MUNNETRAM: Samanta Krishnapillai

Samanta Krishnapillai: Toast To Success Emerging Professional Award Winner

At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, Samanta Krisnapillai used her personal Instagram account to share stories that explain COVID-19 to her followers, and answered over 250 questions during the first month of the global pandemic. It became apparent that there was a need for a platform that could provide Canadians with answers and information that is credible and in plain language. She started the ON COVID-19 Project in response to the lack of communication directed at Millennials and Gen Z during the pandemic.  Through social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, Sam and her team of now 150+ volunteers are helping Canadians minimize their risk of contracting and spreading COVID by creating infographics and other content to explain government restrictions, scientific breakthroughs.  Sam and her team now have over 130,000 followers on Instagram alone and have put out nearly 600 posts since the start of the pandemic. In March 2021 the project transitioned from talking about just COVID-19, to discussing social issues.

Tell me about yourself and your career.

“I went to school to study the health sector. I’d always thought I wanted to be a doctor, and I went to Western for health sciences. On the first day of my first university class, my professor explained what social determinants of health are: factors outside of your biology and your genetics that affect your health outcomes. This includes things like access to affordable housing, access to education, the walkability of your city, the systems and the safety nets in a society. I remember just sitting in that class, in shock, after the lecture was finished and everyone had left. 

I had always thought that if I became a doctor I could help solve people’s health issues and make people healthy. I hadn’t realized that there were so many systemic factors outside of someone’s biology that could affect their health. This society had to change in order for people to have better health outcomes. As an example, if you’re diabetic but you can’t afford insulin, or if you can’t afford healthy food, then your health outcomes are not going to be very good. I just remember thinking I have to fix the bigger problem, and while it didn’t happen right away, that class sparked my journey into creating systemic change, to develop a more equitable world. Throughout my undergrad, I would work in university in student government, in non-profits, as a barista at Starbucks, and while working I just kept identifying these larger system issues that needed to be changed. That led me to doing my master’s where I thought I would study the health sector at a higher level and then go into doing that work at a system level. I was all set to create change, and then the pandemic hit, which caused a giant, accidental shift in my career.”   

How did you start the On Canada Project?

“When I first started the project it was on COVID-19 but then we transitioned it into the ON Canada project and broadened the scope. In the beginning of the pandemic, I remember that even though I was scared like everyone else, I wasn’t overwhelmed. Not only were we living through an incredibly scary time, but also all these new words and and concepts and public health information were being thrown at people, and most people didn’t understand the concepts because that’s not what they studied.

I remember realizing how hard it must be for people who don’t have a background in the health sector and public health to navigate the pandemic. It’s already hard enough, but it’ll be that much harder if you don’t understand why a virus spreads like this, or why you need to isolate yourself in your house or whatever the case may be. At first I tried to answer questions on my own personal social media accounts, but I was getting so many that it was too overwhelming.

I decided to start an instagram account that could just focus around answering these questions, but I figured I would find people to help me do it. 

Over three weeks in May 2020, I came up with the idea and I recruited two people to help me. From the initial 3, it grew to about 55 within the first week. We were getting hundreds and hundreds of applications wanting to join because people wanted to solve these issues and help explain to others what’s going on with the pandemic. What we say to anyone who joins our project is that it’s not a matter of how intelligent a person is: you could be the most intelligent person in the world but have studied engineering, and the pandemic would still be confusing to you because it’s not stuff that you’re familiar with. I always think that if this was an economic crisis, what would I need to understand the crisis? I don’t understand economics at all so I would hope that someone would explain it in a way that was simple but didn’t make me feel stupid. That invited me to use very simple and compassionate writing. 

I think often people say, “You have to dumb it down for the public,” but I really hate that phrasing. It’s more like you have to make the information understandable for a variety of audiences because everyone has different backgrounds or different understandings, and if you’re a low-income family that has to work multiple jobs, you don’t have time to minor in public health during the pandemic. It’s too hard to figure out what is the incubation period of the virus,  how to isolate effectively, what are actual ways to disinfect your house versus old wives tales, etc. when you’re trying to put food on the table. If you really want to set people up for success, which is in our collective best interests during a pandemic, then you need to explain it in a way that is warm and welcoming and invites them to follow the guidelines.

This went on from June 2020 to now, but by October 2020, we saw that a lot of the discussions that we had to have around the pandemic required an understanding of systemic inequities. For example, the reason why we need paid sick leave is because of the way the labor market is set up, and the way that essential workers don’t get the same sort of benefits and privileges that someone who works at a corporate head office would have. How do we explain social inequities, and the fact that there’s systemic oppression going on, both of which will worsen the pandemic? That’s when the idea of broadening the scope to the ON Canada project started, because to effectively talk about why we need something like paid sick leave, you’d have to explain so much more about the government: the way decisions are being made, the way lobby groups work, and the way that the working class faces systematic barriers in a way that others don’t. This all had to be explained so that the everyday public could advocate for something like paid sick leave, which is necessary in the pandemic. At the same time I realized that the tone we used to explain public health information with, could be used to explain all of that and more, so the focus became about how do we give millennials and gen z the information that they need to disrupt the way things are right now.”

How did you use your resilience to push through the pandemic?

“Halfway through the pandemic, I realized that the instagram account was like a coping mechanism for me. I felt so overwhelmed with the state of the world, with the fact that our leaders knew what we needed to do but they weren’t doing it because of politics that shouldn’t be a priority during the pandemic. I thought if I can just do some good, it’ll give meaning to my day-to-day life, which was a healthy way of coping with the chaos. 

My resilience really comes from my mid-20s. In my mid-20s I took time off school, and I did a lot of work on my mental health and healing. It was that intentional pause in my life that allowed me to focus on healing generational trauma, my own mental health issues, internalized racism, all of these things that were holding me back from my full self and affecting my well-being. I’m not sure that this would have been my solution to feeling overwhelmed had I not taken that pause and dealt with my mental health stuff in my mid-20s. 

It wasn’t an easy decision, we come from a community where people don’t talk about mental health enough, especially older generations. There’s always the, “What will people say?” conversation that comes up with your family. Even within myself, the hustle culture, that comparison of ‘my friends are doing this’ and I’m pausing to take care of my health, like how dare I?! Looking back I don’t think I’ve ever done anything kinder to myself. As scary as it was to pause and heal, I’m so much more equipped now than I was at that age, and I’m grateful for it.” 

What advice or guidance would you provide to emerging professionals? 

“Go to therapy!

I get asked this question a lot, but I’m figuring it out every single day, so it always throws me off. The one thing that I feel like is consistent for all of us, especially the Sri Lankan Tamil community, is that there’s intergenerational trauma that’s happened here. When we look at the broader Tamil community, almost all of us have experienced, or have ancestors that experienced colonization. There’s so much trauma in our bones and our bodies, and we need healing to happen so we can let go of that trauma. I think for emerging professionals, we all have the ability of greatness within us, and we try to set ourselves up for success by going to school, getting good grades, getting a good job, etc. None of this would be possible however, if we don’t take the time to heal ourselves first. 

Second of all, write down what you enjoy doing, not what’s on your resume but what you love doing. That might include work but it could also include the type of TV shows you like or your hobbies. Take that list and find something that relates to what you like doing. What is the thing that makes you unique? That is your gift, your superpower, and no one else will ever have the same skill set as you. Build something around your gift, because the one thing about this project is, as hard as it’s been launching it and turning it into a business, I feel fulfilled and excited about work every day. I feel proud of what I’m doing and that’s because I feel like my unique superpower is being seen and realized. I’ve worked in spaces where I didn’t get to bring my full superpower to the table: maybe pieces of it but not my full creative talent itself, so I didn’t feel as fulfilled.”

Where do you want to see yourself in 10 years?

“I hope I’m happy, I hope I’m healthy, I hope the project is a sustainable social enterprise that employs around several hundred people to do good work in this world. Personally, I hope to have kids and be married, I hope to be able to take care of my family, and I hope to be on track to start a scholarship in Sri Lanka under my grandmothers’ names. I don’t know what that requires but that’s part of the dream. 

When I think about life now it’s a lot more holistic than just a career. I know within myself that I have drive and ambition so I don’t need to hope for that, I know I can hustle and get to the end goal. The things that feel more debatable or unsure are maintaining my health, maintaining my well-being, maintaining my happiness, finding a happy family life, being able to provide and care for myself, and building generational wealth. I want to change the world, and I hope to be doing that in my own way. 

What is the best part of your job? 

“There are two things that are the best part of my job, and one is when I see young people of color take up space fully. I spent a lot of time minimizing who I am and rejecting my culture, through my internalized racism. I would go into spaces where I either had to speak for all people of color everywhere or I had to minimize my culture in order to fit in and be deemed worthy by whatever system was present. It wasn’t until my late 20s where I started being my full self: this weird, intelligent, sometimes funny, creative South Asian Tamil woman, in professional spaces. When I look at our younger team members on our project, there are some who have told me  that this is the first space where they’ve been able to show up fully. They didn’t know that you could be in a professional environment and be your full complex self. Even if the project went away tomorrow, there are people who have been part of this project, who came out better because of it.

The other part is when we write content that I know that sparks a discussion with the people who follow us, where you can see it resonating in a big way with folks. The people read the content, they understand it, and they take a step away from the status quo to move towards disruption. That’s where my job fulfills me.”