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Community celebration event screens videos of strength and resilience in the Downtown Eastside

June 12, 2020
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By Geoff Gilliard

Christina Wong has volunteered in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) since she was 14 years old. Her dedication to eradicate poverty and homelessness has put the SFU alumnus at the forefront of several initiatives in the community.

In 2018, Wong launched the charity Employ to Empower (ETE), which takes a long-term and compassionate approach to helping DTES entrepreneurs get on their feet. This week, a special event will be held to share how the project is making an impact.

“Most people want a second chance to do things better, but these chances don't come for everyone due to barriers,” she says.

ETE offers skills training, affordable microloans and a one-on-one mentor to turn that loan into something tangible. Wong’s BA in psychology from SFU helped her to realize that if she wanted to truly give people a hand up, ETE would have to do even more.

“Not only do we support them with their business growth, but we’re also someone they can confide in,” Wong says. “It’s really important for them to know that we have their backs. Because loneliness is a huge thing for many of us. And not just people in the DTES.”

Wong is gradually expanding ETE as she gathers mentors on the ground to support the entrepreneurs. She plans to have 10 people in the program by the end of this year.

As one of ETE’s expansion strategies, videos of the program’s first two members, Deirdre Pinnock and Sage Bullick were created.

On June 19, ETE will premiere the videos at a free online community celebration open to the public. Wong, Pinnock, Bullick, videographer Chaplyn, and SFU’s Ash Tanasiychuk will discuss how the videos play a part in breaking stigmas around people in the DTES.

Deirdre Pinnock, left, collaborated with ETE to launch her career as a fibre artist. Her art is not only her livelihood, but also a form of therapy that lifts her from depression to become, as she says, “a person of value.”

“Our goal with these videos is to celebrate their strength and resilience by amplifying their story to the broader community, with hopes to challenge the stigma,” says Wong. “By sharing their stories with more people, we build a stronger community and can support more people to get their second chances.”

Facebook and Eventbrite pages have been created to promote the online screening, which will be held at 6 p.m. on June 19. Guests are encouraged to RSVP as the YouTube Live link will be emailed on the day of the event.

Funding for the two videos came when ETE volunteer Ash Tanasiychuk, a communications officer in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, wrote a proposal for an SFU Community Engagement Initiative (CEI) to hire a videographer with experience working in the DTES.

The project was guided by Research 101: A Manifesto for Ethical Research in the Downtown Eastside which was developed in collaboration with Scott Neufeld, an SFU social psychology PhD student, and DTES residents and community groups who were weary of being treated like lab rats by researchers and journalists parachuting into the neighbourhood.

“Among its many ethical recommendations, Research 101 suggests taking a lot of time to build trust before turning on a camera. We did that,” Tanasiychuk says.

“It also suggests closing every project with a community celebration. Our original in-person event was cancelled due to COVID-19. We hope everyone will tell their friends, family and communities about the online screening because the only way we’ll challenge the stigma surrounding the Downtown Eastside is when we all­—DTES residents, ETE entrepreneurs, and the public, locally and internationally—discuss it together."