(By Three O'Clock Press; originally published at threeoclockpress.com)
Sheila Sampath has been deeply involved in grassroots and anti-oppressive activism in Toronto since the early 2000s. A former chair at the board for the Rape Crisis Centre/Multi-cultural Women Against Rape, Sheila became serious about helping others when she sought help from a rape crisis centre in her hometown at the age of eighteen:
“The woman that I saw there was incredible and got me through a difficult time as I came to terms with my own experiences of sexual violence. After I finished seeing her, I decided to volunteer at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multi-cultural Women Against Rape. I wasn't cognizant of politics at the time, I just wanted to volunteer as a way of giving back to the services that I benefited from and to, well, pay-it-forward. The first night of training, I found myself politicized in a way that changed my life forever. On a political level, I started to understand sexual violence as systemic, not incidental, and understanding how multiple systems interact with one another to impact how we experience the world. On a personal level, I found myself experiencing the concept of safe spaces for the first time in my life, along with support and community. This helped me me come to terms with my own internalized racism and web of intersecting privileges and oppressions (a process that is still on-going), and this helped me understand the concept of solidarity and empathy, and experience the shared strength and power that comes from not being alone.”
Sheila holds a diploma in graphic design from George Brown College and an Honours BSc. in Sociology and Psychology from the University of Toronto, channeling her knowledge to use design as a tool for change as the Principal & Creative Director at The Public. A design studio with a very transparent presence in the communities it serves, The Public strives to leave a a positive impact on the cultures and environments it comes into contact with, including networks like the Ontario Women’s Health Network, Canadian Federation of Students, and Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention (ASAAP).
Sheila is always looking to make waves in media, and her latest project is no exception. Letters Lived: Radical reflections, revolutionary paths sees Sheila taking on the role of editor to a diverse group of international and cross-generational social justice activists who were asked to write a letter to their teen selves. We asked Sheila where the inspiration for this undeniably relateable collection came from:
"Activism is both an internal and external process that requires a lot of self-reflection and personal un-packing follow byed a linking and connection to broader, more structural systems. It also requires a lot of compassion, patience, love and community-building. I've been doing activist work for a long time, and I've noticed that many of us lose patience with folks who are just entering complex political work, have silly questions or make mistakes. This hurts our communities because it doesn't allow us to grow, and it doesn't allow us to do our work in a way that honours the principles at its core. It also frames activism as a state — an identity or way of being — rather than as an ongoing process or learning and unlearning.
I thought that by reconnecting with our own younger selves, we could facilitate inter-generational dialogue and get a bit of a window into how people we may admire may have come to be. My hope is that younger readers can see a bit of themselves in these stories and also aspire to do awesome things, and that older readers can reflect on their own processes and extend empathy and compassion to others who may be working through some of the challenges they may have once faced."
The end product wouldn’t be what it is without the input of Sheila’s extended family, an impressive list of female and trans activists whose history of effecting change motivates us all to work that much harder. Letters Lived contributors include Coco Riot, Grace Lee Boggs, Elisha Lim, Rae Spoon, Victoria B. Robinson, and many others.
“I invited people to contribute who work on different levels and reflect the spectrum of what social justice means to me. I wanted to approach people who work in academic and non-academic settings, who practice their activism in both traditional and a-typical ways, and people who I also wanted to get to know better. This process was deeply valuable and meaningful to me.”
The diverse makeup is a welcome departure from Chicken Soup for the Soul style reflections. Many will remember the usual stories of bad skin and schoolyard problems that formed the dominant narrative in these entries, often leaving youth struggling with issues like racism and questioning sexualities out of the discourse. Sheila’s mission is to break that pattern and widen the net for identification, a pursuit akin to the groundbreaking work published in Shameless Magazine, where Sheila serves as Editorial Director to a dedicated staff of volunteers committed to sharing a fresh feminist take on teen magazines.
We hope you enjoy this glimpse into Sheila's work. Stay tuned for more insights into the work of Letters Lived contributors, and be sure to join us in celebrating the release of this exciting collection on November 26th in Toronto at the Centre for Social Innovation. RSVP via our Facebook event page.