Young People Are the Largest Voting Group. Will They Decide the Election?

Young people are the largest voting demographic, making up 40% of the population. Their votes could decide the election. What’s at stake? Climate. COVID-19 recovery. Reconciliation. Affordable housing and healthcare. Their vote matters. The question is: will they use it? 

The story sometimes goes that youth don’t care about politics. It’s a narrative that enables politicians to, at times, disregard this demographic as a major voting pool and in doing so, disregard the issues they care about. But as we’ve seen in the last few years vis à vis Gen Z climate strikes, anti-racism protests, and online activism, youth apathy is a myth (it’s part of why groups continue to advocate for lowering the voting age to sixteen).  

Still, voter turnout was relatively low in the 2019 federal election with 54% of Canadians aged 18-24 voting compared to 79% of people aged 65-74. And there are new challenges: we’re living in a pandemic during a short election cycle with election day approaching at a time when many young people are focused on returning to school. This year, Elections Canada decided not to continue its on-campus voting program. Analysts are already projecting these challenges will hold young people back – something advocates, including CSI Member Apathy is Boring, are working to mitigate through online voting campaigns. So, will Gen Z’s online activism translate to the polls? 

It will if Future Majority has anything to say about it. 

Future Majority is “focused on mobilizing young Canadians to go out to the polls,” says Communications Director, Camelia Wong. “That shows we have political power and when we show we have political power, politicians and parties and everyone involved in the political sphere has to care about what we are concerned about.” 

With their core team working out of CSI Annex in the lead-up to September 20, they’ve engaged over 60,000 members and have hundreds of volunteers on the ground in different ridings across Canada canvassing, phone banking, and talking to young people. 

What Makes young people vote?

The default answer seems to be social media, and while there’s some good evidence to show for it (Jagmeet Singh tik toks and all), it may be a bit of a caricature assumption.

Future Majority says nothing is more effective than a good conversation with a friend. As Cam puts it: “are you going to be more convinced by a random political party putting up an ad on your instagram feed (…) or are you going to be convinced by someone you really trust that’s in your life who’s telling you: ‘hey, there are a lot of issues that are at stake in this election and it’s important to vote for x, y, z reasons and that’s why you should go to the polls’?” 

It’s called “relational organizing.” It’s what their research showed determined the 2020 US federal election – an election that had the highest voter turnout in the country’s history and which many analysts attribute youth voter turnout to as the deciding factor. Relational organizing looks like “voters talking to their friends and family in a language that they understand about why it’s important to vote and what issues that are important to them,” Cam explains. At Future Majority, that looks like throwing house parties. 

Well, sort of. They use the term loosely. Volunteers run covid-safe events, inviting their friends to do something they would normally do together, like watch a movie, bake a cake or play an online game. In the last fifteen minutes of the hang, the volunteer asks everyone to take a political action. It could be tweeting at a politician, writing an email, pledging to vote, or texting three friends asking them to vote (a tactic known as vote tripling). 

Research shows these touch points matter. It’s why Cam says the decision by Elections Canada to remove on-campus voting stations is “damaging to democracy”: according to her, decades of research show a positive early-age voting experience has the power to turn a whole generation into lifelong voters. “When I voted for the first time, it was [at] one of those on-campus voting stations,” Cam describes. “It was all of my friends saying, ‘we’re going to vote’ so we all went. It made voting a social thing.”

“House parties” invoke that same social power. Cam often meets Future Majority volunteers who say they joined after attending a friend’s “house party”. Some of them are not yet voting age but at sixteen, they are informed about politics and want to do what they can to support their future inside a healthy democracy. 

What Issues Do Young People Care about? 

“We talked to thousands of young Canadians over the past few months. We hosted some digital town halls in the spring and we were like, ‘what are the issues? Talk to us about what you’re concerned about and talk to us about what you want to see politicians do about it,’” Cam explains. 

Climate Change 

“Regardless of who I am speaking to – volunteers from BC or volunteers from Ontario – everyone has a climate change story,” Cam says. “For me, I was living in BC this summer. That’s where I’m from. We had a massive heatwave. We broke the record for the highest temperature recorded for three days straight. Every single time I talk to a volunteer they are like, “yeah, massive heat waves or rising sea levels or forest fires. 91% of Canadians polled indicated that they were concerned about climate change. Right off the bat, that’s a big issue for us.” 

Affordability 

“Over the course of the pandemic, young people have been the group that’s been most impacted by economic concerns brought on by covid. We saw 1 out of 6 [young people] lose their jobs in the pandemic. People are having a hard time finding a job. We are in a gig economy where lots of people have unstable work; they don’t have benefits or are well-paid,” Cam explains. “That’s another issue we’ve been hearing a lot about from young Canadians.” 

Racial Justice 

“In the past year and a half, we saw the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement. We saw the unmarked graves of Indigenous children,” Cam says. “We’re going through a reckoning as a generation where there are so many wrongs that have to be [made right] and we’re also seeing issues like climate change and economic instability are impacting people at the margins, whether it’s racialized communities or the queer community or people with disabilities. They are impacting them disproportionately.”

Mental Health 

Future Majority also cites mental health care as a major concern for young Canadians. On their website, VoteTube, a video platform “where Canada’s party leaders respond to youth issues directly,” the CSI member asked candidates: “20% of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder, but [less than] 1 out of 5 youth receive the mental health services they need. What’s your plan to improve access to mental health care for all Canadians?” Four major party leaders responded.

Clearly, there’s a lot at stake. But, there’s an opportunity. Cam puts it simply: “We’ve got the most voting power of any other age group in the country. (…) If we come out and vote, we will decide the election.”

What Our Members are Reading to Make An Informed Vote

It goes without saying that our members are a highly engaged and resourceful bunch with expertise across sectors, provinces, identities, and social impact issues. We’re lucky to learn from them every day. So with that in mind, we asked what they’re reading (and writing) to make an informed vote in the lead-up to the election. From housing to health to climate, here’s what some of them had to share: 

Health

Cassie Barker, Executive Director of Women’s Healthy Environments Network (WHEN), said, “Indigenous health and rights are so important to federal jurisdiction and accountability, and need more focus from the media coverage of the election and platforms.” They suggest reading: What You Need To Know About The Biggest Indigenous Issues This Election

CSI Member Jack.org (a charity empowering young leaders to revolutionize mental health) has  been keeping up on health-related issues, including child care, public health and pandemic preparedness, by comparing platform promises through Maclean’s platform guide:  2021 Election Platform Guide 

Housing

CSI Member Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA) wrote a comprehensive piece comparing the four main federal parties’ platforms on housing, homelessness, financialization of housing and more: 

Federal parties’ housing platforms in the 2021 election 

Climate

WHEN Executive Director, Cassie, also suggested a National Observer article by Seth Klein, author of A Good War and a leading climate expert (you can catch Seth here in one of our Climate Venture Conversations). He analyzes the Liberal and NDP climate platforms: 

If you want your vote to help the climate, here are the questions you need to ask 

Our network is reading: 

Election 2021: how the four main federal parties plan to tackle the climate crisis 

Arts

CSI Member Ontario Presents cited the Canadian Arts Coalition as their go-to resource for arts and culture party promises: 

Election 2021: Federal Parties Release Arts and Culture Platforms 

Our network is reading: 

Election 2021: The Major Parties on Arts and Culture 

Disability Rights

CSI Member Access Now shared these resources: 

Canadians with disabilities say they’re missing from the election discussion 

Disability advocates grade party platforms ahead of Election 44

2021 Election: Canada’s National Policy Platforms & People with Disabilities 

Indigenous Rights and Reconciliation 

Our network is reading: 

What are the major parties promising Indigenous people this election? Here’s a look at the platforms 

Complete list of promises made on Indigenous reconciliation

We will continue to update this list throughout the week in the lead-up to the election! Check back here throughout the week as we have more to share.  

4 CSI Alumni Secure Over 8M in Funding

We’re rounding up a summer of major funding wins from some of our CSI alumni! After participating in either our WOSEN Investment Readiness Supports program or Earth Tech accelerator, these ventures leveraged what they learned to secure over $8M in funding to launch, scale, and drive impact for people and the planet. Check it out: 

Flash Forest 

Flash Forest, one of our Earth Tech 2020 ventures, uses swarms of autonomous drones to plant trees faster, cheaper, safer and with more ease than ever. They’re on a mission to plant 1 billion trees by 2028 by bringing their tech to six continents and pulling billions of tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere. $3.5M in additional funding will help them do that. 

After an initial nomination from CSI for the SDTC’s $100K seed grant, Flash Forest went on to secure another $1.7M from the Canadian clean tech foundation. They also raised $1.8M frm Emissions Reduction Alberta. Here’s their CEO and founder, Bryce Jones, demonstrating what they do and speaking with Emissions Reduction Alberta about what this funding will help them achieve: 

Foodpreneur Lab 

Over the last year, JaniceHeadshot of Janice Bartley Bartley participated in the WOSEN Investment Readiness Supports program. The program is designed to support established social ventures in identifying, developing, and securing funding opportunities in the coming year. This week, Janice’s venture, Foodpreneur Lab, secured $3M in investment from the Government of Canada’s Ecosystem Fund

The ripple effects from this funding will be felt sector-wide: Foodpreneur Lab advances racial and gender equity by supporting the start up and scale up of Canadian food entrepreneurs. 

RainStick

Alisha and Sean McFetridge, co-founders of RainStickAnother Earth Tech alum and SDTC seed fund recipient, RainStick just raised over $1M in investments towards the launch of their water-saving, high-pressure shower. 

RainStick Shower is a unique recirculating system that saves 80% water and 80% energy without compromising quality. “Right now, we need to be doing more,” Alisha McFetridge, RainStick’s co-founder and CEO, told BetaKit in an interview. “I think there’s a huge opportunity. We’re seeing droughts, forest fires, and I think that I’m really excited about the future of climate tech, and I’m excited that RainStick is one of those folks that are working towards a solution.” We can’t wait to see this product out in the world!

Just Vertical 

Just Vertical is on a mission to reduce foodKevin and Conner, co-founders of Just Vertical insecurity by rethinking how we source and produce affordable food. The answer? Vertical, indoor gardens. This Earth Tech alum creates vertical hydroponic growing systems that fit beautifully into living spaces and grow an abundance of affordable, nutritious food. 

Co-founders Kevin and Conner are happy to announce they closed their seed round this July having raised over $625,000. The seed round was raised with two partners: District Ventures and PAX. They are now in the process of raising a Series A round of funding, scheduled to close by the end of September 2021. 

We’re so excited to see how far these alumni have come. Congratulations, everyone!!

How Temo Primrose Gare Created a Television Series to Tell “Our Stories” Differently

“Bell Media is my first client. And I got this client before I even started my company!” Temo Primrose Gare says, laughing. After speaking with this WOSEN alum about how she landed a six-part television series while completing CSI’s WOSEN Start program, it’s easy to see why a group of major media execs signed on to platform her first project: Temo’s conviction is infectious. So is her vision. 

After working as a journalist for years, often covering stories about people from marginalized communities, something shifted for Temo when news of George Floyd’s murder broke. A year later, her debut show, “Our Stories,” (now streaming on Bell Fibe TV1) is the result; a series determined to tell the stories of marginalized people beyond the limits of a tragic news cycle or a trending topic: 

The Idea 

In May of 2020, a video of George Floyd’s final moments went viral. Eight minutes and forty-six seconds captured the world’s attention. And while George Floyd’s murder reignited a multinational movement against police brutality and systematic racism, the constant sharing and re-sharing of the video was also unsettling. While many non-Black people spoke to how it ‘opened their eyes,’ many Black people asked: at whose expense? Soon, people took to social media to express the trauma and dehumanization bound up in having to watch George Floyd die again and again across their screens. 

It’s part of what Temo says is an ongoing trend, a tendency for news stories about marginalized people to centre on violence and by extension, for marginalized communities to be associated with violence, loss, and helplessness. In the midst of the horror and ensuing media frenzy, Temo desired a different outcome. So, she created one. 

“[In journalism, there’s a saying:] if it bleeds, it leads. If the story is full of violence and blood, that’s the story that leads. At the same time, there’s no context,” Temo explains. “What happened before? What happened during? And what happened after? It’s why I wanted to do this show. It’s great that we are telling these stories, but we need to give people hope. I didn’t want to just be part of talking about the problem. If I tell my stories of racial discrimination, it will probably go viral for a day or two and then what? I wanted to take action in a way that would be unforgettable. ‘Our Stories’ is here to stay.”

Developing the Show 

“Our Stories” moves beyond the scope of the two-minute news stories Temo covered. “I wanted to be able to tell stories that are really critical to marginalized communities,” She explains. “I really wanted to go into these communities, sit down with these people and give them a platform to tell their own stories in their own voices.” 

But, before she could create the show, she needed funding, and if she was going to make good on her vision of reframing mainstream narratives, the show needed a major platform.

True to form, Temo dreamed big: she sent her project proposal to Bell Media. At the same time, she applied for CSI’s WOSEN Start program. Why? Her research showed it usually takes nine weeks for major media producers to respond, so the nine-week WOSEN program seemed like perfect timing for someone without business experience to learn the foundations of entrepreneurship. Temo jokes she wanted to learn “how to sound like a business person” for when she got in front of the big-time execs. 

Well, it turns out her research was wrong. Bell Media emailed her just two weeks later. They asked to set up a call. Temo says she was “freaking out. I don’t know what I’m doing. I didn’t know anything!” She recalls one of the WOSEN coaches telling her, “If they were able to look at your proposal and think it was good enough to schedule a meeting, it means they saw something in you. You are downplaying yourself right now. Just fake it till you make it. Just go for it.”

So, she did. The meeting went very well. The Bell execs liked what they heard and wanted to form a partnership with her media company. The only problem was,“I didn’t have a company!” Temo recalls, laughing. But, she was determined. She’d always dreamt of creating a multimedia production company; it was just becoming official a lot sooner than expected. Fake it till you make it, right? Okavango Media was born. 

“As soon as they gave me that contract, I had to register for the business name on the same day. I ran to the bank and opened a bank account,” Temo exclaims. “I started to look for other creators. I found an editor, a photographer, a videographer, and I allocated money for them from my budget.” A production budget, she says, she learned how to create through the WOSEN program, along with other business skills. 

“Through the WOSEN program, I learned how to fine tune my idea [so as] to produce a viable product,” Temo explains. “WOSEN [program leads] Mitalie and Peggy Sue will ask you: what is the problem you are trying to solve? How are you going to solve that problem? What are the pros and cons? What it really teaches you is how to hone in on the most important aspect of the idea that you could take and scale your business with. It really helped me to flush my idea down, tear it apart and build it up. I plan on making Okavango Media one of the largest independent media companies in Canada.” 

That plan began with last week’s launch of “Our Stories.” 

The Premiere  

Just over a year after Temo first had the idea, “Our Stories” is now streaming on Bell Media’s Fibe TV1 and on the Bell Fibe TV app. The six-part series goes in-depth; each episode focuses on a different issue, including anti-Black racism, transgender workplace discrimination, homelessness, immigration, and drug addiction. 

“I invite someone to tell me their story, what hardships they’ve experienced and then, what they did to overcome them. My last question centres on: what did you do to get yourself out of that situation? Who helped you? Because I want to give people hope,” Temo emphasizes. “I want people to think, ‘Oh, so if I am discriminated against in this manner, I can go to this person to seek legal help.’ Not only do we tell stories, we also invite subject matter experts to say ‘if you are a refugee claimant and you’ve been told to leave Canada but you cannot go to your native country because you are seeking refuge, this is what [you can do].’ We talk about really serious topics but there is also joy in it. It gives people the feeling that ‘you know what, I may be going through this but here is someone who can help me and I am going to pick up the phone and take action.’”

That’s what Temo did. She saw a problem, she had a dream, and after seeking out people to help her, she created a solution.

Her advice for entrepreneurs just starting out? 

“There will never ever be a better time to start than right now,” Temo promises. “What would have happened if I had said, ‘you know, I don’t have a company yet so I can’t send this proposal to Bell right now?’ I would still be working on myself waiting for the right time to come. No, you don’t need anything to start. You just need your idea and the passion you have for your idea. You don’t need money. I started this with zero dollars. I didn’t have a bank account for my business. My advice is if you are waiting for the right time, you are wasting your time. The right time is right now.”

And if, like Temo, you’re looking for guidance and a supportive network as you get started,  applications for the WOSEN Start program are now open.

Here’s how you can watch her show (right now)
  • If you are already a Bell Fibe TV customer, go to TV1, and look for “Our Stories.” You can watch the series right away.
  • You can also watch the show on-demand with the Bell Fibe TV App on your smart device.

Congratulations, Temo! 

Are you an emerging entrepreneur looking to hone your vision and gain the skills to start your social enterprise?

Applications for our WOSEN Start program are now open! Over 9 weeks, you’ll refine your social purpose idea, build a business model, and develop an action plan to help you move forward alongside a tight-knit, supportive group of early-stage women and gender non-binary entrepreneurs. Apply by August 29, 2021!

Have Your Work Values and Priorities Changed? You’re not Alone.

Right now, we are in a moment of transition. As Canada slowly opens up, we are all re-introducing ourselves to the world – to our friends, family members, and coworkers. As many of us encounter more and more of the familiar trappings of our pre-pandemic lives, old lifestyle habits, values, and goals may not make sense anymore. 

Much of this shift is happening at our workplaces. 

What has shifted for you? Do you know what’s working for you in your career and what’s not? What values are you bringing to your work that you didn’t before? Is your job fulfilling your needs? 

In a changing environment, these answers can be difficult to gage. Not to mention, feeling unfulfilled at work or craving a career change in a time of prolonged uncertainty is daunting and for many, simply not feasible. 

That’s where Challenge Factory comes in. In collaboration with CSI, this CSI Member designed a three-part online program for people seeking to better understand and align their values inside of their current roles. Think of it as a roadmap for a career tuneup rather than an entire career change. 

Ignite Your Career 

Ignite Your Career is a three-part curriculum-based program designed for people who are looking to make a stronger connection between the work they do, their values, and the world around them. You’ll learn how to navigate uncertainty, identify the supports you need, and communicate your goals to your employers.

We know the power of great career conversations. Strong career development is linked to better mental wellness. It leads to more confident and creative teams. It fosters a sense of belonging that comes from understanding how work connects with personal values. 

After a year of change, many folks are asking more questions than ever about their work, lives, stretch goals, learning, and careers. If you’re one of them, this workshop series is designed to help you imagine your best self and create a collaborative action plan to help you get there. (Plus, CSI Members get in at a discount!)

What You Can Expect 

Over three modules, happening August 4, 11, and 18, participants will learn how to engage in more meaningful career conversations, challenge their limiting beliefs, and ask better, more action-oriented questions of themselves and their employers. 

For example, Module One, Imagine, focuses on envisioning what your career could look like and imagining the kinds of actions you can take to achieve it. Challenge Factory Facilitators, Lisa and Ali, say they often hear, “I hope the new normal is better. I wonder what it will be like?” In response, they encourage participants to ask more empowered questions: “What am I going to do to ensure my career and life move in a direction that is supportive of the future I want to create? What actions am I going to take individually and where can I find support?” These slight reframes can lead to long-term breakthroughs. 

Facilitators will provide take-home exercises to accompany live sessions, building on the content week to week. For the entire month of August, registrants will receive access to all course materials through Challenge Factory’s Centre for Career Innovation website. On August 4, 11, and 18, it’s time to start translating your newfound values and priorities into action

About the Facilitators

Lisa Taylor is a sought-after expert on today’s changing world of work. As President of Challenge Factory Lisa offers invaluable leadership and insights about the Future of Work. She is the author of the Retain and Gain series of career management playbooks and The Talent Revolution: Longevity and the Future of Work. She is also a co-host on the highly anticipated podcast The Next Normal.

Ali Breen is Challenge Factory’s Learning Coordinator and leads our Centre for Career Innovation. With 10+ years in career development and human resources, Ali is a constant kick-starter. She brings her experiences in adult education & facilitation, curriculum design, leadership training, community growth, and personal branding.

Ready to register? Have more questions about the course? Read more

 

These Women are Sharing What it Takes to Run an Internationally-Recognized Social Enterprise

When Adrianna Couto and Erika Reyes met at CSI, they instantly felt an “incredible connection,” largely ignited by their passion for sustainability. Neither of them could have predicted that just a couple years later, they would join forces as co-founders of Inwit, a social enterprise working to make the takeout industry circular and zero waste. In fact, before joining CSI, neither of them could have predicted they would become social entrepreneurs at all, let alone pilot Toronto’s first low-waste takeout platform. 

CSI actually inspired me to become an entrepreneur,” Adrianna explains. In Erika’s case, she was “familiar with entrepreneurship and the startup world, but I didn’t know the term ‘social entrepreneur’ until I arrived at CSI.” Both women quickly took our community and programs by storm, enrolling in the DECA program, Social Entrepreneurship 101, the WOSEN program and participating in Climate Ventures. Whew! What a list. Now, Inwit is set to launch after being ranked one of the top 15 global solutions in the international Circular Innovation City Challenge!

Instagram post of Adrianna and Erika holding their reusable containers in the air

With an eye to disrupt Toronto’s single-use plastic takeout problem, the app-based program enables Torontonians to enjoy their favourite takeout dishes from across the city out of reusable containers. 

It’s easy to wonder: how did they get here so quickly? Or worse, be left thinking: I could never do that. There are so many assumptions and myths tied to entrepreneurship (not to mention gendered stereotypes). Here’s a few: you’re either born an entrepreneur or you’re not. Entrepreneurs must work long hours alone, give up their social life, and have a surefire, original idea to even consider getting started. Make no mistake, Adrianna and Erika have persevered and worked very hard, but when it comes to old tropes like these, their story and success defy them all.

Here’s a glimpse into their path to social entrepreneurship: 

Getting Started by Getting Involved 

Erika: When I decided to research and pilot solutions to single-use plastics, I didn’t know how or with whom. I was a newcomer in the city with no network. I made the choice to leave the marketing industry to make the world a better place. I became a DECA at CSI to connect with others. I made amazing friends, and it gave me a feeling of belonging. It also gave me access to other entrepreneurs to challenge my ideas and connect with likeminded people.

Adrianna: I had an internship at the Ontario Council For International Cooperation, an organization based out of CSI Spadina. I also organized awareness events and meetings at CSI, whether for myself or other organizations I worked with, like Water Docs and Kids Right to Know. From there, I launched a single-use plastic reduction initiative called Beaches Reduces and moved on to become a DECA and CSI Member at the Annex location. CSI became my home away from home and as I expanded from my first initiative to my second, Collective Impact Journey, the CSI programs provided me with the tools I needed to feel confident as an entrepreneur.

The Programs 

Erika: CSI has supported me all the way from ideation to the creation of our business model,  giving me access to a network, the skills to become a leader, and the space to pilot solutions and form my team.

Social Entrepreneurship 101 helped me identify my why, ideate my first business model and map all the different stakeholders that I needed to engage to make it happen. 

The WOSEN program matched me with a wonderful coach who guided me and supported my leadership style. 

Climate Ventures gave me the opportunity to incubate my ideas and nourish them, have access to advisors, and interact with other entrepreneurs working for climate solutions who challenge my ideas and inspire me. 

The DECA program gave me a community of other members, DECAs and staff, as well as the opportunity to meet my wonderful co-founder and business partner. 

The Meet Cute 

Adrianna: Erika and I metSelfie of Adrianna Couto and Erika Reyes of Inwit at Climate Ventures. I was organizing a film screening event for Kids Right to Know at CSI at the time. Erika shared her passion for single-use plastic reduction with her first venture, Wisebird, and I asked Erika to table at our event; this was our ‘Meet Cute.’ The magic between us really happened, though, the second time we connected at CSI when I first became a DECA

We shared a coffee in the lounge at CSI Annex and I filled her in on my new venture, Beaches Reduces, at the time. We almost immediately decided to put our passion for waste reduction together and started spreading awareness on sustainable living. Together, we launched The Zero Waste Cafe, Green Sunday and the Zero Waste Dine & Learn series at CSI. 

Fast forward to May of 2020, when Erika called me up and asked me to join her in her new venture, a new and improved reusable container program. Of course, I was thrilled to once again join forces and here we are a year later, after having worked so hard building Inwit, and about to launch!

The Idea 

“Imagine ordering takeout that doesn’t compromise your love for food or the planet. Imagine returning our reusable containers while out walking your dog or heading to the grocery store.” Adrianna explains. “We are piloting Toronto’s first low waste takeout platform that will offer a glimpse into our low-carbon future.” By partnering with restaurants across the city, Inwit works in four simple steps: order, pickup, return, and repeat. Customers order their favoured takeout dish through Inwit’s website app, pick up their meal, and then return the reusable containers to any participating restaurant. 

The Importance of Community 

Erika: In a world where we have less and less community and interaction with each other, even with our neighbours, I never felt isolated at CSI. Being an entrepreneur is hard, and being a social entrepreneur is even harder. CSI gave me a community that has given me the resilience to try, fail and restart again. 

Adrianna: There is something so magical about being in the space and getting to connect with so many members regularly. I had never been around so many humans who respected and understood why I was doing what I was doing; why I had this drive to make the world a better place. It was also inspiring to hear what other entrepreneurs in the space were working on and nice to know there was a whole community who was there to support, guide, and help with the many challenges social entrepreneurs face.

Today 

Having just completed the MVP stage of the startup (meaning they have successfully validated their concept and developed a workable, saleable product for use, otherwise known as a “minimum viable product”), Adrianna and Erika are hard at work on the ground, securing partnerships with restaurants and educating the community on how to best implement their reusable takeout container system. To follow along with their journey and to find out when you can get your hands on an Inwit-approved takeout dish, find them on instagram: @inwit.app

Photo of Inwit's restaurant partners

Their advice to emerging social entrepreneurs? No surprise here: Find the people who really hear your voice because it reminds them of their own,” Adrianna says. They did and it shows.

Interested in finding your community as a CSI Member?

Today, CSI is Canada’s largest social innovation community. Some of our members are new to the social innovation world, while others have decades of entrepreneurial experience under their belt. Find your community here. 

 

Celebrating National Indigenous History Month

June is National Indigenous History Month in Canada – a time to recognize the vast contributions of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. 

To celebrate and honour the month, we’re sharing some of our favourite stories of Indigenous-led innovation over the last year, as well as a spotlight on some of CSI’s Members and Alumni whose work centres Indigenous knowledge, promotes cultural awareness, and often supports reconciliation. 

Before we do, it’s important to recognize that this year National Indigenous History Month comes as unmarked graves continue to be found on the grounds of former residential schools. While horrifying, these discoveries are not surprising. Residential school survivors and their communities have long been speaking out about their existence and about the systematic oppression orchestrated by the Canadian government. As we recognize the many contributions of Indigenous people, we must also recognize that Canada’s colonial legacy persists not out of a lack of answers – Indigenous communities have long been providing solutions and sharing a path towards reconciliation – but due to government inaction and public indifference. Reconciliation must begin with truth. Today is a day for those of us who are settlers to read the 94 calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, educate ourselves on the true history of Canada (including its ongoing legacy), and demand action.

Stories from Our Network 

headshot of Jeff CyrCreating a Platform for Indigenous Innovation: A Next Economy Conversation with Jeff Cyr 

After a decade working in Canadian government, Jeff Cyr founded Raven Indigenous Capital Partners as a means of empowering Indigenous innovators and their communities through social finance. In this Next Economy Conversation, he speaks on a range of topics, including barriers to innovation in government, closing gaps faced by Indigenous social enterprises, and an exciting social finance model that puts solutions back into the hands of communities.

Bear Standing Tall is Bridging Relationships Between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Peoples 

CSI Member Bear Standingheadshot of Bear Standing Tall Tall created an Indigenous awareness course to fill in the gaps in Canada’s current education system. For too long, the history of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples has been ignored, omitted, or sanitized in the classroom. It wasn’t until 2015 that the topic of residential schools was added to the curriculum across the country. But even today, the history being taught is not standard, nor is it mandatory. Bear Standing Tall designed a self-directed program detailing 500 years of history from an Indigenous lens in order to change that. 

Towards Energy Sovereignty: A Climate Ventures Conversation with Melina Laboucan-Massimo 

Melina Laboucan-Massimo standing in front of solar panelsFounder of Sacred Earth Solar, co-founder of Indigenous Climate Action, and host of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s (APTN) series Power to the People, Melina Laboucan-Massimo is a climate justice powerhouse. In this Climate Ventures Conversation, she speaks about the experiences that motivated her to become an advocate for clean energy, how we need to rethink the way we teach energy systems to our children, the importance of truth-telling in a time of reconciliation, and the energy revolution happening in Indigenous communities across the country.

CSI Members, Past and Present 

Ojibiikaan 

CSI Annex Member, Ojibiikan Indigenous Cultural Network, is an Indigenous-led nonprofit offering land, food, and cultural-based programming in Toronto and the surrounding area. Their programming centres on ceremony, song, storytelling, and offerings, and includes opportunities to connect to the land through activities like medicine walks, traditional cooking, sugarbush tapping, and snowshoeing. 

Anwaatin 

CSI Alumni and 2017 Agent of Change, Anwaatin, believes addressing the climate crisis and  revitalizing treaty relationships go hand in hand. As Anwaatin’s CEO Larry Saul explains, “when you’re battling climate change, you need warriors. We are those warriors. Our weapons are not guns. We’re armed with wisdom and love for the natural world. We are stewardship warriors.”

Anwaatin supports these warriors. They work to ensure Indigenous communities are front and centre in the movement to address the climate crisis by equipping individuals with the technical tools and knowledge to participate in emerging climate actions. They do this through a range of services, including building partnerships and facilitating agreements between Indigenous nations and policymakers at the municipal and federal level, and supporting Indigenous-led carbon sequestration projects by educating communities on the biodiversity and carbon sequestration potential of their traditional territories. 

Toronto Inuit Association 

Established in September 2016, CSI Member Toronto Inuit Association (formerly iTUK) is dedicated to fostering connections and amplifying the voices of Inuit in Toronto. Their mission is to “create a community in Toronto for Inuit from all regions, where [the Toronto Inuit Association] can provide support in language learning, culture awareness, family services, employment and health services to Inuit and their families.” 

The Indigenous Curatorial Collective

The Indigenous Curatorial Collective is an Indigenous-led organization that strives to build community and reciprocity among Indigenous curators, artists, academics, and writers through programming, critical discourse, and professional opportunities. This CSI Member launched in 2005 “as a response to the authority afforded to the non-Indigenous curatorial and academic community within the discipline of Indigenous arts in Canada.” For the last sixteen years, the organization has worked tirelessly to support Indigenous artists and curators in claiming space, maintaining agency, and broadening opportunities offered to Indigenous creators in and beyond institutional frameworks.

17 Innovators and Innovations to Celebrate 17 Years!

In June of 2004, CSI opened its doors with fourteen founding members in tow to solve the “photocopier problem,” the tendency for organizations to work in silos instead of sharing resources and solutions. Enter 5,000 sq. ft. at 215 Spadina Avenue – one of the very first coworking spaces in the world! 

If you know us, you know our story. But, do you know our members? Since our start, over 6000 alumni have passed through the halls (and multiple buildings) of CSI, accessing programming, building community, accelerating their ventures, and creating solutions for systems-level change. Now, as we expand from community-building to building the Next Economy (with a new methodology and increased programming to support innovations at every stage), our members continue to expand with us. Their stories tell the larger story of the life cycle of CSI.

On Friday, we held a virtual Innovator Toast for members, old and new, to toast seventeen years this June and to clink our glass to the thousands who have made CSI the cacophony of connections that it is. To celebrate seventeen years, here’s a look at seventeen of the countless innovators and innovations who’ve left a mark on us and who continue to leave their mark on the world:

System Changers 

Nadia Hamilton, Founder of Magnusmode 

In 2011, Nadia Hamilton was named the winner of CSI’s Project Wildfire. The $25,000 grand prize helped her turn her vision of reducing barriers for people in the autism and disabled community into a full-fledged social enterprise. Inspired by her younger autistic brother, Nadia founded Magnusmode, an organization that creates assistive technology so that people with autism can lead more independent, integrated lives. Their flagship product, Magnus Cards, is a digital library of guides, much like the hand-drawn guides Nadia would make for her brother growing up. Partnering with different businesses and organizations, Magnus Cards are a step-by-step roadmap that guide users through different products, services, and everyday experiences, empowering people to participate with more agency and peace of mind. 

Bryce Jones, CEO and Co-Founder of Flash Forest

Flash Forest is revolutionizing reforestation with tree-planting drones. Right now, planting trees is one of the quickest and cheapest ways to sequester carbon but as Bryce Jones and his fellow co-founders noticed, tree planting hasn’t changed much in the last century. Seeing an opportunity for innovation, they created Flash Forest, Canada’s first-to-market drone reforestation company. Using drones that fire seed pods into the ground at a rate of one per second, they’re on a mission to plant one billion trees by 2028. We met Bryce and the team through Earth Tech, our six-month Climate Ventures accelerator for startups and ventures working on climate and freshwater solutions. The team recently secured over $3.5M in funding for the next stage of their mission, including 100K from the SDTC fund for which we were proud to nominate them. We can’t wait to see what’s next! 

Elsie Amoako, Founder and CEO of Mommy Monitor

As the founder of both Mommy Monitor and the Racialized Maternal Health Conference, Elsie Amoako is a rising leader in racialized maternal health. A CSI Spadina Member, she first joined CSI through our Agents of Change: Community Health program, where she worked with leading advisors and received a $10,000 grant to accelerate her enterprise. Now, Mommy Monitor is a full-service social enterprise and app that offers customized maternal health services, support and education. The vision? Provide maternal health services globally in a way that is virtual, culturally safe, promotes autonomy over the body and birth, and prevents adverse outcomes. 

Maayan Ziv, Founder of Access Now

 In 2016, Maayan Ziv also took part in CSI’s Agents of Change: Community Health cohort for AccessNow, a crowdsourced mobile and web platform that pinpoints accessibility information for locations worldwide. Known widely as a leading advocate for disability and inclusion, Maayan catalyzed her experiences in community (including three years at CSI) to create a grassroots movement: anyone anywhere can review locations by dropping a “pin” on AccessNow’s map, thereby improving accessibility through accountability and knowledge sharing. 

Adrianna Couto, Co-Founder of Inwit

Adrianna Couto, alongside co-founder Erika Reyes, wants to make sustainability “irresistible to all Torontonians.” The two met through our DECA program and now, after participating in our WOSEN incubator, ‍Inwit is on a mission to make the takeout industry circular and zero waste.

“Imagine ordering takeout that doesn’t compromise your love for food or the planet. Imagine returning our reusable containers while out walking your dog or heading to the grocery store.Adrianna explains. “We are piloting Toronto’s first low waste takeout platform that will offer a glimpse into our low-carbon future. It’s been a great joy to witness and support their success from the start. Now, the world is catching on: Inwit was recently chosen as one of the top 15 solutions out of Toronto, New York, Amsterdam, Glasgow, and Copenhagen, to move on to the second phase of the Circular Innovation City Challenge

Daniel Bida, Executive Director of ZooShare

ZooShare, a nonprofit cooperative, built a biogas plant at the Toronto Zoo’s existing compost facility that converts zoo poo and food waste into renewable energy, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. You heard that right! Using Zoo poo as a source of energy is a beloved solution in the CSI zeitgeist. 

Back in 2012, the biogas cooperative and CSI member won the Toronto Community Foundation’s Green Innovation Award after participating in the ClimateSpark Social Venture Challenge, a collaboration between CSI, the Toronto Atmospheric Fund and the Toronto Community Foundation. At the time, Executive Director of ZooShare, Daniel Bida, said “Participation in ClimateSpark really helped to hone the unique selling points of the project as a result of getting feedback from so many individuals and experts from around the city.” Since then, ZooShare has been going strong, financing its operations by issuing Community Bonds (something we know a little about) with over five hundred impact investors.

Peter Deitz, Co-Founder of Grantbook and Unwrapit 

In our latest Next Economy Conversation, Peter sat down  to discuss his organization’s journey to employee ownership through an Employee Shared Ownership Plan (ESOP). Reflecting on his career as a serial social entrepreneur, he credited CSI as a “core influence” in his life. Having been a part of the CSI community for over fifteen years, Peter has incubated, launched and scaled multiple social enterprises out of our spaces. His latest venture, Unwrapit, is a social purpose business that provides companies with digital alternatives to traditional corporate and event gifting practices in order to reduce waste destined for landfill and create meaningful, personalized connections.

Myra Arshad, Co-Founder of ALT TEX 

ALT TEX is creating sustainable textiles out of fermented food waste. Best friends and co-founders Myra Arshad and Avneet Ghotra developed a polyester alternative with an eye to disrupt the near $104 billion (USD) polyester industry by creating a circular, biodegradable, and carbon neutral product that addresses two major consumption problems: plastic and food waste. They recently closed their pre-seed round of funding at $1.5 M, proving there is a major appetite for solving fashion’s microplastic problem and upending the fast fashion market. 

When we asked our 2021 Earth Tech venture what this support means to them, Co-Founder Myra Arshad said: “Having support from organizations that offer a platform, mentorship and funds is the reason ALT TEX has been able to get this far – it’s incredible how this ecosystem comes together to support entrepreneurs.”

Amoye Henry, Co-Founder of Pitch Better

Amoye Henry describes herself as “a rockstar millennial entrepreneur.” The description fits: in 2018, Amoye was named one of Canada’s top 100 Accomplished Black Women. She is on a mission to help scale growth-based businesses led by unique founders. “Basically, I want to see the underdog win,” she says. 

Co-founding Pitch Better with Adeela Carter-Charles, Amoye is bridging the gap between women-led start-ups and their means of acquiring capital through grants and investments. With a mandate to “create more women millionaires,” Pitch Better connects innovative Black women entrepreneurs with seasoned professionals via workshops, talks and coaching sessions. Amoye expands on this mission as one of our WOSEN coaches. 

Taking their work to the systems-level, Pitch Better is currently completing the first national market analysis of Black women founders in Canada. The FoundHers campaign aims to address gaps in the social economy by resolving gaps in data collection.

Ilana Ben-Ari, Founder of Twenty One Toys

One of CSI’s Youth Agent of Change award winners, Ilana Ben-Ari began Twenty One Toys with the belief that toys could be the new textbooks by, in part, teaching us collaboration, creativity and empathy. She first created the Empathy toy as a way to bridge gaps between visually impaired and sighted communities through play. It turns out, the toy bridged gaps and evoked empathy in anyone who played – from students to teachers to business executives and beyond. Since then, Ilana has been “mass-producing empathy,” as the toys show up all over the world in professional development workshops, leadership programs and even in job interviews! What’s next?  A true innovator in heart and spirit, she’s currently launching new toy to reframe how people understand failure, aptly named the Failure toy.

Network Weavers 

Social Innovation Canada

Catalyzed by CSI, Social Innovation Canada is working to provide the collaborative infrastructure to strengthen Canada’s social innovation ecosystem, empowering people, organizations and systems with the tools, knowledge, skills and connections that they need to solve real and complex problems.

How it works: SI Canada consists of a small ‘secretariat’ team at the national and operations level, working in partnership with regional ‘nodes‘ or host partners in various parts of Canada. Each node has a ‘weaver’. These ‘weavers’ are natural networks who are responsible for convening regional gatherings and learning events to revel, share, unlock, and enable people, organization and systems to thrive. They meet regularly and work together to reflect the vibrancy, diversity and knowledge that is emerging from coast to coast to coast. CSI is proud to be Ontario’s node and the backbone, operational support for SI Canada as we work to connect Canada’s social innovation ecosystem.

Ontario Nonprofit Network

The Ontario Nonprofit Network breaks down silos by developing working groups, provincial strategies and building regional nonprofit networks to actualize the potential of the Ontario nonprofit sector. Back in 2007, when the ONN was a fledgling initiative with a vision to build a network of nonprofits, CSI incubated ONN. We acted as a trustee, providing insurance, bookkeeping, leadership, accounting, management, and a board of directors. In fact, our CEO, Tonya Surman, was the founding co-chair for ONN’s steering committee. This allowed the ONN leadership to figure out what worked (and what didn’t), build a strong foundation, and grow their network. In 2015, after spending seven years at CSI, they incorporated into a stand-alone organization. We’ve watched with complete admiration and inspiration at the incredible impact ONN continues to achieve.

Community Builders

Tapestry Community Capital

CSI Member Tapestry Community Capital is a non-profit co-op that supports other co-ops and nonprofits in raising and managing community investment. With the help of Tapestry (and 120 incredible community investors), CSI was able to raise 1.9M in under two months in our most recent bond project. Tapestry has been a key player in our Community Bond initiatives – an innovation CSI invented that allows nonprofits to leverage nonprofit social capital into financial capital. To date, Tapestry has helped organizations across sectors raise and manage over $70 million from 3,900 investors. Building community by building resiliency, they are not only vital to CSI but to our social innovation sector. 

Toronto Tool Library

Much like CSI’s founding mission to resolve the “photocopier problem” by sharing resources and space, Toronto Tool Library is on a mission to maximize the benefits of the sharing economy. A part of the broader tool sharing movement as one of over forty tool libraries across North America, this CSI Spadina member provides tools, skill-sharing, and community assistance initiatives that enable individuals, nonprofit organizations, and communities to connect through cooperative sharing. It’s been such a privilege to provide space to TTL over the years as they give so much to our CSI community. 

Cycle Toronto

Long-time CSI member Cycle Toronto has been with us through every key stage of their journey, from starting small, moving from office to office at CSI Annex as they grew, and then eventually landing at CSI Spadina where they’ve expanded their team and their vision. Now a registered charity, Cycle Toronto is a vital part of Toronto, shaping policy, infrastructure and community to transform the city’s cycling culture to make cycling a viable option for Torontonians.

Fresh City Farms

Fresh City Farms delivers organic produce, groceries, meal kits and a variety of prepared meals right to your door. Recipients of a CSI Catapult Loan in 2015, and part of our 2016 Agents of Change cohort, their growth has been nothing short of phenomenal since then. In April of 2019, they acquired Mabel’s Bakery & Specialty Foods. A month later, they announced the acquisition of The Healthy Butcher, a pioneer in organic and 100% grass-fed meat and sustainable seafood. Last year, during the pandemic, they waived delivery fees for a while, providing food access and stability to many of our community members.

Silo Breakers 

Canopy

 Canopy works with “the forest industry’s biggest customers and their suppliers to develop business solutions that protect these last frontier forests.” Taking a truly systems-level approach, the organization transforms unsustainable product supply chains by engaging business executives on the importance of forest conservation and the power of greening their practices. 

When the Vancouver-based organization looked to branch out to Toronto, they chose to call CSI home. A decade into seeing their work up close, we were thrilled when Ashoka Fellow and Founder of Canopy, Nicole Rycroft, recently won the prestigious Climate Breakthrough Award. Last week, she sat down with Barnabe Geis, our Executive Director of Climate Ventures, for a Climate Ventures Conversation to discuss where their work will take them next. 

Breaking silos is at the heart of what we do. When an organization expands their impact by branching out into our spaces, their vision invariably influences ours. We are so grateful to those who’ve chosen to be a part of the community! Honourable mentions include: the David Suzuki Foundation, Vancity Community Investment Bank, Jack.Org, and the Greenbelt Foundation.

With that, cheers to seventeen years! 

Green Economy Law is Demystifying New Legal Frontiers in Canada

Green Economy LawGreen Economy Law logo Professional Corporation is a corporate and commercial law firm for ecopreneurs, social enterprises, and nonprofits working to build a sustainable and regenerative economy. More specifically, it’s a law firm that works with clients creating innovative solutions to environmental problems. It was also one of the first law firms to take the Law Firm Climate Pledge, a commitment organized by Law Students for Climate Accountability that encourages firms not to take on any new work supporting the fossil fuel industry. 

“People are contributing to the green economy in such diverse and creative ways. I find a lot of the work I do super rewarding,” says Marc Z. Goldgrub, the firm’s founding lawyer. 

The firm’s services include traditional corporate law work like assisting clients with incorporation, contracts, and intellectual property management, as well as more niche offerings, like helping enterprises align their policies to attain B Corp and ESG status. Clearly the firm, which is based out of CSI Spadina, is in the right place. In fact, some of the firm’s earliest clients were other CSI community members, and more continue to reach out. 

“The CSI network has been a great place to be plugged into,” Marc emphasized. “It’s been nice to feel the support of the community.” 

While our network has been welcoming, starting a firm in 2020 was not without obstacles. As Marc notes, “It’s difficult to start an independent law firm for the green economy in the middle of a pandemic. It’s a real, tall order.” 

Despite the difficulty, Marc made the most of the year by continuing to do what he could for the common good; when many people found themselves facing unemployment and evictions during the pandemic, the firm began offering legal services pro bono to low-income community members in landlord-tenant disputes.  

As the world begins to open back up, Marc is excited to expand his firm’s areas of focus. In addition to working with clients in the green economy, the firm now offers legal services in secondary practices areas, including health and psychedelic law. 

Marc explains: “When we got through the legalization of weed here in Canada, I started looking into psychedelics. I wasn’t aware it was so helpful to people [in terms of] the massive health benefits.” 

According to the firm’s website, Green Economy Law “does not engage in, or assist parties engaged in, illegal activities. But we are happy to provide corporate and commercial legal services and advice to parties operating legally in and around the psychedelic industry. The firm is also happy to support psychedelic legalization efforts by means of speaking engagements and educational presentations.”

Noticing a lot of confusion surrounding the legal status of psychedelics in Canada, the firm also launched PsychedelicLaw.ca, a website meant to serve as a comprehensive guide to Canadian psychedelic law. 

Carving out a legal niche in emerging industries, it’s no surprise Marc continues to dive into new legal frontiers. The firm recently launched a third website, Law on Mars, which covers space, Moon, and Mars law. On the site, you’ll find explainers breaking down international space treaties, the Moon agreement, and other intergalactic legal developments. 

While Marc doesn’t practice space law himself, he is interested in seeing where the work might lead, especially as Elon Musk and other futurists continue to pursue their mission to make humanity a multi-planetary species.

Marc hopes other Canadians share his enthusiasm for exploring where the law will take us next. If you’re interested in following Green Economy Law’s activities, including its coverage of ongoing climate and environmental law, news, and policy, you can sign up for the firm’s monthly newsletter

Reclaiming the Narrative: A Spotlight on Queer of Colour

headshot of Eileen Liu
Eileen Liu (Photo by Emily Ding)

Eileen Liu is “fighting injustice through storytelling.” The full-time writer, podcast host, and author of four novels founded Queer of Colour, a storytelling platform, as a way of reclaiming how queer people of colour are represented in society and by extension, how they see themselves. 

Through long-form interviews and photographs, her work gives space for the kind of sincerity and candour people often yearn for online. Eileen reaches out to friends and strangers across different communities, inviting them to tell the stories of their lives. From there, she often meets participants in parks across the city where, sitting across from her for a few hours, people unfold themselves. They share their passions, struggles, careers, upbringings. “I always tell them that if there is a question they don’t want to talk about then we don’t talk about it. They have full control over what they want to say. But up until now, no one has refused to answer a question,” Eileen explains, smiling. 

Joining CSI as a member after participating in the fall 2020 iteration of the WOSEN Start program, Eileen says what she thought would be a how-to on business management quickly turned into an eight-week, therapeutic deep dive into her purpose. WOSEN gave her the opportunity to sit with her “overarching why?,” a question, incidentally, she’s more used to asking than answering since she started Queer of Colour last February. 

Continuing to carve out her “why?” through storytelling, Eileen is set to start a second round of interviews for the project soon. Before she does, we sat down last week to chat about Queer of Colour, the nuances of intersectionality, and the power of telling your story in your own words. Here are hers. 

N: What is Queer of Colour? What made you start this project? 

E: Queer of Colour is a storytelling platform for queer people of colour, primarily in the Toronto and GTA area, to really take control of the narrative of their own stories and to share their stories on their own terms.

It grew out of the recognition that the stories that we tell about ourselves and that are told about us are really powerful. Stories can shape our role in society and shape how we live. So, rather than having systems around capitalism and white supremacy and colonization tell our stories, it’s an exercise in reclaiming the power of storytelling and reclaiming our own stories so that we take control of what we want our lives to look like.

Photo of Dai Alvarez in the park
Dai Alvarez: "I want to be a beacon for other asexual people." (Excerpt from the profile, "Living Authentically at the Intersection." Photo by Eileen Liu).

N: Why these stories? 

E: The idea of intersectionality is really important when it comes to social hierarchy and where people fit in, in society. The reason I focused on queer people of colour is that 1) that’s my own identity and 2) it’s this intersection of being a person of colour in a white dominated culture and the struggles and challenges that come with that, as well as being a queer person within a family or community of colour where being queer might not be as widely accepted or as talked about as it might be in mainstream culture. 

So, I’ve talked to people who find that they don’t fit in no matter where they go. They’re in their families or their communities or whatever culture they’re from and they’re afraid to be themselves. They’re afraid to be out because of stigma, because of how their family and their friends and their community members might react. And then they go into a queer space and they find they don’t really fit in there either because they are a person of colour and they get treated differently than their white counterparts. Focusing on this intersection of people who have to navigate those two types of marginalization – and there are a lot of other marginalizations – but focusing on these two particular marginalizations and sharing the stories and having people talk about their experiences, both positive and negative, is important. 

To be able to put words to some of the thoughts and feelings they may have is definitely a cathartic, therapeutic experience. It can exist outside of us so we can step back and process and understand what those stories mean to us and how we are shaped by those experiences.

Agnes Teodoro: "I feel like I’m becoming more of the person I want to be, the person I should have been way in the past." (Excerpt from the profile, "Life is Messy, But I'm Still Here." Photo by Eileen Liu.)

N: What resonated with you most during this process? 

E: What has really stayed with me in these interviews is the similarities between all of the stories and my own experiences around mental health. Depression and anxiety. Ideas around suicide. That’s a huge thing that almost every single person has experience with. 

Another theme is the lack of mentorship for queer people of colour. One of the questions I ask is: do you have a mentor? Do you have a role model? Do you have someone you can go to, to ask questions? And most of the time, the answer is “no.” When they have questions about their sexuality, they just Google things or they have friends who are going through similar stuff and they just figure it out. And while I wouldn’t say it’s a shame, it’s a missed opportunity. When we think about cultural inheritance and how we inherit things like language, belief systems, religion, values and history from the people who raised us, we can see how cultural heritage gets passed down. But for people in the LGBTQ community, if they don’t have older elders from the LGBTQ community, none of that gets passed down. So, they don’t know the history of LGBTQ rights in this country. They don’t know the significant events that have brought us to where we are today. They don’t know definitions of various identities and how those identities can be lived out in real life. They all have to figure that out themselves. It’s like every person has to start from scratch rather than build on what’s already been done. I do think that’s a missed opportunity. That’s what has really stuck with me the most: seeing that theme across so many different stories. 

Jeff Ho sitting on a bench in a park
Jeff Ho: "I’m a lot softer these days and a lot more tactful, but back then I would just rage. That rage was a form of activism against injustice." (Excerpt from the profile, "Activism, Anger, and Forging a Life in the Arts." Photo by Eileen Liu).

N: You mentioned that participants often talk about both positive and negative experiences. That’s what resonated with me when reading their stories; it feels like they are sharing their whole selves. 

E: In my own experience, as an immigrant and as someone with an East Asian background, there is so much pressure from family, from society, and from myself, to be perfect. To embody what I am supposed to be or should be. The truth is, nobody is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. And that’s one thing I appreciate about the storytellers in this project. They are open to sharing their mistakes and the crappy things that have happened to them. The things they did that maybe they regret or the things they did when they were younger when they didn’t know any better. But also, how they moved through it, how they learned, how they are older and wiser now. One mistake didn’t completely derail their life. We have multiple chances and we can pick ourselves back up and rebuild our lives. People have agency to say, “I don’t like what my life looks like now and I want it to be different.” They can make decisions and try to make it different. They are not just subject to whatever the world is putting on them. 

That’s also something I carry through in my fiction writing as well. This idea that queer people deserve to find love. Most of my characters are East Asian queer people and again it’s those intersecting marginzalitions. They deserve to be messy people just like anyone else. They don’t have to be the token Asian or the gay character that gets killed off first in the story. Those are very common things we see in the media. I want to bring these people into the centre so that they are the main characters. They are the heroes. For Queer of Colour, the queer person of colour is the main character in their story. They’re not the sidekick or the comic relief. They get to go on the journey and they have agency about where they end up. 

N: Storytelling is powerful. 

E: Language in general is really powerful. In the last however many years, with more exploration into trans identities and the asexual umbrella of identities, [we are exploring identities using language that] people who are a generation or two older than me didn’t have. That’s not to say those identities didn’t exist. It’s that they didn’t have words to describe them. Now that we are developing this language around it, it’s really empowering and really opening up questions like: what does sexuality mean? What is sexual identity? What is gender identity? It’s really challenging the idea of gender binaries and sexual binaries. 

I read an article recently that said Gen Z is a lot more queer than previous generations. It’s kind of a misnomer because I don’t think they are a lot more queer, they are just a lot more aware and open about it. They have the language now and they’ve grown up in a society where it’s normalized to claim those identities and to use that language. I think what we are starting to see is there are a lot more queer people around than we used to think.

Denim Blu sitting at a picnic table in a park
Denim Blù: "Sex is taboo back in China, especially for young kids. I didn’t know what sex was, or that men can fall in love with men." (Excerpt from the profile, "Breaking Stereotypes as a Gay Chinese Musician." Photo by Eileen Liu).

N: What do you hope people take away from this project? 

E: I think the most important thing is that the people who participate in the project and the people who are the audience for the project feel seen and heard. 

It’s really important to have the stories shared publicly for other folks who are in similar situations to know that they’re not alone, that there are others who have been in the same situation or who are going through the same things. Maybe they can find solidarity in that and feel hope that there is an end to whatever challenge or struggle they are going through. 

[These stories also] help us understand people we might not normally come in contact with. It’s pretty common for folks to surround themselves with people who are like them. Most of my friend group has shared the same experiences as me and that’s probably the case for most people. When we have these stories of people who are different from us or that we think are different from us, we hear their stories and we think, “hey, they’re actually not that different’ or maybe there are aspects that are different but that helps me understand them more. And that’s the first step towards things like reconciliation and community-building. If we really want to create bonds in society that help to increase equality, inclusion and diversity, it’s really important for people to at least understand where people are coming from and to think, “maybe I don’t experience that myself but that experience is still valid.”

N: What’s next? 

E: I need to do more interviews. The first set of people I talked to were from my network or certain Facebook groups. They all have similar demographics. Mostly in their 20’s, a lot of them are artists and Asian and that’s because of the groups I reached out to. I’m going to be starting the second phase soon. One of the things I want to be conscious of is talking to people from more diverse backgrounds. I want to talk to a lot of older people. I want to talk to people who work in other industries and obviously, different ethnic backgrounds. That’s something I want to explore.

In addition to founding the Queer of Colour project, Eileen is a full-time author and podcast host. She primarily writes queer romance fiction, among other stories. Her latest novel, Hard Sell, came out on Tuesday under her pen name, Hudson Lin. She also co-hosts the podcast, World of Stories, about how stories shape our lives. The second season, focusing on how we live, work, and process a pandemic, is out now on all major streaming platforms. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.