Tasha (French '00) Lemley | Journalism & Mass Communication

tasha french lemley

"Newspapers aren’t dead. In fact, one's keeping us alive." – from an ad campaign for The Nashville Contributor

In a time when print publications are on the decline and screen publications are rapidly growing, a Nashville nonprofit relies on the sale of its newspaper to keep vendors going.

The rest of us have the opportunity to hide our challenges. We get to wear make-up and dress nicely, and no one has to know that we are struggling. But with the homeless community, they are so far beyond being able to hide their experiences; they wear them on the surface. There was an honesty there that I was really hungry for.

The Contributor, a nonprofit in Nashville, Tenn., prints a twice-monthly "street newspaper." ACU graduate Tasha French Lemley ('00) founded this initiative as a way to provide the homeless of Nashville with a job they could be proud of that also meets their financial needs.

A "street newspaper" is a term for a newspaper that focuses on issues surrounding homelessness and poverty and is sold by homeless and formerly homeless individuals on the street.

The Contributor was inspired by French Lemley's own experience of developing a friendship with a homeless man. 

Empowering a forgotten community

The Contributor has an average monthly circulation of 120,000 copies and is the highest-circulating street newspaper of its kind in North America. The paper is sold by vendors, who are homeless or formerly homeless. The Contributor has about 400 active vendors per month.

After an interview and training process, vendors receive a "official vendor" badge and are given 15 free papers to sell on public sidewalks. This is the vendors' money to keep. If they want to keep selling, the vendors may purchase papers from The Contributor for 25 cents each and resell for $1.

Selling The Contributor is empowering. The homeless of Nashville are given a chance to regain control of their life. Vendors are their own micro-businesses and must discover how to sell their personal brand to customers, budget their earnings, and discern how much to invest in their venture. Many vendors have worked their way off living on the streets, and 35 percent of Contributor vendors have found housing since selling papers, according to the non-profit.

Rocky beginnings

French Lemley has not only made a significant impact on Nashville's homeless community, but also has served as an inspiration to many for her dedication to The Contributor.

She was recipient of the 2009 Titans Community Quarterback award, given to the top volunteer in the state of Tennessee in 2009; is president on the board of directors of the North American Street Newspaper Association; and was a recipient of the ACU Gutenberg award given to outstanding alumni of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department.

While she has accomplished so much, it was her rocky beginnings after graduation that led French Lemley to her current position.

After graduating in 2000 with a degree in photojournalism and a passion for graphic design, she set out to the big city of Nashville in hopes of finding her dream design job. But the dream job didn't come along. 

"I was pretty discouraged by this and questioned whether graphic design is what I wanted to do. I did some searching for what my passion was and kept my eyes open for what inspired me," she recalls.

At the time she was working in downtown Nashville and passed the same homeless man every day on her way to work.  One day she decided to do something radical; she said "hello," and introduced herself. This led to friendly conversations over the next few days with the man, named Don. This led French Lemley to photograph the man and make a few portraits.

"I had a background in photojournalism and have a passion for it, but I had not been inspired to photograph anybody in quite some time. I became inspired by this guy," she says.

After this experience, she shadowed outreach workers as they did their rounds around the city. She photographed and interviewed different individuals who were experiencing life on the street. 

Through her interest in homelessness and homeless friends she had made, French Lemley was aware of street newspapers in other cities. Inspired by Grand Central Winter, a book written by the formerly homeless Lee Stringer who served as the editor of a past New York street newspaper, French Lemley decided in 2007 to start her own street newspaper.

Early challenges

Along with a few friends, French Lemley used her background in photojournalism and graphic design to create the first issue.

ACU’s Journalism and Mass Communication Department had provided her a background in photography, writing, graphic design and newspaper layout, which all came into play. "I learned such a diverse set of skills (at ACU) that I have been able to make an earning for other people using a subset of those skills," she says.

However, producing the first issue was only a part of the process. French Lemley and her helpers, including her husband, ACU graduate Mark Lemley ('00), and nephew, faced a few challenges upfront.

"When we started the paper, the things I thought we were going to struggle with were getting funding and content," says French Lemley. "And I thought we would have an easy time getting people to sell. It was actually quite the opposite."

Both funding and content came easily to the early Contributor. Homeless people wanted to write for the paper, outreach workers sent in content, and even Lee Stringer wrote a poem for the first issue. However, getting people to sell the first paper was a significant challenge.

"We were initially regarded with skepticism by the homeless community. They were used to lots of promises being told to people on the street, but those promises not being kept," French Lemley says.

It took about two years for The Contributor’s vendor force to grow. By 2009, people started realizing that vendors were making a decent living. Word-of-mouth spread quickly, and vendors started flooding in.

In addition to the growing number of vendors, The Contributor also increased its staff to nine people, including Linda Bailey ('11), editorial assistant, who graduated ACU with a degree in journalism. 

The Contributor's mission

Since its early beginnings, The Contributor has been dedicated to restoring dignity and hope to those experiencing homelessness.

"Our mission when we started The Contributor was only two things: to produce a quality publication that had good information about homelessness and poverty, and to use that publication as a source of income for those experiencing homelessness," French Lemley says.

The third part of the mission revealed itself to French Lemley over the last few years. It was not until she was at a speaking engagement that someone pointed out to her, "You've recreated your experience with Don all over Nashville."

"I had never thought of that. And it's my favorite part," says French Lemley. "Meeting Don and getting to know him was my gateway to this incredible world of an excuse to dialogue with people that are different than me, only to find out that they are not that different than me."

Through the mission of The Contributor, French Lemley has recreated the face-to-face interactions between people who have experienced homelessness and those who have not. By the end of 2012, The Contributor will have sold more than 3 million copies, meaning that more than 3 million face-to-face interactions have occurred between vendors and their customers.  

"Amazing things happen when names are exchanged, eyes meet, hands shake; perceptions are altered, and room for caring and community are created," French Lemley says. "I hear great stories from both sides of that economic divide, from customers and vendors, about what people have done for each other and how people have learned to love each other. 

"That is by far the best part of The Contributor for me right now."

(Photography by Ashley Hylbert) 

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