Ten Questions with Solidarity Media's Ishani Weera

Here's more of the conversation between journalist and union communicator Terry Inigo-Jones and social media organizer Ishani Weera of solidaritymedia.ca. This interview originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Our Times Magazine.

Q&A  

ishaniweera

DID YOU GROW UP IN AN ACTIVIST FAMILY?

I think marginalized people, racialized workers in particular, are perpetual activists. They don’t have a choice but to advocate for their rights, because their rights are constantly denied or challenged. My family and I immigrated to Canada from Sri Lanka in the 1980s when I was a kid. There were countless instances while I was growing up where my parents had to fight for their rights as workers. I have a parent who is a survivor of an occupational injury. For years he had to battle not only an employer who denied responsibility, but a team of corporate lawyers and well-paid consultants in “risk management.” These are the things you’re up against.

 

ARE YOU FROM A UNION FAMILY?

I come from a working family that values worker rights. My parents have worked in both unionized and non-union jobs. So much of labour history was made by people who weren’t unionized. My maternal grandmother worked in Winnipeg’s garment district — one of many jobs she had until retirement. She told me she sewed coat pockets at the London Fog factory. That’s the kind of work that was readily available for racialized working-class women at the time and a huge site of worker activism. This history definitely informs my approach to unionism and activism around racialized and Indigenous workers.

 

WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO YOUR WORK WITH SOCIAL MEDIA?

Necessity. I saw social media as an opportunity for labour organizations to reach people. I saw it from the perspective of a union campaign organizer, not just as someone in communications. It was about posting more than a list of links to press releases. I realized if unions wanted to be relevant to members and to engage the public, they had to meet them where they were — on social media.

 

WHAT WERE YOU DOING BEFORE YOUR WORK WITH UNIONS AND SOCIAL MEDIA?

I have a background in Canadian political science, and I spent about six years at the University of Alberta and York University studying public policy discourses of the partisan right. I was interested in the kinds of narratives, words and frames the conservative right uses to strengthen its messaging, especially when talking about marginalized people.

 

YOU ALSO WORKED AT THE PARKLAND INSTITUTE, A NON-PARTISAN RESEARCH ORGANIZATION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA. WHAT DID YOU LEARN THERE THAT YOU APPLY TO YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA WORK?

Parkland’s Edmonton offices were the centre of a lot of activity. Not just press conferences and research launches, but the messy stuff of community building. It was a hub for a lot of students, retired folks, activists and members of the public. It’s also where I saw the impact that useful, accessible research can have. At that time, social media wasn’t really a “thing” the way it is now. The Parkland Institute was able to create a lot of concise, shareable print material that could be easily circulated and consumed. This is really what good social media content is about: it’s easy to understand and share.

 

DO YOU SEE A LINK BETWEEN SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE RESEARCH GENERATED BY UNIONS?

Absolutely. Good union research is not a purely academic exercise. It’s important work that provides strategic tools for working people; tools that could meaningfully change policy conversations and help us achieve greater economic justice. Labour organizations are behind a remarkable volume of important, useful research. Part of the work of unions now is converting these information-rich reports and documents into bite-size, social-media-friendly pieces.

 

DO YOU SEE THE ROLE OF THIS KIND OF WORK SHIFTING IN UNIONS?

It’s definitely shifting, especially at the international level. At the AFL-CIO, in the U.S., there is now a department dedicated to digital strategies — separate from their organizing department, and separate from their communications department. This kind of organization-wide prioritizing of social media has earned them attention. It’s not just that more than 150,000 people have liked the AFL-CIO’s Facebook page; it’s that they consistently have more than 20,000 people engaging with content. I see a really strong link between investing in social media and being able to maintain high levels of engagement. Unions are learning to prioritize this work and it’s an interesting time for digital organizing.

 

WHAT DOES SOCIAL MEDIA MEAN FOR TRADITIONAL COMMUNICATION AND ORGANIZING?

Social media is an essential part of grassroots organizing and union communication, not a substitute for what already works. I really see the attention-grabbing visual content we create for social media as an extension of the visual tradition of union posters. Labour movements have a long history of using strong imagery to generate campaign engagement.

 

WHAT DOES SOCIAL MEDIA MEAN FOR HOW PEOPLE GET THEIR NEWS?

The big difference between traditional and social media is content aggregation. Of people here in Alberta polled two years ago by Insights West, more than half said they would feel out of touch without regularly checking into their social-media news feeds. More often than not, friends and family drive referred-news content. A study from the Pew Research Center in the same year found that an overwhelming 80 per cent didn’t search out news sources, but instead “happen upon” news when they are checking up on friends and reading their friends’ news feeds.

 

WHAT ARE SOME SOCIAL MEDIA CAMPAIGNS FROM WHICH ORGANIZERS AND UNIONS CAN LEARN?

We need only look to grassroots activism for creative, meaningful social-media campaigns. On-going activism in response to violent anti-Black racism in the U.S. comes to mind, and conversation-shaping hashtags like #sayhername, #icantbreathe and #blacklivesmatter. Kalpona Akter’s campaigning following the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh is another example where an online campaign was paired with direct action. Worker groups recently achieved a big win against corporations that were unwilling to contribute financially to the survivors and families of Rana Plaza garment workers. Using social media as one element of their campaign, they publicly shamed companies unwilling to pay up. The Italian-owned United Colors of Benetton was the last major multinational retailer linked to the tragedy that refused to compensate workers and their families. After fighting for two years, Benetton reversed its stance in February of this year — a massive victory for campaigners calling for corporate accountability.

 

Terry Inigo-Jones works in communications with the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA). Click here to learn more about him.