No media about us without us, say underrepresented communities at Future Cities Summit

Clockwise from top left: Marc Soberano, Terry Cooke, Mohamed Huque, Catherine Wallace,
Fabrice Vil, Shannon Holness, Will Prosper, Daniella Levy-Pinto

On November 9, at a small session of the Future Cities Summit, NewCities Foundation and the McConnell Foundation co-hosted a conversation about inequality in cities. The goal was to have a frank and open exchange about how to “shift the narrative” — to challenge, disrupt and subvert the tired and sometimes false mainstream media’s framing of civic issues and instead tell stories that empower those who feel the effects of exclusion first-hand.

Fabrice Vil, co-founder and president of Pour 3 Points (P3P), a non-profit organization, likes to tell extraordinary stories. This fall, the Montrealer stood in front of 20 people at Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto, during a session at the Future Cities Canada Summit, and explained how his organization improves the lives of youth. His organization transforms sports coaches into mentors — “life coaches” — mainly for young athletes in underprivileged Montreal neighbourhoods — and Vil explained how he worked with media partners to raise awareness about how P3P addresses social justice issues in Quebec.

“We all need mentors,” Vil said at the Evergreen session, Shifting the Narrative: Reporting on Solutions to Inequality in Cities, which brought together community leaders and journalists. “Many youth don’t have access to quality sports facilities and coaches, and they don’t have access to mentors.” On top of that, many face racism and economic marginalization in their urban communities. But Vil tells the story of a young Black woman who enrolled as a coach partly because one of her former coaches had been a P3P coach. “She witnessed firsthand the impact of P3P coaches and decided to have a similar impact,” Vil said. And she’s inspiring other youth. “That’s a powerful story. It shows how kids who benefit from the program not only succeeded themselves but give back to the community.”

Vil is also one of the few Black columnists in the province (he writes a column for La Presse). He tackles issues of social inequalities, racism and politics, topics of increasing urgency, given the rise in racialization and xenophobia in the province. Like many of the 20 people who attended Shifting the Narrative, his writing generates a lot of attention from mainstream and alternative media outlets. At the session, participants shared their experience with new ways of collaborating with traditional news media to publicize solutions from marginalized communities and non-profit groups that work with them.

Robert Barnard, co-founder of YouthfulCities, which helps to build more prosperous and happier cities to live in, got great media results when his organization collaborated with mainstream media outlets, including a spot on Jimmy Kimmel Live. In contrast, Mohamed Huque, a management consultant with GrantBook and previously the executive director of the Islamic Family & Social Services Association in Alberta, said he’s had better results working with architectural magazines than with mainstream newspapers, which typically want him to discuss racialized narratives about refugees and immigration.

Other participants explained how they do an equally good job of reminding media about their biases and exclusions. “It’s striking to me that when we talk about equality and inclusion, we rarely talk about disabilities,” explained Daniella Levy-Pinto, a pedestrian advocate with Walk Toronto. “Disability issues compound problems for racialized people, unemployed youth, homeless people, newcomers and other marginalized groups.”

She and the other community leaders and journalists in the room showed how to bridge the gap between those who have power and those that don’t. Hamilton, Ontario, for example, has faced inequality and segregation issues for approximately 50 years, said Terry Cooke, president and CEO of the Hamilton Community Foundation, which addresses issues related to inequality and social justice in that city.

Cooke said that HCF has worked with the city’s newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator, on many issues surrounding poverty. “Specifically, HCF and the City of Hamilton co-founded the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction about 13 years ago to serve as an advocacy body in the fight to eradicate poverty,” he said. Partly because of that, the Spectator published a shocking series in 2010, called “Code Red,” which mapped the inequities in health and education services in the city’s 130 neighbourhoods. “Code Red drilled down deeply not only into what our city looks like and how it performs, but also into the impact of public policy on different neighbourhoods,” Cooke explained. HCF ended up building on the poverty-by-postal-code themes in the articles to produce its Vital Signs Report. The partnership was a good example of how to leap over media barriers and change the narrative around issues of inequality. “Most famously, the newspaper had an entire front page that was blank to represent all the voices in our community that aren’t heard on a daily basis. Mostly, those are people who are racialized and who are economically marginalized.”

A barrier to continuing — and expanding — these approaches is that print and broadcast media outlets have been shrinking for years. “The building is on fire, and people are running for the exits,” said Gerry Arnold from the Canadian Press. However, there’s still hope in spite of shrinking budgets and staff numbers. “Find the journalists who are interested in your issues,” Arnold told the group. “Have a coffee with them. You will hit gold, but you have to be knowledgeable and persistent.”

Catherine Wallace, assistant managing editor of news at The Toronto Star, agreed, but added that communities should look for alternate sources of civic information and storytelling as well. Last year, she completed an Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy that pointed to a number of such partnerships. “You need a journalist on the team who can find stories and angles,” she said at the session. “Reporters focus on institutions and powerful interests, but you also need human voices from communities. There’s more than one way to tell a story.” She encouraged partnerships — and taking control of the narrative. “This can lead to communities owning their stories in a better way than they could in the old, traditional models.”

Will Prosper, a Montreal filmmaker, civil-rights activist and former RCMP officer, explained how he put this into practice when he generated media coverage about racial profiling by police. “In Quebec, you’ve got white people talking about systemic racism all the time — talking about us, not with us,” he said. Community members felt like outcasts in their own city. “That had to change,” he said. “I’m a filmmaker, and I’m trying to take back the stories.”

Through all this, we have to be careful, suggested Marc Soberano, founder of Building Up, a non-profit that trains and hires ex-convicts and others in precarious situations to work on unionized construction sites. “It’s great to tell the story of an organization through the people benefitting from it, but sometimes the desire to give people a voice turns into asking people to talk about stuff they don’t want to talk about,” he said. At that point, using someone’s voice becomes invasion or exploitation. “When telling a bigger story, it’s great to focus on people’s futures and prosperity, not only on their past traumas,” he said.

But there’s still a long way to go in finding voices and making sure they’re represented with respect and care. Shannon Holness, a tenant advocate for her community in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood of Toronto, told the story of how a resident in her neighbourhood shared her story with a reporter at The Toronto Star after finding out that the city would close down her building, a social-housing unit. “At first, we didn’t want the media involved, because, a lot of time, racialized communities are fodder for other issues,” Holness said. “We learned when to invite the media in, and when not to, in order to tell our stories.” As a result, the Star reporter worked in the community when they were ready and did an amazing job of showing the human impact of the closure, Holness explained.

It’s sophisticated partnerships like these that resonate with marginalized communities and amplify voices of people who are presenting solutions to inequality.

Shannon Holness and several other residents that were impacted by the closure of their housing units created compelling narratives of their lived experienced through a photo-voice exhibit.

About the author:

Alex Gillis is an investigative journalist and author who’s written for many of Canada’s mainstream publications. He’s also worked with community- and international-development organizations. Share your thoughts with Alex @AlexBGillis