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These in-their-own-words pieces are told to Patricia Lane and co-edited with input from the interviewee for the purpose of brevity.

Tristan Surman helps us tell inspiring stories.

In 2019, this 23-year-old McGill University student founded the award-winning agency My Media Creative to amplify the work of student groups. It has since raised millions of dollars and narrative support for over a hundred non-profits across the country.

Tristan Surman at the My Media office. Photo by Ella Roy

Tell us about your project.

I started providing videos for the student newspaper and making videos for student groups at McGill. We expanded by giving other students a camcorder and advice and sent them out to get hands-on experience.

Our services grew to include communications strategy and graphic and web design and we helped raise funds to pay for our services. In 2020, we incorporated and hired a staff of 10.

We became a hub for innovation in climate-focused storytelling, youth mobilization, and grassroots creative collaboration. I was very proud when a staff member told me that, like them, dozens of people had passed through the organization gaining a sense of community, a boost in their self-confidence, and a strengthened resolve in the face of the climate crisis. I count myself among those people, and I am endlessly grateful for that.

Tristan Surman giving a TEDx talk on media and education. Photo courtesy TEDxMcGill

Tell us about some of your work.

In 2019, this 23-year-old McGill University student founded the award-winning agency My Media Creative to amplify the work of student groups. It has since raised millions of dollars and narrative support for over a hundred non-profits.

The Donut Shop that Changed the World helps audiences understand the potential of the co-operative movement to be ethical and zero-emission. We provided Apathy is Boring with a web page and messaging to increase youth voter participation in elections. Paid by McGill used satire to help Divest McGill reach 80,000 students. Other clients included Greenpeace, the McConnell Foundation, Montreal Children’s Hospital and many others.

We are now pivoting towards a focus on documentary narratives. While some commentators say our attention spans are short and getting shorter, I think the truth is we don’t pay attention to information in the way older generations are used to having it delivered.

There are lots of long YouTube visual essays that have gone viral and my generation spends all kinds of time online paying full attention. The stories they like showcase relatable protagonists and provide interesting information about resonant accessible solutions.

I am confident we can advance climate and economic fairness by providing audiences with solid information embedded in powerful stories, told by interesting people with whom they identify and combined with a resonant and doable call to action.

Climate Warriors: Maka introduces nature-based solutions through the words and story of young environmental scientist Makadunyiswe Ngulube, who works with local plants to control flooding in the Bay of Fundy.

Climate Warriors: Serena helps us better understand the principles of Indigenous sovereignty and governance through the coming home story of Cayuga Wolf (Six Nations) member Serena Mendizábal.

I co-directed both of these documentaries with Tony Wang.

Tristan Surman making music with his brother, Ethan. Photo by Wyeth Robertson

How did you get here?

I was born cross-eyed and I had no depth perception — so as a kid, sports were out. I was on my own a lot and spent most of the time in my own fantasy world. Then when I was 10, I began using the family’s camcorder to create parodies of TV shows, like a satiric sequel to the Batman movie and a video of Doctor Who fantasies. Making movies allowed me to connect with other people by sharing my own fantasy world.

My parents encouraged me to attend the Etobicoke School of the Arts and the teachers really supported me. I began to see I could continue to escape into stories but construct them in such a way that others could, too. I blossomed both socially and in my work.

What makes your work hard?

Running a startup with 10 people when I was just 21 years old was hard. I was terrified that we would not make payroll, deliver a solid product or sign the next contract. But our revenues were upwards of $300,000 a year and our success has given us the confidence to innovate again into the work we feel passionate about right now.

Documentary making carries its own challenges. It is inspiring, but carrying the emotional load of living in another’s world to find the words and images to convey their story can be exhausting.

My Media leadership at the office, including Ella Roy and Tony Wang. Photo courtesy Tristan Surman

What do you see if we get this right?

I see a world where everyone is free to express their innate creativity and love.

Do you have any advice for other young people?

Be curious about people who are not like you and even more so if they are from a marginalized group. They have learned resilience and have plenty to teach us, especially white men like me.

If you are stressed, try imagining a day in your life in the world we are trying to create. Imagination is a revolutionary tool. Use it.

What about older readers?

It is absolutely astonishing that young people today resist the apocalyptic, dystopian world that we are told too often is our inevitable future. We have the right to design and create our future. Use your influence to support us.