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How to be an anti-oppressive freelance writer

By December 9, 2020 2 Comments

When I was a social worker, so much of my work was rooted in anti-oppressive practices. And let me tell you, I made mistakes all the time.  But I think the key is to keep learning, asking questions, accepting that we’re not going to get it right 100% of the time and use resources (like the toolkit mentioned below) that help us become anti-oppressive freelance writers.

I was thrilled to interview Justine Abigail  – a strong advocate for equality and anti-oppressive practices within the media. Justine is the founder and editor-in-chief of Living Hyphen and Wanderful’s communication manager.

There is so much gold Justine’s responses about how writers (especially travel writers) can truly be anti-oppressive in their practice. Let’s dive in.

Meet Justine Abigail – advocate for equality and anti-oppressive media practices.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself (including your preferred pronouns) and your path to becoming Wanderful’s Communications Manager, Senior Advisor for RISE Travel Institute and the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Living Hyphen?

Hi, I’m Justine Abigail (she/her).

I’m a communications and marketing strategist who has worked with organizations operating in North America, Central America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia.

My expertise lies in growing social enterprises from the ground up through strategic digital marketing, compelling storytelling, and genuine community engagement through a lens of anti-oppression.

Travel has always been a part of my life in some shape or form beginning with my own migration story as a Filipina-Canadian.

I’ve always been interested in this space and I’ve actively pursued a career at the intersection of social impact and travel. For over 6 years, I worked as the Marketing & Communications Director for Operation Groundswell, a non-profit organization dedicated to facilitating experiential education programs across the world to reveal power and privilege, oppression, and liberation in the global context.

That was an incredibly formative experience for me and ultimately led to my roles at Wanderful and RISE Travel Institute. 

As for my work with Living Hyphen – well, that is a whole other story that I don’t think we have time for, but is such an important part of who I am and informs so much of my work in these various hats I wear!

In a nutshell, Living Hyphen is a community that explores the experiences of living in between cultures and all the nuances and complexities that come with that.

As a Filipina-Canadian who has felt the push and pull of these two places, peoples, and lands, this hyphenated experience is one that has weaved through all aspects of my life.

My entire lived experience has culminated in my creating this space for others who straddle this in between space.

What is the anti-oppression tool kit?

The Anti-Oppression Toolkit is a hub for travel and culture creators to access resources on how to make the travel industry– and our mainstream media writ large – more equitable for people of all intersections of identity.

It includes a glossary of terms to lay a strong foundation in understanding key concepts around anti-oppression, a how-to series on practicing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the content we create and other aspects of our work, and a community of other creators who are working towards the same goals.

This toolkit is meant to be a living and breathing space where we can all learn and unlearn together. 

Who is it for?

We’ve built this specifically for creators in the travel industry, but the resources available are really applicable for anyone who creates content that touches on cross-cultural connections.

That includes journalists, photographers, bloggers, videographers and editors, entrepreneurs…if you move and you make, this toolkit is for you.

What prompted you to create it? 

The tragedy and murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery (among many others) and the most recent wave of the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer really shook us at Wanderful.

It forced us to take a long hard look at our own industry in travel and tourism and critically assess how we have been complicit in perpetuating systemic racism and how we might work to change that. 

As a result of that soul searching, we created Moving Forward: An Anti-Racism Town Hall for the Travel Industry – a solutions-oriented dialogue for Black creators, allies, and brands to discuss actionable steps to foster anti-racism and push for systemic change in the travel industry.

Led by Karisma Shackelford, we intentionally designed the town hall to be a three-part series in June 2020, October 2020, and the final one coming up in February 2021.

We wanted to make sure that this was not just a moment, but a sustained movement.

We wanted to hold ourselves accountable to the anti-racism work that we – and the brands and creators that work alongside us – have committed to. 

After these difficult and uncomfortable conversations at Moving Forward, I realized that what we needed to do was far more expansive than anti-racism specifically; we needed to work to dismantle systems of oppression against all intersections of identity (think: gender, sexuality, body shape, religion, age, neurodiversity, disability!) 

As activist and educator Stacy Bias once wrote, “We all need to develop an interest in experiences of oppression. Oppressions don’t exist in isolation — they’re structural — so what oppresses one is part of a larger system of oppression that impacts everyone.” 

After recognizing this, I tapped my colleague, Ariel Goldberg, who is a queer, multiracial writer and activist who serves not only as the Program & Creative Director for Wanderful’s WITS Travel Creator & Brand Summit, but also as the Deputy Digital Director for Lambda Legal, the largest LGBTQ and HIV civil rights legal organization in the world.

Ariel Goldberg – co-collaborator on the anti-oppression toolkit

She’s someone whose work I personally have admired and have learned greatly from.

For months, we worked to create this toolkit for Wanderful’s powerful community of creators and industry leaders. 

What are you hoping to achieve with it?

At Wanderful, we are committed to moving the travel industry forward and equipping and empowering creators with the resources to lead the way.

Our community is largely made up of travel creators and industry leaders and we all have a responsibility to use our platforms to amplify historically underrepresented voices and stories.

We have a role in leveraging our influence to pressure brands that we work with to adopt diverse, equitable, and inclusive practices too.

Most importantly, we have the power to help level the playing field and work towards anti-oppression in the travel industry.

We hope that this toolkit serves to do just that. 

Why is anti-oppressive practice in travel writing so important?

Travel has a long and enduring history of violence, forced displacement, and genocide all under the romantic guise of “exploration” and “discovery” that we still claim and aspire to today.

As travelers, we must consistently interrogate our privilege.

We must question how our presence affects the places we travel to and move through. ⠀ ⠀

As one of my favourite travel writers, Bani Amor, once wrote:

“It is a moving conversation between the ways that we are privileged and the ways we are oppressed, because places, like identities, are not static; they are always in flux. …decolonizing travel is also a discourse, and finally, a resistance, to the barriers that keep some from moving freely and safely throughout the world. 

If we’re going to write travel, we have to reckon with these histories; we must constantly question how our presence affects the spaces we move through and be real about how power functions.

Because wherever you are, you’re on Native land, and wherever you go, anti-Blackness follows.

If communities don’t have the sovereignty to shape how they want their cultures to be consumed or communicated, their economies to be governed and their environments to be treated, then tourism and travel are only a continuation of imperialist practices.

We have to locate ourselves within the spectrum of power – which is hardly ever as linear or binary as basic white travel narratives paint them to be – to tell the truth about place.”

Language is significant.

Language affects not just how we perceive the world but also how we move through it.

As travel creators, our words have the potential to greatly influence how our audiences perceive the peoples, places, and cultures we write about and present. 

We have a responsibility then to consider the ethical implications in writing about cultures outside of our own and about communities we are not embedded in, and to go on to apply those best practices in our work. 

There’s so much great content in your toolkit and a lot to absorb. If a writer is feeling overwhelmed with knowing where to begin … what do you think is the most important first step or starting point?

If this is all new to you – start with the glossary of words to situate yourself in this work and start with a strong foundation of understanding.

All the subsequent how-to sections will make a lot more sense after that. But really, just pick a section in our how-to guides and start there! 

I can’t speak for everyone, but I think some white writers feel like they want to do ‘the right thing’ but are worried about doing the wrong thing/offending people, so they don’t change their ways or look at their writing practice – what would you say to them?

If you are truly committed to practicing allyship to oppressed groups, you will take that discomfort and fear of doing the wrong thing and just push it aside.

Remove your feelings from this.

Remember that this isn’t about you specifically and by focusing on your discomfort, you are putting your feelings above the marginalization and violence that is quite literally being done onto these various communities. There’s no time for that. 

This work is difficult and it is painful.

We cannot usher in change and undo generations of violence and trauma without messing up.

We have to embrace failure and be open to learning from it.

Don’t get defensive or discouraged if you mess up. Instead, listen to the people who are telling you that you have messed up.

They are teaching you and you should welcome that education.

We have a whole section about “How to Respond to Correction” in our toolkit that you should check out! 

We are all products of these oppressive systems of white supremacy, colonialism, and patriarchy and it will take a lifetime – generations, really – to unlearn the thinking and behaviours that have been so deeply ingrained into each and every one of us – white, Black, PoC…none of us exist in a vacuum unaffected by these systems.

Just remember that. 

We need to practice our allyship actively.

Not just when it is easy, not just when it is convenient – precisely in those moments when it is the most difficult, the most inconvenient. 

And we must speak out and stand in solidarity with other marginalized communities, not just our own – even if it is uncomfortable and inconvenient.

ESPECIALLY when it is uncomfortable and inconvenient.

What do you think are the top 5 things that freelance writers can do to start moving towards an anti-oppressive practice?

Pick anything from the anti-oppression toolkit and just…start reading and (un)learning more! 

Thank you so much Justine! Lastly, how can people get in touch with you? 

You can find Wanderful at sheswanderful.com or across all socials at @sheswanderful or connect with me personally at @justineabigail!

What did you think about this interview? Do you have any questions about anti-oppressive practice?

2 Comments

  • Ara Jansen says:

    Great interview! What a fabulous resource wit the potential to make a real difference. Also, it’s always interesting to hear other Third Culture Kids and cross cultural adults talk about their experiences and language.

    • lindyalexander says:

      Thanks Ara! Yes, it’s such a wonderful resource – I’m still exploring all the different parts of it. Thanks for your comment.

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