Q&A: Harnessing the power of story

Analysis and Commentary, Featured, Ploughshares Monitor

Wendy Stocker interviews Communications Officer Tasneem Jamal

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 42 Issue 4 Winter 2021

Virtually every piece of text that appears on the Ploughshares website, in mailings to potential and continuing supporters, and in hard-copy publications, passes through Tasneem’s hands. She lays out text; adds illustrations that add punch to words; and turns raw data into arresting diagrams, tables, and maps. Her work is critical to getting our message out clearly to an audience that ranges from legislators to civil society to subject experts and “regular” citizens. We believe that she is someone that our supporters need to know better.

Wendy Stocker: Perhaps there is no such thing in a world still fighting a pandemic, but can you describe your typical workday?

Tasneem Jamal: On a particular day I could be working on a formal report on arms exports that will be sent to government agencies and officials or an Instagram slide show that could be used in an elementary school classroom or at a church service for Remembrance Day.

I am also deeply involved in producing our direct mail campaigns, annual report, and e-newsletters. And I look after uploading commentaries and other publications on our website. Some days, I seem to be doing all these things and more. One way or another, though, I spend a lot of my time using design software!

WS: Is this what you expected when you were hired? Can you explain what has changed in your job over the time that you’ve been with Ploughshares?

TJ: When I joined Ploughshares in 2010, I had a fairly traditional communications position. I created news releases, reached out to journalists, and looked for ways to draw attention to Ploughshares in the mainstream media. I also helped with the direct mail campaigns to attract new donors.

Design and layout were outsourced then. But, because I had a background in newspaper page layout, I offered to take on this work. And my days changed—radically!

At the time, social media was in its explosive growth period. And this also changed the pace of my job. Information needs to be available NOW, and it must be attractive and easy to digest and even interactive. Our researchers do a wonderful job of creating timely output in digestible chunks (commentary articles and shorter Spotlight reports, for example). Then I add elements that showcase and effectively characterize the main ideas. Fortunately, I work well under deadline pressure!

WS: I know that you even laid out the last edition of Space Security Index—that was a big project with lots of pressure (and thousands of endnotes). What in your previous jobs, education, or life experience equipped you for such work and for work at a non-profit, like Project Ploughshares?

TJ: Many of the areas on which Ploughshares focuses—armed conflict, arms exports, refugees and displacement—are not merely intellectual curiosities or abstract notions for me. I was born in Uganda and was expelled, along with my family and the larger South Asian community, by Idi Amin in the early 1970s. I understand how seemingly larger world events—decisions made at high levels of government, for example—affect individuals, families, and communities. The work we do at Ploughshares feels personal, in other words. I rarely lose sight of why we do what we do.

My work experience has been primarily in the news media. For six years, I worked as a page editor at The Globe and Mail. My job was to lay out stories on a broadsheet news page. I learned how to write tight, effective headlines, how to create hierarchy and design balance through placement of photographs and sizing of text, why certain fonts and sizes created ease of reading. I gained a lot of insight from the Globe’s designers, not only in terms of aesthetics, but also on how design choices can draw readers in (or turn them off).

WS: I also know that you are a published novelist. Where the Air is Sweet, which came out in 2014 (to readers: it’s excellent and still in print), tells the story of a family that, over generations, moves from India to Uganda, and finally to Canada. It seems that you were building on your own history and interests.

The links between your creative work and what you do at Ploughshares seem obvious. Or am I oversimplifying things?

TJ: Oh no, I agree. Writing fiction, telling stories is my calling. There is a term in Hindi, sadhana, which describes a kind of daily spiritual practice; this is how I think of my creative writing. It is my sadhana.

Shaping things into story, into narrative, is something that is deeply important to me.

At Ploughshares, I contribute to the telling of stories, taking data and often complex, disparate pieces of information and forging them into a narrative. I believe that human beings connect with one another through story. That’s why I love my work at Ploughshares and why I am energized by it, quite apart from the good that it brings to our society and world at large. I believe I am a storyteller. This is my contribution here.

WS: Are there particular narratives/program areas that resonate with you?

TJ: Quite honestly, all of them, for different reasons. I’m fascinated (and horrified) by the dystopic futures described in the emerging technology file—and it’s the most fun for a designer. I have been deeply moved by the focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. Arms exports have personal resonance because of my experience in Uganda. And of late I have been pretty excited with outer space security because it touches on research I am doing for my novel-in-progress.

WS: I was going to ask if a new novel was in the works. What can you tell us about it?

TJ: The working title is The Uncertainty Principle. It explores the power of female friendship, in particular the relationship between two girls growing up in Kitchener-Waterloo in the 1970s. The story is framed around concepts of quantum physics, as well as the malleability of time and the unreliability of memory. It’s told in the first person, which is new for me.

The self-imposed deadline for a complete first draft is the end of 2021, but it might stretch into late January or February of next year, in keeping with one of my themes: the malleability of time!

WS: You must be adept at making time malleable, because with all you’re already doing, you also volunteer as a writing coach for a local organization. Talk about that.

TJ: The X Page: A Storytelling Workshop is a Kitchener-Waterloo community arts initiative that connects women who are immigrants or refugees with artists who assist and mentor them in writing and performing their own stories. Each workshop runs for 12 weeks in the spring and culminates with a live performance.

I’ve been the Workshop writing coach from its inception in 2019. When friend and fellow local novelist Carrie Snyder, who spearheaded this program, asked me to join, I immediately thought of my mother, who came to Canada as a young refugee with three little children in tow. If she had been offered something like the X Page Workshop, I think it would have changed the trajectory of her life. She would have felt more a part of this community and would have stepped out more to share her voice. Instead, in a lot of ways, she held herself back.

It is an absolute privilege to be part of this workshop. Thanks to local groups like Project Ploughshares (a sponsor since our first year), we have been able to work with 18 or 20 women a year, even through the pandemic lockdowns.

WS: Your life sounds full to overflowing. How do you keep it all together?

TJ: Everything is woven together, like a tapestry. Creativity is a part of my entire life. After 11 years, Ploughshares has become a second home and a wonderfully fulfilling way to earn money. My colleagues are good friends. I talk to them often about my creative writing pursuits and you, Wendy, were the proof-reader of my first novel! All the parts of my life feel connected in a lovely way.

WS: I was re-reading a bit of Where the Air is Sweet in preparation for this interview (and deciding that I must read the entire book again soon). I see peace as a dominant theme—the peace that a family needs to feel safe and to thrive, the peace that was stripped away from so many families in Uganda. What does peace mean to you? What role do you think civil society has in achieving or maintaining peace?

TJ: This quote by Dom Hélder Câmara, which I have made use of in our social media of late, resonates strongly for me: “Without justice and love, peace will always be a great illusion.”

Our work at Ploughshares focuses on justice, on a recognition that all human beings deserve security of body and mind, which I suppose could also be called love.

I think as I’ve grown older, service has come to mean more and more to me—service to your community and to those farther away but connected by the fact of being human and vulnerable. I’m not convinced politicians and governments are, for the most part, in it for the service. That leaves the field open for civil society. I don’t think peace is possible without service.

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