Growing up, Erin Meiklejohn and Genevieve Kanuel were taught not to talk to strangers.
Like most young children, the girls were told to stay away from people they didn’t know and if strangers tried to talk to them, to run away.
“When I was younger, my parents would always say not to talk to strangers,” Genevieve said.
The stereotype of stranger danger is one the 13-year-olds, and students in Central Middle School’s media and social justice class are trying to break as part of a new project. Students recently launched Faces of Victoria, a social media campaign based on Humans of New York, a photoblog by Brandon Stanton, telling the stories of everyday people living in New York City.
As part of the students’ project, the Grade 8 class scoured the streets of downtown Victoria, asking people to share their stories. At first, many students were nervous about approaching strangers and asking about their lives. Some people said they were too busy, while others said they weren’t interested in participating. But eventually, people began to warm up to the idea.
Erin remembers one woman in particular at Our Place who had a rough childhood. The woman jumped from one foster home to another after her parents died, before she ended up in a residential school. She eventually met the love of her life and they were married for 28 years, until her husband passed away.
“I just felt like giving her a hug, it was a really touching story,” said Erin, who described the experience of talking to strangers as empowering. “They’re not scary people, they’re just people like us. We’re just trying to celebrate the diversity of everyone’s story. Everyone are the faces of Victoria.”
But not all the stories they heard were sad. Genevieve met seven different people, including a fiddler who plays music for the public every day on Yates Street near London Drugs.
The 16 students will be posting the stories on their Instagram, Facebook and website until the end of the school year. Fourteen people and their stories are currently on display in the Douglas foyer of City Hall and will be there for the next week, before moving to other venues.
Teacher Alan Barwin hopes the project will help students become compassionate.
“I’m hoping they have open minds and open hearts. That when they see someone on the street, their neighbour, or someone they come across while in a store, they are open to them, and recognize them as a human and that everyone has a story that they might be connected to,” Barwin said, adding teaching compassion is particularly relevant in today’s society.
“We see so much negavitity, racism, and close-mindedness, especially with American politics and even Canadian politics. We all have happy days and challenges in our lives. We need to eat and sleep. Humanity is something that is so important and allows us to create an inclusive society.”
Students hope to continue the project into next year and are still looking for venues to display the exhibit. Interested parties can contact Barwin at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the campaign visit Faces of Victoria on Facebook or @facesofvictoria on Instagram.