How digital storytelling can improve the lives of at-risk communities

Just east of the vibrant streets of downtown Vancouver, one of the most livable cities in the world, lies the Downtown Eastside, one of the most concentrated districts of poverty, illness and addiction in the world. According to a 2013 report by the City of Vancouver, this neighborhood has one of the lowest per capita incomes in any urban area in Canada. More than 53% of residents here live below the low income line and over 90% live in rented, often single occupancy residences, the last resort before homelessness. These groups include women, children and youth, seniors, members of the LGBTQ community, aboriginal people, sex workers, drug users and people with disabilities and mental illness.

The Downtown Eastside also has a higher concentration of health and social services. There are over 8,400 government and social service resources in British Columbia, almost 2,000 of which are in Vancouver alone. I have had the privilege of working with over 20 such community-based organisations and non-profits across the cities of Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey and Richmond that address needs of at-risk communities.

Despite the presence of such organizations addressing key social issues, I realised that there was a significant barrier to accessing these essential services due to a lack of awareness about them. While those who did access them benefited greatly, most were unaware that they existed and had many reservations prior to engaging with them.

The Digital Storytelling Project emerged as a public awareness and capacity-building initiative at the intersection of community needs and strategic community partnerships with bc211, British Columbia’s 24/7 information and referral agency, a team of motivated student volunteers, and support from a community innovation grant by the University of British Columbia. We set out with our cameras to generate filmed interviews not only asking members of the community what they needed to feel supported, but also asking the non-profits to share their service stories. We spoke with services that addressed challenges faced by young people, minority women and children who had experienced violence, seniors, the LQBTQ community, the HIV/AIDS positive community, and those who faced mental health issues.

We listened to their stories, learned from them and shared their stories with over 10,000 others in the community through social media and the 211 website. These stories gave a voice to these essential but invisible social services, and allowed the community to see the human passion and perseverance of these services despite difficulties and lack of resources. They provide an opportunity for the community to witness the motivation and personal commitment of the people who work tirelessly everyday to make a difference in their communities. The stories have also been used by these organisations to advocate for change and further their social missions. 

This project has transformed the way I perceive the world around me. It takes an immense amount of courage to share a personal journey of struggle and hopes about the future. I am so grateful to have been given the privilege to be a part of and witness some of these powerful narratives unfold.

As I take my first steps towards becoming a medical doctor, I endeavour to remember these narratives and embody these learnings in my work as a physician. I hope to contribute to the advancement of how we deliver healthcare by being more empathetic, by being a better listener, by fostering a better understanding of the complex social context of accessing support, and by recognising the unique privilege and responsibility I now have to make a positive difference in the lives of my patients and advocate for their well-being.

As one of the Canadian Queen’s Young Leaders of 2016 and as a new member of the One Young World family, I know that I am not alone in my efforts and I am certain that this global network of young allies, champions and changemakers has the capability to make the world a better place.

Gunjan Mhapankar is a delegate representing Canada. She is currently a medical student at the University of Western Ontario. She founded, The Digital Storytelling Project, which aims to increase public awareness about mental health, eating disorders, LGBTI+ rights, unemployment services and break down the barriers of fear and uncertainty involved in accessing them, through video and digital content. She received the 2016 Queen’s Young Leader Award.