It was a warm summer afternoon when I first met Comox Valley Art Gallery (CVAG) Executive Director Sharon Karsten in a small cafe behind the Denman Island ferry. I knew before we spoke that the work I was applying for was made for me. At the time, I had a long history of mentoring and developing community-based media education programs to engage with local issues. This kind of work can be exciting because we are engaging in issues that are relevant to creating a more sustainable future. It can also leave folks feeling powerless when no one pays attention and nothing changes.

I am an artist and activist with a keen interest in shifting the way key decision-makers in the community and general public look at community issues or problems. I strongly believe that empowering folks to create media is a key ingredient to making this happen. I was thrilled to find a likeminded human and a perfect employment fit in my new Comox Valley home.

Like many artists, part of my own sense of powerlessness came when I lost access to affordable housing. As my Vancouver neighbourhood of Strathcona became gentrified, I grew frustrated with the brick walls I came up against when trying to forage a space for positive change while struggling to survive. That is the state I was in when I met Sharon that day, ready to embrace her contagious optimism.

The CVAG Youth Media Project is a strange duckling, differing from other programs because it ties together employability skills, the art of filmmaking, and engaging active citizenship. Over a 13-week period, youth with barriers to employment are paid a full-time minimum wage to learn media skills through creating an independent film about something they care about changing in the Comox Valley. These youth, aged 16-30, are then teamed up with small progressive and sustainable businesses or not-for-profits that are working towards positive change themselves, to create a second film.

As part of the application process, youth are asked a simple question: What would you like to see change in the Comox Valley? The answers are increasingly complex as the program takes on an energy and life of its own. Answers range from building a designated community graffiti wall to reducing child/parent separation by developing family group homes. Youth are using their films to propose doable solutions to real community issues, drawing from their own life experience to inform the work.

That day in the cafe, I could not have predicted the profound impact that engaging active citizenship has on healing. What I did anticipate was the healing that occurs when youth (or anyone else) have an opportunity to speak about the kind of change we need. The journey to speaking your own truth can be a challenging and brave act. It is the act of all filmmakers. I recall the first film I created, during my own youth, about sexual violence. It was raw, revealing, and painful, but a required part of my own healing.

Then there is the healing that comes from recognizing that others have shared your experience and are also working towards positive, sustainable cultural change. This kind of healing can be remarkably empowering. Then there is another, less talked about kind of healing.

This is the healing that comes when your voice has an actual impact on changing policy. The reason the CVAG Youth Media Project is a magical and transformative space is because we live in a small, brave community that is not afraid to listen and act on the suggestions in these youth films. Thank you all you change-makers out there, for taking chances, and daring to model a more just, equitable, and sustainable future.

For more information please contact the Comox Valley Art Gallery. The CVAG Youth Media Project partners with the Wachiay Friendship Centre, the Creative Employment Access Society, and Imagine Comox Valley. We are currently accepting applications for the Fall program.