The human experience is steeped in fear. Part biological defence mechanism, part social byproduct, fear is something most seek to avoid rather than accept. But what if an obstacle could be transformed into a tool? What if fear could be fashioned into courage?
That’s the message that the Courage Project hopes to bring to communities across the
island. Started by Montrealer Allison Gonsalves as a meditation on coping with life’s successes and disappointments, the Courage Project encourages individuals to share their deepest fears, and receive a little encouragement, in total anonymity.
All you need is a poster, a streetlight, and a couple of Sharpies.
Gonsalves’ posters prompt passersby to finish the phrase “If I only had the nerve, I would… .”
It was intended to foster both community awareness as well as considered self-reflection.
“My goal is to engage people with these kinds of questions,” explained Gonsalves. “And it turns out that a lot of the things the public identifies as needing courage to carry out are things with which I also struggle.
“One of the things I like most is seeing the interaction between participants that is evident on the posters,” she continued.
One poster bears the phrase “If I only had the nerve, I would get a job I really loveâ€”and leave Montreal for good,” near which is scrawled in ballpoint pen, “Are you crazy?” On another, a passerby used the Sharpie provided to write “Good idea!” atop Gonsalves’s poster.
Humour and tragedy are often found lines apart on the same poster. The phrase “If I only had the nerve, I would (not) kill myself,” finds its place just above “I would ride an ostrich” on a St. Viateur sign. Another poster bears this eclectic arrangement: “fart in the metro,” “eat a banana that was frozen, then microwaved,” and “follow my heart.”
With some posters overwhelmingly humorous, serious, or empty, Gonsalves also believes participants cater their emotional response to the poster’s surroundings. With their sense of anonymity compromised at busy intersections, the project’s posters are testaments to what and where people are willing to share.
“What I started noticing was that the more light-hearted responses came in the much more public areasâ€”say, in front of a cafÃ©â€”and more personal responses tended to be written down on posters that were tucked away,” explained Gonsalves.
She often experiments with interfaces for the Courage Project. This July, Gonsalves brought the project to an independent artist exhibit and encouraged gallery-goers to fill a large poster-board with their dreams and fears, which created an interactive exhibit that changed as the afternoon progressed.
Gonsalves brought the Encouragement Exchange to a Mile End street fair Sept. 17. Attracted by miniature clothing lines bearing tags with encouraging phrases, St. Viateur pedestrians were invited to take a tag, then to leave a message of encouragement for the next participant.
“I’m working on the third phase of the project, and it’s essentially going to be an encouragement letter campaign,” she said. But readers will have to wait and see what new incarnation the project will assume: half the fun of the Courage Project is its disarmingly simple, yet novel approach.
Until then, Gonsalves’ message seems to be: pass it on.
“Many of the phrases I put up to get the Encouragement Exchange going were encouraging things friends said to me, but I had almost dismissed their words.”
The Courage Project reminds the public that in a city of 3.6 million, individual voices can still be heardâ€”if communities have the courage to listen, share, and accept.
You can find more information on the Courage Project at www.fearsanddreams.wordpress.com. You can also see the project’s gallery at www.flickr.com/photos/thecourageproject