The Power of Storytelling - My Journey into using Social Media to Create Social Change.
Written by Justin Chan, Founder of The Community Company.
June 3rd, 2019.
“I’ll have a Quarter Pounder with cheese, extra pickles, no onions, extra mustard, large fries, and a large Root Beer. No Ice.”
My journey into creating social change started with a not-so-simple fast food order that I still remember in complete detail.
In the winter of 2015, I began my first internship in Toronto. As a finance student, landing a co-op job on Bay Street for a prestigious investment firm was the academic equivalent of winning the lottery twice.
My ambition, my goals, and my dreams were all unfolding in front of me as I was immersing myself in the world of business.
Like every other major city, Toronto’s downtown streets are shared with those experiencing homelessness. On the morning of my very first commute, I walked in a mob of what felt like an entire suburb exiting the station simultaneously. I noticed that everyone ahead of me ignored those sitting on our sidewalks. Not knowing any better and pleading ignorance, I did the same.
Homelessness is a complex issue, and it’s so much easier to avoid eye contact than to acknowledge the problem exists.
Once you lock eyes with someone experiencing homelessness, you’ve humanized them and you’ll feel an innate desire to help and a rush of guilt if you don’t.
One gentleman stood out to me - he had an unbreakable smile on his face, even as the temperature dipped below freezing. He sat there every day with his thumbs up and wished everyone a good morning; how he stayed happy in the frigid cold and after being rejected so many times is beyond me.
I began expecting to see him every morning in the same spot, holding the same sign, and sharing the same positive message.
While I knew nothing about him, he was growing on me and he felt like a friend.
Then one morning, he disappeared. He wasn’t in his usual spot and I was instead staring directly at the cold, hard concrete floor. His blanket was still there, but it was covered in a foot of snow. While I pride myself on how level-headed I am with my emotions, this moment hit me like a freight train; my heart sunk and I broke down in tears right when I got into the office.
Many thoughts were racing in my mind, but the prevalent one was wondering if he would still be sitting there if I had just talked to him. What if he was close to moving into an apartment? What if he just needed to brave the cold for a few more days but his body finally gave in on him? I felt regret, pain, and guilt all at once.
I let my ignorance get in the way of humility and I actively ignored someone who was vulnerable in my own community.
Thankfully, he was back in his usual spot the next morning. I greeted him with a burst of joy. We agreed on having lunch together and he went up to the clerk and said the longest order ever recorded: I’ll have a Quarter Pounder with cheese, extra pickles, no onions, extra mustard, large fries, and a large Root Beer. No Ice.
Jeremy and I are similar – we are both millennials, we have similar taste in music and shows, and we both enjoy storytelling. While him and I have a lot in common, we also had vastly different upbringings.
Growing up, I had two parents that loved and supported me, while his were not around through no fault of his own. As a teenager, I had the privilege of playing competitive sports at school, while he experienced physical abuse in a foster home he didn’t choose to live in. Now as an adult, I am working and pursuing my dreams, while he is panhandling and dreaming of a life he wish he had.
Over a warm meal, he shared with me what he found most difficult about his situation. He said that more difficult than finding food or shelter, the hardest part was the fact that he is regularly ignored by society.
At that moment, it Occurred to me that I was part of the problem. By being one of the thousands of people who ignored him on My way to work, I made his life more difficult than it already was.
What pained me was that I didn’t ignore Jeremy because I hated him, I ignored him because I was so caught up with my own life. It is so much easier to look away than it is to stop and chat for a few minutes. There’s a time and place to connect with people like Jeremy, and it just wasn’t on my way to work. I had my “Aha!” moment when I got back to school and reflected on this experience.
I wanted to share Jeremy’s story with the world, and to show everyone how amazing of a person he is.
I started a social media project, Homeless in Waterloo, with the purpose of bridging the gap between homelessness and our community through storytelling. We share stories of people like Jeremy to provide a voice for the voiceless, and to humanize those experiencing homelessness. We ask questions like what their dreams are, their favourite childhood memories, and any messages they want to share with the community.
Personal stories of homelessness resonated with the community, as every story was read by over 14,000 people in the Waterloo Region. Individuals reached out by the dozens and offered support in any way they could. 7,500+ items of food, countless gift cards, guitars, mattresses, and even a room in a house were offered to the individuals who shared their story on our platform - all this happened because of social media.
Additionally, many individuals connecting with our content were people who wouldn’t normally engage with homelessness - groups like youth, university students and young professionals. Our platform became a hub where individuals could learn about homelessness first hand at their own pace and at a level they are comfortable with, as well as have healthy discussions around topics by commenting on stories. We were also able to refer many individuals who were keen on learning more to established organizations and homeless shelters in the area.
Social media is such a powerful tool for creating social change in a community.
While I handed off Homeless in Waterloo to a passionate student after graduating, I continued building personal relationships with those experiencing adversity in our community, learning more about the unique challenges they face, and understanding the role that social media plays in all of that.
I’ve learned that those experiencing adversity such as homelessness, surviving an abusive relationship, or overcoming disabilities, typically rely on government resources to get by. While these resources are important, they lack empowerment and simply put, people don’t feel good using them. Building on everything I learned from my previous project, I felt ready to start my first social business. The Community Company was founded to empower those most vulnerable in our community. We partner with those experiencing adversity to create products with a purpose.
Our mission is to journey alongside our partners and provide a hands-on opportunity to become a creator.
We don’t offer to change people’s circumstances simply because we can’t – rather we are offering a unique entrepreneurial experience to create a product that the community values and purchases for money. We’ve co-created amazing and useful products such as holiday cards, tote bags, and a self-care box.
Like Homeless in Waterloo, we are changing the stigma surrounding social issues individuals in our community face through storytelling - our partners are subject matter experts who have a wealth of knowledge on the adversity that they’ve experienced.
We are a social business and as such, 50% of our business profits are shared with our partners to help achieve their short-term goals. To date, we’ve collaborated with 7 community partners and have shared $1,166 in profits. We met with one of our partners, Andrew, last month to deliver his first profit sharing cheque for $100 and he perfectly summarized what we’re all about.
“This is important because it goes contrary to my core beliefs of myself. It proves to myself that I am worthy, that I can do good, and that I do have a lot to contribute.”
The purpose of our blog is to share knowledge, resources, and firsthand experiences on the different types of adversity those in our community experience. Look forward to posts on topics such as empowerment, homelessness and inclusive language. If you connected with my journey into becoming a changemaker, please share this project with a friend and help us raise awareness. You can find our Facebook page here.
If you are financially able, click the button below to purchase a product and help us empower those most vulnerable.
Our latest set of products were created by three individuals overcoming homelessness. You can learn more about it below.