Giving a Voice to the Voiceless

Jean Loo (CS’07), Yeo Kai Wen (CS’16) and Vani Viswanathan (CS’08) are making a social impact with causes that empower marginalised communities around the world.

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From helping special needs children find their confidence to documenting the plight of flood victims and raising awareness on sexual rights, three alumni from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information are actively doing their part to help different communities around the world.

 

Our Invisible Children

Jean Loo (CS’07), Co-founder of Superhero Me and Co-lead of early childhood development, Lien Foundation.

When Jean Loo (CS’07) co-founded Superhero Me, a non-governmental organisation that aims to empower the community through the arts, in 2014, her focus was to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But a year later, the 34-year-old realised that there was a specific group of children who faced problems assimilating into society – those with special needs.

“These children (with special needs) are extremely invisible in our society,” Loo said. “It made me realise we could do a lot more to reach out to them.”

Since then, Superhero Me has expanded to include special needs children and uses arts as a platform to help these children build their confidence through creativity.

Funded by the National Arts Council and Lien Foundation, the organisation is run by Loo and co-founder Yang Hui Wen. The duo had previously worked at Logue, a now-defunct content creation studio.

For Loo, creativity can be a "superpower" that enables children to view problems as challenges and lift their self-aspirations.

“(People) think that inclusion is putting a child on a wheelchair and another child together. It’s so much more than that. Rather, it is about normalising these children, removing labels and seeing the child first before the wheelchair.”

JEAN LOO (CS'07), CO-FOUNDER OF SUPERHERO ME

She added: “We felt the arts was accessible as a medium, regardless of ability and socio-economic background.”

Riding on this concept, Loo partners schools, government bodies and art institutions to create art programmes and workshops for the children. She also mentors a network of about 60 creatives – artists, filmmakers and designers – who would engage with children during the classes.

The class size for each programme varies from as small as eight children to 40, and caters to ages five and above. Workshops for the public are also mostly free but the more elaborate ones, such as three-day art camps can cost up to S$140.                           

Loo’s efforts were recognised in October when she was one of five winners of the Singapore Youth Award. The SYA is Singapore’s highest accolade for young individuals who display courage, resilience, leadership and the spirit of service, and who make a positive difference in the community around them.

Apart from trying to to bridge the gap, in terms of inclusiveness between special needs children and children without disabilities in society, Loo also wants to redefine the meaning of “inclusion” in society.

“(People) think that inclusion is putting a child on a wheelchair and another child together. It’s so much more than that,” she said. Rather, it is about normalising these children, removing labels and seeing the child first before the wheelchair.”

She noted that the reason behind this social exclusion boils down to fear.

Loo, who also co-leads early childhood development work at the Lien Foundation, produced a short documentary called Kindling Inclusion last year, shedding light on Singapore’s first inclusive pre-school, Kindle Garden.

VIDEO COURTESY OF: LIEN FOUNDATION

Kindle Garden caters to children of all abilities, including those with special needs. The pre-school offers personalised programmes that focus on bringing out a child’s character and unique abilities.

Through the documentary, she hopes to address the fear that many parents have of children with special needs by portraying how an inclusive childhood can benefit all children.

“Early childhood is a crucial time where we form our values and attitudes towards others,” said Loo. “Growing up in a diverse community will allow children to learn about empathy and build the skills to work with those different from them.”

 

Not Their, But Our Environment

Yeo Kai Wen (CS’16), Freelance Videographer

Sitting in a cramped, dilapidated hut in a forest off Cameron Highlands back in 2015, freelance videographer Yeo Kai Wen (CS’16) was interviewing a group of illegal migrants working in a nearby farm.

The flustered Bangladeshi workers, who were hiding from law enforcement officers, were clutching onto their valuables – towels, lights, and even two “stateless” babies, recalled Yeo.

Before Yeo could complete his interview, frantic dog barks and deafening cries of “Police!” by an illegal worker standing on guard echoed through the forest. The workers took off immediately, while Yeo held his breath and watched from behind a wooden cupboard.

Yeo covered the plight of these illegal workers as part of his four-part documentary series, which tells the stories of the different stakeholders affected by the 2013 Bertam Valley floods – from villagers to unauthorised farm owners and illegal workers. Titled ‘The Disappearing Hills,’ the 30-minute documentary was for his Final Year Project in 2015. It details the aftermath of the Bertam Valley floods, which killed three and destroyed 80 houses.

VIDEO COURTESY OF: YEO KAI WEN

In the case of the illegal workers, they were on the run as the government was cracking down on unauthorised farming practices that had contributed to the flood.

Yeo’s self-funded film, which took three months to complete, won four awards in the region, most prominently the Special Jury Award by the KLEFF International Eco-Film Festival 2016. The film was also screened in six Malaysian states and Singapore.

More than just a documentary, Yeo’s film has now become an effective educational tool for farmers to be more aware of the importance of sustainable farming.

It was also widely supported by the residents of Cameron Highlands, who were pleased that their stories were heard.

“I wanted my documentary to have some form of longevity so that when I look back, I (know I) managed to impact people's lives,” said Yeo.

Yeo said the idea of exploring the environmental cost of farming was sparked by his interest in food security. Additionally, Singapore also plays a prominent role in the environmental equation too as it imports agricultural goods from Cameron Highlands.

“As our demand for fruits and vegetables grow, it puts a strain on the environment locally and internationally,” said Yeo.

With an aim to highlight issues surrounding food security, the 29-year-old is currently documenting activities by SG Food Rescue, a local community that is passionate about reducing food waste.

“It's a step forward taking my vision of sustainability from Cameron Highlands to Singapore,” he said.  

VIDEO: YEO SZE-G

 

Let’s Talk About Sexuality

Vani Viswanathan (CS’08), Senior Programme Associate for TARSHI

During her three-year stint at public relations firm Weber Shandwick, part of Vani Viswanathan’s (CS’08) work with clients involved corporate social responsibility movements such as raising awareness for women’s empowerment.

Realising the positive role that CSR could play in improving the lives of women, her personal interest in the issues surrounding women's rights began to grow.

In 2011, she decided to take this passion back to her home country, India, and make an impact there.

“There was a deep personal connection with the country I grew up in and I wanted to (make) a difference there,” she said, adding that India also offered more opportunities for learning and working in the CSR space.

Viswanathan continued working for Weber Shandwick as the company had set up a new practice to tap into India’s growing CSR space.

But two years later, she decided she wanted to work directly at the grassroots level. That was when she started working for TARSHI (Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues), a non-governmental organisation based in New Delhi.

Now a senior programme associate, Viswanathan’s work focuses on raising awareness on the positive aspects of sexuality, such as having the right to sexual well-being, and to enjoy sexual intercourse in a way that is both pleasurable and safe.

This is a prominent problem in India that needs to be tackled, Viswanathan said, adding that sexuality is a “pretty taboo topic” in the country.

“Work around sexuality was only looking at the scary and sad aspects of sex, like violence or HIV. Very few people wanted to engage in conversation with it; most of us like to pretend it’s not there," she added. 

“Work around sexuality was only looking at the scary and sad aspects of sex, like violence or HIV. Very few people wanted to engage in conversation with it; most of us like to pretend it’s not there."

VANI VISWANATHAN (CS'08), SENIOR PROGRAMME ASSOCIATE FOR TARSHI

TARSHI wants to change this mentality using two methods. The first is to educate those who interact with many communities, such as teachers, so that they can initiate more holistic conversations about sexuality.

The second is to push out information that is appropriate or the masses. This is targeted at children and parents; to educate both parents and their children on puberty and sexual identities.

Viswanathan’s experience in communications and storytelling has proved to be valuable in her current role. She helps the organization to further leverage on social media and is constantly finding new ways to communicate its work to the public.

Such efforts have contributed to the slow but visible change in the attitudes and mindsets of people in India, said Viswanathan.

Viswanathan advises students who are interested in social work to stay informed of current affairs and think of how they can make their own country better.

“It’s an exciting time and place to be here, to learn and contribute my bit to society,” she said.

 

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