Putting a face on voicelessness

Elisheva Passarello found voice in a Toronto art gallery, she hadn’t had in life.

It’s the holiday season and the homeless shelter at Yonge and Sheppard is eerily empty. The majority of the women and girls who usually populate the YWCA have left to join their families. Except for Elisheva Passarello. She walks the halls by herself once again; it has been five years since she has seen her son, let alone spent a holiday with him.

“What was hard was homeless people often have someone; I had no one, not even my own son,” Passarello said. “What’s more difficult was that he didn’t have me.”

Passarello’s son lives outside of the city, meaning if he were to visit for the holidays he’d need a place to stay. However, there is already a shortage of beds in Toronto for the homeless, so housing a family, even if just for the holidays, can prove difficult.

Passarello first became homeless in 2012, made worse by the fact that she didn’t have access to her son. This experience left her feeling voiceless and as if, “I was figuring this out alone,” she said.

Passarello must also cope with the stigma surrounding homelessness.

“I think there is this idea that people want to be homeless,” Passarello said. “The solution to homelessness is not a job. It’s wisdom. They need the steps, resources and inspiration.”

Passarello is now an advocate and shares her story, because she believes recovery is tangible. Photography, spirituality and sharing her story have all been instrumental in her healing. And so, in December 2016, Passarello participated in a one-day art exhibit titled, “Toronto’s Untold Stories,” at the Art Square Gallery in Toronto.

Aanjalie Collure curated Toronto’s Untold Stories exhibit for the Art Square Gallery.

Aanjalie Collure curated the exhibit; she is a human rights advocate, who immigrated to Toronto from Sri Lanka when she was three years old. Collure experienced what she refers to as “voicelessness” at a young age; she has memories of her family huddled together watching the news and never seeing representation of her people or her country.

By creating this exhibit in Toronto, she wanted to “open up lines of communication,” and create a platform to share narratives that are usually under-represented.

“Something that I find really powerful is the art of storytelling and conversation,” Collure said. “You can gain so much perspective and really put the fire under somebody else to get involved and start addressing these issues and become advocates in their own communities.”

She started Toronto’s Untold Stories by contacting social organizations around the city, and through these organizations she found participants willing to share their stories. Everyone who was interested was able to partake; no one was turned away. Each exhibiter provided a self-portrait mounted on the gallery wall, accompanied by an audio monologue of a personal journey.

Even public figures, such as Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam can experience voicelessness.

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam believes that people experience voicelessness largely because others are not listening. She said there needs to be a culture shift to ensure that everyone’s voice matters, not just those in positions of power or privilege.

Wong-Tam is no stranger to feeling voiceless. To this day, she said in meetings at city hall, some constituents will bring matters to the attention of her staff, rather than addressing Wong-Tam personally.

“People are generally socially conditioned to talk to the person who they perceive as being the most powerful person in the room,” Wong-Tam said. “And sometimes they forget … that person may not be a white man; it might be the short, middle-aged, Asian, queer woman.”

The positive outcome of the exhibit, Collure said, was not only the platform it created for people to share their stories, but also the lasting community of participants that remains.

“For me, one of the most special results of it, is having this group of 17 people that lead completely different lives than I do, that I still talk to,” Collure said.

Passarello agreed that sharing her story in the exhibit proved rewarding; but equally valuable was meeting all the other participants and hearing the range of injustices shared, she said.

Not having representation or a voice, Wong-Tam said poses an extreme challenge for these people. Isolation leads to feelings of helplessness, despair and anger, she said. Wong-Tam believes the only way to challenge voicelessness is by starting to listen.

“Everybody has an extraordinary gift to offer and if we don’t listen we won’t be fortunate enough to receive that gift,” she said.

Passarello also stressed the importance of taking the time to let these voices be heard.

“People are changed and transformed just by (having someone) listening,” she said.