Althea Branton (she/her/elle) is a skincare designer who lives, works and plays on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe, Ojibway/Chippewa and Haudenosaunee peoples.
Growing up, Althea never considered herself to be beautiful or remotely attractive. Her concepts of beauty came from the pictures of white women in the magazines her mother would occasionally buy from the grocery store for their (air quotes) recipes.
Althea spent years wondering if she’d ever be beautiful. Somehow it never dawned on her that no amount of green smoothies, elimination diets, HIIT workouts, intermittent fasting or aligning her chakra centres with the Universe was going to turn her into a young, thin, white, cishet, neurotypical able-bodied, twenty-something female with no curves and blonde hair: the Eurocentric beauty standard.
She was obsessed with skincare after buying a life-shattering pot of Dewberry lip balm from The Body Shop. Yet on the flip side of her skincare obsession was a stark realization that most products aren’t made for her skin tone. A myriad of Eurocentric skincare exists in the current market. However, there’s a dearth of skincare for people of the global majority.
Then came the whisper in her soul – to own her own business. So she went to Laurentian University – to study translation instead.
Many pots of lip balm later, Althea decided to finally listen to that whisper in her soul to begin creating her own natural products and studying cosmetic science and cosmetic formulation.
Her son is her why – why she’s starting fresh in the late summer of her life to finally move towards the true goals of her soul. Althea decided to intentionally design and create skincare for people of the global majority.
Yet she never anticipated the sheer amount of unopened doors and barriers on the path to entrepreneurship. Althea finally had had enough. So she turned to words. Althea has transmuted her pain into art using words for the last quarter-century.
A few weeks ago, Althea Branton was interviewed by an intake manager at a startup incubator program. Read or listen to what Branton has to say to the world after that interview.
I HAVE A SEED
I have a seed.
An idea that came to me as a spark from the darkness that is out there past the light.
So far it’s an enterprise with limited resources.
But I’m only surviving –
not thriving (at least not yet).
I’m living off scraps, crumbs, bits and pieces
putting life’s essentials carefully
from hand to mouth for myself
and my child.
I feel horrible about it every single day.
I need HELP
I cry to a force greater than myself.
Why can’t I provide more?
Why don’t I have more?
Isn’t there enough for me?
Aren’t I enough for me?
Let me tell you about this seed.
It’s powerful. Mighty.
It’ll move people into a movement
bypassing the normative
Eurocentric ableist capitalist patriarchal norms
we so unequivocally accept as normal
every single day.
When it’s ready
my seed will bloom and blossom.
I know it’ll grow
providing for me and millions more.
Then come the experts
Wolves disguised as critics clad cleverly in exploited cashmere clothing.
“Should you really only market to Black & Brown people?”
“Aren’t there enough products for those people?”
“Do you have any experience in this sort of thing?”
Like the many enterprises that relied on in-person interaction, Make Lemonade, a Toronto-based, women-centric co-working space for entrepreneurs was suddenly squeezed dry by the pandemic and closed its doors in August 2020. It was the third closure in three years of a well-loved physical co-working space focusing on women — the others were Shecosystem and Women on the Move. LiisBeth talked to Rachel Kelly, the 30-year-old founder and sole owner of Make Lemonade to learn about the journey and where they are now–given the pandemic.
LiisBeth:Let’s rewind to get the full story.Why did you start Make Lemonade?
RK: It was 2015 and I had been freelancing for a couple years, bouncing from coffee shop to coffee shop and working from home — way before it was cool. One day while travelling on a streetcar to yet another café, I realized I couldn’t keep lying to myself. I was trying to convince myself that this way of working, like a nomad, alone, was great and that the indie freelancing life was sustainable for me. It occurred to me in that moment the key thing lacking in my work life was a day-to-day community of colleagues.
Around this time, I signed a salaried contract with a company I was freelancing for and let go of all my freelance gigs. And even bought a couch! But shortly thereafter, they called to say the contract was cancelled. They never told me why but I suspect it had to do with their budget.
I reminded myself, I am only 26 years old. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.
The old dream I had of starting a co-working space for independent freelancers like me resurfaced. And I have to thank my parents for inspiration. They were also entrepreneurs and taught me to dream big and worry about the details later. Which is exactly what I did.
I started by creating an Instagram account called Make Lemonade to gauge interest about the idea and guess what … it generated traction! In fact some people already thought the space existed and actually emailed me saying “you might like this space” not realizing I was the one posting about it. Ha! With this validation, I got to work. I put together a business plan. Landlords required me to submit the plan along with an offer to lease the space because we were a startup. I looked for places that offered bright, natural light and a canvas that made shared work possible. Finding a space with a good landlord was also important. The commercial rental market was hot at the time. I found a beautiful 3,000 square foot space at 326 Adelaide Street West in the heart of downtown Toronto and quickly signed a five-year lease.
LiisBeth: Tell us about the Make Lemonade Community? Who showed up?
RK: At first, I thought the space would attract mostly 25 to 35-year-olds but we ended up with members from of all ages — all the way into their sixties. Members paid $500/month for a three-month plan with a fixed desk; $300/month for Monday to Friday access; $30/month for community membership. Make Lemonade offered a communal kitchen, phone booths, printing and mailboxes. About 80 per cent of the members — or our “lemons” as we affectionally referred to each other — were full-time self-employed creative types, writing or producing professionals and other artists. Other members included graduate students working on their thesis, a few salaried folks looking for an inspiring focus zone and people with full time jobs who needed space to work on their side-hustles.
One of our members, Breeyn McCarney, is wedding dressmaker who designed non-traditional wedding gowns. She lived in Hamilton but most of her clients were in Toronto so she regularly booked our meeting rooms for client fittings. When her customers came for their final fitting, she would host a champagne celebration in our “virtual” patio room, an indoor room that was decked out to look like an outdoor patio.
Breeyn hosted beading workshops for aspiring artists — they worked with their hoops and beads and used Make Lemonade as a production space. At its peak, we had over 200 members.
Many of our members have seriously grown their enterprises since joining the Make Lemonade community. For example, when newcomer to Canada Katy Prince joined, she could only afford to come on Mondays (half price days) at first she didn’t have many friends or a network. Katy significantly expanded her network while at Make Lemonade. Today, Katy works for herself as a full-time coach and has a handful of staff members. Katy’s experience is testament to the benefits that co-working spaces have to offer and we are proud to have helped play a role in their success.
LiisBeth: Did you ever participate in startup program or receive any startup or government grants to help finance or start your business?
RK: No. Truth be told I never applied! I didn’t really know what was available.
Liisbeth:What happened when the pandemic hit?
RK: In early March 2020, we started to hear all about the coronavirus I remember going to sleep one Sunday night knowing the next day I would have to close our doors. At first, we thought it would only be for a short time, but it soon became clear the closure would last for a while. When we made our announcement (a year and a half after our temporary closure) in August 2020 that the doors were closing, we received close to 300 comments on just one Instagram post. I still haven’t read through them all because it’s emotionally overwhelming. What’s important to note — and also bittersweet — is that our busiest time were the months leading up to the announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic hit, we were not sure what to do but quitting was not an option. Our mantra was (and still is): when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. We had to try something new.
My staff member, Ashley Fulton, Director of Good Vibes, and I began brainstorming about how we could bring and keep the community together online. We started with free virtual co-working meet ups. Then added free daily support calls. Next, we added a short newsletter called “Your Daily Dose of Sunshine”. We later added online co-working sessions and work sprints and didn’t charge for any of it.
Once we were confident we had something worthwhile to offer, we invited people to start paying us for the services. And a good number of them did.
Over time, we added more features such as accountability calls and introduced The 4-Week Challenge that involved working on goals for four weeks in community. People loved it and paid to participate! We noticed multiple repeat participants for the program and eventually turned it into a new service called the Get Sh*t Done Club.
As time went on, we learned that while the physical space with tables and internet access was great, our real strength was supporting entrepreneurs through all the highs and the lows of business ownership. Lemonade became more like lemon aid.
Today, the Get Sh*t Done Club is still running strong as a 12-month online business foundations community that supports entrepreneurs to hustle less, grow more and have more fun. We do virtual kick-off brunches, offer workshops on goal setting, host work sprints, brainstorms and facilitate small groups within the program. We have an event called the Lemon Mixer—an open conversation where members ask for what they need and are able to give back by offering services or expertise. Members also get full access to our Business 101 online course. And of course, we have fun! We celebrate successes with an honour roll and give shoutouts and cheers when progress happens for someone.
LiisBeth: As a player in the women’s entrepreneurship ecosystem space, what would you like to see change or happen in the coming years to further strengthen the women’s enterprise space?
RK: It almost seems ridiculous with the kind of company that I created that I didn’t get a “Hey, welcome to the women’s entrepreneurship support world.” Or a “Did you know, these are the resources that are available?”
We build community for others, but where is OUR community support?
LiisBeth: What’s Next for Make Lemonade? You?
RK: Looking to the future, we have some new ideas percolating, including meeting up with our “lemons” in real life again.
Things have been tough, but the pandemic was the catalyst for creating something bigger than the physical space. It led us to creating an online community and a new way of providing members with the support they need. The pandemic was also a wake up call. Which means it’s time to start making lemonade again … whatever that looks like. Funny how things are kind of coming full circle.
Also, when I think about what’s next, I’m reminded of how my parents started out and where they are now. They founded an automotive manufacturing company. But like so many businesses, that’s not how the enterprise started. Believe it or not, their original business was selling fruitcakes. So whenever I worry about not knowing what the future holds, I remind myself, I’m still in my fruitcake, or perhaps lemon cake, phase. I’m experimenting with different ingredients, making up recipes to see what works best.
LiisBeth: Thank you for sharing your incredible and inspiring story
While numerous organizations for women entrepreneurs exist in Toronto, Women on the Move is the only one that incorporates co-working space, business training, venture capitalist funding and a community network.
The survey found that Canada’s 28,000 LGBTQ2+ owned businesses generate more than $22 billion in economic activity and employ around 435,000 Canadians.
Yet, they face unique and significant challenges, and according to the chief-operating officer of the CGLCC, Dale McDermont (he/him), were hit “not just differently but harder” by the pandemic.
When COVID-19 hit Canada, many queer business owners found little to no targeted support for LGBTQ2+ businesses, primarily as a result of their size . Most LGBTQ2+ enterprises fall into the micro category, which are businesses that have less than four waged people working within or less than $40, 000 in non deferrable expenses.
This results in a disproportionate impact on their businesses, including a significant number of closures.
Who is Looking Out for Queer Canadian Businesses?
The CGLCC’s survey, done in partnership with Deloitte and soon to be released, found that one in four respondents said their LGBTQ2+ ownership resulted in loss of business due to their identity; one in three indicated that on at least one occasion they hid that they are LGBTQ2+ owned to protect themselves against potential losses.
Nine months into the pandemic, and for the first time ever, Canada’s 2021 budget declared LGBTQ2+ businesses as one of the diverse communities that will benefit from the $100 million targeted for the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Fund. Previously diverse communities included Indigenous, Black, and women-owned businesses.
This was good news for the CGLCC, which was founded in 2003 and has the data that demonstrates that LGBTQ2+ businesses are a “really sizable part of the economy.”
McDermont says they can “highlight the struggles and advocate for the community” as Canada prepares for its post-pandemic recovery, but the targeted funds are crucial. Often minority groups “fall through the cracks” with general funding, but the CGLCC is striving to ensure that this much needed finance is delivered to the LGBTQ2+ community “as quickly as possible.”
The funds to assist LGBTQ2+ businesses have been allocated, although details of how it will be distributed and to whom have yet to be released.
For queer businesses who were struggling with funding and support even before the pandemic, this has meant getting creative with how they do business.
When Small is Too Small
Before the pandemic hit, Common People was not only a general store featuring crafts by small makers, but a “community space where folks could gather for workshops, fundraisers, and events.” hosted every month, co-owner Kaela Malozewski (she/her) told LiisBeth. Malozewski and her fiancée, Steph La Posta (she/her), launched their Toronto-based store in late 2017.
Malozewski said they consider themselves a micro business, though the government sees them as a small business — and this compounded the challenges they faced during the pandemic.
Malozewski and La Posta received less than $600 in rent support from the Ontario Government and did not qualify for any other supports due to the discrepancy between micro and small businesses. For instance, they did not meet certain criteria —such as having a payroll of over $50,000 a year. Even at their busiest, they had only one employee in addition to themselves.
Kaela said the whole process trying to get support was “disappointing and very frustrating” and they “felt like [they] weren’t being acknowledged or heard” by the government that was meant to be helping them. In December 2020, Common People closed their brick-and-mortar shop in Parkdale and moved online, where they will remain for the foreseeable future.
Though the co-owners and fiancées say the pandemic has been exhausting, the community they built pre-pandemic has supported them “from the start with their encouragement, purchases, and messages of love and support.”
Pandemic Sex Play
Kira Gregory (she/her) founded Toronto-based Shop Fleure just before the pandemic hit and was also unable to qualify for any relief grants.
The queer-friendly online space sells luxury lifestyle products and intimate sex toys to help individuals “explore their inner sensualities and embrace their true selves by way of pleasure.”
Gregory says she would have “[loved] to see more support specifically for LGBTQ2+ small businesses such as programs or grants that specifically apply to this community.” Though the pandemic has kept Shop Fleure “in the shadows” due to advertisers filtering or hiding anything that “remotely covers topics of sexual health, pleasure, or sex work” and many small businesses —including Shop Fleure — struggle to get started due to this inability to post advertisements.
Self-care became a much-discussed topic as the world stayed in their homes, so Gregory found the plus side to her industry was that “the world of self-love and pleasure has been in the spotlight during lockdown,” even though, as the owner of a self-love business, Gregory struggled. Without a large team, the work fell into her lap, and it took a toll on her mental health.
Where the government and media platforms disappointed her, however, Gregory’s community provided tremendous support, which has been heartwarming and better than anticipated.
For now, Gregory said she is taking it one day at a time, remaining hopeful, and taking rests and breaks when needed.
A Queer Village, Online
McDermont told LiisBeth that “unique challenges require unique solutions.”
Pax Santos (she/her) started a non-profit business during the pandemic when she felt the void of queer spaces and missed the connection she found there.
Disappearing queer spaces have been a growing concern among the community and many LGBTQ2+ people found themselves uniquely isolated.
Santos founded QT, the Queer Toronto Literary Magazine, to elevate and celebrate queer voices in Canada and recreate the physical community spaces that had wilted during lockdown online.
Queer bars, cafes, restaurants, sports leagues, and cultural activities take on an oversize importance in the queer community as places to find and meet friends, form family, nurture voices and identity.
When Pax looked for government support to launch her non-profit, she said there was nothing.
Yet, QT found its digital footing to create the sense of a shared space when a physical one was not possible and grew to a nine-person volunteer team and a thriving community readership.
Since QT is a fledgling business, they rely on volunteers and donations; while memberships are $20, QT believes “finances should never be a barrier to community engagement” and offers a no-questions-asked sliding scale.
The priority is community.
Community for Recovery
As Canada moves into the recovery stage, queer businesses continue to struggle. While financial support from the government has been announced, it’s unclear how the support will be distributed and to whom. It’s also unclear if the support will continue and for how long.
The CGLCC’s message during this time is clear: to encourage the government to move forward supporting LGBTQ2+ businesses, and in particular micro businesses, like Common People and Shop Fleure, as well as startup ventures which launched in response to the distinctive challenges of the pandemic.
With targeted recovery support, the LGBTQ economy has at least a fair shot of making a comeback at the same pace as the rest of the economy, especially with the strength of the community behind them.
McDermont says that LGBTQ2+ businesses are a safe space where queer people often find safety and support in their community, and it is through these shared experiences that LGBTQ2+ businesses will overcome the challenges of the pandemic and reach the potential they dream to achieve.
“As we look at diverse communities, entrepreneurship and creating businesses, what we need to focus on is supporting entrepreneurship in diverse communities and overcoming these unique challenges are the stories we need to hear.”
“As a business owner, one of the cool things about trying to keep a place like this alive is it forces me to be really creative at the end of the month. It forces me to invent things out of necessity. Some of the things we invent become a huge part of what we do.” –Savoy Howe
There’s something special about exploring a city on foot. Whether you’ve lived in the same place for twenty years or are visiting someplace new, going for a wander—headphones in, music on, people watching, popping into shops, turning down a side street and discovering a hidden gem—is a consummate pleasure.
What if, though, you could engage more intimately with the cityscape by accessing information about it—events, history, restaurants, music—as you move through it? That’s the idea behind Driftscape. Co-founder and CEO Chloe Doesburg calls the app a “cultural discovery platform,” which allows the user “seamless connection” to the physical spaces they occupy.
Driftscape offers a selection of topics—from architecture to history to arts and literature. As users approach things that might interest them, the app on their cellphones will send a notification. This could be a piece of trivia, a festival nearby, or what Doesburg calls the most “sophisticated” option: an immersive experience such as a Jane’s Walk, free urban tours inspired by Jane Jacobs, who penned the classic, The Life and Death of American Cities, and advocated for mixed-used, walkable streets; or First Stories, which documents the rich Indigenous history of Toronto; or Queerstory, which will leads to sites in Toronto’s vibrant LGTBQ2S+ culture.
Driftscape, which now employs six, officially incorporated in 2017 but had been “in the works” for at least a year before that and involved a lot of “serendipity,” says Doesburg. She was inspired by a “location-specific project” called Murmur, which existed before smartphones: You could dial in and hear a story about a specific place. She was also working with a musician friend who was recording an album of location-specific songs set in Toronto; they created Track Toronto, which allows users to listen to music associated with places in the city as they pass through them, now used by Driftscape.
“People were super enthusiastic” about the experience, says Doesburg. While working on that concept, she met programmers working on a similar project, and together they dreamed up Driftscape.
The project has evolved significantly since its inception, adding more layers of information by becoming a subscription platform. For a fee—Driftscape partners—which range from not-for-profits to private content producers to businesses and municipalities—provide content for the app, such as visitor’s guides, self-guided tours , and digital walks. There’s a sliding scale for partners, ranging from $1,000 to $4,000 a year. More content draws more eyes to the app, which draws more users to the app and, in turn, more partners subscribing, creating a positive feedback loop.
Says Doesburg: “We’re working with municipalities who are layering these things with tourism information so that we can become (their) digital visitor’s guide, which is even more relevant now, in the time of COVID-19. People want to do more digitally. People are looking for self-guided tours, for ways they can be their own guide, and also just looking to rediscover their own city and places nearby, the way the way you would as a tourist.”
“We’re working with municipalities who are layering these things with tourism information so that we can become (their) digital visitor’s guide, which is even more relevant now, in the time of COVID-19″.
That style of subscription service, however, is not without issues. Open the Driftscape app and you’ll be presented with a map of Canada, with Driftscape’s points of interest and services— loaded by its subscribers. The first thing you’ll notice is that most of the content is based in Southern Ontario, and the vast majority of that in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), making the app, at present, tremendously urban-centric. In Northern and rural areas, programming options include things like Historica Canada and its Heritage Minutes, providing a perspective that can skew to colonial, cis-heteronormative Settler norms. That’s a very different experience than users can access in the GTA, where Driftscape offers more of a mosaic.
This discrepancy is due to growing pains, Doesburg says. Driftscape can’t offer a wider variety of content in more remote areas until they bring on a wider variety of partners. “That’s certainly something we’ve spent a lot of time talking and thinking about and we’re trying to layer in other perspectives wherever we can. We are especially working to grow the Indigenous voices on the app.”
“We would certainly welcome organizations anywhere in Canada and in North America to host their content on the platform,” she adds.
In April, Doesburg participated in Fifth Wave Labs, a four-month feminist incubator geared towards supporting women-identified digital media entrepreneurs in Southern Ontario. She says the program provided mentorship and networking in a time when, due to COVID-19, everyone was feeling very distanced from each other. It also altered the way she thought about her business practices.
Although Doesburg doesn’t necessarily consider Driftscape a specifically feminist enterprise— “We haven’t really been using that word”—she thinks of it as being in keeping with those values.
“Before doing the Fifth Wave labs program, I didn’t really think about feminist business practices,” says Doesburg, “but certainly while we were part of that program I was like, ‘Oh, this is what we already do.’”
Doesburg says she thinks of Driftscape as a social enterprise. That “seems very, very similar, although not identical (to feminism) but certainly in terms of just looking at business as something that has profit as one of its goals, and not its only goal.”
The company’s social values, she says, include “a commitment to supporting the cultural community and being part of that ecosystem” as well as “how we run our business, that we’re committed to making the best place to work for employees. “We’re committed to having a really transparent company where we involve everyone at all levels of decision making. We’re really open about what we’re doing and what our values are, what our challenges are.”
In contrast to multinational social media giants serving up information, Driftscape features diverse local experts. Says Doesburg: “We boost the voices of local organizations who are creating fantastic content, and we create a place where users can access a wide-range of otherwise hard-to-find local information on an ad-free platform at no cost to the user.”
Driftscape is Doesburg’s first entrepreneur venture. Until 2015, the University of Waterloo graduate worked as an architect, a profession that obviously gives her a special appreciation for cities and the nature of place. “Being an entrepreneur certainly offers more freedom and flexibility,” she says of the change. “Buildings take years to complete so, compared to architecture, working on software is refreshing because it’s possible to iterate quickly, see what works, and make changes easily.”
With Driftscape growing, adapting and adding new directions, Doesburg is content knowing what entrepreneurial path she is on. “I don’t have any next steps in mind. For now, I’m focused on growing Driftscape.”
Contributor’s Bio: Lori Fox is a queer, non-binary journalist based in Whitehorse, YT. Their work focuses primarily on issues of class, gender, sexuality and environment, and has appeared previously with Vice, The Guardian, CBC, and The Globe and Mail. You can find them on twitter @fox.e.lori.
Publishers Note: Driftscapeis 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.
LiisBeth spoke with Cukier about the recommendations in the report, the challenges presented by COVID-19, the support women need moving forward and what women’s entrepreneurship should look like in the future.
LiisBeth: What was the process of pulling off such a mammoth report during a global pandemic?
Wendy Cukier: We had the report ready to go when COVID-19 hit, so we shifted gears. We did a lot of work with the government and others to get information out on supports for women entrepreneurs. We ran webinars, and we also very quickly did an analysis of programs and consulted with close to 300 groups and entrepreneurs on where the gaps were. So, we took on a bit of an advocacy role for self-employed women and those who were falling between the cracks. And then with COVID-19, what we showed very quickly and very clearly was that COVID-19 was amplifying inequality in a very significant way.
LiisBeth: What was the process of collecting this data?
Wendy Cukier: I’ve done lots of work on things like the wage gap and the impact of unpaid work. When COVID-19 hit, just with my own eyes, I saw the impact on people in my office, on entrepreneurs. I was working with the data that was coming out of different places, but even on Zoom calls, you’d be bombed by little kids all over the place. And it was so very obvious—the difference in terms of the extent to which women have always borne the lion’s share of the unpaid work.
The impact of COVID-19 on…women entrepreneurs’ self-reported productivity…layoffs, the extent to which women entrepreneurs reported negative impacts on their ability to run their business and even their mental health—all of those things are very much supported by the empirical data from different surveys, but quite honestly, I saw it all with my own two eyes.
LiisBeth: What are some of the key findings in the report?
Wendy Cukier: The big thing is the burden of unpaid work, and that is just crushing. Not just for women who are in the workforce, but women who are self-employed or entrepreneurs. It doesn’t really matter if you’re rich or you’re poor. Certainly, people who are lower on the socioeconomic front are often less well equipped—they often don’t have access to high-speed network…a workspace. But even wealthy middle-class women have lost their caregivers and other kinds of supports that had previously enabled them to pursue their entrepreneurial activities. So, the experience of the crushing burden of unpaid work and childcare is pretty severe, right across socioeconomic classes, across sectors, across size, across everything.
When we look at what’s happening with women entrepreneurs and the programs they need to support them, we need to recognize self-employment across a range of sectors—not just tech—as well. If we don’t tackle that definitional problem, we’re effectively ignoring the needs of 900,000 women entrepreneurs. Because we know that women are more likely to be in services, in social enterprises. So not recognizing that excludes a big percentage of women.
We also recognize there are big differences in the experiences of women who are racialized, women who are Indigenous, women who are in rural communities, women with disabilities. And what we showed was COVID-19 was exacerbating all of those.
One of the things that makes me apoplectic is there’s been a ton of stuff about how women have been leading the battle against COVID-19. Jacinda Ardern (the prime minister) from New Zealand. In Canada, leading medical officer, Theresa Tam,—we see her every day reassuring us, it’ll be fine. It’s women, women, women on the frontlines. Yet, if you look at who is being consulted and testifying before the parliamentary committees on what we need for the recovery, 51 per cent of the population (women) is pretty much missing.
I think what’s hugely important is that we have a gender and diversity lens for recovery or we’re going to lose decades of progress.–Wendy Cukier
LiisBeth: What are some of the recommendations of the report?
Wendy Cukier: Well, we have enough information to prioritize certain things like thinking about childcare and homeschooling; making sure that we have intersectional lens; that we understand that access to broadband and infrastructure is absolutely fundamental; and the impact of COVID-19 is highly differentiated based on where you live. It’s a whole cluster of things, and if you don’t have those basic needs, then it’s pretty hard to engage in economic activity. Those things are pretty straightforward.
One of the things I have a preliminary sense of, but we haven’t dug into as deeply as we need to: There are a lot of funding opportunities for incorporated companies that are already at a certain level of sales. So while there may be gaps there and … bias in financing… especially the venture capital space, what I’m really interested in right now is how we deal with pre-revenue, small revenue, micro-businesses that seem to have fallen through the cracks. If you think about the fact that women’s businesses tend to be smaller, newer, and under financed, it’s almost like chopping down all the seedlings. We have to really be attentive to nurturing those early-stage organizations, some of which may never grow, some of which may remain side hustles or supplements to traditional employment. If you care about growth, you also need to care about the fact that these new startups and micro-businesses that women tend to start are being crushed.
LiisBeth: Thank you so much for speaking with us!
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Upon my last check-in with my daughter to see how her online exam went, I learned that her pet Betta fish, Obie, had died. With as much compassion as I could muster, I said, “How? What happened?”
“Fin rot,” she replied. “But I got a new one.” She told me she went online and had her replacement pet delivered by a local breeder—in a bag of water in a box—curbside for a fee of $5. “That’s how it’s done nowadays, Mom.”
This little anecdote got me thinking about how much our day-to-day lives have changed since COVID-19 impounded us in our homes. And yet how so little has changed at the who we are as a civilization level.
It is this paradox, not the threat of contracting COVID-19, that keeps me up at night.
On a street level, it is heartwarming to see community-led mutual aid networks popping up over night, especially in cultures where individualism ruled. I love that people are using this pause to rediscover homesteading crafts such as baking and pickling. As a feminist, I have found it validating that the corporate media has been, for a change, reporting on the women-dominated need economy (health, food, caregiving) and local enterprises more than the greed economy. It is exciting to hear people talking about wanting to emerge, post-lockdown, into a “new normal” rather than returning to the status quo.
Tactics in the air include reducing carbon-spewing business travel and excess consumerism; increasing work-from-home options and reimagining education (ideally without surveillance technology); shortening supply chains (good for local enterprise); rethinking housing and rental agreements to accommodate micro-communes consisting of perhaps two to three couples with kids and elders versus the traditional nuclear family; and accelerating the mainstreaming of urban agriculture.
These initiatives are all good for people, local economies, and the planet.
But will these small changes lead to the kind of fundamental, civilization-level overhaul required for everyone—and Mother Earth—to survive the the coming “Black Swan” era let alone flourish?
We have witnessed first-hand in recent months that when those with power and political will are tightly aligned, we can move our socially constructed walls and mountains, poof, just like magic. Our sense of what’s possible has changed. But what’s probable? There, the jury is out. I suspect we will still have to fight—despite one hand tied behind our backs due to COVID-19—to advance foundational levels of change-like gender equity and equality globally.
The feminist movement, in all it’s diversity, is needed now more than ever.
If we look to the past as a teacher, the roots of patriarchy and its persistent, enabling systems have survived all major global shocks: world wars, famines, numerous pandemics, depression, recessions, and even progressive revolutions. While the most oppressed and distressed among us—plus a handful of well-positioned women—are tossed a new deal or human right in the thick of the crisis, the same old systems of inequality and dehumanization bulldoze through, creating an even greater inequality and bringing the world to the brink of environmental collapse.
Sadly, early indicators that this pandemic “pause” could be the tipping point we have been waiting for accelerate social, political, economic, and environmental stewardship change needed are not encouraging.
Reality Check #1: Patriarchal-Enabled Violence is on the Rise
Feminist organizations around the world predicted that domestic, gender-based violence (the “shadow pandemic”) would skyrocket—and it has. Reporting countries show increases as high as 200 percent since COVID-19 lockdowns began. In Canada, calls to domestic crisis hotlines early on increased by up to 300 percent and are now reported to have decreased; women in isolation find it hard to get to the phone when he’s at home all the time, along with the kids.
This month, Canada suffered its worst mass murder in history when a Nova Scotia man assaulted his female partner and then went on a 12-hour-plus shooting spree, killing 22. A group, Nova Scotian Feminists Fighting Femicide, pointed out in a press release that “most mass murders begin with violence in the home. It is often wives, partners, and children of men who kill who are their first victims . . . it is now clear that the murderer began with acts of torture and violence toward the murderer’s female partner.” Sickeningly, one male tweeted this explainer: “Push a man to the edge and shit happens. Never any mention of what women were doing to provoke this.” There were a lot more tweets like this that followed.
Misogyny—expressed in the form of domestic violence—remains deeply embedded across all cultures and countries around the globe. And it is flourishing along with the virus.
Patriarchy enables and validates the propagation of toxic masculinity that deforms men and kills women. At present, media and governments are broadly acknowledging the scourge. Opinion leaders talk about the need for more funding for shelters and higher pay for frontline workers but say nothing about what it will take to dismantle the root cause, patriarchy.
Reality Check #2: Tech Surveillance Tightens
We pay a price for the privilege of citizenship. We disclose a lot about our personal identity in return for benefits such as health care, financial support, and legal protection. Will the price soon be cell-phone tracking surveillance while inside your home? Or perhaps even a chip embedded in our bodies to track our virus status and every physical movement?
According to The Guardian, “Governments in at least 25 countries are employing vast programmes for mobile data tracking, apps to record personal contact with others, CCTV networks equipped with facial recognition, permission schemes to go outside and drones to enforce social isolation regimes.”
Corporations have already been electronically mining, harvesting, and reselling our personal information to increase their wealth and power over us. Think of what they will lobby for next under the guise of public safety.
As a leading indicator, Google recently announced a new advertiser policy that, in the near future, will suspend the accounts of advertisers who do not provide proof of identity, including W9 forms, passports, and other personal identification and business incorporation files. That’s a corporate grab at a level of personal data and now private company ownership data that puts Google on par with governments. Or would that be “Google-ments”?
AI technology can be leveraged as a tool to benefit our world, but never forget that male-dominated and governed tech companies built the network on which it relies, a network that is now growing up and teaching itself to “think” like their creators: a privileged, mostly white, patriarchal man.
Reality Check #3: New Pandemic Power Grabs Entrench Old Systems
Turns out, the one-percenters somehow easily generate more of it during pandemic times. Meanwhile, the next level down, the 10 percenters, are working hard from their lakeside cottages lobbying #MeToo for their share of government business subsidies.
Some of this activity makes the news (see the growth of billionaire wealth in COVID-19 times). But some of it doesn’t. Might as well see it all.
For example, during an ordinary April Zoom meeting between the National Angel Capital Organization of Canada (NACO) and Mélanie Joly, who serves as Canada’s Minister for Economic Development, one investor complained about how much time and effort he had to put into coach startups for no wages. His recommendation and ask from Minister Joly? The government should adopt a COVID-19 policy to support accredited angel investors (read: millionaires) by matching their investments in high potential startups (read: disruptive tech) to the tune of 30 percent (approximately $43.5M based on last year’s collective investment number) to help angels like him avoid losses. NACO also suggests it should be the arbiter of what startups should receive these matching public funds, suggesting those funds would flow only to “high potential” vetted startups participating in their “accredited” 40-member incubators. Problem is, there are 200-plus amazing incubators and growth accelerators in Canada if you include independent, women-focused, Indigenous, newcomer, and social enterprise programs.
We need to support startups. And angel investors play an important role in their development. But we don’t need public money, once again, disproportionately going towards the male-dominated startup-oriented investors, incubators and accelerators who favour extreme growth, venture-capital oriented startups. Recent studies tell us clearly how status-quo thinking in this space turns out for this nation’s one-million-plus equally aspiring and talented women entrepreneurs innovating differently in largely undervalued essential sectors.
Note that there is a precedent for direct support. In 2018, the Canadian Women’s Enterprise Strategy fund processed 3,000 applications and deployed $30 million directly to qualifying women-majority-owned and -led startups and early-stage enterprises in record time. We know how to do this.
So, how do we advance a brighter future?
We start by acknowledging grief. Hundreds of thousands of people have died and millions more may well, whether from COVID-19 or the economic devastation that has yet to land. We have suffered massive fear and a deep-system shock that has revealed how terribly vulnerable our patriarchal economies and governments have made us.
Understandably, immediate policy and strategy ideas will come from a place of denial, anger, and bargaining for a time. And some of these, like investing in the care economy, will go a long way to improve resilience, advance equity, and better individual lives.
But sooner than later, we will need to turn our attention back to the root causes of suffering. What values, visions, and ideas that have been repeatedly pushed aside as too radical and unaffordable do we take more seriously now? What do we resource and what needs to fall away? And how do we deal with the middle millions, used to being insulated by privilege, who are now outraged and no longer comfortably numb by the sweeping changes to the status quo that worked so well for them, at least, for so long?
So, as solutionary feminists, we need to consider: What does feminism and feminist work look like in a post-COVID-19 world (increased collaboration with other intersecting social change movements)? What advocacy tools and skills do we need to develop in a world where gathering becomes luxury (digital activism)? And how can my personal superpower be of service?
Then, we must gather up the wisdom of generations before us, the spiritual depth of our superhero goddesses, the strength of the sisterhood and we must press our feet to the ground and get running.
Because we must emerge from this rupture working fiercely to make the kind of deep foundational change required to achieve, finally, equality between genders, and between people and the planet.
Or, put another way, we must create the conditions that enable all people and the planet to flourish.
This is, and always has been, the purpose of feminism.
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