What school won't teach you: 

Céline Semaan, digital literacy and activism.

People That Inspire Us

26 september  '22

Reading time: 7 minutes

Meet Céline Semaan, a Lebanese-Canadian researcher, designer and founder of Slow Factory, a non-profit that works with companies to develop actionable and tailored solutions for a wide range of climate-related issues, alongside science and post-colonial theory at the forefront of her work.

Words by Lucia Peirone Torti

Meet Celine Semaan and Slow Factory - an NGO on mission to restore balance for humans and nature.

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 shared. “And it marked me. You can't talk about climate justice without talking about human rights—they are one and the same.” Since then, Semaan has dedicated her life’s work to this intersection and applied her skill set in design as a means to combat systemic oppression.

Nowadays, Céline Semaan is a lot of things: a modern ambassador of cultures, fostering communication across industry, policy, academia and the broader citizen population. Her work in sustainability has made her a recognized expert; her non-profit education initiative Study Hall, incubated at MIT Media Lab, collaborates with the United Nations and holds an annual summit at the UN headquarters in New York. As a writer, her work has been published in New York Magazine The Cut, Elle USA, and Vogue. She lives and works in New York, leading research on Regenerative Aesthetics within her company Slow Factory.

This fashion label and lab partners with different non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on products that raise consciousness about different social issues. Slow Factory is a nonprofit that transforms socially and environmentally harmful systems by designing models that are good for the Earth and good for people. The built-up community, named People of the Global Majority, advances climate justice and social equity through regenerative design, education, and materials innovation. Education is central to the systemic change we need for a livable equitable climate future, through dismantling the current paradigm of extraction, exploitation, and racial oppression while reviving a pan-Indigenous paradigm to restore our relationships to each other and our planet.

Meet Celine Semaan and Slow Factory - an NGO on mission to restore balance for humans and nature.

Slow Factory's mission is to restore balance for humans and nature through systemic regenerative design, open education and strategic narrative change. Over 23,000 students from 46 countries participate in their equity-focused education programs. The majority of students, collaborators, program beneficiaries and voices centered are visible minorities and over 85% self-identify as women. 

Furthermore, Céline founded The Library, a non-profit increasing sustainable literacy within the fashion industry. On top of that, she also works with the MIT Media Lab and often pens powerful pieces for outlets such as The Cut and Elle Magazine. But more than this, Semaan is a thoughtful person who cares deeply about the planet and its hazy future, working tirelessly to bring lasting change so that we can provide for our children and our earth. This sense of interconnectedness and interdependence is at the core of everything that Céline does; as she told RIPOSTE, “Interdependence is how nature works, we are all dependent on one another. A colonial mindset is to silo everything and everyone. It’s to segment and master one piece of the puzzle without understanding the whole picture. Eastern philosophies and ancient wisdom understand the importance of interconnectedness, but this has been lost from the modern Western way of thinking.” Being uprooted, and treated as the “other”, speaking multiple languages, code switching, being her parents’s translator and everyone else’s interpreter or ambassador has given her the global perspective of a universal diplomat—one that negotiated between East and West in order to address equality, justice and peace. 

Meet Celine Semaan and Slow Factory - an NGO on mission to restore balance for humans and nature.

When you look around at our increasingly atomised society, it’s not hard to see why this interconnected approach to life isn’t the majority mindset. The colonial strategy of divide and rule that has been in place for centuries has left deep scars and distrust. It has created wars, hostile borders and violent government policies. It has meant that food and fuel supplies are precarious essentially because of logistics, fear and greed. This siloed way of being is also replicated across the technology we use that was initially meant to bring us all together. When Céline was asked what is stopping us from adopting a more globally connected mindset, she explained to RIPOSTE that “Colonialism is the problem, capitalism is the problem, white supremacy is the problem. We’re up against a narrative that a lot of people believe to be the truth. To counter that and to create a paradigm shift, we’re working hard at Slow Factory to offer a new way of thinking.” This is difficult when faced with the monopoly tech, and media companies have on the information we consume today. Céline continues, “It’s hard, you know?! This current narrative of the way things have to be is communicated through the newspapers you read, it’s on the TV shows and news you watch, it’s in the selected books you have time to read, the social media you mindlessly scroll through—so we’re all brainwashed, and we don’t even know it. We don’t even have the luxury of time to notice it because we’re too busy working jobs to pay our rent and bills.”

This sense of ownership over the public eye comes from a very entitled position, and one Céline pushes back on wholeheartedly; as she is sure that in society, there is a way to compensate for your inaction, because whatever you cannot do, you project onto another human to do it for you: “[...] then becomes the role of the activist, the advocate; they become the scapegoat for whatever you can’t do personally. These figures are built up to be saints and become honourable. As this saint, you’re expected to sacrifice on behalf of everyone else; sacrifice your funds, your peace of mind, your life. You’re not allowed to work with the big brands, you can’t eat meat, you can’t travel, but everyone else can”, she told RIPOSTE. This intention to martyr those who take active roles in society through social networks it’s an illusion, and it’s extremely patriarchal and colonial. No one is a saint but a human being, and some of us have chosen to stretch ourselves continually beyond our comfort levels, attending to the consequences that may have.

But this young woman has compassion. She isn’t interested in creating a culture of shame; she quotes Bell Hooks, who said, “Shaming is one of the deepest tools of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy because shame produces trauma and trauma often produces paralysis.” Céline gets it; she herself has to live within this same structure and narrative. She has bills to pay and a finite amount of time. To counter this, Slow Factory offers an incredible programme of open education workshops, seminars, and lectures to catalog lost knowledge and re-educate a new generation of people. Free and accessible to all, you can sign up to classes on land and indigenous politics, indigenous agriculture, regenerative design and radical futurism, and that’s just the A/W 21 programme. You can dive back into lessons on anti-colonial issues, culture, history, manufacturing, labor and racial justice. 

Basically, everything that, as Slow Factory’s tagline suggests, “What school won’t teach you”.

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