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Good People

On Giving with 4 Montreal trailblazers who Shaped Culture in 2020

Written by Alexia Jacquot

Photography by Martin Reisch and sourced from contributors.

Featuring Naadei Liones, Albert Nguyen, Hannah Che, Soukayna

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Black Lives Matter painted on streets of Montreal.

As we round out 2020 — a year marked by an environmental reckoning, devastating pandemic, and a cultural and social justice awakening spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement — we want to acknowledge and celebrate trailblazers using their unique talents to create positive change in our hometown of Montreal and beyond.

We asked four inspiring Montrealers to share their perspectives on the act of giving and what this has meant for them in one of the most transformative years on a global scale.

Naadei Liones
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Raised in a small town in the northwestern Abitibi-Temiscamingue region of Quebec, singer-songwriter Naadei Liones has been a Montrealer for almost two decades. As a woman of mixed heritage, with a Quebecois mother and an estranged Ghanaian father, she has openly talked about ordinary racism — those little remarks fraught with prejudice that one can hear on a daily basis. After a stint on a reality TV show, Naadei vowed to use her new platform and influence to give back, and made on-screen representation a personal priority.

“How do you give from an empty hand? How do you share when you have nothing left? Being generous is a great flex, but truthfully, right now fam, we’re all broke. Some from the pocket, many from the soul. As I look back on a challenging year, I’m forced to reconsider what it means to give, and to dig deeper than ever to find new ways to do so.

As someone famously said a few years back: “This was the year of realizing stuff”.

Facts, indeed. Additionally, 2020 became the year of learning how to give what is needed, rather than what is gratifying. Comfortably hiding behind my cool and unconcerned character, I began to feel like a fraud. There was nothing cool about 2020, and everything to be concerned about. At first, rather unwillingly, I had to learn how to step out of my carefully crafted bubble of nonchalance and stand up for the ideas I believed in.

It turns out, sharing your thoughts will cost you more than sharing your dollars. And Lord knows I would’ve spent a few bucks on cutting some discussions short this year if I could.

Throughout these times of misunderstandings and dividing positions, a courageous opinion said out loud or a point of view shared with respect ended up being my greatest contributions. Making time to learn, devoting energy to truly understand, investing in real conversations; giving some of me, in hopes of getting some of everybody else in exchange. In fact, giving to receive is very underestimated, when it comes to thoughts and ideas.

Some of us spread ourselves thin this year. At times, it felt like there wasn’t even enough of me left for myself. But to really give, I am reminded, you have to truly feel the loss of what you are handing out.”

Albert Nguyen
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Albert’s photo is by @time_of_the_sun

Born and raised in Montreal, Albert Nguyen is an art director and graphic designer whose creative flair and visual eye caught the attention of big-name brands such as adidas, Aldo, Frank and Oak, Nike, SSENSE, and most recently, Canada’s longest lasting business, the Hudson's Bay Company. Beside commercial work, Albert uses his talent to give back to the community. He has notably designed merchandise for nonprofits supporting BIPOC artists and for anti-racist campaigns in Montreal and Quebec. One of his latest projects saw him contribute a t-shirt design to raise funds, in partnership with a local Thai restaurant, for the Chùa Quan Âm temple, a Buddhist site whose statues were vandalized in the early days of the pandemic.

“Giving is important but before we can give to anyone else, we have to give to ourselves. If we don’t take care of our health or our own demons, how can we help other people through their pain? 2020 was a big year for me in terms of self-healing, but 2019 was the start. I resolved childhood trauma that had been haunting me much of my adult life. By working on my own healing, it prepared me for what was to come in 2020. I felt better and at peace so I was finally ready to help heal and feel for others around me because for once I felt okay with myself. When someone says “take care of number one”, as cliché as it sounds, do it. Give to yourself so you can give to others.”

Hanna Che
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Hannah's photo by Schaël Marcéus.

Montreal-born Joanna Chevalier — otherwise known as Hanna Che — is the co-founder of Never Was Average, an organization dedicated to creating an inclusive space for BIPOC in creative fields and beyond through conversations, art exhibitions, and other events. The organization drew public attention over the summer after it curated a Black Lives Matter mural painted across a busy street in Montreal. Hanna, who describes herself as an advocate for self-esteem and joie de vivre, combines her skills as a Relational Mindfulness™ facilitator with a multidisciplinary approach to initiate meaningful conversations and projects not only with good intention, but with social impact. Her mission? To encourage people to transcend labels through self-exploration and connection with larger communities.

As I reflect on the word Giving, I realize that my desire to give back comes from my mother. Growing up, I saw her giving back to everyone and never receiving or asking for anything in return. Today, as an essential worker she gives so much of herself and never takes any breaks. Since I know how hard she works, and the giving person she is, I’m often forced to tell her to rest. When I think of my life, it’s clear that I’m mimicking her behaviour. Perhaps selfless giving runs in the family.

I’ve become used to giving out my energy, my time, my creativity and my love to others that I forget about myself.

There’s a quote from Bell Hooks that says: “I often find it easier to be teaching or giving to others, and often struggle with the place of my own pleasure and joy.” I’m constantly asking myself how can I give while my own cup is empty? It’s a question that I repeatedly struggle with. It’s so easy to tell everyone that self-care, self-love or self-preservation should come first while forgetting about yourself.

This is difficult for me because I really enjoy creating projects that change the world, but maybe it doesn’t have to be such a struggle if I simply relax and take my own advice. 2020 made me realize that I can be a giver, but I need to take care of myself first and not feel bad about it.”

Soukayna
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Soukayna’s photo is by @garconperdue

Soukayna arrived in Montreal at the age of five when their family, taking a leap of faith, immigrated to Canada from Morocco. This was a major life change, which they later described as ‘very traumatic’ as the shock of starting over brought about a number of mental health challenges within the family. Fighting the stigma of mental illness while transcending the gender binary against the backdrop of a conservative community, Soukayna found solace in writing. This journey to healing and self-actualization led to a collection of deeply personal texts self-published under the title ‘WORDS’ and dedicated to “every soul who has ever felt alone, or lost themselves in a darkness bigger than the love they carry.”

"A community can be whatever you want to make it. To me, it starts with self-awareness, self-nurture, and learning and healing from any traumas I might have to not only be there for myself but others as well. It’s creating spaces for marginalized people to be themselves and connect with others, it’s sending flowers by mail to friends who are going through a difficult time, it’s building bridges, it’s having uncomfortable conversations, and being honest with our boundaries. A community to me will not only be there rooting for you at the finish line of your journey but will make sure you have everything you need and give you support along the ride. I grew up watching my grand-mother pack extra food whenever we'd go on trips to give to the young kids on the streets back in Morocco and have them sit with us and talk. The feelings of trust, comfort, and support from those moments are feelings I try to convey into everything I do and in every exchange possible.”

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