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Allied Arts & Media

Free to Choose

Sonia Godding Togobo, co-founder of Sunstar Worldwide Studio. Photo from official website for the film Mr. Jane and Finch by OYA Media Group.

Sonia Godding Togobo fell in love with cinema and telling stories when she was around seven years old.

Her parents, immigrants from Guyana in South America in the ‘80s, had taken her to a Black History month event. There, she met one of the organizers who had memorabilia from throughout the Caribbean, the United States and Cuba. He was talking about the different elements of art history when he said something that has stayed with Godding Togobo ever since.

“He said, ‘Most of us want our children to be doctors, lawyers, professionals. But we need more storytellers and filmmakers,’” Godding Togobo recalls. “I didn’t know what that meant, but something about it resonated and never left me.”

Nearly three decades later, Godding Togobo and her husband, Yao “Tuggstar” Togobo, founded Sunstar Worldwide Studio in 2010, a Canadian media company with a mission to illuminate the work of Africa and its diaspora.

Godding Togobo got her start in the industry after earning a diploma in film and television from Humber College. Unlike many other students who were interested in directing or producing, however, Godding Togobo realized she had a knack for editing and focused on post production.

She landed an internship at a post-production house in Toronto then a job working on short films, music videos and documentaries at Nelvana, Canada’s premier animation company and a world-leading producer and distributor of children’s content. She worked her way up to associate editor on CBC’s A Deathly Silence, and edited a variety of programs including an hour special on the crisis in Darfur at MuchMusic, Canada’s pioneering music channel.

Wanting to engage in more serious forms of storytelling, she moved to London, U.K., and produced her first documentary, Adopted ID, about a transracially adopted Canadian who returns to Haiti in search of her biological family.

While doing the festival rounds with that doc, Godding Togobo realized she needed to start her own production company if she wanted to continue making docs – and have control over the stories she wanted to tell. “That was really what attracted me to figure out how to set up a production company.”

From left to right: Filmmakers Alison Duke, Ngardy Conteh George and Sonia Godding Togobo. Photo via the website for the film Mr. Jane and Finch.

Sunstar Worldwide is predominantly focused on post production. The team consists of two other editors, Godding Togobo, and her husband, Yao, also a spoken word poet and writer. They hire on a contract basis if a project requires more hands. Currently, most of their projects involve editing video projects for other filmmakers and storytellers and producing content for businesses, but they hope to produce their own content for broadcast down the line

When choosing projects, Godding Togobo turns to her husband and business partner to discuss the vision for the work they want to create at Sunstar Worldwide. “We have a process that we go through to figure out if it is a viable project. Is it something that we are passionate about? Is it something the market seems to want? We ask ourselves those questions on a project per project basis. I also think a lot of it is just about capacity — do we have the capacity to really push for this project?”

Godding Togobo says she looks for projects that enable her to share authentic Black experiences, especially through the stories of Black women. This is, in a way, part of navigating her own layered identities. “I have lots of different identities that I sort of touch into: I’m African, I’m Guyanese, I’m Canadian, so what does that really mean? There is a lot of history right there, so often, those are the stories that I am looking at.”

Godding Togobo believes the the time has come to explore the interconnectedness of identities given the racial reckoning the world is experiencing — and may just help address racial injustice and aid in healing. “Even when I started (the company), our stories just weren’t important. Now there seems to be a little bit more openness, and there seems to be folks who are really interested in hearing from people of colour, about their experiences … When it comes to racial injustice, I feel like my part in that is showing authentic Black representation that challenges, enlightens and brings awareness to the things that unify us, and to the Black Canadian experience.”

She was particularly proud to work on a documentary about Winston LaRose, an 80-year-old community activist in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood of Toronto who ran for political office for the first time, inspiring his racialized community with his campaign for city councilor.

Titled “Mr. Jane and Finch,” the documentary (on CBC’s Gem) was directed by Ngardy Conteh George, produced and written by Alison Duke of Oya Media Group, and edited by Godding Togobo.

Godding Togobo recently took part in Fifth Wave’s feminist accelerator program, to sharpen her focus on her work as a storyteller and business owner. “Fifth Wave was a real boost in terms of information, in terms of my network, and in terms of giving me access to best practices and how to run a production company in this particular country.”

It also gave her the space to think about the future of Sunstar Worldwide. “I am thinking a lot about what I want the next five years to look like, and the type of projects that I want to be on. I think along with COVID-19, we have had this racial reckoning that maybe would not have had the impact that it did if it was not for COVID-19.

“I am thinking a lot about the fact that now folks seem to be ready to talk about things in a new way, and I am also thinking a lot about what that means for the stories that I’m going to tell.”


Publishers Note:  Sunstar Worldwide Studio is a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner and ally. Apply here.

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Activism & Action

OECD releases report on entrepreneurship policies through a gender lens

The Global WEP team, 2018. Photo provided.

There are currently 1.2 million women entrepreneurs in Canada and there’s no stopping them.

The Trudeau government is hoping to double the number of women entrepreneurs by 2025, having spent $5 billion working towards this goal already, and announcing a $147 million top up in its 2021 budget.

Indeed, policymakers around the world are eying women entrepreneurs as an untapped economic resource and a key driver of post-pandemic economic recovery and future growth.

The question, however, is if they’re helping or hindering this growth.

Do policymakers “get” women and women-identified entrepreneurs? And are women entrepreneurs politically engaged enough to ensure the gender ball and shackles are smashed once and for all?

A new report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is shedding light on the role of policymakers and their policies on economic recovery and growth.

An intergovernmental economic organization with 38 member countries, OECD published a new report that examines how to strengthen the scope and effectiveness of entrepreneurship policies for women.

It examines both dedicated measures for women and ensuring that mainstream policies for all entrepreneurs are appropriate for women. It also highlights the “many long‑standing issues related to the scope and effectiveness of women’s entrepreneurship policies – many of which have been exacerbated by the COVID‑19 pandemic – and point the way to more effective policy.”

Image via OECD’s website.

Professor Barbara Orser from the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management co-authored and edited this report, along with  Dr. Colette Henry, Dundalk University, Ireland (Founding Chair of Global Women’s Enterprise Policy Research Group – Global WEP) and Dr. Susan Coleman, Professor Emeritus, Hartford University.

LiisBeth spoke with Orser about the process of creating the report, as well as the highlights and the recommendations made in it.

LiisBeth: Can you start by telling us more about your work in the entrepreneurship space and with the OECD?

Barbara Orser: For the last 30 years, my research portfolio is focused on entrepreneurship with a particular specialisation in women’s entrepreneurship. That includes studies in finance procurement, decision making, access to international trade and public policy.

The OECD report is a product of my role as an executive of the Global Women’s Enterprise Policy Research Group, and this is a key element of the OECD report — it’s a group of senior academic scholars with expertise in women’s entrepreneurship. We’ve worked with the OECD and we’ve worked with the 34 scholars that contributed to the report to try and craft a coherent picture of the state of women’s enterprise policy and entrepreneurship policy from a gender lens around the world.

LiisBeth: What was missing from the conversation on women’s entrepreneurship policy prior to this report and what are the gaps you’re hoping to fill through it?

Orser: It’s about building back better. That’s the mantra not only in Canada, but within the G20.

Governments are looking at measures — both policy and programs — to kickstart economies and drive innovation. Underrepresented groups, women, youth, rural, physically and differently abled people are priority issues for these economies.

When you look at the public policy domain around women’s entrepreneurship, what our report makes very clear is that it’s highly fragmented. So with entrepreneurship, by and large, most interventions are poorly funded, pilot, single efforts. They’re not integrated into a policy strategy. So that’s the first thing — policies without programs, programs without policy support.

Then there are ad hoc initiatives. One of the key observations coming out of this report to inform pandemic recovery is the need for overarching policy frameworks. Canada, in fact, is a model for that. It can always be improved, but there are very, very few economies that have that kind of overarching framework.

A second recommendation … is that when you look at the number of economies we were profiling,  most don’t report using gender disaggregated data. Then move forward to women-identified firms to be inclusive — it’s not even in the vernacular, the vocabulary of public policy.

For the readership LiisBeth … I think this report provides a litmus test of how we’re doing, and I think we’re doing reasonably well, but we can do better.

Dr. Barbara Orser

LiisBeth: What was the process of collecting the information and actually creating and editing the report?

Orser: For this project, we met in 2018, so it was a long haul — three years to get this to publication.

We met with the OECD to talk about the idea of and this is really important — [we applied an] arm’s length critical assessment. The role of the academic is to be critical at arm’s length, so there’s no vested interest per se in the author’s commentary. They’re not a lobby group. They’re not a government group. They’re academics, they’re paid to be as objective as they can.

We invited scholars and the criteria of inclusion was you’re a member of global WEP, which means you’ve been writing in the area of women’s entrepreneurship. These are folks that have established credibility as scholars within their own respective countries as well as the broader peer reviewed academic literature.

We also asked them to write on the topic of their choice. We didn’t prescribe what they had to write, which was great because then we could see what was important to the scholars around the world. From there, we aggregated the findings.

The final research went through peer academic review, an internal OECD review, and then a review by their member economies. Three years later, we finally have the report.

LiisBeth: What do you hope the public takes away from this report?

Orser: So let’s start with the women-identified entrepreneurs. In my book Feminine Capital, the final chapter looks at public policy. In it, I quote Patty green who’s worked both in academia and has run the labour office in the United States. She tells women entrepreneurs to be familiar with public policy or go out of business because public policy has a huge impact on the way we do business. So I’m hoping that entrepreneurs can take a look at this and say, what’s my provincial government doing about it? What’s my municipal government doing? Where do I see myself in this report? [I hope they] begin to pressure governments to be more supportive in terms of programs and policies for women-identified entrepreneurs.

Public policymakers can also look at this report and benchmark their policies. I don’t know to what degree the public stay up at night thinking about this, but it does present a global lens on the importance of measures and also commensurate funding and programming to support women entrepreneurs who historically have been under-supported. We know there are issues about accessibility and relevance of business support measures, so we hope that they could take this report, show it to their member of parliament and say, ‘What are you doing to support my business?’ regardless of the country.

LiisBeth: That’s great! Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Barbara!

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Allied Arts & Media

Between Worlds, Right at Home

Justine Abigail Yu, founder and editor-in-chief of Living Hyphen. Photo provided. 

Justine Abigail Yu (she/her) is the founder and editor-in-chief of Living Hyphen, a community and magazine that explores what it means to live in between cultures as a hyphenated Canadian – that is, an individual who calls Canada home but also has roots elsewhere.

On Living Hyphen’s website, Abigail writes: “From the Haitian-Quebecois commuting along the Montréal Métro to the South Asian trans man applying for permanent residency, from the young Filipino-Canadian woman texting her immigrant mother to the Plains Cree and Métis man meeting a traditional healer, this magazine reveals the rich inner lives of Canada’s diverse communities.”

Abigail recently launched the Living Hyphen podcast during the pandemic, a collection of “stories from a multitude of different storytellers across what we now know as Canada to explore this concept of “homestuck” – whatever home might be, whatever one’s relationship to their home(s) might be, and whatever being stuck can mean.”

We spoke with Abigail about the new podcast, storytelling during a pandemic, and finding community while living between worlds.

LiisBeth: What is your origin story?

Justine Abigail Yu: I am a Filipina-Canadian. I was born in Manila, Philippines and moved to Toronto, Canada when I was just four years old. I was constantly in this tug of war as I was growing up, always going back and forth between these two identities, places, and cultures I hold so dearly. That all these truths about me could exist at once is something that has always boggled my mind. And it’s something that I tried to hide or quiet when I was younger in an attempt to fit in.

It’s only as I’ve gotten older and more comfortable in my own skin and more unapologetic in exercising the power of my voice that I’ve come to realize, accept, and hold pride in the fact that I am not simply fragments and pieces of these two cultures or places. I am fully and wholly both. I am Filipina-Canadian.

LiisBeth: How did the idea for Living Hyphen come about, and what are you hoping to achieve through it?

Abigail: The seed of this idea was born in the fall of 2015 at Toronto’s Feminist Art Conference when I attended a powerhouse panel about (the lack of) diversity in Canadian literature. The panel was stacked with writers of colour with tons of experience to share about the publishing industry. I listened to these writers talk about the difficulties they faced in getting their work published, simply because their stories did not conform to the “Canadian narrative.” Either that or their stories were not “ethnic” enough.

As a writer and as a woman of colour, this deeply unsettled me. I didn’t want to have my story filtered through the lens of a homogenously white editorial board that actually has no idea what it means to live in between cultures. In that moment, I decided that I had to build my own house – by and for writers of colour. And so, the seed of Living Hyphen sprouted.

Since the launch of the inaugural issue of our print magazine in October 2018, our mission has always been to reshape the mainstream and amplify the voices that often go unheard.

Our inaugural issue featured the stories of more than 50 artists and writers from all across what we now know as Canada and who hail from more than 30+ ethnic backgrounds, religions, and Indigenous nations. We’ve since grown to include cultural programming by way of writing workshops and storytelling nights to cultivate, nurture, and mentor writers and artists who have been told for far too long that their voices don’t matter.

LiisBeth: What made you launch a podcast, and what was the process of creating the episodes like?

Abigail: Last August, I got a random email from Trisha Gregorio pitching me on the idea of turning Living Hyphen into a podcast. I didn’t know who she was. We had never met. It was a straight up cold email. But she wrote to me with such a clear vision of what she wanted to create, a deep understanding of what Living Hyphen is all about, and a confidence of her skillset and qualifications that I knew I had to at least take a meeting with her.

At the time, I had just finished reading through hundreds upon hundreds of submissions for our upcoming second issue and listening to so many incredible storytellers from our writing workshops. It would be impossible for Living Hyphen to publish them all! Print is so expensive and time-intensive. But these stories are so powerful and beautiful and important that it would be such a loss to the world not be shared.

And so Trisha’s email came at the right moment. I had been looking for new ways to share the stories that people entrust us with, and podcasting felt like a natural progression.

It’s been an interesting process working on this podcast in the time of COVID. I’ve never met Trisha (in person), but we’ve been working so closely together over the last few months – brainstorming audio formats, developing a concept for this season, curating stories, recording remotely with artists and writers all across the country and with each other, and then meticulously editing everything together! Trisha is really the mastermind behind this podcast as both co-host and producer. She has managed to capture the essence and the heart of the Living Hyphen brand and community and I am just so humbled to have her on our team.

LiisBeth: What role does podcasting play as a medium when it comes to storytelling and building community?

Abigail: For those of us in the diaspora or who have been displaced in some way – whether voluntary or forced, abroad or right here on this land – we have not always had the luxury or privilege of having our stories or histories captured across time through written texts. We are largely a people of oral traditions, and it feels so natural and authentic to tell our stories through this podcast.

As my co-host Trisha Gregorio says, “With the audio format we’re able to dial in on a different kind of intimacy. Living Hyphen has always been about the closeness and warmth of having a storytelling community to belong to, especially for those of us from underrepresented communities. So, there’s something so special about getting to hear all these stories in the podcast directly from the voices behind them, and to be able to bring these, in this form, to listeners.”

LiisBeth: What’s next for Living Hyphen?

Abigail: We’re launching our second issue this July called, “Across Generations,” which we are so excited about! It’s full of intergenerational stories of resistance and healing. We’ve also been working with Canadian Stage to develop an adaptation of some of the stories that can be found in our magazine. It’s called nowhen and it’s set to be on stage at the High Park Ampitheatre from August 5-12. Fingers crossed that lockdown restrictions will lift by then to allow for outdoor performances! We’ll also continue to deliver our many writing workshops for emerging writers.

It’s hard to believe how much we’ve already accomplished in just 2.5 years. We’ve grown and expanded in ways I never expected, and I’m just hoping to continue in this trajectory and doing what we do best – amplifying the voices of those who have all too often gone unheard.

LiisBeth: Thank you for sharing your story and your work with us.

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Rabble Roundup

Rabble Roundup: 04.29.21

In our roundup this month, we’re sharing content from Rabble that looks at different themes, ideas, and conversations that feminists are engaging in right now. As a feminist, womxn’s entrepreneurship publication, we’re interested in what the feminist movement—and the action resulting from it—looks like at the moment. Here are our top picks for Rabble content that dive into this.

The many burdens of women’s work 

In this interview, Chelsea Nash writes: “Do women benefit in the workplace from assimilating into the male-dominated culture, or from resisting it? Put another way, is it better to focus on the similarities between men and women workers, or to point out gendered differences and vocalize the ways women don’t fit — literally and figuratively — into many non-traditional workplaces?”

These are the questions that biologist and ergonomist Karen Messing tries to answer in her new book, Bent Out of Shape: Shame, Solidarity, and Women’s Bodies at Work, coming out April 5 from Between the Lines.

Investing in a feminist economic recovery

So what is a feminist recovery? 

Through a deep dive into the work of Anjum Sultana, the national director of public policy and strategic communications for YWCA, Maya Bhullar writes about how a feminist recovery plan that is multifaceted and intersectional, focusing on the diverse needs of women, two-spirit, and gender-diverse people, is the starting point of the change the needed to address those who are often marginalized, especially during the global pandemic.

Trudeau is all words and no action on male violence against women

“April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and while there has been plenty of awareness this year, there remains precious little government action on ending the scourge of male violence against women and children, both at home and globally,” Matthew Behrens writes.

Since 1961, over 10,000 women have been victims of femicide in Canada. At the same time, spokespersons for male-dominated institutions like the military and the police are increasingly using the “Trudeau-esque language of acknowledging the failures to end violence against women as the standard response for failing to do anything about it.”

Behrens says it’s easy for men to be applauded for declaring that something must be done to end male violence, but such words ring hollow amidst the dearth of accountability mechanisms and system change required to ensure transformational change.

 

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Allied Arts & Media

Full Stream Ahead

picture of black woman entrepreneur, Samah Ali, Sistserhoodmedia
Samah Ali, founder of Sisterhood Media

Samah Ali remembers being struck by a disconnect between Black creatives showing their work on social media and the near absence of racialized content on streaming platforms. The self-proclaimed “binger” spent nearly eight years streaming movies and TV series on Netflix, but still found herself hungry for satisfying content. A Somali-Canadian, she didn’t see stories relevant to her community and life.

“I was just really tired of scrolling through Netflix for hours,” she says and finding little relevant to Black folks or other racialized or Indigenous people, certainly nothing sophisticated or nuanced. “I would watch terrible movies that were being distributed because they had a Black face or brown face. At the same time, I was on social media and I just saw all of these brilliant artists that I was following.” But getting access to those stories took time and work to find and follow the artists.

Ali felt there needed to be a single digital space where audiences could access all the work of racialized artists, whether video productions, music or podcasts. And those artists could reach their communities in one place.

In 2017, Ali launched Sisterhood Media, a content production and distribution company with a streaming platform to share stories by racialized artists, from racialized communities, for racialized people.

From creating to educating

Ali says her first hurdle was raising the initial seed funding to kickstart Sisterhood Media. Producing and distributing content is expensive and she did not hail from a family that has millions “to just give for love money for a passion project or business.” She joined Western University’s Propel summer incubator and the Western accelerator program to help her get started, but she says they did not really understand what she was trying to build.  

Ali grew frustrated by investors and accelerator programs who wanted Sisterhood Media to become a tech company because it was more sexy. She saw Sisterhood Media less as a tech  company than an organization that builds community by sharing content from diverse creatives—using tech as the medium to achieve that.

Ali hired a team of three other Black creatives, and together they chose to create two separate entities under the banner of Sisterhood Media: a distribution arm and platform for streaming content called Sisterhood Media TV; and Sisterhood Media projects, which create safe spaces such as movie nights showcasing short films and connecting racialized audiences with filmmakers. A screening series called What If Media Looked Like Us? addresses representation in the media industry.

According to Ali, these spaces help racialized people and artists come together and talk about importance of their stories, as well as exchange filmmaking and digital media skills that they can’t just learn from YouTube.

“[The educational component] has been by far the best driver of our impact because not only are we getting more folks involved in the industry and [getting] people who are already involved in the industry learning new skills, but also they find out about Sisterhood Media TV and end up wanting their films distributed on our platform as well.”

Sisterhood Media TV operates on a membership basis, with a monthly membership costing $5.99 and a yearly membership $54.99. The educational component and support for racialized creatives is supported by a three-year funding grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

Raising the funding for Black creatives

One of the things Ali’s most proud of is how the organization is creating investment opportunities for racialized artists in the media industry through its partnership with Snail Mail Media, an independent production company based in Toronto. It specializes in narrative projects with a focus on diverse, commercially viable, impact-driven films for niche audiences.

That collaboration offers filmmakers early investment in their projects, from pre-development through post production as well as guaranteeing video on demand distribution on Sisterhood Media TV.

Ali wants to make it easier for young filmmakers, new filmmakers, and especially racialized filmmakers to find investment without having to go through a lengthy application process where they may be competing with thousands of other, more seasoned applicants.

“They simply have to submit their films Sisterhood Media and we’re able to look at their assets, look at their pitch deck, look at all the information that they’re offering us, and then we let them know if we want to be an early investor and offer them a pre-sale deal, or if we want to distribute other films that they’ve made in the past.”

Ali says this process of “acquiring content and pushing it out” helps create exposure for short films and web series because they may make it through festival rounds and receive exceptional acclaim, but don’t always get the distribution deal from broadcasters the way a television show might.

“It’s all about exposure, it’s all about showing content, and how people can produce these brilliant stories in these very short episodes, which need not go to some television broadcaster—it can go right to the user,” she says.

From producing to collaborating

As a feminist content production and distribution company, Sisterhood Media created a nonhierarchical structure, with a core team consisting of four members: Ali; Shewit Kalaty, who is the marketing director; Mandeq Hassan, who is responsible for programming and acquisitions; and Zenab Hassan who oversees the digital content. Ali says all four all have a say in decision making because “all our voices matter.”

The team makes decisions about the organization and direction as well as what content they choose to support. One of the main questions they ask every time they watch a movie or receive a pitch is who the audience is. They want to make sure the content they’re sharing reaches a diverse audience.

She says they ask themselves key questions. “Who is going to be brought in with this film? Who are we attracting around the world and around the entire globe? What geographical region do we think that this is going to be most applicable to?”

“What we’re trying to do is not just serve one audience—we’re trying to serve a plethora of audiences and that’s very hard to do.”

To do so, they collaborate with other BIPOC media makers, to achieve the “impact together.”

An example is a three-episode web series Somewhere In, created by Muna Dahir. Set in Scarborough, the series follows two young girls, Amina and Sara, who are going out of town to “save face” with family members. Amina’s mother trusts the two girls with money to deliver to the neighborhood auntie, but the pair get themselves into a sticky situation after losing it along the way.

Sisterhood Media co-produced the series with Badass Muslimah, a digital content creation project that launched in Toronto in 2016. It provides access to skill training through podcasting, filmmaking and web development programs for young Muslim women.

The project, says Ali, proudly, brought young creatives into the process of filmmaking. “Everybody behind the scenes is a racialized person. It was their first opportunity to be on a film set. Everybody who worked on it really saw their impact on what they can make, not only as a personal artist and a creative, but also as a team.

Mandeq Hassan, acquisitions director at Sisterhood Media (photo provided).
Shewit Kalaty, marketing director at Sisterhood Media (photo provided).
Zenab Hassan, digital content manager at Sisterhood Media (Photo provided).

From cultivating to sustaining

This year, Sisterhood Media joined the Canadian Film Centre’s (CFC) Fifth Wave accelerator, created to accelerate and sustain the growth of women-owned and led enterprises in southern Ontario’s digital media sector.

Fifth Wave is the fourth accelerator that Ali has taken part in, but she says the CFC program is unique because of the kinds of conversations it provokes, most notably what it means to build an ethical, sustainable business that puts people at the heart of all its work.

Ali says becoming a business owner was challenging as she saw capitalism as a trap. She wanted to build an organization where members are seen “as people—not as numbers, not as dollar signs.” Fifth Wave helped her meet other women entrepreneurs who share those same basic principles.

“We are focused on our clients and our people first, rather than our shareholders and the dollars that we bring in.” In Fifth Wave, she is able to connect with founders who share the same mindset and values.

Through the program, Ali wants to focus her work in 2021 on making Sisterhood Media a more sustainable enterprise.

“Last year, we were focused on cultivating. This year, we’re [focusing on] sustainability. We’re really focused on perfecting everything that we have started, and then building on it and making it better by building more partnerships and by funneling more money into filmmaker-driven programs.”

 

Racialized creatives looking for a Canadian streaming platform to share their work and distribute their films can submit their idea for consideration to Sisterhood Media here

Publishers Note:  Sisterhood Media  is a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for women in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner and ally. Apply here.

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Activism & Action Our Voices

Feminist in Law

woman in suit headshot
Darlene Tonelli, founder of Inter Alia law. Photo provided.

Darlene Tonelli founded Inter Alia Law seven years ago. The boutique firm specializes in tech, media and entertainment law. She also co-hosts Lawyer Life Podcast, which explores the personal, political and professional lives of lawyers. We spoke with Tonelli about her journey into law and feminism.

 

LiisBeth: How did you get into law?

I grew up in a small town, and am the first kid in my extended family of many, many, many, people to go to law school or any kind of professional school. I was a figure skater in my youth, which was a good training ground for competition; individual sports helped shape my discipline and sort of going after things that I was interested in doing. I went through political science at the University of Calgary (1994-1998), and most of my work there [was] on feminist issues. I wrote almost every single paper on the looming dangers of pornography to women and the movement. It wasn’t a very popular position at the time, but I certainly wish I had kept working on it because it’s now an epidemic. But it wasn’t clear then what a big thing it was going to become. When I went to law school, I just took a big corporate job to pay off my student debt.

 

LiisBeth: How did you come to create your own law firm?

I did work in a traditional law firm setting for two summers and three years. It wasn’t a structure that made sense to me for the things that I wanted to have in my life. I wanted freedom over my time—I didn’t mind working long hours, but I didn’t want to be in a position where I couldn’t call my own schedule for like 10 to 15 years, which is the model and how it works. I was also lucky to get on a file early on that was really on the wrong side of my principles. Working for a big corporate law firm, I would not be able to honour my own values all the time. You have to work on what you’re given, and that that wasn’t something that I was cool with.

I transitioned through [working] in house at a record label, which I loved. Through that experience, I realized that [I didn’t want to] work for these big organisations where I was just a cog in the wheel. [I wanted] to create my own organisation where I could really shape the culture, the people, the projects that we took on, the approach that we take. So when I started Inter Alia law, I was really just trying to make a law firm that I wanted to work at.

There are now 10 of us, and we focus very much on creating a real sustainable life of authenticity. We focus on giving clients a level of service that comes from empathy and emotional intelligence to get better results for them.

 

LiisBeth: What are some of the gaps in Canadian law that you’re trying to fill?

I think there are a couple of big issues in law, and we’re addressing two of them. One is the cost of legal services, which is very, very high. There are statistics, something like 80 per cent of people who need access to lawyers don’t have it for financial or other reasons, so we try to make our services pretty accessible.

We’re also very affordable in a range of other things, which is facilitated by the type of model we run, which is a low overhead where everyone has a predictable share of revenues. So a normal model is a partnership where you buy in and you get to work your way up the ranks, and the higher up you are, the more business you bring in, the more money you make. We definitely reward in our model; for example, high performance is something that’s rewarded, but we don’t set it up so that, if you’re not a partner, the way you make money is by oppressing other people. That’s a very standard feature of the current legal landscape.

The second thing is we’re very focused on taking an educational approach with our clients. So, we don’t talk to them like they don’t know what they’re doing and we’re the gurus; we talk to them about what their needs are, what they would like to see out of a situation. And we try to get to know them as people, to help them get a better result that actually fits with what they need. We’re sensitive to what they need in a way that I think is increasingly important, but I don’t think is yet the norm.

 

LiisBeth: How do you embed feminist practices in the work you’re doing?

I would say it’s not been by design, it’s been more by accident. We don’t, for example, define ourselves as a feminist law firm. We are five men, five women, very gender balanced. But I would say we have real allies on the team for feminism, who really support a different way of doing things and understand the challenges that we experience.

And as far as influences, just to give a little bit of a shout out to some of the stuff that LiisBeth publisher PK Mutch and feminist author CV Harquail are doing, in educating women about being part of a bigger ecosystem of entrepreneurs. I built Inter Alia on my own and then I encountered CV and PK maybe a year ago and I thought, ‘Oh, [Inter Alia] is a feminist business.’ I didn’t realize that prior to meeting them. I think there are a lot of us out here doing what we do, just understanding that things are still quite oppressive in the workforce for a lot of people. And I think that the women who are building businesses from scratch are taking a really different approach—it might not be the one that you read about a lot in the press, but we’re out here.

I also think the general feedback that you get from people in traditional business models is that feminist business is not about profit maximizing. My answer is that feminist business is profitable, but not to the exclusion of people. I don’t want to make my profit by hurting other people, and I think that a lot of women share that approach.

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