Interview: Countering Negative Stereotypes in Jane and Finch
Fieldwork Entrepreneur Paul Nguyen on his neighbourhood
Paul Nguyen is the founder of Jane-Finch.com, a website set up in 2004 which counters negative stereotypes attached to the Jane and Finch neighbourhood. For his work, he has received numerous awards at the local, provincial and national level, including the Canadian Ethnic Media Association Award, the Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for fighting stereotypes and acting as a role model and mentor for at-risk youth in his community. Paul was interviewed on the topic of diversity and entrepreneurship and has been very supportive of the fieldwork in Work Package 7 of the DIVERCITIES project.
Can you give some information about yourself and the reasons why you set up Jane-Finch.com?
I was born in Toronto in 1980. My parents are Vietnamese Boat People who escaped the Vietnam War and arrived in Canada in 1980. During that time a lot of Vietnamese came to Canada and settled in Toronto. We moved to the Jane and Finch area because there were a lot of immigrants and housing was affordable. I grew up there, went to high school and then attended York University. I started my own website because Jane and Finch is known as a bad neighbourhood with crime, poverty, and violence. All you hear is usually about the “bad guys”, but my upbringing was pretty normal and safe, like a typical Canadian childhood. I played street hockey and we celebrated things that are Canadian, like Christmas. It was just normal. So I was tired of the bad reputation and wanted to show the positive sides of Jane and Finch.
How did the website evolve during the years?
It was basically one webpage and in the beginning I just made rap videos for my friends; our roots are founded in hip hop and gangster rap. It’s kind of like the art for the voiceless because the website gave a voice to people who never really got any attention. One of our rap videos went viral – and that was at a time before social media – so it was on national news and people paid a lot of attention to the website. A lot of people said that I can do more instead of making rap videos. They encouraged me to engage the community, so it slowly evolved. A lot of people see me as an activist, and if you want to give me a label, then I would consider myself an ‘accidental activist’ because it wasn’t my goal to be one. However, eventually I saw the power in this tool to help other people in the neighbourhood. A lot of them do not have a lot of opportunities, so they can use the website as a platform to be heard.
Do you think the diversity in the neighbourhood is beneficial for entrepreneurship?
There is definitely a bad reputation and a lot of stereotypes attached to Jane and Finch. I mean there are things here like a high immigrant population with lower income and educational levels than elsewhere. There are a lot of social and financial problems. But I think it helps young people when they start to wake up and realise that they can harness diversity as a positive aspect, when they realise that diversity is actually a strength for their career or gives them more experience for what they are doing. And when you are navigating in the community, you are dealing with all kinds of people from different backgrounds and income levels, so you apply that understanding in business. It is different from growing up in a small town where all you know is one type of people. Understanding different cultures and how they think helps you navigate among people better.
What are the challenges for entrepreneurs in Jane-Finch?
There is a lack of resources which means that people in Jane and Finch cannot always get opportunities as everyone else can. If your parents are never home and are working two jobs, or if you are working and going to school, you don’t really have that extra time to explore and grow. Or if you are coming to Jane and Finch as a newcomer, you don’t know anybody and your parents have no accumulated wealth because they are basically starting from scratch. There is a hierarchy of needs and people are often just focussing on surviving and paying rent. However, I think because there is such a great need and desire, people learn how to be resourceful which is very beneficial. I set up my website with no money and social media and YouTube is free. So you can use those free tools available and still get your message out there without having your family to fund your project. Overall, I think there are a lot of talented people in Jane and Finch who just need opportunities and a platform to get their ideas across.