Kickin’ Ass and Taking Names: Sheila Sampath of Shameless

In this week’s edition of Kickin’ Ass and Taking Names, we’re thrilled to profile one of our most inspiring community and media leaders: the smart, stylish and savvy Sheila Sampath!


(1) Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Sheila Sampath and I’m interested in collaboration, creativity and community; in other words, I like making friends, making stuff with friends, and having that stuff, in turn, make for a better world.

I am the principal and creative director at The Public, an activist design studio specializing in art-making and popular education from feminist and anti-oppressive frameworks; the editorial and art director of Shameless magazine, a feminist magazine for teen girls and trans youth; a professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design University; an editor-at-large at Our Times magazine; and a board member at the South Asian Visual Arts Centre. I also contribute to a fashion blog called Professor Femme with my co-conspirator Élise Thorburn, and make clothes, music and trouble.

 (2) How long have you been doing this kind of work?

Informally, I’ve been doing this kind of work for about fifteen years, and formally, probably for the last ten or so. For me, the separation between work and life is non-existent, which tends to be the case for social justice work—it’s a lens and a way of being more than it is a ‘job’.

(3) What do you find that women who lead all have in common?

I’m more interested in collaboration than I am in leadership; I find that I learn so much, every day, from the people I get to work with, and that relationship is one where true leadership is constantly rotating and shifting. Most women-identified folks I know and love working with take a similar approach—leadership that is rooted in a sort of rejection of leadership, and one focused on collaborative principles, friendship and love.

(4) People often wonder about the differences between men and women who lead.  What are your thoughts on that?

I generally take issue with the concept of leadership—for me, it’s so closely tied to power, and tactics gaining and maintaining power often replicate oppressive structures. That’s a bit of a contradiction when doing social justice work. When I think of leadership, I think about what it means to climb a ladder, and how you can’t really do that without stepping on rungs along the way.

I’m not sure if there are differences between leadership styles between genders, but I think that capitalism teaches us that there are ways to get ahead, and tries to teach us not to question how those ways may hurt other people.

(5) How have your overcome gender roadblocks in your career?

By naming them, by talking about them, and by building community around them.

(6) Have you ever had any surprising moments in your career that stemmed from the fact that you’re a woman?

I’m not sure!

(7) What is your advice to women who want to kick ass and take names on the daily?

Don’t do it on the backs of other women—support each other and build things together. As you step forward, don’t be afraid to step back; take care of yourself, and take care of each other.

(8) Who are some of your role models?

I’m so lucky to get to work with my role models every day—my co-workers at The Public, Shameless, SAVAC—my community and co-conspirators. They not only tell me what’s what, they also show me, through inclusive and supportive practices, through friendship and through tough love.

(9) What are some of the shining moments you’ve had in your career?

A definite shining moment was at The Public’s fifth birthday party, a year and a half ago. We had a room full of a few hundred friends, chosen-family, clients and community. It was this moment when I realized that something that had started out so small had grown into something so big, and a moment when I realized that this thing that was mine wasn’t really mine anymore—that it belonged to so many other people who shaped it to this point and will shape it in ways that I can’t even imagine. Emotionally, it was a moment of “letting go”—of, “this isn’t mine anymore.” And it felt amazing.

(10) Where would you like to be five years from now?

I think I would like to have found a better balance between work and self-care—though there are a lot of spaces where those two things overlap. I’d like to have a bit more time to focus on some personal projects and I’d like to spend more time at home.

 (11) What does a typical day look like for you?

I wake up and get to work at around eight o’clock, I respond to student emails, then Shameless emails, and at nine, I start my work for The Public. I spend the first half hour going through emails and following up, and then the rest of the day is spent researching, writing, drawing, meeting and listening to Mariah Carey. I wrap up around 5pm, and usually have a meeting after work. If not, I come home, work for two to three hours on Shameless or teaching, spend time with wonderful humans and a wonderful cat, and crash out around 11.

(12) What was your first job out of school, and how do you think it prepared you for your current leadership role?

I worked as an art director at an advertising firm. I was lucky to get a job like that straight out of school, but I always knew that I wanted to start The Public, so I went into that space looking to gain very specific skill-sets. I literally had a list. I wanted to become a better designer, but I also wanted to learn how to manage projects, how to run a business, how to work with other people and how to meet deadlines. I ended up learning a lot of what-to-do and a lot of what-not-to-do.

Working in the corporate world really showed me how oppressive workspaces can be; how sexist, yes, but also how racist and just generally anti-social. I didn’t want to re-create those types of work environments, and one thing I am really proud of is how healthy, supportive and loving the spaces I work in tend to be. In almost seven years now of running The Public, I’ve maybe had a half-dozen “bad days” at work. In almost five years of editing and art directing Shameless, there’ve maybe been two instants where I’ve felt frustrated. I think that’s a pretty good track record, all things considered. The truth is, those spaces have provided me with so much more nourishment, love and support than I could have ever wanted from a workplace.

(13) What are the three skills required to do your job well?

Diligence, thoughtfulness and a sense of humour.

(14) What do you love most about your career?

The constant challenge, the solid community and the bright colours.

(15) If you could try a different career, what would it be and why?

I would design and make clothes (though I would have to learn how to do both of those things). I’m not particularly good at either, but I like the way math and art meet in clothing design, and I love working with my hands and listening to radio dramas while using a seam ripper is one of my favourite Sunday pastimes.

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