Street Roots’ Cole Merkel wins Skidmore Prize for work with vendors

Street Roots’ Cole Merkel has been awarded a major prize in recognition of his tireless work to support the street paper’s vendors in Portland, Oregon, USA.

The Willamette Week Give!Guide 2016 Skidmore Prize is awarded each year to people who “do fabulous work for local nonprofits” and are aged under 36.

Cole Merkel along with the other winners of the Skidmore Prize 2016. Photo: Thomas Teal

“It’s absolutely incredible to receive this recognition!” Cole told INSP. “Working with people experiencing homelessness and poverty can be traumatising, and from time to time it can be hard to see how the work we’re doing is impacting our broader community. Thus it’s validating, not just for me, but for the entire Street Roots team to be recognised in such a meaningful way.”

As the paper’s Vendor Program Director, Cole oversees support for Street Roots’ 150 sellers – helping them sell 9,000 papers a week.

Like all of the world’s 100+ street papers, Street Roots offers an income opportunity for people experiencing homelessness and poverty. Vendors buy the paper for 25 cents and sell them on for $1, allowing them to work their way out of poverty.

“The vendors are by far the most inspiring people I’ve ever met,” Cole added. “Every single day 150 men and women are selling the paper to make a better life for themselves. This award goes out to the vendors.”

“Cole’s service to our community and Street Roots is beyond amazing”

He also had warm words for the Street Roots staff team. “Through all that we face and all that we report on – the good and bad – the staff at Street Roots stays positive, optimistic and works as hard as possible to support the vendors in any way they can, all while producing some of the best journalism in the city. I’m so grateful that I get to work beside such a supportive staff.”

Cole was nominated for the prize by the street paper’s Executive Director Israel Bayer, himself a former Skidmore Prize winner, and Welcome Home Coalition Executive Director Jessica Larson.

Israel said: “I’m so proud of the great Cole Merkel for being the Willamette Week Give!Guide 2016 Skidmore Prize winner. Cole’s service to our community and Street Roots is beyond amazing. His dedication to people on the streets and his unwavering resilience in the face of relentless trauma and poverty is more than inspiring.”

Jessica Larson said she felt lucky to work with Cole.

“Cole is a joy, he is a rock, he is a ball of fun and yet always heart-centred. It’s clear that Cole’s work isn’t a job. It’s a calling, a way of life, a vocation, a love and a passion. He’s integrated his whole being into his work life, without sacrificing his whole being as so many of us social workers do! It’s a profound and yet simple magic to watch at work,” she added.

Cole Merkel collects his Skidmore Prize. Photo: Thomas Teal

INSP Operations Manager Zoe Greenfield said that Cole was an inspiration to street paper staff internationally: “Cole is always there to offer support and to share his knowledge and experience with his street paper colleagues around the world.”

She added: “At INSP we are privileged to call Cole our colleague and friend. I’ve been lucky enough to experience new paper day at Street Roots and to see first-hand the relationships Cole has built with Street Roots vendors.

“Congratulations to Cole from everyone at INSP, this award is well-deserved. You are an inspiration to others working to battle the daily reality of rising urban poverty and homelessness.”

Cole was recognised alongside Janice Martellucci (Peace in Schools), Jasmine Pettet (Outside In), Daisha Tate (North by Northeast Community Health Center) and Casey Block (College Possible).

The Willamette Week is one of Portland’s local weekly newspapers, and their annual Give!Guide is held every year from November and December to fundraise for 141 local nonprofits. It is one of Street Roots bigger fundraisers of the year.

“At INSP we are privileged to call Cole our colleague and friend”

Announced in the Give!Guide, the Skidmore Prize is named for the Skidmore Fountain in Portland’s Old Town (just a few blocks from the Street Roots office) which has the following quote inscribed on it: ‘Good Citizens Are the Riches of a City’.

This year’s five Skidmore Prize winners received their awards, including prizes of $4,000 each, at a gala ceremony on 2 November at Revolution Hall.

Cole said it was a wonderful experience. “The awards ceremony was great! I got to stand on a stage with people doing meaningful work across our city and was able to talk about why Street Roots is important to our community,” he explained. “It’s basically a big party for Portland’s nonprofit community, so it’s always fun to be in a room of peers who are working to make this city and this world a better place and who are taking an evening to relax.”

Photos: Thomas Teal