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Outgoing INSP CEO Maree Aldam reflects on her time growing up alongside street papers

I still remember the first time I bought a street paper. It was from a vendor on Byres Road in the west end of Glasgow. I was down visiting from the Scottish Highlands, and I’d never heard of The Big Issue, but my friend described it as “a magazine to help homeless people”. We each bought one and I remember thinking, as we read our magazines on the train home, what a great concept it was. I was 13 or 14 at the time, so it must have been around 1994 – the year the International Network of Street Papers was founded – and not long after The Big Issue first hit the city streets.

I remembered this many years later when I started working for INSP in 2008. Two weeks into my new job, we were organising the INSP summit in Glasgow – a global gathering of street papers and their staff. I was blown away by the people I met that week. I remember describing the atmosphere to friends afterwards, trying to convey the passion, creativity and vibrancy of the street paper movement.

Maree sells The Big Issue during a 'Big Sell' event during Vendor Week in 2016 to raise money for INSP and street paper vendors. Courtesy of INSP.

During my time at INSP, I have seen our network evolve and grow. Our street papers have put millions into the pockets of vendors, produced brilliant magazines and newspapers, inspired their communities, changed public opinion, and given people hope in uncertain times.

I’ve also seen our network grapple with many challenges – digitisation, the climate crisis, political polarisation, economic crises, refugee crises, the impact of war and, of course, the pandemic.

This time two years ago, I was really worried for our network. As cities began locking down, one after another, and people disappeared from the streets, I really feared for our street papers and our vendors. But without missing a beat, our street papers adapted and reinvented themselves; providing crisis support, going digital, reporting on the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable people, reporting on the inequalities the crisis revealed and exacerbated, raising emergency funds and – most crucially – getting money to the people that needed it most.

Through the creativity and determination of street papers and their vendors, and the support of readers, our network has weathered this storm. Some are still struggling, facing challenges like increasing costs, increased competition for funding, and reduced footfall in our towns and cities. But many are stronger and more resilient from the experience.

Street papers will continue to have such an important role addressing the continued challenges we face. They will be there offering opportunity, offering hope, offering a lifeline for marginalised people, and supporting increasing numbers of people who are losing their jobs, struggling to make ends meet or being displaced by climate events and war. And they will continue to innovate, blaze a trail and produce brilliant journalism while they’re at it.

I’m grateful to the hundreds of staff and volunteers, the thousands of vendors, the millions of readers who have and continue to make the street paper movement as powerful and important as it is.

Maree presents at the street paper awards during the INSP Summit in Hanover, Germany in 2019. That year, INSP celebrated its 25th anniversary. Credit: Selim Korycki.

Part of the magic of INSP is in the willingness of our street papers to support and help each other. As individual street papers grow and mature, the network grows stronger and more able to support smaller street papers and those just starting out.

As our street papers have developed and matured, so too has INSP. I’m proud of what INSP has achieved since it’s humble beginnings 28 years ago and I’m honoured to have had the opportunity to play a part in this. And I’ll be forever grateful to so many people in our network – I’ve learned so much from them and been so inspired.

Right before the pandemic, INSP moved into the same building as The Big Issue in Glasgow. And although we’ve not been there as much as we should have been due to the lockdowns, it really is the perfect base for INSP. It’s like coming home in many ways. It’s great to be connected to street paper staff so regularly, and in real life. And it’s great to see the vendors come and go as they buy their magazines. It reminds us why we do what we do.

Maree sells The Big Issue during a 'Big Sell' event during Vendor Week in 2016 to raise money for INSP and street paper vendors. Credit: Euan Ramsay.

There is so much still to do to grow and evolve to meet current challenges and the needs of our network. But INSP is currently in a good place with a bright future ahead. Our brilliant team have been working hard and are looking forward to unveiling some exciting things in the weeks ahead. I know new leadership will breathe life into INSP and Mike Findlay will lead INSP into an exciting new chapter.

Next week I start a new role and, as excited as I am, I know I’ll miss the people who make up this network and being a part of this amazing movement.

So, I’ll keep buying The Big Issue.

I’ll continue to champion street papers.

I’ll stay in touch with the many friends I’ve made along the way.

And I’ll enjoy watching from the side-lines as INSP and its street papers continue to change the world, one street paper at a time.