Inspiring Change and Action Through Creative Expression

By: Liane Coulahan, MPC 2013

When I was 10, I attended a strict Catholic school that prohibited pretty much everything but prayer, including what at the time seemed like the best game ever, crazy carpets as makeshift snowboards used to race down the ice-covered hill in the back of our schoolyard.

I’ll never forget that day, when the administration decided to confiscate our crazy carpets (ergo, our childhood) and leave us with nothing but snowball fights and our imaginations, which no one realized could lead us to suspension. One recess, we decided to take action and get our right to crazy carpets back. We made our way to the soccer field, mid January, and lined up one by one, arm in arm, seated with our bums in the snow. Forty-five minutes passed, the bell rang, and we refused to move. We were protesting against the administration. It was exhilarating!

A turning point in communication with Kony2012

Fast-forward 10 years later… I’m on my computer watching a beautifully crafted video that would become the most viral digital campaign (and the topic of my beloved research paper): Kony2012.


Kony2012 marked the first digital “protest” that urged people to help imprison a Ugandan warlord. The digital reach was beyond anything anyone had ever seen and whether or not the movement was successful or not, one could argue that it sparked a new approach to using creative mediums to take action online.

These two moments were pivotal for me in understanding how creative expressions to bring about significant action or change have shifted from active to passive forms of participation. I was able to experience how a schoolyard protest made 30 kids feel personally connected to an issue and on the flipside, how a movement like Kony could spread like wildfire and touch millions of people worldwide through a single video.

Today’s issues demand increasingly creative solutions

Today, we’re experiencing a new set of issues that demand our attention and awareness as Canadians and we’re always coming up with unique and engaging ways to connect people to important issues through art, online and offline. There are two monumental moments in Canadian history that I’ve focused on below to elaborate on this topic: the 2015 Canadian Federal Election and the Syrian Refugee plan.

Turning heads for the 2015 Canadian Federal Election

This past October, you couldn’t spend a minute on social media without coming across a post about the Canadian Federal Election. I was amazed to see how creative communities came together to use their respective forms of art to inspire and educate people about the importance of voting. Canadian celebrities were orchestrating free concerts, artists were cartooning, and comedians were using humour to educate the public on important issues facing all Canadians.



Our Toronto-based agency Nordest, along with a team of incredible writers, used photography, design, and copy to provide people with 31 reasons to vote in the 31 days leading up to the elections. We’d like to think that our little movement, along with the hundreds of other creative initiatives across the country, resulted in significant change (i.e. getting voters engaged and out to the polls). But this is a tough claim to make…did our online tactics truly lead to this change?

Possibly.  I’d argue that the videos, songs, events and stories written leading up to October 19th were vital to the shift we’ve just experienced as Canadians. I believe that these various means of creative expression were the spark that generated real-world conversations taking place in coffee shops and at thanksgiving dinners. But at the end of the day, it came down to every person who physically casted a ballot. This is what fundamentally led us to the Trudeau administration—a commitment to showing up.

Creatively welcoming Syrian refugees

Fast-forward to today. I’m hoping to see another wave of creative minds come together for the greater good. Let me explain: In the coming month, we Canadians will warmly open our homes and hearts to thousands of refugees seeking safety. My hope is that our lives become immersed in various forms of art that inspire and inform us to talk about the issues at hand.

Similarly to what happened during the elections, the creative output from across the country could act as a launch pad to inspire a bigger commitment; one where thousands of Canadians are powering down their computers and showing up in person to help collect food, clothing and whatever else our new Canadian residents need to feel warm and safe.

When art meets technology to incite change

Using creative means of expression to elicit change or action isn’t new. We’ve used art, in its many forms, to inspire good and evil since the beginning of time. The only difference today is the volume and speed at which creative content can be shared and consumed, along with varying levels of commitment required for online vs. offline engagement. While there’s a nostalgic bone in my body that yearns for schoolyard protests rather than watching a beautifully crafted video online, I strongly believe that in today’s world, the two mediums need to live hand in hand to inspire significant change and action.

Liane Coulahan is Co-Founder and Director of Creative and Communications at Nordest Studio in Toronto.