If you’d have asked me how Julie Yan went from her co-op job to her current work in Corporate Social Responsibility and her second career as a photographer documenting sweat shop labour overseas, I would have never made the connection. And yet in her interview she makes it all seem so fluid and logical! Thank you to Julie for participating in Words in Place.–JLH
JLH: Can you talk a bit about why you chose UWaterloo? Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to do the Rhetoric and Professional Writing degree?
JY: In the 1990s, the University of Waterloo was one of the only universities that offered co-operative education. Being somewhat of a pragmatist, UWaterloo was my ideal school as it offered a strong arts programs that provided excellent work experience at the same time. The English Rhetoric & Professional Writing degree seemed like a good fit because I was interested in applying my English knowledge/skill set in a real-world situation. The program provided good opportunities in government, private sector business, and work abroad. I also got to meet a lot of interesting classmates and faculty which made for an unforgettable experience. I loved my classes!
JLH: What do you think your course of study gave you that you wouldn’t have gotten from an all-literature degree?
JY: Rhetoric classes provided a good foundation for developing communication skills that I think I would not have fully developed had I focused solely on literature. Not to say that literature does not have the same value, because there are many people I know who majored in literature and have successful careers in related fields. The Rhetoric & Professional Writing program focused on other media, like writing for the web, or speech writing, that I think opens the lens wider to an infinite number of creative opportunities after graduating from the program. I also liked how the rhetoric course offering wasn’t just about writing, but we learned about the relationship between image and text, and how to write for the web, and other areas where writing is essential like scientific writing, or technical writing. People used to smirk about how an arts degree has no value, but I would argue that an arts degree provides the greatest value, especially an English degree!
JLH: You’ve been developing your profile in the field of documentary photography and filmmaking. Has the RPW background proven useful?
JY: The RPW background definitely complements my work in documentary photography and filmmaking by helping with photography editing (meaning selection of photos, and putting together a visual argument), and formulating objectives for projects. I think a lot of theories and issues discussed in traditional written rhetoric can be applied to visual work. For example, when I am putting together a group of photos for a book or materials for a film, I always think about Aristotle’s ethos, pathos, and logos. Some things you learn in university never leave the subconscious when you’re working in that creative moment. In many ways, documentary photography or film is visual rhetoric and knowing how to craft your argument visually can be challenging. Having the rhetoric foundation helps me work more critically and analytically.
JLH: Can you tell us a bit about what you’re doing now, and how you got there?
JY: After graduating from the RPW program in 1997, I continued to work for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, which were extensions of my co-op work terms. The co-op work terms and post-undergraduate work provided excellent opportunities to better understand Canada’s position in the global world, especially from an exports perspective. After a few years in government I decided to look for work in Toronto and found a job in government relations at Hill & Knowlton which I felt was a nice transition from government to private sector. The government relations work was challenging for me since it meant I was on the other side of the desk helping companies communicate with the Ontario government about their various needs/issues. Shortly after 9/11, I received a call from a former colleague asking if I would be interested in joining HBC as a Public Affairs Specialist. The company was facing media scrutiny about alleged sweatshop labour in Africa. This piqued my interest and I have been with HBC since 2002.
As I started becoming more involved in the issue and working with various buying and sourcing departments in the company, my role as outside communicator started to change to internal communicator. The company started to look at corporate social responsibility (CSR) and how our business operations impacted the triple bottom line. I was tasked with helping produce the company’s first CSR report which required interviews and documentation of non-financial activity. This led to an in-depth conversation with the Director of Social Compliance at the time about how the company was slowly changing their ethical sourcing policy, so I came on-board to manage the new changes. I love my job because of the impact we have on the people who make the things we sell. And I love being in a role in a corporation where we function as the company’s social conscience. The impact may be slow and invisible to most people, but our enthusiasm and communications with people inside and outside the company keeps us going!
JLH: Do you have a five or ten year plan? What is your ideal trajectory, do you think?
JY: My current short-term plan is to continue developing my photography practice and using documentary photography as a means to communicate the issues that affect factory workers overseas. I haven’t really thought about what life will look like in 10 years since I like to live in the moment and enjoy each day. But I hope to be still working in the field of CSR or sustainability so that I can work towards something that has a positive impact on people and the environment.
JLH: Finally, what have you read in the past year or so that has had the most influence on you?
JY: This past year I read A Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins, China Rich Girlfriend by Richard Kwan, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, Doctors by Erich Segal, and Boy by Roald Dahl. I like books that make you think, and characters that stay with you for a long time after you have put down the book. The characters in Doctors seem like people we would know in real life and their struggle to balance career and love are not so far from the truth. A Folded Clock inspired me to keep up with journal writing, even if days or months have passed, and not feel guilty about it!