- Scottish Labour Candidate Deena Tissera on life and politics in Scotland
Politics is the watchword on everyone’s lips as we slip into our second consecutive week of peaceful protest against the economic crisis and the underlying political issues that have contributed to a crisis of this scale.
But while Sri Lankan politics is making waves globally, there has also been a Sri Lankan politician making waves of her own on foreign shores. Deena Tissera, a Sri Lankan citizen who first went to Scotland as an international student, is currently running for Scottish Government election as the Scottish Labour Candidate for the Hilton/Woodside/Stockethill ward.
To hear about someone of Sri Lankan origin running for office in a new home country where they have been born and raised after leaving Sri Lanka’s shores is bolstering enough, but in Deena’s case, she was born and raised in Sri Lanka and is still a Sri Lankan citizen who went to Scotland 10 years ago before becoming involved in politics at the university level, and, after being naturalised, went on to get involved with local Scottish politics.
Ahead of the Scottish Government elections, which take place in early May, The Sunday Morning Brunch caught up with Deena for a chat on what it’s like running for office and what being a politician is like in a country different from your birth.
Deena’s origin story
Born and bred in Sri Lanka, Deena is an alumnus of the British School in Colombo, and before moving to Scotland, was Miss Sri Lanka for Miss World 2010. She moved to Scotland in 2010 to pursue her higher studies. She attended Robert Gordon University where she attained her undergraduate degree in the field of Medical Science. Her interest in policy and social justice led her to do a Master’s Degree in Global Health and Management at the University of Aberdeen.
From a very young age, Deena’s parents inspired her to take an interest in humanitarian work, and from the age of eight, she would often accompany her late father, who was a medical doctor, on humanitarian missions to lend a helping hand to people in need in rural and deprived regions, war zones, and disaster-hit areas in Sri Lanka. Since then, Deena has worked on various public health and humanitarian projects globally including in the Northeast of Scotland.
Deena’s roots as a former beauty queen come from her mother, who is herself a former movie star and a beauty queen. As a former beauty queen turned politician, Deena aims to empower women and youth of developing countries.
Deena is currently the Vice Chairwoman of the Castlehill and Pittodrie Community Council and she has served as a local community councillor for the last four years in Aberdeen, representing her community members to the local authorities. Deena has worked on various public health projects in Aberdeen – welcoming Afghan refugees in Aberdeen, programmes tackling food poverty, working with charities to assist women victimised by domestic violence who are subjected to no recourse to public funds on their visas, and many more.
Deena sits on various steering committees and associate bodies including the London World Health Organisation, Aberdeen Centre for Health Data Science, Centre for Global Development, and Aberdeen MELA one world day – a cultural carnival and food festival that celebrates the diversity of Aberdeen.
She is also a young female entrepreneur and the founder of a higher education consultancy, working towards building partnerships between the UK and other international institutes with the aim of delivering higher education and collaboration opportunities to students across the world.
As a Sri Lankan living abroad, Deena commented on Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis and public protests, saying her heart goes out to all Sri Lankans. “My family is there, my mother, my sisters, my friends. Seeing the country in this bad state because of the complete mismanagement of the economy by the current Government is devastating for me. There needs to be transparency, accountability, and some sort of plan formulated by the Government,” she said, adding that she is closely in touch with the Sri Lankan community in Scotland as well as with Scottish and British parliamentarians to see how they can get involved in shedding light on the crisis and seeing that the Government resigns.
First steps in politics
Deena’s political awakening came in her first year of undergrad, when she got involved in student politics, ultimately becoming the Vice President of her student union. “One of the things that drove me into politics and campaigning was immigration laws that discriminated against international students,” Deena shared, taking us to the beginning of her career, “I created a UK-wide political movement as Co-Founder of the South Asian Students’ Union (I was co-founder) and managed to campaign against unfair immigration laws.”
Her introduction to the Scottish Labour Party, which she would later join in an official capacity, came through campaigning as an undergrad, and also as a postgraduate studying Global Health and Management. “In the UK, I wasn’t really sure about the political parties, but the Labour Party was the party that supported our campaigning during our undergrad, and then when I was doing my master’s degree at the University of Aberdeen, I became involved with the Labour student movement, where I got involved in organising local campaigns for parliamentary elections. I got more involved with a lot more campaigning and became a member of the party over five years ago.”
Deena’s journey since joining the Labour Party has been nothing short of remarkable. She is currently serving as the Vice Chairwoman of Aberdeen Central CLP since 2017. In 2017, Deena was one of the five women in Scotland who was chosen for the first cohort of the Jo Cox Women in Leadership programme with UK Labour. She has been trained with specialised skills that are necessary for women to take up leadership in politics and was also mentored by the former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale at the Scottish Parliament.
Deena has held positions as a member of the Selection Committee and the Local Government committee within her CLP. She has helped organise and has actively campaigned for the last eight elections, for the vision of the Labour Party and during Brexit, Westminster, Scottish Parliament, European Parliament, and local government elections.
She held and played a crucial role in the Aberdeen Central campaign in May this year, including working right across the region, has attended several party conferences as her CLP delegate, was recognised as one of Scotland’s 35 under 35 rising political stars in 2020 by the Press and Journal.
Not as easy as it looks
The cornerstones of Deena’s political practice are transparency, accountability, progressive policy, and inclusive representation, and it is on these foundations that she runs all her campaigns. “I’ve been a long-term campaigner for energy transition into renewable sources, the rights of refugees and minorities, and public health. In fact, I’m completing my PhD in Public Health,” Deena said, laughing and adding, “I know! It’s a lot!”
Addressing on if she aligns more left-wing or right-wing, Deena said, for her, the issue in question is more important than her overall political stance. “There is always a question about my political stance on an issue,” she said, “People do play divisional and factional politics, but for me, as someone who has experience on the ground working with people from different walks of life, experience in the business, and the knowledge of multiple degrees under my belt, I feel it’s important to take a political stance on an issue after taking into consideration the socio-economic, political, environmental aspects of the issue, and the context of the issue and then taking a stance backed up by evidence and the resources at hand to make the best possible decision. I always say I do not like to play factional politics. My stance depends on the issue.”
Some of the key issues Deena faces as a politician in Scotland are issues female politicians the world over face. “It’s still a man’s world, even in the Western world, so women like myself come across an intersectionality of challenges like ageism, sexism, and racism. The leadership programmes I have participated in have allowed me to build a massive network, both within the party and outside it, and with the support of my community I have managed to go forward,” Deena said, adding, “One of the biggest things I want to achieve as Scottish Executive is to ensure representation within the party and within the Government. Last year was only the first time ever that the Government elected a woman of colour here. I’m going to be working really hard to create more opportunities for representation.”
As a woman in politics, and a woman of colour in politics, Deena shared that she does face a significant amount of abuse on social media, noting that even the highest political candidates face gender-based harassment online, and she herself deals with it every day, but her not-so-secret weapon is “this beautiful button called ‘block’ that I use all the time”.
Another major challenge Deena shared she struggles with is gatekeeping, noting that even in Scottish politics, it is an issue. “Older politicians do kind of try to block you from moving further. I’ve spoken about it very openly in the media before and shared my own personal experiences where I’ve had elected members try to block my candidacy and campaigns by using tactics like paper candidates to block nominations, but these are challenges I’ve faced and overcome with strong support from my community and by not being afraid to call issues and being able to voice my challenges.”
The power of not giving up on your dreams
As a woman who has made it in politics in a country not her own, Brunch asked Deena what advice she would impart to other girls and women looking to take the plunge and go into politics, whether back home in Sri Lanka or anywhere else in the world.
“When I started my journey, people thought my dream was a joke – I had come here as an international student and I was told to be realistic and get a real job,” Deena recalled, “I think, for, me, the number one piece of advice would be normalising that your dreams are real dreams that are achievable. One of the things I want to tell young women and girls is to not be afraid to dream and work towards your goals. Don’t let other people’s words and limited mindsets or beliefs impose any implications and restrictions on your dreams. Go after what you need, believe in it, have mentors, reach out to people, get the support you need, and you will see your dream become reality.”