Shamelessly independent: an interview with editor Sheila Sampath

July 1, 2016

Headshot of Sheila Sampath, editor of Shameless Magazine

Shameless magazine’s total independence from the mainstream, and importantly from capital, has been key to its survival in an increasingly concentrated, homogenous media environment. Feminist, anti-capitalist, activist—Shameless speaks to the next generation, guided by principles of anti-oppression and social justice. Sheila Sampath joined Shameless a decade ago and has been the magazine’s editorial and art director since 2010. Abigail Kidd connected with her recently to talk about the evolution of the project and the power of volunteer journalism.

Abigail: So, what is Shameless and how has it changed over time?

Shameless started as an alternative magazine in the wake of magazines like Sassy. There was a politic to it, but it wasn’t necessarily activist. Then one editor stepped back and we got a new one and for a time it was pretty feminist, but a type of feminism that I didn’t always feel super comfortable with. A very white-cis feminism. So in 2010 we rewrote the mandate of Shameless and decided that if we were going to be a feminist magazine, let’s be a feminist magazine. A part of that means being anti-capitalist, having a de-colonial approach, centring voices of colour, centring queer voices, being trans-inclusive…. And then engaging in ongoing processes of reflection. I think in that moment, more than being an editorial project it really became an activist project. Editorial was how we did our activism, but doing Shameless became a form of doing activism in itself. And I think the attitude shifted a lot.

Abigail: I see Shameless as particularly good at exposing young people to perspectives they aren’t likely to access in mainstream media, to validate their experiences… 

Sheila: A lot of us remember what it’s like to be a teenager facing multiple forms of oppression. I think everyone at Shameless falls into this category. We remember what it’s like to be alienated by media. Being a teen is really hard. And it’s a phase of life when you’re navigating huge systemic issues. You’re navigating them in ways that are really deeply personal, and you don’t necessarily have access to the language, the resources, the knowledge to know that what you’re dealing with isn’t about you. So when we talk about things like body image in teens, you’re actually navigating issues of patriarchy, racism, fatphobia and all this stuff, but the way you experience it when you’re 13 or 14 years old is you feel like there’s something wrong with you, you feel unhappy…. I think all of us having faced multiple oppressions really remember that. To us there are a lot of forms of activism that are really important, but meeting folks where they are at and providing those entry points to knowledge about those systems is why we exist.  

Abigail: Would you say, then, that Shameless is partially a response to a lack of diversity in media?

Sheila: I think that when we see diversity in the media normally it comes from a place of tokenization. A newspaper or magazine might have one black columnist, or say we have a staff POC (person of colour) writer, or staff queer person that writes about queer issues. But the ownership and the agency is still in the hands of dominant groups. So Shameless is in part a response to representation, but also to this idea of ownership and the centring of voices. Moving beyond tokenistic inclusion toward meaningful inclusion. 

Abigail: So who owns Shameless?

Sheila: Well, we have no capital, so there’s no actual material ownership. It’s a 100% volunteer-run organization, primarily led by queer folks of colour. All of us have very intersecting identities and are working from places of those experiences. We also last year founded a youth advisory board and so a part of our longer-term mandate is to shift ownership, in terms of production of the magazine, from adults to youth. So the only paid positions at Shameless are our youth advisory board positions, which pay a very small amount…. This is our first year doing the youth advisory board, but we do skill shares with them and develop editorial skill sets and arts-based skills sets with them, and they also contribute to the leadership of the magazine.

Abigail: This issue of the Monitor tackles the state of Canada’s news and cultural media. Canada currently has one of the most concentrated media environments in the world—has that had an impact on Shameless?

Sheila: Shameless started off as a response to media in a lot of ways, to that concentration. Actually, it was founded as an alternative magazine in direct opposition to mass media that was targeted specifically at young women at the time. I think we’ve moved past that in a lot of ways. We’re less of a response to mass media then we were 10 years ago. Now we’re more of a speculative project on its own. Rather than trying to respond to something we’re an alternative to it.

Our demographic is really specific. We’re not actually competing for the masses. So it’s not so much of a market-based approach for us as much as it is a political project. So that concentration, it makes us relevant in a lot of ways. Because the more concentration you have, the fewer voices you have. A lot of what we’re trying to do is…actually centre marginalized voices. I think ideally it would be great to live in a world were Shameless doesn’t have to exist as an activist project.

I think sometimes when we talk about media, we talk about the number of hits on a website, or the number of readers. And I think for Shameless, and a part of why this project continued, is our metrics are quite different. We’re really small and we’re fine being small, and I think we don’t necessarily need or want to be the dominant mainstream voice. We want to speak to that youth that is feeling like shit…. Our scales are a lot smaller because for us it’s deeply personal and we can all relate to that feeling of seeing yourself erased through mainstream media. 

Abigail: You’ve talked about the freedom of being independent. What about the challenges?

Sheila: I think the challenge is that we don’t have money, which does limit who can access the project. I think that we represent a lot of neglected diversities of people amongst our staff, but we are also all people who can afford to work for free…. The opportunities that come from that are independence. We’re accountable to our community, but we’re not accountable to a funder.

I think being independent has been part of what has allowed Shameless to be really strong, because we’re guided by a politic and a feminist process, and we’re not so much guided by being accountable to a body that doesn’t necessarily share those politics. We have a mandate that guides our editorial and our advertisers. Capitalism doesn’t work in a way that’s ever going to favour feminist media or an anti-capitalist project. I think the pros that come from that outweigh the cons enough for us to keep going. 

Abigail Kidd is an Ottawa-based disability rights and anti-violence activist, and a sexual health educator. She also works full time as a union education officer for CUPE 2204, which represents non-profit child care centres in Ottawa, and sits on the board of directors for the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women. 

This article was published in the July/August 2016 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.