The United Streets of America: Memphis’s student run street paper The Bridge

By Maggie Youngs, The Contributor

The Bridge, a student run non-profit street paper in Memphis aims to empower those experiencing homelessness in the city.

The paper was founded in 2013 by three Rhodes College students: Evan Katz, Caroline Ponseti and James Eckenstedt. Inspired by The Contributor, they saw a problem in their community and wanted to be a part of the solution.

They connected with Israel Bayer, director of the International Network of Street Papers North America, who helped them navigate how to best translate a street paper model in Memphis. They also met with Tom Wills, co-founder of The Contributor, and other volunteers there to better understand the organization’s infrastructure and operations.

The Bridge officially gained its 501(c)(3) status as a non-profit organization in April of 2014 and is currently the only fully student run street paper in the world affiliated with the International Network of Street Papers. The organization strives to engage in and serve the Memphis community while also creating an opportunity for students to grow in their writing, business and leadership skills.

The paper is currently run by a team of 25 students at Rhodes College and led by a core executive team, including fourth-year student Emma Figarsky. The Contributor talked with Figarsky about running the paper.

Courtesy of The Bridge

How did you get involved with The Bridge and what is your current role?

I got involved with The Bridge in the fall of 2018. I had been a part of student run newspapers in high school and was really intrigued by the mission of The Bridge. I was excited to be a part of a newspaper that had such an impact on the community. I started in the marketing department of the group and later became the head of marketing. I currently serve as a co-executive director alongside Ellen Lemm.

How does The Bridge differ from other street papers?

The Bridge is run completely by student volunteers. Because it is a student organization, there are more turnovers in leadership than with other street papers. This can create challenges, but it also gives students an opportunity to gain a lot of experience. Additionally, although The Bridge is a student organization, it doesn’t receive funding directly from Rhodes, and so students are also responsible for fundraising to continue the operations of the paper.

How has The Bridge had to pivot over the last year given the pandemic?

When the pandemic hit, we had to stop printing the paper. At the time, we had been printing a new issue every month. It took us a minute to figure out how we were going to adjust. Early on in the summer, we had a fundraiser that allowed us to create care packages for vendors. The care packages included a stipend, masks, gloves and resource packets, including basic information about COVID and local pantries, but we knew this was only a temporary supplement.

Courtesy of The Bridge

We also tried to maintain contact with vendors through a phone hotline, assessing vendor needs and making them aware of the community resources available to them. We wanted to further support the community, but felt the pressure of being a student organization required to follow school health protocols. However, although we had to stop our monthly issues, we pivoted to posting weekly articles online to continue creating awareness of homelessness and the organization.

What has been the biggest challenge of The Bridge over the last year?

Not being able to be face to face with vendors changes everything. It’s been really difficult to maintain connections with vendors throughout the pandemic especially since many don’t have consistent access to phones or computers. We have a hotline phone number, which we have been able to use to talk with many of our vendors, but the limited physical contact has made connection difficult nonetheless.

What are the current plans for The Bridge moving forward?

We anticipate that the papers will begin to continue rolling out again. We hope to distribute The Bridge to vendors at St. Mary’s Cathedral, a church that is central to the homeless community here in Memphis and where we have held distribution in the past. The energy of our student volunteers has been both promising and relieving, full of excitement to train new vendors and begin selling again. We’re hopeful for what this summer will bring for The Bridge and the homeless community here in Memphis.