Creating positive change through empowerment: SFU alumnus making big waves in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

Downtown Eastside homelessness reaching crisis levels: Carnegie report; City on drugs: the dark pull of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside; Vancouver police beef up foot patrol in Downtown Eastside: these are just a few news articles that have been written over the last two years on Vancouver, British Columbia’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). These types of stories depict part of the reality of the DTES and the challenges at hand. While captivating the public’s attention, they paint a not-so-pretty picture and do not necessarily highlight some of the positive initiatives that are happening. 

Whether you have heard about Vancouver’s DTES through media, seen it by passing through the city, or have experienced it firsthand because you live or work in the area, undoubtedly, the area has garnered attention on a local and international scale.

What is the connection to Simon Fraser University? As an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus, SFU continues in our commitment to social innovation and changemaking. As such, we continue to tell stories of our students, faculty and staff that share a similar dedication to take action and create positive change in society. 

Meet SFU alumnus, Christina Wong. Wong is a Coast Capital Savings SFU Venture Connection® client and Idea Prize  award recipient, as well as the executive director of  Employ to Empower — a non-profit organization that assists homeless people in obtaining long-term employment. Wong’s drive for community engagement and dedication to eradicate poverty and homelessness has put her at the forefront of a number of initiatives for the people of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.  

SFU Innovates staff recently connected with Wong to learn more about her work, what inspires her, as well as her goals and visions for the future.

What is Employ to Empower and how does it contribute to positive change in our society?

Employ to Empower (ETE) is a non-profit that focuses on drastically reducing homelessness in Vancouver’s DTES through long-term and meaningful employment. Our mantra and mission is handing up and handing out. In my opinion, traditional non-profits currently may offer short-term solutions that do not address the long-term picture. With ETE, the positive change we hope to create is by providing an experience rather than a service that’s holistic. Not only do we care for employment, but we care for all other factors such as housing and mental health.

Have you always been a changemaker? What does being a changemaker mean to you?

Being a changemaker became an interest of mine when I was 14-years-old in ninth grade. I was on a field trip with my high school youth leader and we went out to the DTES for the first time to hand out care packages. On this day, I met an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair who declined my care package and thanked me for the gesture. He expressed that what he really needed right now was a haircut. Since this experience, I wanted to be a changemaker when I finished school.

Being a changemaker means standing for something and not falling for everything. The easy thing to do is follow what everyone else says, and soon enough we realize that our voices are blended in with the rest. If we have wealth, we have the responsibility to take care of our community, regardless of socioeconomic status.

[Christina Wong focuses her work on empowering homeless people through obtaining long-term employment.] 

Tell us about your connection to SFU and the SFU Innovates programs that you have participated in.

I am a SFU Alumna with a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology and a specialization in Disability Applied Behaviour Analysis — a therapy for kids with Autism. During my time at SFU, I organized TEDxSFU 2016 and volunteered in various extracurricular activities. ETE was also awarded the Idea Prize by Coast Capital Savings SFU Venture Connection® in February 2018, enabling us to stay connected with mentors like Sarah Lubik, Janice OBriain and Tim Ames.

What are some of the challenges you have faced through university and your career?

A challenge I faced was figuring out my learning style and what my purpose was. While education and schooling is necessary to teach discipline, it also taught me that there are life skills that can’t be learned in school, which is experiential learning. My steepest and most valuable learning curve was being the project lead for TEDxSFU. I had to learn life skills like setting boundaries, interpersonal skills and managing eight committees — which isn’t typically an opportunity universities can offer. 

What are some of the highlights and successes you have experienced in university and your career?

In university, my biggest highlight was having the opportunity to be the Project Lead for TEDxSFU 2016. It was a sold out conference with over 700 attendees and 12 inspirational speakers. 

With ETE, securing events sponsorship with TELUS and Vancity was a career highlight for me, and hearing firsthand from our clients that this program has added purpose and meaning to their lives. One of the most notable successes with ETE was hosting its first Cardboard Project—in December 2018—in partnership with a DTES local artist Marcel Mousseau. The Cardboard Project is a massive three eyed art piece showcasing a collection of 100+ responses written by community members from the DTES, each sharing something in the past that changed who they are. Marcel, an Employ to Empower client and local DTES artist got a chance to speak at the event on the theme of 'recovery' in front of 180 guests and sold $500 worth of his paintings. Moreover, ETE hosted its fifth Street Store Vancouver, a pop up, free clothing store that allows people in need to pick what they want and need at no cost. At this event, we collected over 5000+ donations, worked with 65 volunteers and had 12 sponsors. We impacted a total of 1000+ people in the DTES with Telus being our title sponsor.

Who is someone that inspires you?

Rosan Auyeung, a mental health therapist at Vancouver General Hospital. She taught me a life hack that really helped me thrive in all aspects of my career which is, unconditional acceptance — the power of accepting people, for not only their strengths, but their weaknesses, in order to spark wholehearted living. This is the biggest growth curve of 2018 and I am so thankful for her mentorship over the past 10 years.

What are some future goals and visions you have for Employ to Empower and yourself as a changemaker?

My 10-year vision is to support 200 individuals’ secure long-term and meaningful employment. I want to instill hope and empowerment in the incredible humans and entrepreneurs who reside in Vancouver’s DTES. 

As a personal goal, I am working on three core themes: sustainability, efficiency and not making other people’s problems my problem. This sounds odd but it’s easy to take a personal hit when reality does not align with our expectations and trusting that people have the capability of thinking, feeling and figuring things out on their own.

Learn more about becoming a changemaker and getting involved at SFU