Addiction. Grief. Loss. Poverty. Racism. Mental Illness. Sexual Assault. Trauma.
The grassroots movement Sarnia Speaks brings some of society’s most important issues to light through the power of storytelling.
The idea was conceived by Danielle Cooper, a mental health advocate and activist who selflessly shares her stories to help send the message that if you’re suffering, “you are not alone.”
The first formal Sarnia Speaks event was held in March of 2016. “The library was completely packed,” recalls Cooper. “We had no idea what we were walking into. We thought we probably won’t have a lot of people come [to the first event], and thought if that’s the case, we could just put a few chairs on stage with the speakers. But it was packed. And as we have continued to do different dialogues it became clear that there are so many topics in our community that people are ready to discuss openly.”
And this all started with a conversation over coffee between friends.
“It was in late 2015, and I had just started a new job at the Bluewater Health Foundation. This was a huge change for me, and with anxiety and depression, I was struggling a lot. I didn’t really know it at the time, but I was having a lot of health concerns, and so I found myself Googling symptoms. Almost obsessively. It was taking up so much of my time, these anxious behaviours.”
Cooper states she was sharing her story of how consuming these behaviours became with her close friend Tara Bourque while the pair were having coffee.
“It was the first time I said this to someone and they didn’t say ‘you’re crazy’ or ‘stop doing this, you’re fine.’ Tara looked at me and said she has done the exact same thing. It was the first time I had felt understood.”
And it was this one shared moment of mutual understanding between friends that sparked the movement to give a voice to so many who suffer in silence.
“When people ask me about Sarnia Speaks I always reference that conversation that Tara and I had that day because that is honestly what started it. Just that one little sense of understanding, that was maybe 30 seconds of our entire conversation… but in that moment it gave me so much comfort. The next day I was still in a bad spot but now I had this feeling that… I wasn’t alone.”
A couple months had passed and Cooper contacted Bourque, saying “Hey, remember that conversation we had? What if we did that on a bigger scale…people who have openly stated they struggle with mental illness, and invite them to come in and share their stories, kind of like we’re at a coffee table and we’re having a conversation, to replicate that feeling of ‘I’m not alone’.”
Bourque was in, they reached out to friends to help find others who would agree to speak, and the rest is history. The first event was titled “Sarnia Speaks: Mental Health” and consisted of a broad spectrum of stories of struggle. From there, they began to narrow in on more specific topics. “We’ve done one on anxiety, one on depression, and really any topic we do, mental illness is an anchor within that topic. All of our panelists, mental illness is part of their story in one way, shape, or form. I think that also shows that it affects a lot more people than we know. I see that just when I look at the audiences that come out. People that live down the street from me, people I’ve worked with in the past, and their coming out,” Cooper says. “We have no idea: sometimes when you’re in your struggle you’re in this bubble and you don’t realize because you’re isolated, and the illness is telling you that you’re alone, but…just seeing all the different faces that come out, it’s a reminder every single time that while there’s a lot of division in our community, in the province, the country, the world, at the end of the day, we all struggle. And I think that’s why our dialogues are so positive. Even though we are talking about difficult stuff, people leave feeling inspired and that even if in this moment they’re not, that eventually, they’re going to be okay.”
Cooper wants people to understand that change is driven by the people. She wants people to feel empowered to see beyond the “highlight reels” of social media, and that these images of perfection that we are bombarded with aren’t real. “There is another side of the highlight reel. So be the anti-highlight reel. Real is beautiful. Confidence is beautiful. You and all your flaws are perfect, and your stories and struggles are beautiful too.”
Cooper is currently preparing for the next Sarnia Speaks event; this time, panelists are discussing trauma on Thursday March 28th at the Sarnia Library theatre. The free event is scheduled from 6:30pm – 8:00pm. To learn more about Sarnia Speaks and past panelists, visit www.sarniaspeaks.org