Categories
Feminist Practices

When Great Granny Inspires Great Work

Gurbeen Bhasin, Founder of Aangen, at work. Aangen celebrated it’s 20th anniversary, March 2020. Photo by Zlatco Cetinic

Gurbeen Bhasin grew up hearing stories of her great grandmother’s aangen (Sanskrit for courtyard) in Bombay, India. Traditionally, mothers and grandmothers gathered in this section of an Indian household to pickle foods, organize religious get-togethers and weddings, enjoy tea, and gossip with neighbours. The aangen became the site of a Wednesday morning tradition: She welcomed neighbours—irrespective of caste, class, or religion—which developed into a sisterhood community sharing joys and sorrows and helping each other solve domestic issues.

Bhasin’s grandmother continued the tradition when the family moved to Iran, as did her mother when the family fled to Canada after the Iranian revolution in 1979 when Bhasin was just eight. Gatherings in the family’s Toronto condo became help sessions for immigrant women in need. That planted the seed for what would become Bhasin’s Aangen, a unique non-profit social enterprise that employs 44 staff and at-risk people in four income-stream businesses. It also runs a community kitchen that prepares meals for several homeless shelters and helps impoverished kids attend school in Nigeria.

It’s an aangen on a grand scale, infused with “the soul of my great grandmother,” as Bhasin puts it, and a balm to her own childhood experience of losing nearly everything and being torn from her home, family, friends, and sense of belonging in her birth country of Iran.

Bhasin, who turned 50 this year, recently held an anniversary bash to celebrate opening Aangen’s doors 20 years ago, which is headquartered in a three-storey detached house on Dovercourt Road in the west end of downtown Toronto. She and her partner live on the second storey of the house with their son, who begins training to be a chef at George Brown College this fall.

From the start, Bhasin’s mission was clear: to be a non-profit that supported community needs but would do so through social enterprises rather than relying on grants.

Her “aha” moment came when she was interning in the University of Michigan’s Department of Social Services after completing a master’s in social work there. As a student, Gurbeen volunteered serving meals to the homeless, which re-ignited her passion to help others in need. While reviewing grant applications, she would often find herself calling applicants to advise them about including certain buzzwords that might help them win funding. Why did viable community projects have to beg and bend to political protocols in order to do good work? To Bhasin, that defied logic. “Social work is meant to serve the community. It’s not about writing grants, which is like wasted energy in creating systems of dependency that are not going to last,” she says.

Left to Right: Gurbeen Bhasin.  Names two colleagues pictured are being witheld to ensure their protection and ongoing healing. Photo by Zlatco Cetinic

By contrast, Aangen generates a sustainable, ongoing income stream by running an eclectic mix of businesses. One, started by Bhasin’s mother in the early 2000s, sells tea to health professionals and retail outlets. Another buys butter, eggs, honey, and maple syrup from Ontario farmers within 100 kilometres and resells them to two dozen cafes and local restaurants. Aangen also offers wellness and communications workshops for a fee, and the revenues in turn funds Aangen’s community service work. Its Chance for Change program is a residential and commercial cleaning service that employs refugees and people struggling with mental illness, homelessness, and addiction. When a staffing firm asked her to handle their payroll, Bhasin added that service to the mix.

“I call us the land for misfit toys,” jokes Bhasin. “That’s what we are, starting with me. I do not fit in anything else. Everyone came to us for a reason and we all kind of don’t fit in a bank or a retail store. We’re like dropouts.”

Revenue generated from each business pays Aangen’s administration, overhead, and staffing costs. Any donations made to Aangen go directly to supporting its end users, for example, by paying rent, utility bills or groceries for recipients in its Families in Need program.

Like so many of Aangen’s endeavours, that kitchen came about in response to a cry for help. During an extreme cold spell in the winter of 2018, a downtown social services agency contacted Bhasin with a desperate request. “They had 300 homeless people and they needed food. The moment I heard people were hungry, I sprang into action,” says Bhasin. She immediately reached out to Toronto Deputy Mayor Ana Bailão, one of the many ardent supporters of Aangen’s work. Bailão offered up space once used to cook food by Parkdale Public Health, which had been shuttered by Premier Doug Ford’s budget cuts. Since then, Aangen has been running a commercial kitchen from the rent-free space, where it prepares meals for Toronto’s homeless.  In the two-yer period from January 2018 to December 2020, it served half a million meals.

With so many different ventures, Bhasin realized she needed her own aangen of problem solvers and supporters, so she put together a unique governance model by operating two types of boards: a board of directors with authority to oversee the non-profit community kitchen (which includes the power to remove the executive director), and an advisory board for the income-stream social enterprise.

Each member on the social enterprise advisory board, which now consists of eight members chosen by Bhasin and her executive team, brings experience, knowledge, and contacts from a broad spectrum of networks within the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and internationally. They share Bhasin’s passion for food security and community welfare while adding specialized expertise. “I have actively sought skills that I don’t have. I don’t have a business background. I don’t have a legal background. I don’t have a financial background. But I know more about social work and social enterprise than any one of them. It’s really a supportive role that the board plays rather than a punitive one,” she says.

Aangen’s integrated board meets periodically in person and online to discuss ongoing and upcoming projects, which can be diverse. “Because we do not depend on grant funding, we have the flexibility to evolve in a way that’s not typical to the [non-profit] sector,” says Bhasin.

Dr. Sairupa Krishnamurti, a naturopathic doctor, joined the board in 2015. She had been facilitating wellness workshops at Aangen since 2010. “With our separate professional networks, we are able to bring in more fundraising ideas,” says Krishnamurti. “If a board member were to leave, they are not replaced immediately. The system works more fluidly based on what Aangen’s needs are at that point.”

For instance, Bhasin wanted to strengthen her leadership skills so she invited Jennifer Love, CEO of One More Woman, a company that helps leaders grow and manage money better. Says Bhasin, “Having Jennifer on board was like getting an MBA in the work we’re doing.”

Aangen in Action

Despite all her business ventures, Bhasin is still very hands-on. When I caught up to her one Friday night, she was loading groceries into the trunk of her red sports car to deliver to a woman who had called the previous night for help; her four children were hungry, their pantry was empty. “This is why I love what I do,” says Bhasin, a diminutive figure, barely more than five feet tall, with a magnetic personality. After she loaded in cans of chickpeas and other non-perishable food items, we jumped in the car and stopped by the community kitchen to pick up more supplies for the desperate mother—a couple of bags of apples, red peppers, baby potatoes, and packets of green beans.

At the kitchen, Webb said that one of her farm vendors had bought the produce—just a few days old—at the Ontario Food Terminal for $15, then donated them to Aangen. “All these fruits and vegetables would have been thrown away, but they’re still good to eat,” says Webb. On that evening, Webb was prepping more of the donated produce—potatoes and onions—to cook meals for 100 people at a homeless shelter.

Having such flexibility and efficiency differentiates a non-profit social enterprise from a more traditional non-profit or charity, Bhasin points out. “Let’s say a donor gives us $100 and tells us that they want us to get groceries for people who can’t afford it. Because Aangen’s making money through its business side to cover administrative, overhead, and bookkeeping costs, we don’t need to skim off the top of that $100. The $100 goes into a separate bank account, a donation fund. And then, if a single mom calls to tell me she’s struggling to provide food for her kids, I can take the $100 to get her what she needs. That $100 is going directly to the end-user.”

With that explanation, Bhasin flies out the door to deliver the care package to the mother of four. While she is thrilled to help, she’s irked that such help is still needed. “It’s 2020 for God’s sake and we’re still talking about hunger,” she says, steering through rush-hour traffic. “This capitalist society is long overdue for failure. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.”

And so the calls still pour in, and Bhasin gathers her Aangen to find solutions. Recently, she joined forces with Spiritan Self Awareness Initiative (SSAI) in Joy Village, a Catholic non-governmental organization (NGO) in Nigeria that provides menstrual pads to impoverished girls so that they can continue to attend school. Bhasin also helped Father Charles, founder of the SSAI, purchase farmland to grow food to feed the children, when he noticed that many of the children were coming to school hungry. Surplus produce from the farm also generates funds that sustain the charity’s work.

With her social enterprise achieving such impact, Bhasin figured there must be more to draw inspiration from, but that has not been the case. “I’ve looked globally, not just locally, and I’ve found it very hard to find one with a significant social impact,” she says.

Finally, we arrive at the mother’s apartment, just in time for supper. The mother is deeply relieved she can now feed her four children, all severely disabled.

Bhasin describes the work as akin to raising a child. “There are no breaks. There’s no downtime,” she says, adding, that she does it out of love “for my passion to help people who struggle to find belonging.”


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Related Reading

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/08/15/risky-business-maybe-not/

Categories
Our Voices

How To Achieve True Diversity At Conferences? Embrace Discomfort

 

On day two of Elevate Toronto, Deepa Kundur, the lone woman but easily the most heavily credentialed expert speaker on a panel of six, sat on a stage in front of a welcoming, mostly male audience of 200. The session titled “Building an AI Ecosystem” lasted for 45 minutes. Kundur spoke for approximately five.

The event was part of Elevate Toronto’s inaugural three-day tech conference touting diversity and inclusion and it promised a “diverse” panel to explore how AI will change the future of work and life. This panel featured the usual: five white men. And there was Kundur, a South Asian woman who also happens to be the chair of the engineering science division at the University of Toronto.

When questioned by the male moderator, Kundur offered a thoughtful response to a knee-jerk comment about a young woman planning to skip university and join a startup directly because she wanted to “do what I want to do” and “university is not going to teach me the tools I want to know.”

After the audience’s muted laughter died down, Kundur spoke: “It’s easy to learn tools. But it’s not easy to build character and be educated about the responsible use of AI. I think character is important and is becoming a very important consideration in building an AI ecosystem. This is going to create stability. It’s important to get out of our comfort zones to develop character.”

It’s fair to say that Elevate Toronto, while promising to promote diversity and inclusion, stayed well within its comfort zone. One attendee, Janice Sousa, vice president of business development at Merit Travel, expected to hear challenging discussions, like how leading tech companies in Toronto are using diversity and inclusion as a lens to work through; honest examinations of the ethical implications of AI; and how the negative implications of AI can be countered.

Needless to say, Sousa left disappointed. “It was more a celebration as opposed to the work to be done,” she said.

By the end of day two, even Elevate Toronto’s CEO Razor Suleman was admitting the conference came up short of its mission. “I don’t think we did a good enough job of finding the champions of diversity.”

Who might those champions of diversity be? And had those champions been invited to Elevate Toronto, what would they have contributed to the conversation?

Kathryn Hume, vice president of product and strategy at Integrate.ai and panelist at Elevate Toronto, had some suggestions: Joelle Pineau, who co-directs the Reasoning and Learning Lab at McGill University; and Fei Fei Li, director of Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. “That’s just a few women, but these are leaders in the field,” says Hume.

Pineau champions the cause of making AI mature. One of the biggest challenges she tackles is the lack of diversity in AI not just in terms of gender, but also demographics, social backgrounds, and cultural communities. The lack of diversity creates narrow AI ecosystems, arguably like those on display at Elevate Toronto.

Renowned AI researchers Fei Fei Li and Olga Russakovsky at Princeton University spearheaded the creation of SAILORS (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab Outreach Summer), a program devoted to increasing financial and cultural diversity in AI. Its junior achievers program focusses on the growth and education of ninth graders by providing them with hands-on AI experience and mentorship. Research shows that the ninth grade is when students are most likely to think seriously about their college majors and their impact on the world.

Deborah Rosati, a corporate director for Sears Canada and the co-founder and CEO of Women Get On Board, is another diversity expert who wasn’t invited to speak at Elevate Toronto. Her area of expertise is corporate governance in the AI startup culture. “AI companies need to have a longer-term view when building boards and structures,” says Rosati, who was recognized by the Canadian Board Diversity Council on its 2014 Diversity 50 list. Often consulted by tech companies on how to build diverse advisory boards, she says these requests often lack foresight and they’re based on an immediate requirement to fill a short-term need. Consideration of issues like sexual harassment and lack of gender diversity are fundamental to AI talent acquisition, and therefore, discussions of it would have to begin at ground zero: the development of long-term AI governance and ethics structures. “It’s a sexy thing to have an .ai domain name. But the field is evolving very quickly, so no one knows what the end game is.” She says long-term governance and ethics committees need to be in place to identify gender gaps in existing tech boards to build teams that are diverse in skills, geography, gender, and accessibility.

To underline Rosati’s point, Osler Law’s 2017 Diversity Disclosure Practices reported that the percentage of women directors at TSX-listed companies moved at a “glacial” pace from 12% in 2015 to 14.5% in 2017. The technology sector lagged even further with only 9% of its governance represented by women directors.

Elevate Toronto had positioned itself as a leading space in the AI revolution in Toronto, which should have entailed not only looking at new discoveries and algorithms but how those innovations impact future unemployment, inequality in wealth distribution, and humanity itself. That consolidated approach to AI would require interdisciplinary panels comprised of sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, ethicists, economists, and law makers, in addition to the usual suspects, computer scientists and deep-learning experts.

On that note, some Elevate Toronto panelists, such as Gary Bolles, came across as positively entitled.

Tracey White, a Toronto-based senior HR professional and economist, participated as an audience member and could not believe what she heard when Bolles, who writes and thinks at the intersection of disruptive trends, offered advice to displaced workers in the American manufacturing industry. “Bolles called these people negative externalities,” says White. “It’s as if he means that we should all build lucrative tech businesses and maximize shareholder value while broad swathes of the American population, who have lost their jobs to AI and living in trailer parks, can just be discarded as negative externalities. That kind of thought is unacceptable.”

Bolles is heir to the fortunes of his father, Richard Bolles, who wrote the bestselling career counselling guide, What Color Is Your Parachute? His advice to unemployed workers in the American rust belt who had been displaced by AI automation was more lead balloon, telling them to pull up their bootstraps and become life-long learners by hiring coaches. The rest of the panel did not question him on the socio-economic—or political ramifications—of his off-hand statement. Angry and despairing, those so-called “negative externalities” in the rust belt heard Donald Trump’s promise to bring back their manufacturing jobs and helped make him president.

Perhaps more diverse panels would have challenged Bolles, or challenged Elevate Toronto’s celebration of tech innovation, which too often glossed over the warts and blind spots. As tech thought leaders Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have increasingly been pointing out: technology is not benign.

But there’s always next year. As Julie Hanna, a leading Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur and Elevate keynote speaker, says, “Elevate is a profound opportunity. What’s important is to not think about it as an event but an ongoing dialogue; what worked well, what did we learn, what could be done to make this more inclusive.”


Additional Readings:

https://www.liisbeth.com/2017/08/28/elevating-inclusion-diversity-toronto-tech-scene/

Categories
Activism & Action Our Voices

Queering the Language of Business

 

In the fall of 2016, when Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor from the University of Toronto, gained social media notoriety for refusing to recognize a person’s right to be addressed by their preferred pronouns, claiming there is no scientific evidence for being non-binary, Margeaux Feldman came face to face with the skewed and limiting perceptions existing within the business of academia. Rather than protecting the right to gender identity and expression, Feldman says “the university gave Peterson a platform to stage a debate around pronouns and trans identity, instead of penalising his behaviour.” The incident prompted Feldman to consider how she could use her industry background in writing resumes and cover letters for a career services company to help businesses make workplaces more inclusive.

Feldman, a PhD candidate in English literature with a specialty in sexual diversity, understands that language can be a powerful tool in changing perceptions and creating more inclusive workplaces. So Feldman, who identifies as queer and uses the pronouns she and her, set out to explore how to use language “to become a better ally for the queer and trans community, both within academia and outside.”

Feldman teamed up with queer spoken-word poet and educator Tanya Neumeyer (whose preferred pronouns are they/them) to create the workshop “Queer + Trans-Inclusivity: For Entrepreneurs,” the first iteration hosted one week before Toronto’s Pride Parade by Shecosystem’s Emily Rose Antflick.

The three-hour seminar attracted 18 women and one man who cited their employment as artists, activists and entrepreneurs. In Shecosystem’s well-lit co-working space, they gathered to learn the language of inclusivity, which started with a determination to overcome a discomfort in using queer and trans-inclusive language.

Neumeyer kicked off the workshop with a recital of their spoken-word poem I’m So Gay. Then, Feldman led an introduction exercise asking participants to state their preferred pronouns.

The revelations were immediate. Most stated their name, reason for attending, and a fun thing about themselves, but completely forgot the fundamental instruction of citing their preferred pronouns. Quickly, everyone realized how non-intuitive pronouns are, and how little we think about them—until we do.

“When you ask what pronouns one prefers, it opens the space up for inclusive dialogue,” said Neumeyer.

The point of this exercise, of course, was to acknowledge each other’s preferred identity without preconceived gender assumptions, but also become aware of how binary our positioning is in a heteronormative society. In other words, we live in a world where people are largely identified as he or she, where gender is marketed in pinks and blues and, said Feldman, “where sex equals gender equals sexuality.”

The co-facilitators informed participants that being a powerful ally of queer and trans folks—and a fighter for inclusivity—starts by understanding queer ethnography. Feldman introduced everyone to a glossary of queer- and trans-identifying terms she had compiled. For the uninitiated, the terminology of gender identities—and the complex, fluid, and multidimensional expression of gender—can be confusing.

“To learn a new language, you need to be immersed,” Neumeyer warned participants, but also added that it’s okay to make mistakes. “You need to be able to make a fool of yourself when someone is teaching you something, and be resilient until you’ve nailed it.” Neumeyer, who has taught spoken-word poetry to more than 5,000 students, and performed for applauding audiences at Engineers Without Borders and the Association of Ontario Health Centres, says becoming a good ally to queer and trans folk takes work.

It means researching and learning what LGBTQQIP2SAA stands for (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, pansexual, two-spirit, asexual, and ally) and what nuances separate each term from another. How we understand the differences between these 11 identities will determine how we put our allyship into practice.

According to Neumeyer and Feldman, sex is widely accepted as being based on the binary identity of female and male biology, while gender, much like language, is a social construct. “There’s nothing that makes my haircut feminine other than the fact that we’ve decided to assign it that definition,” said Feldman. “Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, we’re always performing gender constructs.”

But, according to Feldman, many people resist the male/female gender boxes assigned to them at birth by a heteronormative world that attaches male or female labels to sex and gender.

As budding allies, some workshoppers struggled to understand various gender classifications. “What’s the difference between cis-gender and heterosexual?” asked one business owner. Feldman explained that cis-gender is a person who identifies with the sex/gender they were assigned at birth, but “has nothing to do with sexuality.” A cis-gender, for example, could identify as homosexual or heterosexual. Transgender, on the other hand, refers to folks whose gender expression does not match the gender or sex they were assigned at birth.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), trans or transgender is “an umbrella term used for people with diverse gender identities and expressions that differ from stereotypical gender norms. It includes but is not limited to people who identify as transgender, trans woman (male-to-female), trans man (female-to-male), transsexual, cross-dresser, gender non-conforming, gender variant, or gender queer.”

Saying transgender is okay, but transgendered is not because of the othering qualities of the suffix “ed.” Imagine saying “heterosexualed” or “straighted.”

When addressing a group, it’s preferable to eliminate gendered addresses and say “folks” instead of “ladies” or “gentlemen.” After asking people’s names, it’s encouraged to learn their preferred pronoun(s), as well. If you do make an error, recover by accepting your failure gracefully without taking up too much space apologizing.

The co-facilitators urged that employers write job descriptions using inclusive language that motivates marginalized groups and LGBTQ+ to apply. And they should also make sure not to tokenize diversity outreach by hiring just one or two, thus forcing them to wear a visible minority label.

Making a workplace inclusive, they said, also goes beyond learning the language of inclusivity.

Bathrooms and shared areas in brick-and-mortar businesses should be rethought as gender-free spaces. That means having co-ed bathrooms rather than male- and female-labeled spaces or change rooms with sufficient privacy where anyone can feel comfortable using them.

When following your queer sisters and brothers on Instagram, move away from #femaleidentified and towards #bodypositive.

As an icebreaker for workshops and events, get creative with The Gender Unicorn, an exercise welcomed by queer and trans folks unlike The Genderbread Person.

It’s imperative to read and understand the codes of practice specified by OHRC on Preventing Discrimination Because of Gender Identity and Gender Expression.

And bookmark A Guide Towards Allyship, a comprehensive online learning resource for those taking their first steps towards becoming an ally.

As the workshop ended, participants agreed that there are gaps in our knowledge of what it means to be a good ally. An awkward politeness exists around the subject of queer- and trans-inclusive language. One might be intimidated to avoid the matter completely, but “that’s not being an ally,” said one participant who is a girls’ school educator.

Being an ally, said Feldman, means to remember your own positionality of power and privilege, constructed through intersectionalities of race, ability, gender, class, religion, age, and other defining factors while uncovering your own gender blindspots.


Additional Reads on Queer Entrepreneurship by LiisBeth

Queer to Their Boots by Priya Ramanujam