Heshan Berents-Weeramuni is the Communications Director for Corporate Accountability, a non-profit organization that fights corporate abuse and protects our democracy, human rights, and planet. In this interview, we discuss how he became interested in advocacy, what barriers there are to social change, and why he believes in people power.
Carter Teng: How did your upbringing shape your interests now?
Heshan Berents-Weeramuni: I came from a family that’s been very involved in social organizing and social justice issues. My parents were very conscious of social justice right from the get-go, so they imbued those values in me. It’s been something that I’ve always sort ofexperienced.
I was also an immigrant twice, which has given me an interesting perspective. You’re in one world with whatever level of privilege – or lack thereof. Then you move to another world, and it’s completely different. Because you remember what your life used to be like and what you don’t have anymore, it fundamentally allows you to question what for many people perhaps may not be revealed. Suddenly, very basic, fundamental things change so you become aware of people’s place in the world and how people move in it.
I was born in Sri Lanka and I moved to England when I was eight. I didn’t know any English. It was interesting to go from one very different life to the life of an immigrant, where your economic conditions completely change. That changes you and focuses you in some interesting ways.
CT: What led you into corporate accountability work?
HBW: I’ve always been concerned about corporate power since I was a teenager. I’ve always come to terms with the fact that there are certain spaces that you as a citizen just don’t get into. There are decisions made because there’s so much money on the line that ordinary citizens don’t have access to their own democratic institutions. That’s been something I’ve been very concerned about for decades now. It’s coming from my own personal history of colonialism, as well as our world’s legacy of colonialism and imperialism. It’s the same thing – just more polite and a lot less transparent. It’s a privatized form of colonialism. Nation-states are like client states to multinational corporations. The abuses that I’ve seen aren’t being checked because nation-states are so ill-equipped to deal with transnational corporations that don’t have the concerns of answering to people.
It’s the water that we swim in without realizing what it is. Once you see that power, it’s very difficult to unsee it – and that’s how it should be.
CT: What do you think is the most effective way to mobilize apathetic populations?
HBW: I think that people are generally apathetic because there are plenty of people who feel hopeless and haven’t been given the opportunity to feel a sense of hope and accomplishment. I also think that there’s a cynicism that results from that. Enthusiasm and optimism are great disinfectants for that. It’s about communicating a shared vision of hope for the future – not in some silly, woo-woo way, but in a very concrete way. We really have to emphasize that change happens and that fundamental change is very possible. It happens at the most unexpected times.
For me, when you’re shown your own power and your own agency, that’s a really good motivator. I think people feel apathetic because they feel powerless. Just show the possibilities to them and give folks a sense of their own possibility to step into their own power. When you organize people, you give them very small steps that build and build and build. People move through it and at a certain point, they are way ahead of you. They’re doing the stuff that you haven’t even thought about doing yet because they stepped into their own power. I’m a fundamental believer in the ability of people to go and do the right thing, organize together, get inspired, and inspire everyone. It’s not pie-in-the-sky because I’ve seen it happen.
CT: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing effective advocacy?
HBW: That sense of apathy and self-defeat, for sure. There’s also the sheer power of disinformation and the fact that we live in a world that is increasingly atomized; where connections with people are mediated by – dare I say it – corporations in many ways.
Have you read Antonio Gramsci yet? Power for him operates on two levels. 10% of it is through coercion. 90% of it is through consent. People buy into the system of oppression they are born into or find themselves in. They come to accept it and internalize it because they think that’s the only world that’s possible. You can only make changes on the periphery. You have institutions that you’re supposed to take part in. You can tinker around the edges and that’s the best that you can do. I think it’s that level of not being able to see your own possibility. It’s difficult to imagine another world when the world that you know is the status quo. It’s difficult to step outside of it.
I think it’s getting less difficult because there’s been so much social upheaval that power itself is getting more desperate. Coercion is getting stronger because there is less and less consent. Our wealth disparity is so stark. It’s become so much more apparent
So it’s getting people to understand their sense of agency when they themselves willingly consent to their own forms of oppression. We consent to our own oppression without even thinking about it. You don’t want to rock the boat, you don’t want to lose friends, and you don’t want to ruin the cocktail party conversation. It’s easy.
CT: What do you think is the biggest barrier to achieving corporate responsibility?
HBW: You’re really dealing with corporations as entities, trying to get them to have a soul and take part in the public interest. From a legal perspective, it’s broadening a definition of who corporations are responsible for and what their legal obligations are. Right now, it’s in shambles. There has to be a much broader sense of that.
It’s also taking away corporate personhood so that executives are criminally and legally liable for the decisions that they make. From a legal perspective, that’s one thing. It’s also incumbent on the rest of humanity to question their authority – that corporations should not run economies, should not dictate policy, should not be the gatekeepers to our freedoms and our happiness. They are accountable – and to take a leaf out of our mission statement – they are accountable to people, not to themselves. Their actions have real consequences – not only for people, but should for them as well. They should have negative consequences. They are abusive.
CT: What does your work at Corporate Accountability entail?
HBW: Pretty much everything communications-related. There’s a very high level of campaign support and fundraising support, which are essentially one. Fundraising is campaign impact and is a part of campaigning, but you can’t have a successful fundraising campaign unless we are succeeding in our regular campaigns. That requires the communications unit to really play the part of strategically amplifying and effectively communicating the messaging we have to communicate so that we change the public climate around certain things.
My main job is to get us known in the world. My responsibility is to have us established in the audiences that we want to message to and establish us as authorities, people that are valued, and people who are serious and effective in this mission of curtailing corporate power. It’s about trying to come up with compelling messaging that is accessible and that resonates and inspires people you’re trying to communicate with, especially with particular audiences – whether they are funding networks, individual members, donors, allies, governments, or corporate targets. That’s the communications end of it. That’s our entire org ID work. That’s on our shoulders – spreading our message and making sure we’re communicating effectively.
CT: How has your time at Corporate Accountability changed your views and interests?
HBW: I’ve become a lot more biographically aware of my own journey through systems of oppression. The work we are doing in terms of our racial equity work is really interesting to me. I’ve done a lot of work in communities of color with those responsibilities but what’s been interesting for me is thinking far more systematically about the role of corporations, the role of systemic racism, and the way that they are pretty intertwined. That’s been an interesting journey for me. Unexpected, in many ways, because I get the class and economic power relationship, but then you see a whole different level of how economic oppression happens across gender lines, racial lines in addition to class lines. You see this far more up close and personal than most people get to see it and that has changed me in my perspective and appreciation of the way that power operates and the way systems of oppression operate – particularly with indigenous communities and communities of color.
That was something I would always deal with in my previous job. This is on a far more global scale, though. You can see this at the city and the state level. You see how Chevron goes and poisons people in Richmond, California. You see how they do it, how they message around it, and how they sanitize their image so that basically all those black and brown folks that they’re poisoning get erased. They don’t really get to have a voice in that. Fortunately, you see the way that we as an organization really pay attention to not letting that happen. It’s been an interesting learning experience for me, but very challenging as well. It’s challenging in the positive sense of the term.
CT: What advice do you have for those who want to work in civil society?
HBW: I’ll give my opinion and hope it works as advice too. I think it’s really bloody difficult not to despair and a fundamental sense of optimism and stability is important because it’s tough to feel that you’re not able to impact vast social issues but you can. And you should, because everyone should. You have to have a degree of blind idealism and optimism because you know that things are going to be different and you can change civil society for the better. It’s remembering that because it can be really overwhelming. It can be a depressing thing every once in a while.
It’s also realizing there is such community in the work that we do. Honestly, it’s kind of fun when you treat it also as a social exercise where you meet people and have some meaningful, deep, and lasting friendships. Once you get into this work, you meet so many like-minded people and that’s a bond for life. I still remember people I was organizing with around unionization drives in my teens and stuff like that. We still keep in touch.