In late 2012, Joel Zola was searching for his voice. He wanted a platform where he could publish his poetry and express himself somewhere where others alike could hear him.
This is how Street Voices was created, a magazine that strives to empower marginalized voices who aren’t in the mainstream media. In August 2015, it made its way into Ryerson University’s Transmedia Zone and is set to release its sixth issue this April.
The TMZ offers them the additional space and resources to launch other projects, like Street Voices TV and workshops in community centres across the city.
At only 22 years old, Zola is as much the creator as he is the living, breathing embodiment of the magazine.
Born in the Republic of Congo, he moved to Calgary with his family at the age of two. At 15, Zola was kicked out of his home and dropped out of high school. He also spent a short time in jail after getting involved with drugs.
Afterwards, he left without looking back, and has since lived in Vancouver and Edmonton before settling down in Toronto, a city where he knew no one. The only living accommodations he had were youth shelters, which is where it all began.
Street Voices was born out of a pitch he made in 2012 to a staff member at a shelter he was in. From there, they provided him with the resources he needed. They were keen to read his first issue, which was a pamphlet containing only poetry.
“Before I started Street Voices, I knew that I was an artist and I was always going to go on the path of an artist,” says Zola. “My intention was never to just start a publication or media organization; it was more just to get my art out.”
The majority of Zola’s art inspirations have come from real life experiences. His poetry became a way for him to escape times of vulnerability and misery; a personal cure to sustain his mental health and healing process.
“What really pushed me to make this magazine . . . was the necessity,” says Zola. “I was living in the shelter system, upset at the world. I got kicked out of my own home, I didn’t know who my father was, and I had no money.” It became an accumulation of various bad decisions which led to Zola’s breaking point where he realized that it was time to change things around.
In the early stages of creating the magazine, Zola’s art was always at the centre of it all, until he realized that he wasn’t the only one who needed space to express. “It started off as a selfish thing, but when I looked around at my surroundings, I realized that this is definitely in need,” he says.
With the resources that were provided to him by the shelter, Zola attended a print shop program at Eva’s Phoenix Print Shop where they began teaching him the basics of creating a magazine. From there he was referred to Sketch, an organization that offers space and workshops for street-involved and homeless youth to create art. Sketch is now a proud sponsor of Street Voices.
After two steady years of developing the magazine on his own, one of Zola’s biggest challenges has been doing something that he hasn’t gone to school for. “It’s a learning experience,” he says. “Everything I’m doing now is stuff that I’ve never done before and I’m doing it for the first time.”
At first it was all about getting people to believe in his idea, but now Zola is trying to take the necessary steps towards turning his movement into a business and finding the perfect balance between the two. The decision to move to the TMZ is just the first step in solidifying their business plan.
“From a movement aspect, we’ve partnered with Sketch and Evergreen. Both are places where our target audience comes from. These are places where we network within a movement,” explains Zola.
The aspirations for his magazine are bigger than ever and he has no plans to stop. A bad situation led him to where he is now. “If I hadn’t gotten kicked out of my home and started living on my own, I wouldn’t have had the idea to start this magazine,” says Zola.
Believing in himself was the only way to get people to believe in his ideas. After finding the essential tools to create his magazine and give a voice to the marginalized youth of Toronto, Zola believes that Street Voices is destined to succeed: “I truly believe that Street Voices will make the world a better place once it has reached its full potential.”
Photos by Andre Varty