Young social advocate sets out to change the way we learn about other cultures through storytelling.

By Jesse Mintz

 

Winter days in Toronto are short. The temperature drops quickly as the sun recedes early. For many, motivation is sapped in the face of frosty weather during this harsh season. But for a group of young social entrepreneurs, braving dark, snowy evenings after school to attend the WE Incubation Hub poses no challenge.

A gathering of dedicated young people aged 14–19, the WE Incubation Hub is a mentorship program developed to take world-changing ideas to the next level with the guidance of WE staff. Connecting change-makers with experienced activists, leadership facilitators and experts in business and social entrepreneurship, the hub is home to young people plotting ways to better local and global communities. During its inaugural session this past November, the program fostered projects that spanned from an illustrated children’s book about child labour to an app that connects eager young people with volunteer opportunities in their community. And then there was Kasha Slavner’s initiative.

A 19-year-old from Toronto, Kasha joined the WE Incubation Hub determined to change negative narratives in the media by imbuing hope and resilience in people’s everyday lives through positive storytelling. More than a budding social advocate, Kasha arrived with her social project already formed. She’d spent half a year on a story-gathering mission, travelling around the world—joined by her mom—interviewing people about overcoming life’s obstacles. She returned with 20,000 photos and dozens of hours of footage. After turning her raw material into a documentary and a corresponding photo series, what she needed from the bright minds at the hub was help transforming her documentary into an educational resource for classrooms. Her end goal was clear: Kasha wanted to see her work spark conversations.

In the same way that WE Schools curriculum and campaigns encourage students to become more aware of the world around them and take social action, she wanted her project to inspire them to get out from behind their desks and go change the world. Rewind Kasha’s story back to the beginning—before all the photos and footage were gathered, before she’d even heard of the WE Incubation Hub—and one finds two points of inspiration for this change-maker: her mom, Marla Slavner, and Craig Kielburger, the co-founder of WE.

“My sense of social justice comes from my mom,” Kasha declares.

Seated next to her mother, she shares that the remarkable woman beside her raised her alone. She recalls that discussions about fairness and equality were like background music in their home, and how her mother brought her along to rallies ranging from protests against income inequality to advocacy for women’s rights. One day, the mother-daughter duo ended up at an event where Craig Kielburger happened to be speaking. Like a bolt of lightning illuminating the sky, hearing Craig talk about the young people driving the WE Movement to make the world a better place gave direction to Kasha’s passion for giving back.

“It gave me permission to dream and sparked my interesting in getting involved,” she explains.

Before long, she was exploring issues in her community, including hunger and homelessness, and joined her school’s WE club. Eager and dedicated, at 14, Kasha’s activism earned her a place beside her mom and delegates from around the world at a UN conference on gender equality, where the two acted as representatives for Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, a Canadian NGO advocating for a world without war. There, a young Kasha listened as delegates shared stories of resilience and optimism, and learned lessons centred around how everyday actions can better lives and communities. Those stories—juxtaposed with the reports of suffering and war she regularly heard in the news—left an indelible mark on her. Looking back, she recalls the impact that experience had on her path forward; “Hearing their stories made me want to use my passion for photography to share them with the world.”

And like that, she knew what she wanted to do. Following in Craig’s footsteps, she took some time off school to pursue her passion for social change. And like Craig, she travelled around the globe to meet people doing good in their communities and showcase them for the world to see. She called her mission The Global Sunrise Project. With the help of her mom, Kasha spent over a year fundraising and planning, before setting off on her 16th birthday.

The first stop on her adventure was South Africa. When she landed there with her mom—always beside her—she had a list of local charitable organizations to visit and a skeleton itinerary that quickly went out the window. Word of mouth guided them from the townships of South Africa (where a man built a community centre as an oasis of art and dance amidst poverty and despair) to a women’s shelter in Thailand (where children and mothers who had escaped domestic violence pieced their lives back together). In between, there were memories molded in Tanzania, Mozambique and China. Back on Canadian soil, Kasha immediately got to work turning the interviews she’d collected abroad into a documentary showcasing the people she had met and the challenges they face.

Plucked from regions across the globe, featured narratives were tied together by a single theme: positivity. No matter where they called home, each individual used hope and optimism to conquer obstacles. For Kasha, the plotline was obvious; change is possible, no matter where you come from. “I choose to look at things with a hopeful lens,” she shares. “The stories in the film are all different, but they all share a sense of resilience and passion.”

After a successful run at festivals with her documentary, in addition to sharing her photos in art galleries, Kasha was still eager to do more with the stories she had collected; she wanted to reach more people. In particular, she wanted to reach more young people in order to inspire them to become involved in social change, just like Craig Kielburger had done for her all those years earlier.

When she heard about WE’s latest initiative, the WE Incubation Hub, signing up was inevitable. She had her documentary, her photos and an idea to somehow turn all of the material into curriculum that could be used in a high school workshop about media representation, but she wasn’t exactly sure what she needed to do to bring her vision into the classroom. The hub would help. The wheels started to turn when the hub’s one-on-one mentoring sessions began. During this part of the program, all participants get paired with a change-maker in their field. Kasha’s partner was Talitha Tholles. With years of experience as a WE facilitator and a hand in developing WE’s Indigenous programming, Talitha was an invaluable source of knowledge. While Kasha understood what was needed to gather stories, Talitha knew how to help Kasha command a room and translate her footage and photos into exciting classroom resources that would engage students.

As someone used to being behind the camera rather than standing before a crowd (like the one found in a classroom), Talitha’s guidance helped Kasha do more than shape her social project: it helped her overcome personal barriers and develop leadership skills. “I deal with anxiety about getting up on stage and leading conversations. It scares me, it’s out of my comfort zone,” admits Kasha. “Talitha’s been really great about understanding where I’m coming from and meeting me there.”

Now that she’s more certain of her project and a more confident public speaker, Kasha is currently putting the finishing touches on her project before she begins pitching it to teachers. For Kasha’s mom, Marla—who dropped everything to travel across the globe with her daughter—the last few years have been filled with proud moments, as she’s watched Kasha grow as a leader through lessons instilled at home and honed through participation with WE. “She’s absorbed everything like a sponge, cultivating new ideas, new skills,” Marla says. “And that’s what mentorship is about. Kasha has such potential, and WE has shown such commitment [to encouraging that potential]. From my perspective as a parent, I’m thrilled.”

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