vendors to come to the SVP's monthly meeting for vendors on the upcoming Tuesday, which functions as a union forum.
We split off into groups of two or three and today I am with Alfonso, who works for an investment banking firm, and Michael, an ex-pat who now lives in London but still carries a passion for New York. We've been delegated the stretch of 42nd street from Times Square and Grand Central.
The first vendor we encounter sells New York clothing and gear and is a military veteran. He is clearly passionate about fixing some of these issues, but doesn't feel that the SVP forum is for him. Moving on, we talk to some hot dog vendors and NYC Green Cart vendors, for whom English is clearly not their first language. The level of interest ranges - some don't understand what we are trying to communicate, while others gladly give their contact information and sound excited about the meeting. Questions that come up include, "What if I just a cart employee and not an owner?" or, "What if I can't arrive on time? My boss says I have to stay at work until a certain time."
The beauty of the SVP is that they are all inclusive - everyone from unlicensed umbrella salesmen to the five employees of a single cart to the fancy food truck owners are all welcome parts of the organization. The meetings are open and try to be flexible to the sometimes complicated schedules of mobile vendors. Volunteering with SVP is always a great experience because such a variety of volunteers come to help: people interested in opening up their own vending business, writers, public administration workers, and college students, to name a few.
Everyone involved, vendors and volunteers, has a story to tell and great energy to contribute! Check out the Street Vendor Project for more information!