Recently I was lucky enough to take part in Vendor Week supporting the Big Issue foundation to highlight issues of homelessness and poverty.
The Vendor Week is a time when well known faces, public figures and supporters become vendors, selling the magazine for an hour or so and is supported by the International Network of Street Papers, a global network of more than 100 street magazines. As part of our commitment to working with all parts of the community I, on behalf of West Midlands Fire Service, went along to take part.
On the day of the experience and after arriving at The Big Issue Foundations HQ, my morning began in much the same way as a new vendors would have. I was offered a cup of tea and taken into a room to fill out some paperwork. This is an opportunity for the staff at the foundation to get to know you and identify areas where they can be of assistance. I was surprised to see the support started way before any magazines were sold, ranging from housing, addiction support to even visiting a dentist. We then watched a short induction video which featured tips and advice from other vendors. After being badged up and collecting my first magazines, I was ready to make my way to the “training pitch”, an area suitable for a new vendor like me.
I met with Ollie, a Big Issue vendor and my mentor for the next hour. He gave me some tips, most notably to smile then kindly stepped aside to let me sell on his pitch. I donned my vendor jacket and started my sales pitch. I had heard the vendor jackets had been likened to an invisibility cloak, and I was now started to see why. People avoid eye contact, or even worse avoid you completely by changing their course. I felt like a drop of washing up liquid in a bowl of oily water, with all the oil suddenly moving away to the edges. After a whole hour I had sold four magazines. I asked Ollie how he felt when people purposely don’t acknowledge him, he said he keeps smiling, remains polite and just carries on – but deep down it can get to you and it takes some getting used to.
As uniformed firefighters we are used to almost universal welcomes wherever we go, whether it’s the look of relief when arriving at an emergency, or the excited faces we see on our school visits. It’s no surprise given that the fire service was ranked as one of the most trusted professions. So to experience a complete reversal of that trust and respect just because I put on a Big Issue Vendor Jacket was quite an eye opening and humbling experience.
The Big Issue Foundation believes in hand ups not handouts, as each vendor first buys the magazines for £1.25 before selling them on their pitch for £2.50. It’s open to anyone blighted by poverty, giving people the opportunity to earn a legitimate income. Most importantly, they are then engaged with an organisation that can help tackle causes of financial and social exclusion. In much the same way as West Midlands Fire Services campaign of improving lives to save lives campaign seeks to tackle the causes and not just the problems.
So next time you see an Official Big Issue Vendor, don’t be afraid to speak to them and maybe even buy a magazine (it really is a good read!)
PS – Fancy giving it a go for yourself? Why not volunteer for a vendor experience yourself?
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