Lift the Caps, Let Vendors Work: An Interview with Kele Nkhereanye, NYC Street Vendor
Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, and how did you end up doing it?
My name is Kelebohile Nkhereanye (AKA Kele), I was born and raised in Maseru, Lesotho (Southern Africa) a country landlocked by South Africa. I came to New York City 41 years ago at the age of 13 and was already exposed to street vending as a value for economic empowerment.
I learned about street vending from my grandmother Esther Seutloali, who was self-employed in South Africa during apartheid. My grandmother had a home-based business selling cooked food-dinner plates, beer, liquor, and traditional clothing which she sewed herself using fabric used in Southern African called Seshoeshoe to make dresses and skirts. The family was able to lead a comfortable lifestyle whereby basic needs were met because both my grandparents were working. As a result, life was manageable.
After many years living and working in South Africa, my grandparents got tired of police brutality and raids at their home or neighbors’ houses. Then, the family decided to migrate to Maseru, Lesotho, built a house to find peace, and lead a lifestyle where racism was no longer an issue for the family. As a result, my grandmother continued her home-based business with support of my grandfather. She introduced selling excess produce to me since I was her oldest granddaughter.
I am sharing the story of my family values, to help the readers understand that while street vending is a job for some individuals, they did not only learn about street vending in New York City, but they make a choice based on their individual needs to earn an income.
I started selling grapes, tomatoes, peaches, apples, spinach, and cabbage because my family had a garden where they grew fruit trees and vegetables. I was allowed to sell excess produce to reduce waste and support people who lived in single room occupancy away from their rural areas or family because they were working in the city. Those experiences helped me to understand my responsibility as an immigrant and inspired me support street vendors.
Also, it is important to understand street vending is hard work, one needs to have capital for investment, products to sell, table or cart to use to bring products to the customers, shopping for affordable profit making, and carrying heavy boxes up and down stairs depending on where an individual resides. Considering street vending is hard work, I have asked for help for many years as a street vendor. However, these days my work for street vendors is through the guidance of Street Vendor Project in learning about public policy, advocacy, marching, rallies, participating in public hearing like Intro-1116, helping educate people about who are street vendors, and what are some of street vendors values considering there are many misconceptions? People have to remember street vending is work and people need to work to support their families.
What do you see as the central challenge facing street vendors in NYC right now?
The central challenges for vendors include getting permits, licenses, working together with business improvements districts especially in New York City, and nationally because there are no laws in place to give street vendors opportunities to feel safe selling on public spaces. There are no shared values working and sharing resources to empower informal workers as part of national economic mobility for people who mostly immigrants. Also, there is an ongoing interest to build strong relationships between vendors because there some issues when it comes to veterans and other vendors when it comes to supporting legislation to lift caps on permits in NYC. I am hopeful, public officials, city agencies and stakeholders will come up with laws which support all stakeholders by creating jobs for all and respecting culturally appropriate work.
Your advocacy often focuses on appealing to politicians to protect worker rights. Are there other points of leverage in the food system we can use to improve conditions for street vendors?
Since I support both food justice and street vending, it would be great to have a chance to hear how best our public officials plan to improve our food system considering people need access to local, fresh, healthy, seasonal food in all communities. Vendors may make an impact in supporting accessibility and affordability of fresh food in lower income communities. However, I am not aware of policies which support these two groups to support each other. It was an honor to be involved to NESAWG as an advisory board member from Street Vendor Project.
Street Vendor Project has a strong community of leaders among street vendors. How do you support their leadership? What happens when someone is new and just getting involved?
It is important to remember Street Vendor Project (SVP) provide legal services and advocate for vendors. There are 15 leadership board members who are all street vendors elected annually to support the mission of SVP. Therefore, leadership and decision making are shared between the staff and leadership board, while advisory board does other activities. I am a street vendor, even though I was on the advisory board and my commitment is to support the organization’s mission and share my experiences with other stakeholders to educate them about vendors as workers who need to make income to support their families with basic needs. As result, they need to be treated with respect whether they have permits or licenses; my belief is human rights are workers’ rights.
What lessons have you individually learned along the way? What lessons has SVP learned along the way?
As an individual, I am honored to increase knowledge about the work of street vendors under the leadership from Street Vendor Project. It is important to bring visibility to what is happening on the streets because vendors need to work and support their families. It is not easy to be out on the street without proper documentation. However, I am thankful to all the stakeholders who support street vendors to continue to fight for diversity and inclusion in the workforce. Even though, there are corporations and real estate companies with power and money who encourage harassment of street vendors.
What would you like folks to know about street vendors? How would you like them to act in solidarity with vendors?
As a street vendor, I would like for people to listen and understand what street vendors need, instead of making assumptions. Vendors are human and they need to work, some are committed to being bosses to create employment for their community members and pay taxes while growing their businesses. Street vendors need to participate in global economies and Street Vendor Project needs allies who can help change policies and help lift caps in New York City.