"The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any."
— Alice Walker, Author of "The Color Purple"
L ife isn’t an X-Men movie, in which you’ll hit puberty and your super powers will miraculously emerge, materializing from the aether like a Star Trek character on the destination-end of a teleporter. Life simply does not work that way. People do not work that way. For most people, it is imperative—a requirement really—to believe one has power before that person will act on it and manifest that power into reality through actions. It’s like using "The Force" in Star Wars—you have to believe you have it in order to harness it.
But this is real life, not Star Wars, and in real life we all have The Force, not just Jedis, which is to say we all have power, we just need to believe in it.
I didn’t believe I had the power—for anything—much less the power to make change. As it turns out, I did, and I do. And now I’m going to tell you a story about it—how I discovered my power to make change.
Sometime in 2018, a co-worker friend and I got into a conversation about how awful it was that police were responding to people experiencing acute mental health distress, which usually resulted in a short hospital stay whereby the person in need would be stabilized over a few days, perhaps given a prescription of something and sent home. This was the best case scenario. More often, individuals experiencing acute mental health distress when responded to by police would receive no such help and in some cases would even be harmed. Or killed.
Not. A. Good. Look.
So this friend and I decided we should do something about it.
We made a pact that we were going to work together to try to address the problem of police responding to mental health distress calls, to find a better way to help people in crisis, different than the ineffectual and sometimes harmful practice of sending police to do a job they are usually not qualified for. And that’s not throwing shade at police—they’re trained to stop crime, which one could argue they do quite well, but a mental health emergency is not a crime. So my friend and I thought, ‘what if mental health workers were responding to mental health emergencies instead of police? Is anyone doing this? Can we advocate to change the system to do it this way instead?’ At the time I thought it was a long shot. I didn’t believe (sorry Rachel, if you’re reading this).
It’s a good thing my partner-in-advocacy did!
Fast-forward two years and the subject of police responding to mental health crisis calls became a hot topic issue in Toronto following the suspicious deaths of several Canadians at the hands of police and the RCMP performing wellness checks. The window of opportunity opened and my friend and I dove straight through it.
We did not know we had any power but we sure were going to try!
Here’s how it happened.
First, we did some research. Then we sent a tweet that went mini-viral, pointing people in the twitter-verse toward an email-sending tool in which they could voice their support for non-police led mobile crisis response teams to locally elected officials. Shortly after that, we wrote an opinion piece that got published in The Toronto Star, one of the city’s biggest newspapers. Then, realizing we had something, my friend and I registered a non-profit to support our advocacy for this issue. Thus, we became the co-founders of the Reach Out Response Network, a grassroots advocacy group lobbying for the creation of non-police led mobile crisis response teams in Toronto. (Bam!! Yeaah baby!) Then we started recruiting volunteers while simultaneously outreaching and organizing town hall discussions with community members to get their opinions on what they would like to see in a non-police-led mobile crisis intervention team. Then the media outlets started calling—The Huffington Post, The Globe and Mail, Global News, CBC Radio, Al-Jazeera, etc. etc. And then we ended up on the front page of The Toronto Star. Even more media started calling. And politicians—MPPs and City Councillors—as well. Then finally, the City of Toronto, who built and commissioned a team to explore the idea of what community crisis response reform might look like, hired us, the Reach Out Response Network to provide our research findings on non-police led mobile crisis, to facilitate connections to other cities who have successfully deployed non-police led mobile crisis teams and to conduct several community town halls to learn more about what the people who lived in Toronto would want from this kind of service.
"We had no experience. All we had was passion, an idea, and an irrational amount of naivety that propelled us toward the notion that maybe we could make change happen."
So now my friend and I are on a first-name basis with the majority of Toronto’s twenty-five city councillors, we’re hobnobbing with CEOs and Executive Directors of the social justice elite and most importantly, we are helping to drive transformative change in the city of Toronto that will save lives, reduce mental health stigma and get people in distress the help they need. All this was started by just two regular ass young people—my co-founder, a shy young woman who had barely only just completed her undergrad and myself, someone who had failed to go beyond having an undergrad degree after failing to get into grad school more times than you can count on one hand. We had no credentials. We had no experience. All we had was passion, an idea, and an irrational amount of naivety that propelled us toward the notion that maybe we could make change happen.
And we have. And we will. And best of all, you can too!
You see, I’m not writing this to brag about what I have been able to do. I merely mention these things to illustrate a point. Once upon a time I was a very shy, timid, taciturn teenager who was too awkward to be friends with the cool kids or even get a date. I was pretty close to being what a lot of high school kids would call being a loser, but I wasn’t, mostly because I was good at sports and could rap a little bit. If not for those things, I was basically the intellectually advanced but socially stunted quirky underdog kid in every coming of age movie you’ve ever seen. I was hardly noticed in high school and didn’t think much of myself, even into adulthood, because of it. Being a difference maker was certainly not ordained. Yet here I am, making change happen, in a way I never thought was possible.
The past few years have been tough for our little planet, what with wildfires around the globe, ethnic genocide in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa, climate change, Donald Trump and now a pandemic. Things can be so stressful as to be overwhelming. It may feel like change is impossible, that one person can never make a difference. Well, based on what I’ve written here and what I’ve lived, I disagree. One person can make a difference. One person, like Greta Thunberg, can influence the world by bringing people together. And in that way, one person can help hundreds or thousands or even millions of ‘one persons’ come together to form a movement. That movement, sparked by one person, can become a super powerful force.
And that super powerful force can become change.
Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star. Read the February 2, 2021 article here.