1) Why did you start Invisible People. tv, and specifically, Road Trip U. S. A. ?
Sixteen years ago, I had a very good job in the television industry. Fifteen years ago, I became homeless, living on Hollywood Boulevard. I rebuilt my life to a point where I had a three-bedroom house and a 780 credit score, then in 2007 the economy took a nosedive. Like many Americans, I found myself unemployed, living off my credit cards, and hoping for the best. The best never came, but several layoffs — along with foreclosure on my house — did.
By November 2008, I found myself once again laid off. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted and, to be honest, I was scared of once again living on the streets of Hollywood. I could see homelessness all around me, but I couldn’t bear to look. I was turning away because I felt their pain.
Don't waste a good crisis. It’s a simple concept and it’s how InvisiblePeople. tv started. For the most part I had lost everything but some furniture, my car, a box of photos, laptop, small camera, and my iPhone. My laptop could not cut video because it had a 5400 drive. Videos need to have a music bed, nice graphics, b-roll and be well-produced. But after looking at what I didn't have and all the problems that were stopping me, I decided to just use what I had. I registered a domain, changed the header on a WordPress theme, grabbed my camera, and started to interview people.
I honestly didn't think anyone would even view the videos. I was really doing it to release something that was deep down inside me, and to be candid, to keep busy. It was a really dark time and InvisiblePeople. tv gave me a purpose.
I'll never forget going into the first tent city. It was 400 yards in a wooded area where no help could easily arrive if I found myself in trouble. I questioned my sanity walking in there with a camera and a bag of socks. One smart thing I did was blast what I was doing all over social media so people could feel like they were right there with me. That day my life changed. People started to tweet me encouragement and all kinds of support. The InvisiblePeople. tv road trip was born.
Last year I traveled 11,236 miles around the U.S. in a three-month period. I went under bridges, into tent cities, and walked through many shelters and rundown hotels. There was no way anyone could foresee the impact. I became a catalyst for change in several communities. Housing programs were started; feeding programs were started; 50 homeless kids who could not go to school because they didn't have shoes suddenly had brand new shoes within an hour of my visit thanks to social media. A farmer even donated 40 acres of land that is now even being used to supplement low income families in a local school. I could go on and on.
2) Do you consider your work citizen reporting, activism or a combination of both?
I am a storyteller. I also empower people to tell their own stories. Not sure you could frame me as a citizen journalist or activist even though there are elements to both in what I do. Beth Kanter coins the term "Free Agent" in her book “The Networked Nonprofit.” I like that.
3) Is there one story that has particularly inspired you to keep doing what you're doing?
Last year I met Angela, who is living under a bridge in Atlanta and she changed me. She is dying under that bridge...
When I asked what was being done to help her, the response I received was, "We bring her sandwiches.” Sandwiches are not enough. Up to that point I thought that people should do whatever they can do to help – even if it’s just baking cookies. After meeting Angela I realized people need housing, jobs and health services. So maybe your support level is just baking cookies. That's fine. But don't just randomly hand them out. Take your cookies to an organization that is providing housing, jobs and health services.
4) You've collected hundreds of interviews with homeless people around the world. Why do you think folks are willing to talk to you about their experiences? Are there any special tactics you use to draw out their stories?
The #1 rule is: respect everyone. I never force a story. In fact, the best stories are the ones I never get on camera. That's kind of why I don't feel citizen journalist fits me. I honestly put people before the story.
I also use socks to break the ice. Socks on the streets are like gold. Almost all organizations, churches or groups will feed homeless people. In most parks where homeless hang out churches will feed the same people all day long, but rarely are socks handed out. By handing a homeless person a clean pair of socks, even without saying a word, they know I know a thing or two about street life.
Once someone agrees to an interview and the camera is recording, I simply do my best to be a good listener. That's not always easy when my heart gets wrecked.
5) At the end of each video, you ask your subject, "If you had three wishes, what would they be?" What are your three wishes?
Back years ago, working as a TV producer, if an interview went dry I would distract and refocus by asking people their three wishes. When I first started InvisiblePeople. tv, I did it once in a while. I didn't know the impact that question had on the viewers. Then last year, when I spoke at the University of Arkansas, the organizer secretly had everyone in the audience write on large, white poster board their three wishes. When I was done speaking, they all held them up to show me. Talk about a powerful memory! From that moment on I have asked everyone what their three wishes are.
My first wish would be that people really see the reality of homelessness; second, that we develop communities and work as a team to solve this social crisis. The third? I would like security and normalcy in my life, but with a name like Hardly Normal, it's never going to happen!
Please always remember: the homeless people you’ll ignore today were much like you not so long ago.
Ramya Raghavan, Nonprofits & Activism Manager, recently watched "Cliff".