FACES of Nashville: Tasha Lemley

Tasha Lemley, co-founder of The Contributor, joins us today as our FACE of Nashville.

Where did you grow up?

Huntsville, Alabama.

How did find your way to Nashville?

By way of finishing my bachelor’s degree in Photojournalism at ACU in Abilene, Texas. Having grown up in Huntsville, I would make frequent trips to Nashville and liked the city. After graduation, I wanted to be closer to home—but not too close.

You are credited with co-founding The Contributor, Nashville’s newspaper that benefits the homeless population. How did that happen?

There was this one day when I met my first homeless man. Really met. I passed him on my way to work every day in downtown Nashville and we never addressed one another. One day it hit me, if he was a “normal” person we would have introduced ourselves to each other long ago. So, I thought, maybe looking for an adventure, or a prophet, or an answer to my own problems, “I’m going to do something really radical. Today I’m going to say hello.”

I was not looking to help someone. I was looking for help. But, that talk with “Lee,” (not his real name) and the friendly acquaintanceship that followed, was the gateway to founding The Contributor.

I was new in town, had a background in photojournalism and hoped to make a solid living as a graphic designer. I was turned down for positions at local publications and was working a job I felt was beneath me in a city that seemed to have endless possibilities. Inspired by Lee’s life, I began shadowing outreach workers in town—leading me to years of photographing and interviewing individuals living on the street. I eventually became an outreach worker myself.

Dozens of friendships and conversations later, I sat down with a group who understood the potential value of a street newspaper. Some were homeless, some not, some dedicated their lives to helping others in the room.

We discussed what a street paper was. We discussed the ins and outs of how one might look in Nashville. We aimed to publish a quality newspaper, well worth $1, that covered issues surrounding homelessness and poverty and to use that publication to create a source of income for people who had experienced homelessness. We launched our first paper on November 14, 2007.

(SB note: The other co-founder of The Contributor is Tom Wills)

Why is a newspaper like The Contributor important for our community?

The Contributor provides a flexible source of income for individuals in our community who need that flexibility at this time in their lives. All of our newspaper vendors have experienced homelessness and 50% are no longer homeless thanks, in part, to their paper sales. Beyond that, and even above that, the face-to-face interaction between people who have experienced homelessness and those who have not is the thing that is making the most difference in our community. That speech, that dialogue between neighbors is changing lives every day.

What is the biggest misconception that people have about the homeless population?

I think the misconception I run into most frequently is that most homeless people look homeless. It’s easy to look at the person who is literally on the street, unkempt, possibly with an odor of poverty, and believe that’s what a homeless person looks like. Yes, it’s true that person may be homeless and may need help, but I don’t find that’s how most homeless people appear. At The Contributor we’ve even been criticized for our newspaper vendors looking “too good.” I’m proud of our vendors for getting up in the morning and taking care in their appearance. It’s not simple for any of us, especially when things are rough. When a person’s life starts coming together—when they start healing—appearance and self-care are some of the first areas you’re able to visibly see improvement. It’s absurd to me that someone would hesitate to purchase a paper because someone doesn’t look like they have experienced homelessness. I’m humbled to be a part of an organization that tears down this stereotype by simply existing.

Is there a real life story you want to share with our readers of a person whose life has been dramatically affected by selling The Contributor?

One day, one of our longest-time vendors, I’ll call him “Brian,” came into our office and smiled a huge grin. He announced to me, “One of my customers is gonna pull 14 of my teeth!” A little shocked, I responded with, “Um, is this…legitimate?” He said, “Oh yeah! He’s a dentist!” I was relieved and so excited to hear this news. Dental needs are often life-or-death for people living on the street. So, this dentist saw a man, and loved him, and saw a need, and met it. Over all, I heard that he did many thousands of dollars worth of free work on Brian’s teeth, including a custom set of dentures. That dentist, Dr. Wiggs, has gone on to host multiple clinic days for our vendors, and Brian has been adopted by other customers who have helped him with his housing needs.

What is the greatest challenge facing The Contributor right now?

Right now, we are finding our sea legs after years of massive growth. In these five years, we’ve gone from 12 active newspaper vendors to 400, from publishing every other month to twice a month, circulating 5,000 issues per year to more than 1,500,000 per year and a volunteer staff of 2 to a paid staff of 9. We’re continuing to learn how to move forward and maintain the organization while redefining and understanding our work roles, and our staff relationships with each other, our vendors, and the community.

One specific challenge for us is to help customers understand that we need their direct support. They are a huge support to our vendors and are changing lives every day, however, there is a misunderstanding of what happens to the money they purchase the paper with. Some customers think they are donors to The Contributor because they give more than $1. That’s not the case. The entire purchase price, plus any tips, remain with the vendor. We don’t take that back. Their income is a huge part of our mission. They purchase papers up front from us for 25¢ each and those quarters make up about 60% of our yearly budget. We depend on individual support to make up the rest. I think if we can tap into that customer base, we will be financially stable for years to come.

Can you share a piece of valuable advice you have received?

A valuable piece of advice I received when starting The Contributor was to expect no paid staff for at least 2 years. We operated on purely volunteer steam for just over that before reaching a point where we needed to and could (sort of) afford to, hire some paid staff. That advice really let the pressure and anticipation off of me to depend on anyone other than volunteers. I didn’t go into this ever expecting to be paid and it was a big surprise, and relief, when this turned into a “real” job. I was working 3 paying jobs, aside from volunteer-directing The Contributor, until March of 2010. My drive just had to get me through those long, emotional, hours. I think it helped clarify what I wanted, and what the company needed, to do it for free for so long. It was a very purifying way to start.

What books are on your bedside table?

I don’t have a bedside table, so these are on bedside floor. The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron and Committed, by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve been trying to finish Committed for nearly two years. Got married in the meantime, so I guess it worked! The next ones on my list are How to Be Black, by Baratunde Thurston, Karma, by Kathy Ostlere, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. I’m a slow reader, so I likely just caught you up with the next year of my planned reading.

What do you do for relaxation and fun?

This is a tough one! My husband, Mark, and I currently have an ongoing dialogue about what “fun” is. We’re really stumped. We’ve seriously considered just doing what other people think is fun to see if any of it makes sense to us. We rode go-carts recently, but I kept trying to abide by local traffic laws. This is a serious search for us. Good concerts are good, we like to travel, and there’s some solid TV right now that I enjoy, like The Walking Dead, but that’s not exactly relaxing. We used to be religiously into World of Warcraft, and I still love it, but don’t currently have the time for the dedication it demands.

As far as relaxation goes, We’ve taken up some running in the last few years. We’re up to 5 miles and did honorably in the Boulevard Bolt last month. I believe that helps me find some relaxation in the rest of the day.

Most importantly, nearly every morning I read two short devotionals and some Bible, write in my journal, pray, and try to work in some meditations. Yes, it takes me forever to get out and about in the A.M., but it’s a healthy tradeoff. I struggle with anxiety, so the morning rituals help keep me balanced. Massages and manicures are always good, too.

Do you have a favorite place to eat in Nashville?

I fell in love with India two years ago. Really hard. I think that being fed is such an important experience. I’ve been embraced by and fed, physically and spiritually, by Indians in Nashville as well as abroad. I think all of the Indian restaurants in town are worth frequenting. However, my favorite feeding happens any time we get to eat at Sri Ganesha Temple or devotees’ houses. Not only do we get to experience their love and traditional homemade cuisine, they always send us home with armfuls of both. We are fed for days.

Is there an upcoming event that you are looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to the day I realize that I believe in God. The day I realize I’ve learned to live in the day. And the day I realize that I no longer am waiting for some landmark to tell me that I’m okay.

Name 3 things you can’t live without (excluding God, family, friends.)

Honestly, I see people every day who subsist only on the three things you’ve excluded. So, I must believe there’s not anything else we can’t live without—other than those, and the “boring” basics like air, water and food. Three things I don’t want to live without are my sanity, my senses and my dog.

Thank you Tasha. And many thanks to our photographer Ashley Hylbert for these fabulous photos today, and every Monday. For more behind-the-scenes photos, check out Ashley’s blog, HERE!

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