How Céline Semaan Evolved Slow Factory Into a Hub for Digital Advocacy

The climate justice and human rights organization is more than just an Instagram account—it’s a leading platform in digital advocacy.

by Abigail Glasgow

Céline Semaan
Courtesy of Diego Villarreal.

In the mid-1980s, at five years old, Céline Semaan left an at-war Lebanon for Canada. 10 years later, she returned as a teenager following a ceasefire. “I was able to witness the cost the war had on my country—from an environmental and human rights standpoint,” she shares. “And it marked me. You can't talk about climate justice without talking about human rights—they are one in the same.” Since then, Semaan has dedicated her life’s work to this intersection and applied her skillset in design as a means to combat systemic oppression. What has emerged is Slow Factory: an organization that provides forums for open education, hosts conferences (featuring the likes of Bonnie Wright, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Yara Shahidi, and Mara Hoffman) and partners with others to “bridge the gap and connect the dots between climate justice and human rights.” What started as an idea in 2008 has evolved into a team of 10 that will soon open their first physical school this October.

In addition to their offline work, Slow Factory has built a name for itself on social media as a leader in digital advocacy. Perhaps one of the foundational accounts known for its infographic activism, the account covers everything from the Amazon Rainforest to preserving cultural heritage through fashion. Here, Semaan discusses the importance of digital literacy, the evolution of Slow Factory, and what it looks like to advocate online.

Tell me about your digital experience before Slow Factory.

My background is in cyber arts and system design. Between 2000 and 2008, I was working on digital literacy and access to the internet in the Middle East with groups like Creative Commons. Digital literacy is very powerful because it allows people to have agency over their laws.

I was very much interested in making information—whether that’s resources the government has or climate injustices—accessible for other people. How can we translate these concepts for the general public so that they can understand what's going on and take action? We were working deeply in the environmental and human rights [sectors], making this information comprehensible online and working with governments to translate some of their very complex systems and processes to the general public.

So, how did you then build Slow Factory?

Through that work, I was made aware of NASA’s images of the earth, monitoring what it was undergoing because of climate change. These images were considered open data and something was telling me I needed to translate this into a physical form so people could actually touch and feel it. At the end of the day, one of the main barriers to entry to climate justice is that people have a vague idea of what it is, but they don't really have a solid opinion about what you should be using or why certain things are not good for the environment. So in 2008, I began researching.

It started as an art project. We thought, ‘Someday we'll do something with this.’ I stumbled into the fashion space by accident when researching how I could take these [NASA] images and put them on fabric. I already knew that a lot of [clothes and materials] were made in the Global South in very obscure ways where nothing was traced. And there were a lot of human rights violations around the production of fashion in general, even luxury fashion. I found that it was extremely difficult to know [about the industry] because it's so opaque and it wasn't really acceptable to ask. It wasn't a thing to talk about traceability then.

How does the discussion of fast fashion relate to the climate justice conversation?

My lived experience has shaped a lot of this work. I became aware of how climate justice and human rights are interlaced alongside my history, my culture, and the cost colonialism had on my country. If you want to talk about sustainability, you need to address colonialism; or understand the shifting moment culturally where colonialism suddenly became central in the conversation on sustainability.

Around the late ’90s, Zara opened up their stores in Lebanon. Meanwhile, most of us were struggling to find work, to feed our kids, to survive after a war, to have clean water and energy. At the time, the conversation on fast fashion was, ‘It's cheap fashion, cheap labor.’ Zara’s cost of goods were not cheap. When you're selling it in the Global South, it's actually super expensive. And in fact, the quality was not up to par with the prices. We all had someone in our family, a matriarch, who was a seamstress. This person would be central in your life growing up because she would be making your clothes for important occasions. It was a culture of repair, of fixing, of mending. That culture started to evaporate and to look like the culture of the poor in the late ’90s. We were desperate to look rich and to feel rich and to feel modern. And that's where fast fashion entered the space in a devastating way.

So you’ve got these interconnected topics that you want to confront both online and offline. How did you even come up with a name that would encompass that work?

I think it was 2007 when iPhones became widely adopted. Everything started to go faster. We were brainstorming for a client and he wanted something with the word fast in the name for his new company. And at the time Fast Company was really big. I was like, ‘How about slow? How about slow factory?’ My partner and I, Colin, who is my co-founder—we loved it and bought the domain name.

And how did Instagram become a tractive channel for you?

Slow Factory went through several ups and downs regarding our editorial voice. At first, it was very emotional and we were just posting whenever we had something to say. Around 2019, that's when I feel like our presence became much more noticeable. We were conducting our Study Hall conferences and sharing our findings from these conferences in the form of a quote or a clip. The quotes were highly stylized and [Slow Factory] started to become this hub for thoughts. In 2020, we started posting a lot more, because we were home and all of our other projects were on hold. It was also a way for us to cope with everything that was going on—to be active, to be useful. We knew there needed to be so much work in the space of documenting, codifying, researching, bringing information to the general public that is otherwise literally buried or purposefully not made popular; like the history around plastic, racial justice, certain neighborhoods, all sorts of things. We grew exponentially.

Before, social media was like one percent of what we did. But since we were all home, we thought, well, let's talk about all of these topics. Like, what's going on in Yemen? What's going on in Palestine? You can write all you want as a very complex academic paper, but if people don't get it or bother to read it, the access to that information is privileged. We had three journalists on the team fact checking everything we were putting together and we started creating these explainers [on Instagram]. Suddenly, everybody was doing them.

How do you all navigate optical allyship—this idea that we need to be posting what we think about everything going on in the world so others are aware that we’re aware?

I mean, you don't have to perform care. Sometimes not saying anything is also good. I understand it's coming from a good heart, but it's also coming from a place of fear. I feel like that needs to be addressed with your support system, because any type of performance activism is superficial. Engaging in it is harmful—to yourself and the communities you’re demonstrating you care deeply about. Be careful of virtue signaling. You want to be mindful of why you’re showing up.

How do you engage with your followers?

I feel like you need a PhD to be able to engage in our comment section. Or some deep knowledge in political science, geopolitical conflicts, sustainability, climate justice, racial justice. Sometimes we don't engage, we just analyze the conversation [because] we understand people just want to talk. And we make sure they're talking in a way that doesn't turn into animosity [so we can] keep our community safe.

Other times, the team responds. Conflict is going to arise at some point. There's no way that everything's gonna be peaceful because [different] communities of color have never been socialized to look at each other as kin. We screenshot a comment and bring it to the team and we're like, ‘How do we address this?’ Sometimes we say, ‘You know what, let's attempt to explain and talk things through here.’ And sometimes we decide to delete it, because we see that it’s just becoming too much or too violent towards other members of the community. We’ve attracted many people that clearly are coming to this post to have a fight, to really intimidate people, or to just be racist.

And Slow Factory’s account has been censored or banned in the past, correct?

Yes, we get targeted by Instagram. At one point we lost our account for 10 days. We couldn't get access which was actually very, very scary and frustrating. It can happen to anyone at any time. What got us to regain our account was the support we received from our community. I see it often, actually. A lot of our peers are shadow banned. It makes us vulnerable, because at the end of the day these platforms don't really belong to us. We don't have agency over them.

How do you take something so complex and make it digestible? Like, let's say, the current war in Ukraine. How do you talk about it?

We have moved away from explaining wars. The last one we covered was Tigray in Ethiopia, and the one before that was the situation in Armenia. Simplifying this information is tricky. It's bound to offend people because you are putting together something that's highly visual and overly simplified. You have to read the resources we put on the last slide and be able to dig deeper; but not everybody's going to dig deeper, so you could end up reinforcing certain prejudices that folks already have. We are always looking at [our work] as a public service. So we want to be addressing [these issues] in the right way.

Are you going to redirect your focus away from Instagram?

We’ve gone through a lot of questioning. Having a platform is a big responsibility and a lot of expectations are attached to it from the public. Like, ‘Why didn't you talk about that? Why don't you talk about this?’ We can’t talk about all of it because, behind the scenes, we are a very small team. We're also busy working on other projects unrelated to social media. For a period of time, we were offline. We advocated against the fossil fuel industry through Edelman PR who was linked directly with Exxon Mobil, we advocated for deforestation, we put our efforts towards action that had longevity rather than quick pieces of news. We have pivoted towards more long-term campaigns rather than news related stories.

In October, we’re opening an alternative university-slash-trade school for climate adaptation in fashion. It's in Sunset Park, in Bush terminal, and is partly a school for open education, partly a lab. It’s a full blown school—we even have partnerships with other universities. The mayor of New York actually announced it for Fashion Week. The larger dream is to have Slow Factories around the world that are decentralized, autonomous, and run by community members groups.

You do so much exciting work, but how do you unplug from it all?

We try our best within our team to have community care. We spend time meditating together. We offer mental health and bodywork support to our team members. Because [the work] is very intense. We allow each other to go offline, and we can afford to do that because we don't make money from Slow Factory’s Instagram. That's a luxury because a lot of folks with a platform can't [make money from it].

For me personally, joy could be right in front of my face but I can’t even see it sometimes because I'm in my head. I like to ground myself spiritually and bring myself back into my body, into my present state, into this very moment. It takes some time. I also love playing with my kids, listening to them, reading books with them, watching movies with them when they're all laying on me.

Who are your inspirations, both online and offline?

Offline, Designing Universal Knowledge is a book that has been foundational for me. And the works of Edward Tufte. I'm surrounded by books about typography, graphic design, system design, architecture, sociology, archeology, history. Online, I’m a big fan of Wikipedia because of information accessibility, I think YouTube is a school, and I'm very much interested in how Tumblr or GIPHY are archiving content.