Categories
Feminist Practices

At Home With Your Values

A fourth pig? Photo by Jeff Wasserman

Amid the cookie-cutter suburbs and glassy condos in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), a handful of buildings proudly stand out for Melinda Zytaruk and the passion her company poured into creating them.

There’s the second-storey addition on a downtown family home insulated with straw bales sourced from a southern Ontario farmer and made from the stalks of wheat, which stores more carbon than is required to grow it. In the east end, a basement and kitchen renovation built with concrete containing 60 percent less CO2 emissions than conventional concrete. On the outskirts of the GTA, in Caledon, Ont., an old horse barn turned into a brewery using various recycled materials.

These are all projects completed by Zytaruk and her team at the Ontario-based sustainable construction company, Fourth Pig. “You’ve heard the story of the three little pigs? We’re telling the story of the fourth pig,” says Zytaruk, the company’s general manager who is also a certified builder, registered designer, and environmental expert. The famed children’s tale, she explains, doesn’t actually end with the pigs who built their houses out of straw, sticks, and bricks. There was another pig who proposed they work together, combine all their materials and concepts, and create a healthier more environmentally sustainable house. That’s what the Fourth Pig is all about: building new possibilities.

Melida Zytaruk, Co-Owner and General Manager, Fourth Pig

Zytaruk and Glen Byrom (who are married) along with Matthew Adams and Sally Miller (also spouses) formed Fourth Pig back in 2007 after realizing how few green construction companies there were in Canada even though, according to recent data, residential, commercial, and industrial buildings accounted for 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Adams, who is now the director of operations and education, referred to conventional buildings as a “climate change catastrophe” and that Canada needed significant change in the construction industry to meet reduction targets.

Fourth Pig set out to be part of that change, promoting sustainable construction practices by hosting talks on green building and hands-on skill-building workshops, and by creating greener, cleaner, and healthier buildings in communities in the GTA, the Golden Horseshoe, and Muskoka areas of Ontario.

Says Adams: “Sustainable building means a cleaner environment, more efficient energy generation and use, more effective use of building materials, and healthier living spaces.” For instance, traditional building materials release high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that have been linked to headaches and skin irritations. Fourth Pig uses eco-friendly adhesives with zero VOCs. Constructing an eco-friendly building doesn’t necessarily cost more than conventional structures, but going “green” typically lowers operational costs, such as energy usage. “The result is buildings that are good for the planet and good for your health,” says Adams.

But Fourth Pig’s goal wasn’t just to use healthier materials and reduce a project’s carbon footprint. Committing to building sustainably required rethinking how people work within the business, explains Zytaruk. “Can you protect the environment and still exploit people? Is that even compatible?” Short answer: No. That’s why the founders set up their business as a non-profit worker co-operative, to ensure all worker-owners participate equally in the decision-making and direction of the company.

At the time, the business structure was not well understood by financial institutions, so rather than loans, the founders sought private investment to start their business. Says Adams, “Any startup is going to face strong scrutiny from a lending agent so at that time being a non-profit worker co-op (very rare) was one more challenge.” He adds that they have since received support from government and not-for-profit grants and wage subsidy youth placement programs.

Employees can become worker-owners after completing two years and 2,500 hours with the company. Applicants must also comply with the International Co-operative Alliance’s values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. Once approved, all worker-owners have an equal role in governing Fourth Pig. Currently, all six current worker-owners sit on the board, which meets monthly. Whether a lead carpenter or an operations manager, each has an equal vote, says Zytaruk.

She admits that involving so many people in decision-making can mean there is “more process” than in a conventional business. However, she feels that approaching challenges as a team is why co-ops are so resilient in times of crisis—such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.

In accordance with public health guidelines, Fourth Pig ceased on-site work on April 9 until at least May 4. As with most businesses, that has meant lost income. But in the true spirit of a co-op, Zytaruk says, “The whole company is involved in discussions about how we get through this, whether they’re a carpenter or manager.”

The worker co-op structure and the company’s commitment to sustainability and equality attracted M-C MacPhee to join the company last year. She remembers reading through the company’s policies and procedures and being impressed by its carefully considered zero-tolerance policy for workplace violence and harassment such as bullying or jokes that are degrading or offensive. MacPhee has worked in the industry “on and off” for a decade, usually for larger companies where women comprised a miniscule minority of the labour force. Though she can hold her own, the 39-year-old said she actively sought to work apart from the rest of the crew at job sites, to avoid their sexist banter. That type of behaviour is not tolerated at Fourth Pig.

“There’s just a commitment at the Pig to always do better, to talk things out, to make sure communication is really clear, everyone’s really comfortable, everything is going well, and people are having a really good work experience day to day,” says MacPhee.

That commitment extends to Fourth Pig’s “fairly flat” pay structure. According to Zytaruk, entry-level positions earn a living wage, rather than minimum wage, and managerial positions, while still competitive, are not as high-paying as in other companies. “Nobody earns more than two and a half times what the lowest wage person would be.”

Beyond creating a more equitable structure internally, Fourth Pig also prioritizes education—another reason the company appealed to MacPhee, who teaches construction at Georgian College. Fourth Pig provides training opportunities for employees and hosts hands-on presentations for the public on worker co-ops and sustainable construction as well as raising awareness with public policy-makers on the importance of sustainable building.

MacPhee, who joined as a carpenter, is now a site supervisor. She says there’s a strong team commitment to the company’s mission to build greener and also to “help each other learn in whatever capacity we can.”

That goes for the founding owners, according to Zytaruk, who says the company is constantly striving to improve, utilizing new tools and approaches to creating healthier buildings, communities, and work teams. “We’re always trying to learn and do better every day,” says Zytaruk.

Since all companies are mandated to have policies on workplace violence and harassment, MacPhee wanted to emphasize that what stood out to her was that this one seemed to be thoughtfully written compared to others that seem cookie-cutter and just there to fulfill requirements

This was a specific company so don’t want to generalize

Categories
Activism & Action

Time to Power Up

Arezoo Najibzadeh, Co-founder, Young Women’s Leadership Network. Photo by Natalie Dolan

Arezoo Najibzadeh was only 23 when she was asked to share her insights before a Status of Women Committee investigating why women continue to be under-represented at all levels of government, despite increased participation. Even at that young age, the co-founder of the Young Women’s Leadership Network (YWLN) had been involved in politics for nearly a decade, and she kept hearing the same question, “Why aren’t women getting involved in politics?” But during that meeting, she realized the question should be, “Why aren’t women staying in politics?”

The committee’s final report offered a few answers: bullying, harassment, discrimination, biased media treatment, and lower rates of campaign funding.

“I’ve always been one to stand up and ask a question that makes everybody gasp,” says Najibzadeh, who says she experienced everything from sexist comments to sexual assault while working with various political parties. Now 24, she says YWLN offers the kind of help she wished she had then. “It would’ve made a huge impact on my life if I had it when I was 18 or 19, what I’m now providing for other people.”

The non-profit helps women and non-binary folks learn how to effectively engage as civic leaders in their communities and develop the political skills and support they need to compete—as well as reverse these grim statistics: The 2019 Canadian federal election saw more women elected to Parliament than ever before (98 in total), yet women still make up only 29 percent of federal members of Parliament. There are no women premiers in Canada and only one-fifth of Canadian mayors are women.

Ultimately, YWLN tries to help find answers to this question: what does it really take for us to put our names forward on a ballot or lead within our community? Its approach to doing so is anti-oppressive, intersectional, trans-inclusive, and feminist. Programs are free and open to everyone, while facilitators and speakers are paid for their time.

Young Women Leadership Network (YWLN) group photo by Ricky Pang

YWLN’s programming includes Framing Our Future workshops and events, which have included high-profile speakers such as former MPs Olivia Chow and Celina Caesar-Chavannes; and Chai Chats, which are more intimate conversations designed to provide community care for Black, Indigenous, and racialized women, and non-binary leaders.

In one Chai Chat session, climate-justice activist and community organizer Diana Yoon, who is Korean, queer, and a renter in Toronto, addressed questions like this: What does it look like when folks have to make difficult choices like quitting your job or taking unpaid leave to run for office when you don’t have a financial safety net? How do these different aspects of identity influence how you are treated when you become a candidate?

Riham Abu Affan discovered YWLN when she wanted to learn about policy-making and the Canadian political system but in a community group she could relate to. After seeing photos of YWLN’s events and reading the mission statement, Abu Affan says it felt like a space for her. In other professional and social settings, she says she unconsciously “dilutes” aspects of her identity—she is Sudanese and Moroccan, grew up in the United Arab Emirates before immigrating to Canada—but YWLN workshops and events became places she could go “as I am and still be able to follow a mission and work toward the cause.”

The first event Abu Affan attended didn’t have an immediately obvious connection to the political system—digital security—but it’s a pressing concern for women in leadership. Former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne faced virulent sexist and homophobic online comments while former Alberta premier Rachel Notley was the target of insulting tweets and even death threats. Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen said in the Status of Women Report, “Any woman who has political aspirations that spends 10 minutes on Twitter following their female mentors may be simply afraid to run.”

YWLN wanted to address that fear by arming participants with the tools they need to protect themselves online. At the Digital Security 101 workshop, Digital Justice Lab director, Nasma Ahmed, taught Abu Affan how to protect her IP address while using a proxy server, how to turn off location settings, and how to keep passwords secure. “It’s nice to have an organization that caters to the things that we’re shy of saying we need,” says Abu Affan who, a year after joining, at the age of 22, found herself leading marketing and social media for a digital health startup in Toronto. She says YWLN played a significant role in helping her develop the confidence and leadership skills to take on that role.

To support intersectional women and non-binary individuals, YWLN developed an advisory council comprised of 11 active members who bring insight from diverse identities, experiences, and communities that YWLN is trying to engage in its work. Najibzadeh says it also enables different communities to “share ownership of the organization.”

At YWLN events, Abu Affan says she meets and hears perspectives from people of different backgrounds and gender orientations, a degree of diversity she hasn’t experienced in her other professional and academic spaces. “When we see the impact we [young women leaders] can make when we show up as we are, a ‘default mode’ I guess, you feel unstoppable,” says Abu Affan.

Through this group, Najibzadeh discovered the importance of developing relationships and trust with existing community leaders. “It’s a lot of learning and unlearning as we move forward,” she says.

Research is also a critical component of YWLN’s work. One study in 2018—“It’s Time: Addressing Sexual Violence in Civic Institutions”—surveyed 60 women politicians in Ontario and found that 80 percent of them either decreased their involvement or left politics altogether because of sexual violence they experienced.

YWLN provides a “direct line” survivors can call to speak to someone who understands the political spaces individuals need to navigate, whether as a campaign volunteer, staffer, or politician. To date, YWLN has offered around 120 survivors more than 250 hours of active listening and support. Najibzadeh says when she speaks to these women, sometimes their situation is so familiar that she’s able to complete their sentences.

It’s the importance of that work that keeps Najibzadeh going. She co-founded YWLN in 2017 (with Yasmin Rajabi who has since left the organization) and, after leaving Ryerson University in 2018, moved in with her parents so she could work on it full-time without pay. “It’s hard,” she says, but, “This is my livelihood, it’s something that is crucial.”

Initially, YWLN was funded by a two-year grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and, in 2018, received additional support from the Laidlaw Foundation, as well as in-kind resources from other organizations. With that funding now ending, YWLN, which is based out of Toronto’s Make Lemonade women’s co-working space, is looking for funding to support current programming as well as new programming with a greater focus on promoting community and supporting BIPOC leaders through Chai Chats in Toronto and Ottawa as well as addressing other under-reported barriers to political inclusion. Figuring out how to make the organization financially sustainable is key. “It’s hard to find people that want to put their money behind missions or movements that are challenging the status quo in a very big and very daring way,” says Abu Affan.

But Najibzadeh says it’s that work that makes them press on. “When you know you’re in the right, and you know you’re asking the right questions, there is no doubt that you should continue doing the work,” she says. “No one can stop you.”


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Categories
Activism & Action Feminist Practices

Homelessness: There’s An App For That

CG Chen, founder of Ample Labs (Photo: David Dines)

Working as a user experience designer at a tech company, CG Chen had done co-design workshops before, but this one was different. Around a dozen young people crowded into a small room at Sherbourne Health Centre in downtown Toronto, to share their experiences with homelessness. They appeared to be  between 16 and 30, identified as LGBTQ2IA, and participated in the health centre’s Supporting Our Youth (SOY) program that promotes wellness for at-risk youth. That day, they didn’t come seeking support, but to lend a hand—and to share their experiences so that Chen’s non-profit startup, Ample Labs, could improve an app to access services for the homeless.

Creating a trusting atmosphere for the youth living on the street took conscious effort. Chen met with SOY staff multiple times in advance to ensure the workshop was a safe space, anti-racist, and anti-oppressive. Then Chen got creative, handing out writing and craft supplies to those gathered around a large table, so they could express themselves authentically and on their terms.

They came from different backgrounds—some had lived in Canada for years, others had recently arrived as refugees—but they all shared a key concern when looking for a place to spend the night: safety. The participants told horror stories of ending up in shelters that weren’t LGBTQ2A friendly—and experiencing violence and trauma as a result.

During this co-design session and many others, Chen and her team of volunteers at Amble Labs also discovered that many initially facing homelessness turned to Google for help as they were often too ashamed to seek out in-person resources. But the Google results that came up were not very helpful. That was one of the main frustrations people in the sessions expressed—service agencies don’t actually involve or listen to the concerns of individuals experiencing homelessness.

Says Chen of Ample Labs’ venture to change that: “We bring the people that we build this product for into our process as much as possible so they’re part of building the solution with us.”

The result? Chen and her team learned that Toronto’s homeless population has high concentrations of people identifying as refugees, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour), and/or LGBTQI2A (particularly youth). So Ample Labs decided to focus on creating solutions for individuals between the ages of 16 and 35 who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness and come from diverse identities and situations. One of their first creations was ChalmersBot, a free web-based chat-bot that provides location-based information. You enter what you need—a warm meal, clothing, shelter—and ChalmersBot suggests a nearby resource. After what they learned at the SOY workshop, Chen and her team added a filter to ChalmersBot to identify resources that are LGBTQI2A friendly.

Chen describes working intentionally and directly in a co-design fashion with the homeless community as a feminist approach. The goal is to understand what the homeless need and empower them to contribute to solutions, so services created are actually used by the community. “It’s easy to identify as a feminist organization because with the app and in everything we do, we are trying to promote equality in this community that often times struggles with inequality.”

Could a Sandwich Start a Revolution?

Chen, now 27, can trace the start of her journey to a sandwich. While studying graphic design at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), she had to pass by people living on the streets of downtown Toronto—and eventually found she could no longer look away. So Chen gathered some friends and started distributing food to the homeless.

A sandwich often led to conversation—and a new perspective. “I think a lot of us really wanted to understand how people ended up there, what they are like. Who I thought the homeless were was turned upside down because I met previous entrepreneurs and really wealthy people who, through a series of unfortunate events, ended up on the streets.” For instance, a highly educated doctor who wound up homeless after going through a rough divorce.

Chen started seeing homelessness in a new light—a difficult situation that can happen to people of all backgrounds. That realization hit home in 2019 when Chen’s own mother experienced homelessness after a surgery made it difficult for her to find work. “If it was your family, how would you look at things? How would you treat that person you see on the street if she was your mom?” Chen asked in a blog post.

For her undergrad thesis, Chen explored how to use design and technology to help the homeless, redesigning a list of City of Toronto resources into a user-friendly website. She took a tech job after graduation, but a trip to Los Angeles reignited her passion for helping people struggling with homelessness. During a visit to LA’s notorious Skid Row, an area of downtown with a high concentration of homeless individuals, she met a woman teaching computer skills, such as how to craft a resume, to people on the street. What struck Chen? While residents of Skid Row lacked a permanent home, they often had cellphones or access to technology. (In a survey of 421 homeless individuals, 94 percent of respondents said they owned a phone and used it as an essential tool for communication.)

That trip helped Chen envision an opportunity to combine her skills in tech and her passion for helping the homeless. As she had done with her sandwich runs, Chen gathered a group of friends to reach out to the homeless community in Toronto and learn more about their needs.

Simon Bunyi was part of the Ample Labs team when he found himself in the same situation as people they were trying to help. He was laid off from a Fortune 500 company and later evicted from his apartment; this is statistically the most common reason individuals end up homeless in Toronto. Those were his “darkest days,” he says, looking back. “It made me think more about how I interact with people.”

Bunyi had been living in an area of Toronto with a high concentration of people living on the street. He came to realize that the only thing separating himself from them was a regular paycheque. When that disappeared, Bunyi reached out to Chen and Ample Labs to help him navigate the complex network of websites and resources for help. They thought it would be simpler if there were an app for this. And that was the beginning of ChalmersBot. (Watch the full story below.)

So, More Apps for That?

Chen never intended Ample Labs to be more than a side project, but after the beta launch in November 2018, the team of 20 to 30 volunteers realized the service had tremendous potential to help the estimated 235,000 Canadians who will experience homelessness. In the past, that population largely comprised of older, single men, but according to the study, Canada has seen a rise of women and youth ending up on the street. With its ability to tailor resources to specific demographics, ChalmersBot generated attention. Ample Labs raised money from a crowdfunding campaign, grants and corporate sponsors (including TD, Google, and Twitter) and found a home in Ryerson University’s Social Venture Zone. The goal is to generate additional, sustaining revenue selling ChalmersBot services to cities. Barrie, Ont., was the first to buy in. Numerous other cities in Canada and the US have shown interest.

Ample Labs now has 8,000 unique users in Toronto and multiple contractors, prompting Chen to quit her job as a UX designer and become Ample Labs’ first full-time employee. She’s recently hired a second employee and plans to continue expanding the team in 2020. Though the non-profit is experiencing exciting and rapid growth, the culture and core values of Ample Labs remain the same.

“Internally, we’ve built a culture of always learning from each other and making sure it’s diverse voices that are teaching the rest of us,” says Chen. “We want to build something with people, not for people.”


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