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Meet Willie Baronet of We Are All Homeless in Oak Cliff

Today we’d like to introduce you to Willie Baronet.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I bought my first homeless sign in 1993. I did it because I didn’t like the way I felt when I ignored people on the street. I figured I could do something art related with the sign, but had no idea that it would turn into a 25-year long project that would result in 4 TEDx talks (so far), a feature-length documentary, exhibits, and presentations across the country, and media attention from around the world. The project really became more focused after I sold my ad agency in 2006 and went to grad school. It was there that I began to explore this project at a deeper level. I had my first art show related to this work in 2009 at the Hal Samples Gallery in Deep Ellum. Many exhibits followed, and in 2012 during a TEDx talk, I shared that I wanted to travel the country buying signs.

That led to a trip in 2014 from Seattle to New York, where we traveled 7620 miles in two rent cars buying signs in 22 cities. There were four of us on the trip, there to make a feature-length documentary about the experience. The documentary also included a large exhibit in New York in 2015 which featured all the signs from that trip. Signs of Humanity, the documentary, has been featured in 8 film festivals in the U.S. and Australia, and we are currently in the process of finding distribution so the public is able to view it. Exhibits continue, including installations at both political conventions in July of 2016, exhibits in London and Cambridge, and one at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, MI, the largest public art event in the world.

The biggest blessing of this project is getting to share it with groups all over the place, particularly students. And seeing the ripples as it gets shared online and in the media. Just a couple of months ago, I was mentioned on Twitter by a school in the UK. Their students were doing a capstone art project about homelessness and they mentioned being influenced by three artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Henry Moore, and me. I’ve collected thousands of responses, comments, and notes about the project and I’m reminded every day how grateful I am for all that I have. I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories, met so many amazing people, and have been inspired by brilliant students, my own and others I get to interact with.

What started as a random weird idea has turned into a lifelong project, which has taught me so much about compassion and how we treat each other as humans. It’s also given me perspective on my own home life, allowed me to collaborate creatively with one of my sisters, and impacted my (complex) relationship with my dad, with whom I’ve been able to share some of this work. Grateful for that too.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
On one hand, I’m compelled to say that none of my challenges or obstacles are that significant, in light of what I get to learn about those on the street. A serious case of first world problems.

The biggest consistent challenge has been how to fund our impact campaign, and all the projects we have in the works. A web series, a tv series, finishing our first book “What is Home?” There are other bodies of artwork related to this that I’d like to produce as well, and there is a very long list of other ideas to spread this awareness. There were so many generous angels who helped us get our documentary produced, for which I’m so grateful. I’m now trying to navigate this next phase, and finding the best way to get it all to put together.

There are less glamorous aspects of this project that require funding and support as well. Organizing, documenting, photographing the signs. Managing social media. PR. Constantly updating our database, website, etc.

For the team that traveled across the country working on the film (Tim, Eamon, Liv and myself), there was also the need for us to check in with each other and process all the emotional impact of our interviews day after day. It requires attention to make sure that we weren’t internalizing all the stories, pain and heartache.

WE ARE ALL HOMELESS – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
WE ARE ALL HOMELESS is the name of the project, and the impact campaign, which is managed through the Dallas Foundation (so grateful to them!) is called the WE ARE ALL HOMELESS Impact Campaign. I’m most proud of the perseverance this project has required. I’ve now been buying signs for 25 years, and continue to say yes when I’m asked to do exhibits, presentations or screenings to continue this important discussion. It means I have to say no to other things, and that is painful sometimes. But I’m grateful for all the amazing and generous people I get to meet, both on the streets and elsewhere. I’m often reminded of one of the bit lessons from doing this work: that there is no us and them. There is only us.

There are many homeless related projects out there and many of them are incredible. Some are art projects, some are related to policy and activism, many tackle different aspects of this very complex homelessness problem. Healthcare, veteran’s issues, mental health, domestic abuse, child abuse, job training, education, dental care, grooming and self-care issues, addiction, felon’s issues, housing, hunger, clothing, etc. There are so many great organizations tackling one or more of these problems. HelpUSA (based in New York), The Bridge (Dallas), The Stewpot (Dallas), Vogel Alcove (Dallas), Community First (Austin), Housing Crisis Center (Dallas), and this is just a partial list, there are many great ones all over the country.

What sets us apart (I believe) is our focus on awareness and compassion, which is the foundation for making all the other efforts possible and achievable. It’s also the intersection of art and activism, which allows us to engage people in a different way. It allows them to confront their own judgments and feelings without the immediacy of a homeless person in front of them. It also allows them to look at the stories they may tell themselves about people on the street, and how that might be different from the truth. If I had a dollar for every person who has said or written to me: “Your project has completed changed the way I look at the homeless” I would be well on my way to achieving my fundraising goals.

What is “success” or “successful” for you?
I realize this is a long journey, and that we’ll likely never completely solve “homelessness” and I don’t worry so much about that as a goal.

For me, I choose to look at success in the small ripples that happen along the way. The smile and warmth I get to experience when I buy someone’s sign, and get to hear their story. The people who come up to me in tears after walking through an exhibit to share a story about a family member, or simply to tell me they have changed the way they are going to interact with the people they encounter on the street. The students who come up with brilliant ideas about how to solve some aspect of homelessness, or who start their own projects after being inspired by an exhibit or a presentation. The chance for me to work on homeless quilts with my sister, and watch her creativity and enthusiasm. The comments and notes I get from around the world from people sharing a story about a friend or family member who was on the streets. The sign I got from a former student, which belonged to her brother who had passed away. The friends and strangers who now buy signs from all around the country and send them to me, along with stories of the people they meet. My relationship with Eddie Dunn, whose sign I bought in Philly during our cross-country trip, and who contacted me almost 2 years later to tell me he was no longer using heroin, had a job, and also had a new grandson, who I met again in Philly during the 2016 DNC exhibit where he got to see his sign as part of an installation, and then months later joined me on the TEDx stage to tell his story in a way that I could never do alone.

I also define success by the momentum of this project, and that it continues. That I bought 4 signs in New York a couple of weeks ago while touring ad agencies with my students. That I’ll be speaking to the United Way Michigan conference this June. That I’m doing another research project with a Ph.D. in Philly this July with Jefferson University and will be doing an exhibit and presentation there in the Fall. That I’ll be doing another exhibit at this year’s ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. That I have engagements through this coming Fall and in 2019. That despite being tired some days, I’m still inspired to keep going, keep creating, keep listening, keep encouraging.

I don’t know where this ends up, but I’m cool with that.

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