“It took $50, Facebook and whole lot of government forms.”

What a way to end a season on identity! Charlene SanJenko's “official” journey to uncover her Indigenous roots started eight years ago.  However, we learn that in order to truly live into herself, she had to dig deeper into earlier experiences to inform how she wanted to move forward now, as a proud Indigenous woman.  As leader for a platform called reGEN Media she is helping to reimagine the system of creative storytelling for the underrepresented, and for investment and funding so that it betters all. Check out one incredible project called “Coming Home”, and learn ways you too can support.

About our guest: Charlene is an Indigenous Storyteller, Impact Producer, and Media Visionary. Born in the Splatsin Band of the Shuswap Nation, Charlene believes in creating from a place of collective genius, celebrating cohesive partnerships that bring stories of hope and possibility alive. Charlene leads a team at reGEN media who is introducing a new approach to align progressive creative projects with strong brands with the intent of striking partnerships and investment to propel lasting success for all involved. She holds a solid reputation in the social impact space with a former corporate background in investment services, marketing & communications, and impact production.


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Episode Transcript


Welcome back to Root and Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers who are sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity. I'm your host, Anika Chabra.

Uncovering the story behind the story in the traditional news cycle is what we covered last episode with Samanta Krishnapillai, founder of On Canada project. In this episode, we talk to Charlene SanJenko, a woman whose personal and professional journey has led her to bring to the world a platform that is helping individuals tell their stories and does so in a way where the system is built to serve, not the other way around.

Charlene leads a team at reGEN Media. They have introduced a new approach in the media space bringing together progressive and often underrepresented creative projects with aligned brands to fuel a system where everyone benefits. In fact, it’s the essence of the platform’s name from generative to regenerative, core to their promise and offering. The storyteller accesses the tools and technology needed to create richer and more interactive films, ads, workshops and experiences. The partners have potential to fuel and fund projects that align. It’s a fascinating model and we strongly encourage you to check out her website to learn about the documentaries and projects in the works. We will be sure to include those links in the show notes.

But why did Charlene get into this space? Her story will leave you saying, "of course this is what she’s doing now” in a way that feels serendipitous and obvious, looking back of course.   Charlene is a woman of so many layers so we thought it would be best to let her introduce herself.



First and foremost, I'm a proud Indigenous woman. I'm a stepmom. I'm a wife. I'm a horse lover. I'm a curiously spiritual seeker. I'm a change maker. I'm a visionary and I'm a bit of a fire dancer meaning  I always love to just kind of see and feel into where I'm being led. I have a fascination between faith and fear and in the context of this, I'm someone who's reconnecting to my roots.



Oh gosh, Charlene, I love the faith and fear comment. As you were talking, the thing that was going through my mind was what are the things that Charlene always embodied and what were the things she discovered as she went through all the different stages and phases of her life? Could you unpack that for us?



Hmm, I love that question. If I look back to the truest essence of who I am, she is 12 and she's funny as hell. She's super curious. She's very bold. She's brave, she's a tomboy and there's no limits as to what she believes is possible for her in life. I've actually named her kind of like an alter ego. Her name is Nika and I'm writing a screenplay about her. Nika is the pre-teen, the indigenous pre-teen that I never had the chance to fully be and I'm reconnecting and living her out now.



Oh, I love that. What a great answer and Nika. I mean clearly we were meant to have a conversation at some point in our lives.  Oh, so well put. Can you help us understand what are all the influences that make up your cultural identity and your heritage? If you could talk a little bit more about that.



Yeah, I think it's such an important process to reconnect to our roots and just understand where we came from in order to better understand why we're here and who we're fully meant to be as we mature.

And I didn't have the courage, quite frankly, to fully dig into learning more about my roots until I was in my forties. I knew I was adopted, I've known that since I was four years old. I suspected various things and then in 2015 I was given a gift. It was an indigenous artist's carved paddle. It was a beautiful mini paddle that had a native carving on it and when I received the paddle and I held it in my hands I very much had a visceral response to it. And it was in that moment that I knew I had to dig deeper and I didn't even have a choice. I knew I had to dig deeper and start to reconnect with my culture, with my roots. So it's been about an eight year journey to this point. That was the impetus for it. 

Charlene with gifted Indigenous Paddle


Talk a little bit about your reclamation journey. What did it start with and where are you now? 



I wasn't sure where to start. I always jokingly say when I was ready it took $50, Facebook and a whole lot of government forms. To uncover it was like a bit of a Nancy Drew journey that took about three years to really prove my indigenous identity and to find my birth mom and then to work up the courage to actually make a few calls to see if I could find her. And so that has been a slow and steady friendship that is growing on the family side of things.  On the cultural learning reentry coming home journey. I was lucky enough to be introduced to my friend, mentor and indigenous teacher about 18 months ago.

Winick Jean is my teacher's name and his English name is Wayne Christian.  Chief Wayne is the former chief of my nation in Splatsin which is part of the  Shuswap nation in the interior of British Columbia. He was also put into the foster care system when he was young and has been just an integral lifeline to my coming home journey.



I gotta tell you, Charlene, I looked at your LinkedIn and it went on and on and on and on and on which means that even though your reclamation journey started eight years ago there had to be some things that were happening leading up to that point.

Tell us your kind of origin story for the first couple of decades of your life and how did those two decades influence you now and the gifts that you're providing to the world.



Yeah. I was raised in a non-indigenous home and the SanJenko family adopted me out of the foster care system. My adopted mom, Ruth is now 92 years old and in her life, she was a foster parent to over 30 children. In and out of their home and I happened to be the last of those children and they decided to adopt me. The SanJenko family showed me absolute love and I realized how lucky I am to have been put into that home. And also I have four adopted older brothers I think my tenacity and perseverance and just pushing the boundaries came from being a young girl, playing with the big boys and not wanting to be left behind.  

There are a lot of gaps in my memory. I know it's a trauma response now, but of what I do remember life was absolutely perfect. Until the point when it wasn't, and for me that point was around grade six when I started to feel a bit uncomfortable in my skin and I could feel into the fact that I was different, but I couldn't quite place it. It gets so much easier to look back, but I realize now that I looked enough of a certain way to pass being white and yet every single bit of blood, everything inside of me was leading me somewhere else. And so that took a little while to resolve all that, but in terms of roots those first couple of decades, made me into who I am today.

I grew up being taught to be a witness. And what that really means to me is beyond being a role model for someone. When you're a witness you are living what is possible, guided by your values and belief and you're living them so clearly that you actually don't have to say anything at all. But of course being able to speak about them after the fact is inspiring to others and has a ripple effect and that's why I'm so grateful for opportunities like podcasts and speaking opportunities. But I think that was the biggest thing is like as a kid being raised to be a witness, it's close to being a role model, but it's really like, few words, walk your talk. You know? 



I love that Charlene. It's like you're in my head, the word witness is very present and there's like a role in responsibility that comes with witnessing. There's absolutely a choice too., do I do this or not? It's actually a very active term so I love that you brought that up.

Let's talk about your platform. Like what led up to it? What is it all about? What are you trying to do in the world? All of the things.



Interestingly enough, it's a story platform. There's a story that I'd love to share that I think will help you understand where some of my drive comes from. One of the stories that I've uncovered in my own reconnection to my community is about my cousin Trina. When my birth mom was pregnant with me she was only 16 years old and she had an older sister who actually got pregnant at the exact same time. 

So Trina was a first cousin of mine who was just three months older than I was. Now, the difference was Trina stayed in the community. She stayed in with family and I was put into the foster care system and adopted out of the community. If you fast forward a number of years in November of 2016. When Trina was in her mid forties, about the same age that I discovered my identity and started to reconnect with my heritage. She was murdered by her husband in the home in which she lived in her community and it's a story that really hit me hard and it reignited a fire in my belly that probably a lot of people might not understand.

I hold a really deep sense of responsibility in the work that I do. Basically, she stayed, I left. She died, I lived. And my life is such a gift and so every day it is how am I using my gifts, my sphere of influence, my background, my areas of expertise, whatever. How am I using that for the highest purpose?

So where that leads me is my first organization, my first company is called PowHERhouse. And it's a change making organization, an amplification organization for primarily female change makers and leaders in the world. But in 2015 I was called to take everything I'd learned through the experience of founding PowHERhouse and marry it back into my experience in the financial services industry in impact investment and my love for storytelling and branding and impact production and start to really work on a model for shifting in a sustainable way, how transformative stories are not only financed, but how they're monetized and fully activated so that more and more historically underrepresented voices, more of those stories can be told. But even more importantly than that, the folks behind those stories can live well, can support themselves and their families and have the respect that they deserve as storytellers because I really do think that storytelling is a sacred art that's been forgotten and it's the very thing that will lead us forward as a species. And so it's very important to me to have a vision and really be focused on a model that can make this happen in a sustainable way and not just for my business.

I think it's an emerging industry that will grow and grow and grow and be here long after I'm gone because we need it to be. It's returning to the stories that remind us who we are as human beings.



The story about Trina is beautiful. It's a very sad story, but I see a lot of beauty in it. It actually reminds me of a governor in Maryland who was interviewed by Oprah 10 years ago and his name is Wes Moore.

And Wes Moore wrote a book about another gentleman by the name of Wes Moore, who lived down the street from him, but he ended up in jail. Both of them didn't have fathers growing up, but the now governor of Maryland just had those extra things like privilege and a bit of a home, whereas the other Wes Moore didn't have that. Certainly, there was something that happened in your life to turn the fate of it around and now you're using that and that energy of the gift I'm lucky to be here, I need to give back in some way.  

At Root and Seed, our biggest mission is to end the loss of tradition. And I've often thought that we can really be inspired by the indigenous story. What do you believe that people can learn from the indigenous culture, community story? 



I think the biggest learning is that we're absolutely spiritual beings. So the Indigenous culture has always remained close to who creator and spirit are to them. And then that kind of ripples out to their family and their community. And when I look at the journey that we're on right now and the challenges that we're facing as a society and if we're brave enough to really look at the root of the problem of those challenges, the root is that we've travelled too far away from spirit. From the source from which we came, the wholeness of who we are. And so it's easier for us to focus on the external challenges and distractions, but if we're really honest the only reason those external challenges exist is because we've really forgotten who we are as spiritual beings. 

And the Indigenous culture, broad brush stroke comment, but for the most part they really haven't. The traditions, the ceremonies, the healings, the drumming all of that is just that constant reminder of don't forget who you are, don't forget who you really are. Be open to being led, all of those pieces. So I think that is the value of the traditions through the indigenous culture that I think can make the most impact in the world. It is one of the cultures that can help humanity heal. 



So well said I think there's so much we can learn. Is there a story that you heard about your family that you wish is preserved for generations to come? 



Yeah, I'm very much still uncovering, uncovering the stories of my birth family. One of the stories that is really important to me to be preserved is a story about, which is part of the short film that I'm creating, Coming Home, is the story of the Indian Child Caravan.

So it is an important story to me because it's the story of Chief Wayne as a leader of a community working with community, working with parents and grandparents to stand up on behalf of the children in their community at that time. 

In my community between 1960 and 1980 over 150 children were removed from community and I was one of those children. That left the community's population at just 300 people. So that is just an insane story, about 150 children being removed over a 20 year timeline. To leave a little community, a nation's population with just 300 people and they've had to rebuild from there.

It's a story that I think we're meant to take a look at now. It has so many lessons and it's really been a 40 year journey of a leader who's been fighting for the rights of children. And some of those rights are now starting to come to fruition, but I also think it's an amazing story.

Charlene: Scenes from Coming Home

For me, like I said, I'm curious where those hundred and 50 children are and who they are, who they've grown up to be and are they ready to reconnect with the community? And we're just one community. So that's a story that I really think is worth telling and preserving. It's not of my family, but it is. It's of my extended family.



Yeah, absolutely and I think you even reclaiming that as your story or claiming it, I should say to begin with is profound to begin with. Oh, beautiful. Okay Charlene, it's conversation card game time.



All right!



I have to get my whole like, TV game show spirit on. So I'm just gonna pick one for you and hopefully it resonates. Oh, I love this one. It's a more playful one. What games or toys did you play with as a child?  



Well, there's so many I could choose.



And listeners have to know that she's taking her hair off and she's ready to play right now. 



I'll give you two ends of a spectrum because then you'll understand a little more about who I am. It was like years ago, I had this little doll called Ms. Beasley and you would pull the string off Ms. Beasley and she'd say something. 

It's no surprise that my doll talked right and that I was fascinated by what she would say. On the other end of the spectrum, I was also that little girl who had a small motorbike as my brothers had larger ones so I could keep up to them. And then when I was a little bit older got a horse and I still do have a horse, which is probably one of my most prized friendships. So if you put those three things together you'll understand a little bit more about me. 



I love that! These questions are never not revealing. They seem so innocent and then it brings out personality traits or like stages in life or like you said, those three things really encapsulate who you are as a person.

Thank you for playing.



You’re so welcome. 



Oh gosh, reflecting back on that conversation and answer, makes me realize that we all need to bring back play and joy into our lives as adults. One way to do that is through reminiscing and getting nostalgic and it definitely feels like a fitting way to end our conversation card questions this season.

It is indeed Charlene’s early experience that has given her the drive and conviction to be a change marker. Not taking anything for granted, she really listened to her instincts or perhaps it was the force from spirit as she reminds us so lovingly and gently. The layers of her life story thus far, lived experiences, contrasting her cousin’s alternate version and fate, family history and as Samanta Krishnapillai reminded us last time, the non-familial community and company our ancestors kept. Those all play a part in the narrative that we create for ourselves.

By understanding the past, identifying the healing that needs to take place and then deciding what you want to take forward, we can all benefit from doing some digging. No matter your life stage it is never too early or too late to embark. Though at Root & Seed, we do encourage you to start exploring earlier, not waiting for memories to fade or tellers to pass. 

Charlene is helping some amazing storytellers and we do hope you will check out ReGen Media to see the previews of what she has in production. 

That's a wrap on season 5. From Ryan Alexander Holmes' mixed race experience to Layla Saad's long and winding journey to revealing her change maker self. Dr. Jenny Wang breaking intergenerational norms of repressing mental health for Asians. It has been an amazing season of discovery and the kind that leads us to a stronger identity.

We'll be back next season with even more inspiration. Follow us on social media @rootandseedco and subscribe on Apple or Spotify so you never miss an episode. If you know someone who has a story we should tell, let us know at www.rootandseed.com

And finally, if there is an episode you loved, please send it to a friend! We appreciate that so much!

Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, executive produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel and edited by Emily Groleau and Camille Blais. Bye for now.


Episode Credits

Hosted by: Anika Chabra

Brought to you by: Root & Seed

Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel

Editing by: Emily Groleau

Sound Editing by: Camille Blais

Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN https://soundcloud.com/ryyzn

Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0

Free Download / Stream: http://bit.ly/-_something-bout-july

Music promoted by Audio Library https://youtu.be/OFga9pkl6RU

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