Storytelling for Social Change

My mother is a teacher by trade – and a damned good one.

In fact, she’s so good her students from thirty years ago still keep in touch to this day, even going so far as to get her old classes together to take her out for dinner whenever she returns to the country for a visit. But when my mother and I arrived in Toronto from the Caribbean nearly 20 years ago, she couldn’t get work as a teacher.

Like so many other immigrants before her and since, her qualifications, her experience, her expertise and her zeal were not considered sufficient for her to be permitted to practice her profession here. So she did what she could. She took whatever work she could get. Work outside her field. Work that didn’t pay very well. Work with lousy hours and a terrible commute.

I was quite young then and my mother did her utmost to shield me, but I remember the leanness of those years. I remember the job changes, and the excess of time I spent with family friends. I remember the constant moving, and the shelter we lived in when it got really rough. I remember the endless array of hurdles she had to clear – at great expense – as she sought the simple dignity of doing the job she was born to do, had been trained to do and had been doing with great skill for years.

Many years later while I was in university, I had the pleasure of becoming fast friends with Kathy, one of our thoroughly underpaid and under-appreciated campus security guards. She worked the graveyard shift at my freshman dorm and had a beautiful, infectious laugh. Its melody rang out often in the hallways as she tirelessly spent her evenings and nights making sure other people’s bleary-eyed (and drunk) kids made it to bed safe, so that her kids would have a bed to call their own.

These stories are not unusual.

I heard hundreds of these stories from folks in kitchens, dorm rooms, and on street corners during my time as New York State Coordinator of the Obama campaign’s student wing. I heard them from New York City public school students and public servants alike when I worked for an American youth-advocacy nonprofit. I heard them in my time working in Toronto’s Little India at the Riverdale Immigrant Women’s Centre. And most recently, I’ve heard them from folks in every sector imaginable at the MaRS innovation hub in Toronto.

As I have traveled, worked and learned across provincial, national and continental borders, I have come to know two things for certain.

Firstly, I know that “economic and social justice” is not just some dry, academic phrase or a wingnut’s fantasy. Economic and social justice are, quite simply, the point of our democracy. We know this instinctively when we encounter a dad working multiple jobs to keep the lights on, or when we find out our cab driver was a surgeon before she came to our shores. These things feel wrong. We know that they shouldn’t happen and they certainly shouldn’t happen here.

Secondly, I know deep down in the marrow of my bones that the right story, told well, in the service of the right goals can change the world. I know this because I’ve seen it happen before my very eyes.

Where could be a better place to pursue the goal of storytelling in service of a better tomorrow than the Atkinson Foundation, whose namesake turned a moribund, maligned rag into the leading progressive newspaper in the country and packed such a wallop his broadsheet was banned in Nazi Germany? The Atkinson Foundation has been walking the talk for 73 years, challenging and enabling Ontarians to build a more inclusive and equitable society. That is why I’m thrilled to join the Foundation’s staff this September as Communications Manager.

First we change the headlines, then we change the world.

Jared Walker becomes Atkinson’s Manager of Communications on September 8th, 2015.