History and visibility: telling the stories of those we ignore

The Big Issue Magazine is Australia’s most successful social enterprise. It has put a whopping $25 million into the pockets of Australia’s homeless and disadvantaged community over the course of the last 20 years. And yet, there are still people who live or work in Sydney who have never noticed the vendors in their fluorescent yellow vests and red caps, selling magazines to passers-by. We all exist in the same space as these homeless or disadvantaged folks, but sometimes it’s as if we inhabit totally different worlds. We rush back and forth, living out our busy and comfortable lives—and never stop to look around at those who are worse off. They are (we think) irrelevant and therefore invisible to us.
Working with the Big Issue to organise their records and to construct a history of their work is about making that story of empowerment and social justice visible. And working on a dynamic timeline of The Big Issue with the vendors themselves is about nurturing their pride in the organisation that does so much for them. The colourful exhibit on their garage wall, that we create together, will stick around as a reminder of The Big Issue’s philosophy: your story is what you make of it.
To future students of HSTY3902: don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. I am very much an outsider at The Big Issue—not simply because these are new people I’ve never met, but because of my socio-economic status. This project has been both confronting and a chance for personal growth; it has taught me that history can help us begin to break down social segregation in our own worlds, even as we attempt to do so on paper. Go outside your community. If you think about it, all historians are outsiders: none of us inhabited the worlds we study and analyse. So when you choose an organisation to work with for your project, think about all the invisible barriers in your world, and set out to tear them down.