Measuring Social Impact: Transaction, Transformation, Translation – Part I

Victoria Park Hub is an umbrella service agency catering to community needs from providing Afghani slow cooking classes to be a physical place for residents to meet, talk and, occasionally, argue. In 2013 the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) awarded MCIS Language Services and Documentary Institute of Canada (Toronto Chapter) a two-years development grant, Documentaries for Change (DfC), to “harness the power of documentaries to create real social change and engage isolated communities”. The basic evolved around recruiting interpreters and translators from the existing MCIS roaster, train them in principles of documentary storytelling and engagement and turn them into docs animators in their respective linguistic communities. Between April and May of 2015 the Hub hosted a few DfC events.

It is generally believed that watching documentaries does not thrive outside of boundaries of the upper middle class. The Hot Docs Learning from Documentary Audiences: A Market Research Study (2014) based on survey of documentary viewing in Canada generated from several thousands of questionnaires and focus groups in five cities, agrees. The study indicates that the average documentaries watching annual household income is around $75,000 while 78 % of viewers have university education. While documentaries often focus on isolated/ poor/powerless the isolated/ poor/powerless is not their audience.

Fast forward to April 17, 2015, Friday night.

I am in the room at the Hub with some of the DfC Fellows : Ashraf, Souleiman,Vivek, Zewdi and DfC’s project manager Sree.  The screenings supposed to start at 7pm but at 6:30 pm we are not even close to be ready to roll. First,the main doors were locked due to the after hours policy we assumed will be lifted. Luckily somebody (unrelated to our event) miraculously appeared, opened the door and we rushed upstairs.  Then, the accordion doors dividing the screen from the audience part appeared to be unmovable. We spoke to the staff but as this was news to them too they had no clue as to what to do. We asked if rough approach is allowed. They refused to find this statement even remotely funny. Armed with a tool box we handed the screw driver to the most frustrated member who forced our way in. We loudly cheered and clapped but being only  15 minutes away we needed to keep moving.

People are gathering, projector and speakers are connected, food is on the table, and director (David AdkinDebt Trap)  and three other panellist arrived: one very cool financial planner, one sturdy and solid banker and one activist from community financial forum. The movie begins and although western exposure does allow more light that we need we find ourselves rapidly immersed in the power of storytelling.

We get enraged, we get inspired, we get engaged. The movie is over and we applaud.

One of the DfC’s Fellows, acting moderator, is leading discussion down the less– than- politically- correct road. The discussion quickly gets polarized and emotionally charged. Left wing versus the right. Banker and planner who believe we all need to act responsibly and think about  money entrepreneurialy (and they are right) versus activist and a movie maker who are holding stories of “others” not being able to meet those standards (and they are right too).

And then the  questions from the audience in rapid waves.

Mind you, this is not your regular audience. Not the people who ask questions in the way we expect them to be asked. Not likely the +$75K median income household dweller with Canadian university education. Sometimes the English is less than fluent. Sometimes, too much is revealed too soon because their personal burden became too heavy to bear, and needs to be unloaded. They became indebted in Canada while waiting on social insurance number. Not being able to work they used all of their savings. And more. The became indebted while waiting in hospitals for babies to be born with no OHIP and $3500 daily charge. They list their struggles, one after another: new immigrant in unknown places of confusion that conspires to take their power away. Sometimes it hurts to listen.

One women in particular – moved to the point where she could not wait to reach for the microphone saying that she was never ever in her life interested to speak in the public because she is shy and she feels her English is not good. But today is different. Today she wants to tell the story about  her debt.  And her first sentence is profoundly concise: “Rich have debit cards; poor have only credit.” And she continues about never having enough to pay for her children’s’ birthday gifts so, of course, year after year she reaches into her credit to supply her income often remaining indebted for a very long time. And she is very interested in what the activist is bringing to the table – petition against big cash lending chain coming to Canada . She wants her signature to be there.She wants to make change.

And it was exactly where it happened. The impact we are speaking about sometimes vaguely, theoretically, hypothetically – actually happened, right here, and right now. Somebody right here and right now reached inside and did something unusual, out of the character and habit stepping out of the comfort zone. But it is not one singular  experience only. It is deeper than that we all feel it now in the room – we are in this together, this injustice affects us all. We now understand that this is not their debt. It is also ours and we need to do something to change, it and we will be successful if we do it together. Let’s connect, sign petition, keep in touch,let me know what can I do.



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