Innovator Profile: Tara Mahoney

Jackie Pichette
Research and Communications Officer, SFU Public Square

Innovator Profiles highlight extraordinary community members that are making a difference.

Tara Mahoney is the creative director and co-founder of Gen Why Media. She is passionate about engaging young people in the democratic process.

Working as an intern at the Greenpeace headquarters in Washington, D.C., a young Tara Mahoney became aware of the media’s profound ability to influence civic life. In a city “at the centre of power," Mahoney became troubled by the media’s tendency to portray people, and society more generally, in a negative light.

“I started to notice how much power the media have to interpret certain messages. They are the gatekeepers of the people’s consciousness, and, particularly in the U.S., they are doing a really bad job.” Mahoney lamented that most of what she saw in the news centred around negative themes like violence or cheating—themes which, she thinks, don’t accurately represent the intelligence and spirit of most people.

After completing a master’s degree in media production, Mahoney began working at Pull Focus Film School in Vancouver. There, she met Fiona Rayher, and together they went on to co-found Gen Why Media: a media production company that focuses on civic engagement within the Generation Y demographic.

Mahoney says the focus on Generation Y came out of an interest in generational theory. According to the theory, generations reoccur in cycles of four, and every four generations a hero archetype is born.

The hero archetype comes of age during a time of social crisis or social decay. As members of this generation form their opinions about the world, so the theory goes, they perceive that the way things operate no longer makes sense. As Mahoney understands it, this realization creates “an opening in the consciousness for large-scale social change within a generation.”

Hoping to help Generation Y realize its heroic potential, Mahoney and Rayher took it upon themselves to provide a new and inspiring source of media representation. It’s no small task, but Mahoney considers it to be a very important one. "There are a lot of crazy things happening that our generation will have to make decisions about, and if we aren’t making those decisions collectively, there’s a real danger."

If given the chance to make decisions together, in a democratic way, Mahoney believes this generation will achieve positive change. And Gen Why is about providing the inspiration and creating the space to do just that.

Take, for instance, the documentary that Gen Why is currently working on. The film looks at hydraulic fracturing in B.C. and the impact it’s having on Indigenous culture. Mahoney describes the film as a story of young people—Indigenou and non-Indigenous—working together to come up with better ways of doing things. After releasing the film to the public, Gen Why will host community conversations around the same theme, online and offline.

Talking about the film, and other Gen Why projects, it’s clear Mahoney is excited by her career path and truly believes in the value of the work she’s doing. Still, she admits she’s uncertain about what the future holds for her and her work. Mahoney says people often assume that she, and others who have started their own organizations, are “sure of something,” but it’s not quite the case. “I’m just going step by step. I can see the next step fairly clearly and I take that one. As far as the big picture goes, I’m no more certain of that than anyone else.”

One of the steps Mahoney took was enrolling in the Civic Engagement and Dialogue program at SFU. She says the program taught her a lot about listening, and gave her tools to interact with others in a meaningful way.

Speaking about SFU, she also gave us a shoutout! “I’m really glad SFU Public Square exists,” she says, “because it helps legitimize the work Gen Why and other civic engagement practitioners are doing. The program demonstrates that democratic values are important, enough so to be endorsed by the university in this huge way.” It’s a great thing to hear form a civic influencer, who is evidence enough to us that the hero archetype exists.