Zoë Yunker Q&A

Meet Zoë Yunker, The Narwhal’s inaugural intern

With a passion for journalism, the natural world and the climate impacts of pensions, Zoë is getting along swimmingly with our pod

Internships are a vital part of any journalist’s career. Just like you can’t learn how to fly a plane in a simulator, you can’t learn how to produce journalism in a classroom.

At The Narwhal, we feel a strong sense of moral and professional responsibility to help train the next generation of journalists. It’s also an honour and a privilege. That’s why we’re thrilled to welcome our very first intern, Zoë Yunker, to our pod.

Zoë, a master’s of journalism student at the University of British Columbia, started last week, just in time to join our second birthday party. Unfortunately, while we were celebrating on Zoom with silly dances and toasts to our generous donors, other media outlets were cancelling internships and laying off thousands of journalists due to the trickle-down effects of the pandemic.

It’s clear the traditional media model isn’t working and we need innovative people with fresh ideas to help us make the transition to sustainable models of journalism. After working with Zoë for a week, we’re confident she’s one of them. Not only did she nail her first assignment, an interview with our founders, and submit it before deadline (who does that?), she also impressed us with her insight into the media industry, her knowledge of the climate impacts of pension funds (a passion of hers) and her ability to slow down and appreciate the little things.

Why did you want to become a journalist?

About midway through high school, I started getting glimpses into the fact that everything isn’t right with the world. I was starting to get the download about climate change, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were happening, which was really shaking up my ideas of justice. I decided I wanted to do something about these multiple intersecting challenges I was starting to see by becoming a journalist. 

I’m just circling back to that dream after going to university and working on climate and environmental politics through research. I was really enjoying my research work, but I wanted to be interacting with people more — one of my favourite things to do is have a conversation that expands my view of the world.

The kicker that ultimately led me to journalism was that I was getting increasingly concerned about the polarization of our public discourse. I started to become quite enamoured with journalists who are beautiful storytellers and can talk about issues in ways that bring out the common denominators of our shared experience. I think that skill is essential to breaking down some of these silos, and I really wanted to learn how to do that. 

Why did you want to do your internship with The Narwhal? 

It’s funny: as soon as I started journalism school, they asked us where we might like to intern and I was like, “The Narwhal.” I knew immediately.

First of all, I care deeply about the issues The Narwhal covers. I also think the journalists are incredible storytellers. When I read Narwhal articles, I feel like I’m having a conversation with the people who are featured. You also write about issues in a way that doesn’t try to smooth over complexity or nuance. I appreciate and value these skills a lot, and I wanted to learn from these journalists.

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What sparked your interest in the natural world?

When I was five years old, my family moved from Vancouver to the Sunshine Coast — a small coastal community a short ferry ride from the city. I remember suddenly being surrounded by so much nature. I spent my first year living there mapping out all of the trees and plants on our property and getting a sense of when they would bloom. I remember this beautiful mock orange that would make our entire property smell incredible. I was an only child and pretty quiet and introspective, so I spent a lot of time with those plants. I started associating having a familiarity with the nature around me as feeling at home. I still feel that.  

Then when I moved to Vancouver Island after high school, I started going on trips to old-growth forests. Those giant trees would dwarf me but make me feel like I was part of a bigger ecosystem. At the same time, I was learning how precarious that ecosystem is. The injustice of that spurred me to get involved in environmental work.

What gets you so jazzed about the climate impacts of pension capital?

In Canada, our pensions are larger than our annual GDP, meaning that they hold over $2 trillion. They’re major building blocks in our economy. They’re also heavily invested in fossil fuels, both in terms of company shares and in fossil fuel projects like pipelines. Pension capital is part of what’s keeping the fossil fuel industry afloat. It’s such an irony because we’re paying into pensions to make our futures more secure and yet the things that our pensions are investing in are endangering our futures. I think this is happening because the financial sector is so opaque. It’s almost by design: in Canada, you can’t see what most public pensions are invested in. I think there’s a potential to galvanize people to take ownership of their pensions and use that huge amount of capital to invest in the energy transition. I see a lot of challenges, but also a lot of potential opportunities in our pension funds. 

What do you think — or hope! — the future of journalism holds? 

I think and hope that there’s a growing appetite for journalism that’s complex and nuanced and that doesn’t talk down to its readers. I also think and hope that there’s an increased awareness and acknowledgement that we need to support that journalism both through sharing it on social media and also financially through reader support. The Narwhal model is really exciting because it suggests that when you do the stuff that people want, people are willing to support it. 

I see a lot of really hopeful signs that things are changing in the right ways, but I am also very concerned about the consolidation of news, the loss of local news outlets and mass layoffs, especially in the wake of the pandemic. I think we’re on that razor’s edge of wonderful things happening in unprecedented ways and really concerning things happening. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to look.

Journalism can be a stressful business. What do you do to relax? 

I’ve been practising Ashtanga yoga for 13 years, and I’ve taught it on and off, so that’s a big part of my life. Getting out of my head and getting into my breath and being in my body is a really invaluable thing to do on a daily basis. 

Since the pandemic, I’ve rediscovered just going for walks without listening to music. I’ve been getting a sense of my neighbourhood, enjoying all the flowers and the plants and the smells and getting in touch with that sensory experience. I always find that I’m in a better mood when I come back.

Raina Delisle is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, B.C., with a special interest in the environment, health and culture.…

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