Sheila Sampath, Toronto activist, talks feminism and fearlessness

Sheila Sampath. Photo by Carmen Cheung.
Sheila Sampath, the Creative Director at The Public, an activist design studio in Toronto, the Editorial Director of Shameless Magazine, a feminist magazine for girls and transgendered youth and a professor at the OCAD U. Photo by Carmen Cheung.

Sheila Sampath is the Creative Director at The Public, an activist design studio in Toronto, the Editorial Director of Shameless Magazine, a feminist magazine for girls and transgendered youth and a professor at the OCAD U.

I first met Sheila when I was doing my undergrad. I was working on a magazine style article about body image and finding the female voice. I read up on Shameless Magazine, which ultimately connected me to Sheila.

Through interacting with other professionals through A Quarter Young, I was reminded of how inspired I felt after chatting with Sheila that first time so many years ago. I reached out to her to say hello, which lead to an inspiring e-mail interview about Sheila, her work and how we can all find our inner activist (we are agents of change, after all).

  1. You are a writer, businesswoman, creator and advocate. What is one accomplishment you are most proud of? Why?

I’m most proud of the relationships I get to hold through the process of making. I believe in producing good work, but, more than that, I believe in striving to do it in ways that bold community, friendship and solidarity. I often marvel at how lucky I am to work with the best humans in the world—my co-workers and collaborators at The Public, the entire Shameless staff and even some of my students. I’m proud of our collective spirit of openness, collaboration, mutual respect and support, and I share that pride with them, too.

  1. A lot of your career has been focused on encouraging women and girls to find their voice, and not be afraid to use it – did you always see this as an outcome for yourself?

Not at all! When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cat; when I was a teenager, I wanted to be a lawyer or a teacher; I first went to school for computer engineering. I found my work when a community of amazing feminists, advocates and activists found me.

  1. Why are you so passionate about this? Is there a particular experience that comes to mind that you think lead you to this type of career?

I think that community is transformative, and getting to contribute to community—through creativity and collaboration—it gives as much as it takes. In terms of my own experiences, I’ll point more to a feeling. Before I found activism (or activism found me), I saw oppression as incidental, isolated and isolating.

Racism, for example, was a discreet act—someone telling you to go back to where you come from, or pushing your head underwater at the pool—it was a bad thing that a bad person did, and they did it to me. Same with sexism, with more overt forms of violence.

Community-driven work taught me that these and other ~isms were systemic, that they were designed, that they are perpetuated and those of us who experience them can resist by collecting our experiences, by building solidarity and by engaging in processes of imagination.

That lesson was a big one, and an important one because it broke isolation, it allowed me to engage in process of personal decolonization, it provided a sense of freedom in a world that denies it. That continues to drive me now—to fuel that experience and also to share it with other people who may be feeling that same sense of isolation.

  1. What kind of pressures do you face as a woman right now? How do you try and overcome them personally? 

[I am writing the answers to this interview] on the same day as the Jian Ghomeshi verdict. Today on the Internet, men’s rights activists called me a misandrist, told me to shut up, threatened to rape me, etc. etc.

Today I feel connected to other women and trans people, and to other survivors of violence. I share in our collective struggle, and work to overcome through community building, for engaging in radical acts of self-care, for listening to, believing and validating other women, and myself.

  1. What is a goal you have for the future of gender advocacy and body positivity? How can we, collectively, work to overcome pressures and stigmas together?

I want to live in a world where this work isn’t necessary—where Shameless doesn’t need to exist because media is reflective of a diversity of youth, and where The Public is irrelevant because design is, at it’s core, an activist practice.

We can get to this place by recognizing that radical, transformative acts can take on many forms—that activism is supporting other people, it’s having compassion and empathy. It can also be creation—creating your own media, art, or families. Activism can work on any scale—but it has to be collaborative and come from a place of love and compassion.

  1. Sheila Sampath. Photo by: Jenny Rowsom.
    Sheila Sampath. Photo by: Jenny Rowsom.

    What was your first job and what is one of the biggest lessons it taught you?

My first paid job was working retail at Business Depot when I was a teenager. I started stocking the pen aisle and then I became a cashier and worked in the copy-centre. I was painfully shy and awkward when I started working there, but working around other people, in a team, brought me out of my shell a little bit.

  1. Are there any lessons you’ve learned now that you wish you could tell your 20-year-old self?

Yeah! Pace yourself, girl.

  1. Describe a risk you took in your 20s that you’re so thankful for today!

Um, starting The Public was a huge risk, and I’m so glad that it exists today.

  1. Describe your worst case of writer’s block…

I get writer’s block every time I write. Every time, without fail. I get overwhelmed from wanting to do justice to important work, and I sometimes find that a bit intense and it stops me from actually getting started in a way that I feel good about. I overcome it by writing freely about why I find writing about whatever subject difficult, and usually, that’s a good enough launching point to start talking about the nuances.

  1. What has been the best part about working with The Public and Shameless?

The Public is an activist design studio—and Shameless is a magazine. The great thing about magazines is that they are periodical—so what you produce in a single issue is a part of a broader narrative that spans a long period of time. For unpacking things like feminism, this is great—because it allows for you to grow and engage in process of self-refection and criticality.

  1. Who is your favourite writer and why?

Right now, Junot Díaz, because he is amazing—not just in his work, but in his contextualization of his work.

  1. You are also a professor at OCAD U – what do you teach? What’s the best part about teaching at OCAD? 

I teach a few courses: research methodologies for graphic designers, thesis, a course on design and social justice and another on critical and speculative design. I see teaching as a form of activism—a way of building both political and creative capacity among students, who are, by far, the best part of about teaching.

  1. What do you do when you’re not working, creating and advising? 

Hugging my cat and dog, watching bad reality TV, boxing, drawing, gossiping, gardening, hiding from winter, running to summer.

  1. What’s your favourite part of every day? 

The hour before I go to sleep. I take a really hot shower and tidy our bedroom and crochet while listening to podcasts. Or, when it’s warmer outside, walking our dog and listening to podcasts.

  1. If there were one thing you could encourage young writers, and creators, to do, what would it be? Why?

Try. And if you’re scared to try, find people who make you feel less scared and try together. Things don’t have to be perfect for them to be important.

  1. What advice would you share with new graduates about to venture into the real world?

Think about what you want to do, and then ask yourself “why.” Repeat until your motive feel solid.

For more about Sheila, follow her on Twitter!

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