April 27, 2015 - Viviane (an update)

April 27, 2015 - Viviane (an update)

I was invited to speak at the Vancouver Immigrant Youth Leadership Forum today. Their biggest presence is where they are the most accessible to the youth demographic - online. 


Vancouver Immigrant Youth (VANITY) Blog is an online space made for youth, by youth (*see link in the comments below). There are stories and experiences written by immigrant youth, who once felt how challenging it was to be a newcomer in Vancouver. The goal, through shared stories, is to empower young immigrants to bring out their full potential. The theme of today's forum was stories to encourage story-telling, and sharing.


I was running late, and of course the bus stopped at every stop along the way. That’s how it goes when you’re in a hurry, right? When I arrived at the venue, an elementary school, all the doors were locked. I knocked and knocked until I got someone’s attention. One of the staff told me it was professional development day (Pro D day), hence the locked doors. 


I was lead to a room where there was a meeting already in progress. I had been told the audience was going to be a group of young people. Here I found myself in a room with about fifty teachers discussing strategies to better support their students. 


After about ten minutes or so, I leaned over to someone sitting nearby and told her discreetly, that I thought I was in the wrong room. We stood up, distracting everyone, and went on a scavenger hunt to find the youth forum. It surprised me just how much activity was going on behind the scenes on a professional development day!


Eventually, I was lead to a small gymnasium where the group I was speaking with, were waiting. Fortunately, they weren't waiting only for me. They were just about to begin, and so my timing worked out well. I met a lovely woman by the name of Tasha who was there to perform three spoken word poems she had written. 


I’ve done a number of presentations for The Stranger Project. I still wonder what the reaction will be from the audience when I introduce depression as part of the reason for me starting to talk to strangers. When I think about why it causes me to pause, I recognize it’s still somewhat rooted in stigma, my own and societal; the implications of talking about mental health. It does get easier though.


Tasha, a wonderfully personable and outgoing artist, presented her spoken word poems first. Her language, diction and presentation was like watching a dancer perform, even though she stood in one spot. Her hands floated into gestures and punctuated her words, which flowed like a song without music. The room was instantly transfixed. I hung on every word. For her second piece, wouldn’t you know it, Tasha’s poem was about depression (*see link in the comments below). Resounding applause.


I was next. After introducing my project, I asked the students if they felt awkward meeting strangers. Half the room indicated they did. I gave them an activity. They were to find someone in the room that they had never met before, and were to share a few things about themselves; an opportunity to listen and to be heard. There was lots of great chatter in no time at all. Barrier, broken.


I showed a series of photographs, of strangers I’ve met since last year. I asked the students to consider their first impression of the person in each photo, and to see if they could come up with a story about them. Then I went through the stories of each of these people, as they had told me. 


The point was to highlight that we all have perceptions about other people. If we don't stop to connect and communicate, that’s all we have, perceptions. I also shared how doing this project has helped me living with depression. To get out of the house every day, simply to meet others. 


As the project has grown, I’ve received countless messages, emails and notes from people. Many of them saying how their perceptions, approaches and thoughts about strangers have changed. The students understood the value of hearing others stories. 


I left them with a challenge. We are all different and unique individuals, yet we have a common human trait. That is a need and want to feel and sense belonging. To be heard. To connect. And if we want that, if we want to be a part of a community, we have to accept responsibility for our own contributions. We have to be the community. 


Talking with these young people, the influencers of tomorrow, who are engaged, proactive, interesting and interested, is so inspiring. Truly, a gift.


Some hours later, I was heading home, and I saw a familiar face. It was Viviane, who is pictured above. She told me she remembered who I am, and that we had chatted, although she couldn’t quite recall about what.

“Oh, my life?” she said, with a sympathetic smile on her face.



I had met Viviane back in February of this year. We had chatted for about thirty minutes, Viviane recalling bits of her life so filled with experiences. After I had posted Viviane’s story back in February, I tracked down her daughter, Nora. Viviane had told me she was an actor. The first person I asked about Nora was an actor friend of mine, who knew who she was. Bingo, first try! 


Nora had shared the story I wrote of her mother, and it was very well received. Even Nora said she had learned a few things about her mother that she didn’t know! 


Today I asked Viviane if I could take a photograph of both of us.

"I suppose, why not?" she said to me. When I got home, I sent the photo to Nora, saying ‘Look who I ran into today. It was a good day, and we had a lovely little chat.’ Nora replied to my message with “Great photo! Can you post to FB? YAY!” 


It is an honour, and a privilege to be where I am right now. Today. Right here. I am a conduit to other people's stories, and my life is richer than it has ever been. #notastranger #YIF #youthimmigrantforum