one million pencils

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A New Venture

When I was heading to the train back home after my first semester at UC Berkeley, I was stopped by a homeless man. He noticed that among the things I was carrying, I had a box of art supplies. He explained to me that he too was an artist, and wanted to know if I had a ballpoint pen, which I was happy to share with him. I also offered him a novel from a collection that I’d been given by one of my professors. When I showed him the titles, he told me that he had read them all, and wanted me to have the chance to enjoy them as he did.

It’s now two semesters later, and I am still thinking about this man. There is no shortage of homeless people in Berkeley. That man was not the last homeless person who has surprised me, and the more that I (safely) engage with the people I encounter on the streets, the more I’ve come to recognize just how much talent surrounds me. I’ve met poets and comedians, artists and sculpturists, and come to realize just how important expression can be for a subset of people who often feel invisible, despite living in plain sight.  

And that was how I got the idea for a new project--Streetinx--to bring the art of the homeless in Berkeley to a wider audience. My vision is to find ways to showcase and sell (with permission) the art of the homeless that I work with, and use those proceeds to give back to the many Berkeley organizations who work with them. We are starting small, by selling simple postcards, and as we develop connections with local artists we will gradually be able to help them sell more complicated pieces. Eventually, the dream is to work our way up to an art show.

Below is one of my favorite postcards that we made with a woman in early November. It was our first test with a large group (previously we’d only walked the streets to see if random people were interested in doing art projects, to mixed success) and we were surprised by how excited people were to participate. We thought most people would humor us before moving on, but we spent an hour chatting with the women who were there, and often people would see how beautifully simple (and hypnotic—check out this video that I made of the type of art that we are doing) the cards we made were, and would stop by without us even asking them to join us.

fire in the streets.jpg

I’ve had the chance to carry out a few of my ideas with a partner (actually, many of the ideas that we’re following right now are hers) this year in an entrepreneurship class that I am taking through the Haas School of Business. Because of the nature of the artists I work with, as well as the entrepreneurial aspects of my project, I cannot count on any static plan to follow. Instead I’ve been developing a model that I can adjust, pivot, and scale.

This semester I’ve been conducting tests to inform me how to best carry out this vision. Some of them look a little bit like this:

  • Speaking with organizations who already work with the homeless, to learn how feasible my and my partner’s ideas are, and how much good we can actually do with them. A successful interview often has ended in them offering to partner with us.

  • Hitting the streets of Berkeley and doing art projects with the homeless, to see how interested people are in doing easy art projects with strangers.

  • Gauging the interest of local bookstores in carrying our product, vs store-made products (we are currently experimenting with a postcard with homeless art on it).

So far we have four partner organizations, as well as eight leads for other places that may allow us to throw events or contact artists. None of the above ideas are set in stone, so most importantly we are allowing ourselves the space to pivot the idea and find the greatest way to give back to the artists that we serve. One of our partners stressed to us that even if this idea doesn’t work out as we want, we will still have given people a platform for expression that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.  The explained that they couldn’t emphasize enough how important this is, and so I’m optimistic that as I continue to learn and make mistakes, none of this time spent will be a waste.

Meg Shriber