In celebration of the launch of the Joggo Purpose Backpack, we have decided to spotlight three incredible individuals that embody our mission: working towards the greater good. These young Changemakers aren’t letting their age stop them from educating people of all generations on some of the most important issues in today’s society. By using their voices to promote social change, Wali Shah, Loizza Aquino, and Diana Smendra represent the power that youth have to make a difference.
Twenty-three year old Wali is a spoken word poet, speaker, University of Toronto student, and one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20. From giving TED talks to free-styling with Kendrick Lamar, Wali is a force to be reckoned with. Wali works to shed light on the immigrant experience, bullying, and mental health by combining his passion for philanthropy with his gift as an artist.
What was it like doing your TED talk?
The TED talk was a really proud moment. Honestly, I never thought I would get a chance to be a part of something amazing as that. I actually messed up my TED talk when I started the first couple of words, I completely blanked out. This wasn’t my first time doing a talk, I’ve done tons of presentations before that, but when I just got up on that stage and realized that I was doing a TED talk, I just blanked out. I couldn’t find the words even though I’d rehearsed it. My mind was just all over the place. I remember just looking at the audience and saying, ‘I’m just feeling so nervous. If I could just get some energy from you it would make me feel better,’ and the audience responded so well. TED was kind of a humbling experience, but it was also great because I got so much love from the audience and it made it seem more genuine.
Where do you see yourself going from here? Where do you see yourself in the next year, or five years or ten years?
In the next year I want to graduate, it’s been a long time coming. I’m super excited, this has been a really important thing for me in my life. I will be the first one to graduate in my family from university. My mom and my dad came over from Pakistan when I was three years old. This was their dream, for me to be able to get an education, to see me walk across that stage. I want to do it for my parents because they’ve made so many sacrifices for me. They put their home life aside, they put their family and their dreams aside to come to a different country and learn a different language and get a job so their kids can have a future. In a large part, it’s for them. But it’s also for me, because I want to prove myself and show everyone that they can make it. It doesn’t matter what barriers are against you, whether you come from an ethnic minority or whether you come from a low socio-economic status, you can achieve whatever you set your mind to.
In your TED talk, you talk about speaking to some young indigenous people, is that something you want to go on with? Are you planning to work with similar cultural groups to help with their self-confidence, boost their self-esteem or push them forward?
Not specifically. What’s really on my agenda is to talk to average men and to talk to young men about issues that they deal with. There’s a lot of young boys and they don’t know what self- respect means or respect the women in their lives. Whether it’s because they’re exposed to pop- culture or other things, they need to gain perspective of what that is.
You were talking about narratives in your TedTalks. How do you think people can use their narratives to improve themselves and make a difference?
You can always blame your circumstances or you can use your circumstances to become better in any situation. The reason that I think that people should share their narratives, their stories, is because when they do that they will find they have so much more in common with the people around them. When you get a chance to sit down and share your story, that gets to really change the dynamic and the perspective that people have that have been falsely created by the media or pop-culture.
A lot of people think that their dreams are going to be overnight successes. They think that all they have to do is A and B and C will come...how have you found that journey to be for yourself?
Personally, I knew this was never going to be overnight. I remember days when I had to wake up at five in the morning and I had to take the bus to a different city that was two hours away, transferring to four busses to get there, to do a presentation that I didn’t get paid for and come back on those four busses. The reason I did that was because I was passionate about it. Because I loved it. Because I felt like it wasn’t about the money. I just wanted to do something because it makes me happy. And I did it. A lot of 18-year-old kids would never do that. They think that their parents will just give them an allowance, or they’ll just work a part-time job to get a little bit extra money. I’m not trying to say that that’s wrong. You can do that if it’s something you want to do. I feel like I just wanted to grind and sometimes, the people around me, they just didn’t care for that grind. They didn’t want to find something they were really passionate about grinding for.
For a lot of kids, I think the problem is not finding something to be passionate about. I wanted to get up and I wanted to do something. If me getting up and doing presentations inspires even one kid to just get up and do something they are passionate about, or that they want to experiment, then that’s enough for me.
How can we as a society work on that? How do you think that we can make kids realize that they have to go through these things, that they have to fail in order to succeed?
It’s all about the mountain that you climb, the journey getting there. It’s a beautiful view but only if you struggle to appreciate it. Not if you just got dropped at the top. You have to go through the struggle, you have to experience the tears and the hurt to appreciate the good. If all you saw was good, or if all you had was good, you’d never really know what good is. You have to experience [the struggles] to be able to understand and appreciate the good.
What was the one failure that it took to help you realize where you wanted things to go?
I think my biggest failure in recent years, if I can be honest with myself and honest with everyone else in my life, it’s not being able to do more. Maybe it’s just me being hard on myself, but I spent so much time wondering and worrying that maybe it wasn’t worth it. I spent so much time wondering what my brand should look like. I struggled a long time with my identity. I think one of the issues was that I wanted to rap before. I was really focused on rapping and I even made a video on YouTube. I got a lot of views, too. I wanted to rap, I felt like it was the right thing for me and that it would make me happy. But the more I got involved in the music industry, [the more] I felt like I had to change myself or compromise what I was doing to make others happy. I don’t think I ever would have really been happy with it.
I spent so much of my time trying to convince myself that it was what I should have done, or it was what I wanted, when I had so many opportunities that would changed people’s lives if I would have started doing more poetry and focusing on it. It’s not too late. Now that I’ve come to this conclusion that there’s so much more of a difference that I can make as a poet than a rap artist, I don’t even know what I was thinking. I just wish I came to the conclusion that I needed to stop that, and sort of grow up, to make a better choice for the long term. It's not too late, but I kind of wished that I’d caught on to it earlier.
So what advice would you have for other people in the same situation?
Try everything. Don’t box yourself in. Just be open minded. Try all different kinds of things, whether it be break dancing, or doing poetry, or singing or whatever else you want to try. The second you limit yourself you might miss out on something really great. Imagine if I kept trying to rap? I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Using his gift as a spoken word poet has allowed Wali to reach out to his community in the best way he knows how. By reminding his audience that there is beauty in the struggle, Wali has inspired youth and adults alike to keep their passions alive. For more information on Wali and his speaking events, please visit https://www.walifloshah.com.