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Body, Mind & Pleasure

Having A Baby in Pandemic Times

Photo by Unuk Studio, Stocksy.

Oh, baby, this is the trauma of bringing a new life into this world during a pandemic:

  • People are having babies virtually alone, with hospitals severely restricting support to one person or none.
  • Babies needing testing or treatment are being whisked away to Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU), with contact to the mother limited (some to just 15 minutes a day, making it nearly impossible to breastfeed and bond).
  • People are being sent home as little as two hours after the birth, putting enormous stress on parents.
  • One hospital tried to mandate epidurals until people protested the ethics of forcing narcotics on all birthers.
  • People are being stripped of the right to a home birth in jurisdictions that regulate them, citing a lack of PPE for midwives.
  • Birthing policies are changing by the week and differ between regions in a country and even between hospitals in the same city.

During such a scary and chaotic time, birthers need doulas (personal birth support workers) more than ever to provide psychological, emotional support, education on the changing process, evidence-based information on COVID-19 impacts, and advocacy and understanding of their rights to informed consent—and their right to say no.

“No is a complete sentence,” says Natasha Marchand.

So is, “Fuck, no,” if you need it, offers Bianca Sprague.

Co-Founder, Bianca Spragge

The two co-founded Bebo Mia Inc. 13 years ago with a mission to connect women* with their “intrinsic value and power” and change the way we give birth. They do so by providing international online training and certification for personal birth and fertility support workers. Their reach and global impact is impressive, having trained 2,700 people in 31 countries, with 500 taking courses with them each year.

It’s not the least bit surprising to them that doulas—at this moment of critical need—are being excluded from hospitals “pretty universally” around the world, with the medical establishment using the pandemic to double down on their control over the birthing space. North America has largely dismissed the World Health Organization’s call for doulas to be considered essential workers.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” says Sprague. “This was happening before [COVID-19] . . . telling people not to hire doulas. The reason? We give people back their voice in the birth space.”

Go Online or Stay Home

Luckily, the company had the foresight to move online in 2014, which has enabled them to empower their international graduates in moving their practices online. Doulas are now texting and video conferencing through every stage, from prenatal education to appointments through birth and post-natal support. “So things have changed,” says Marchand, “but we are still here to support people and it’s always important, but so much more important at this time.”

Natasha Marchand, Co-founder

Ironically, the company faced incredible flack for being the first doula education company to move online seven years ago. Nearly everyone told them they couldn’t teach the emotional skills or build community or provide proper support. Says Marchand: “We became really creative in how we would move online and still give people the personal touch that’s so important.” The entire team is available to take calls nearly 24/7 and checks in constantly through texts and video, which helps replace one-on-one talks over coffee. “Our community is huge and beautiful and everyone loves each other, and everyone told us we couldn’t do it, well, until now, when everyone’s trying to move online.”

Sprague contends that “people underestimate how powerful community can be in the virtual space.” In fact, the founders were “overjoyed” to find they could build a stronger community online than a bricks-and-mortar office, which confined their training to their physical location in Toronto. Doulas now “have easier access to each other” around the world, and Bebo Mia has clients taking their courses not just in North America but in Japan, New Zealand, and unlikely places such as Jamaica, Egypt, and Bahrain. Their reach on social and email reaches beyond 35,000 around the world.

Now the company is being recognized as thought leaders during this massive shift online. Next month, the founders will share their insights as Feminists in Residence in LiisBeth’s Feminist Enterprise Commons (FEC).

They offer this advice: Look at your business and think about how it goes online. You can’t just translate the whole thing into the digital space. Pivot one part online and do it really well, with a very clear niche and a very clear problem you are trying to solve. Make sure you’re very clearly calling out to the people who you want to be clicking on your business.

“Pick one thing and then slay at it,” says Sprague.

Speak Feminist, Loud and Clear

Moving online has also enabled Bebo Mia to amplify what they proudly describe as their inherently and radically feminist voices and business practices.

When they started out, the co-founders (Sprague is 39, Marchand is 41) said that business coaches’ advice on how to be successful never felt right. “There was always a ‘yuck’ factor,” says Marchand, “until we started listening to ourselves and started noticing forums like the FEC, and we realized there are new ways [of doing business].”

By implementing conscious feminist practices, they removed the hierarchical structure of their company. Their six full-time staff and four contract workers have an equal vote on policy and direction. They believe “money is energy” and keep it in flow by paying fair salaries, generous bonuses, professional development, and ensuring that everything they touch and spend money on is with vendors who share their feminist values.

They introduced “radical” HR policies, with support for individuals, their mental health, and their families equally weighted with keeping the corporation alive. Diversity is top of mind when hiring as is drawing from their pool of graduates. They have granted $50,000 in scholarships over the past three years for students who identify with marginalized communities, and a corporate sponsor, Olivia Scobie, has given seven scholarship positions. They also exclusively hire women*—with the asterisk intentional.

The company’s webpage loudly and proudly embraces a broad definition of women* to include women-identified, femme-presenting, two-spirited, gender queer, trans-inclusive, gender nonconforming, androgynous, agender, intersex, bigender, gender questioning, gender fluid, butch, non-binary, queer positive or any person that would like to be included in this definition. They got flack for that exhaustive list too, most especially from those who wanted to protect the word “women” in reproductive health, fearing that it meant letting go “of this power goddess, women-bring-forth-life thing,” says Sprague. They’re also getting pushback from those who feel that a broad term of women* is not actually inclusive of trans and gender-nonconforming folk.

Photo by AllGo

The company is not only at ease with these challenges, but they also invite it. They check in constantly with the community, says Alana Nugent, the company’s marketing director and Sprague’s spouse. “It’s interesting as we get more language and access to it, there are more folks who say how it doesn’t work for them. It’s a moving target and it comes down to consistently checking in and understanding where people are at and how we can collectively come together under a term that people feel good about,” says Nugent.

Rather than squabbling over language that keeps us divided, they work to reduce exclusionary gendered language and introduce new inclusive terms to the reproductive health space. “Mother” doesn’t quite cut it for gay parents or someone giving up a baby at birth. So, they use an array of terms: birther, pregnant person, gestational parent, surrogate, mapa, papa. “If we are speaking to a mother who wants to be called a mother, we will do so,” says Marchand. “But all genders are represented in this space and many wouldn’t think of themselves as a ‘mother.’”

Change a Business Plan, Change a Life

In addition to offering certification courses for birth, fertility, and postpartum support workers, they also teach skills to run a successful business—and that too is with a feminist lens. They say that everything they do at Bebo Mia is with the intention to smash the kyriarchy and level power structures. All bodies are kept safe. All bodies are represented. Communities speak for themselves—so they ensure speakers on their teaching roster come from diverse communities.

“It all sounds so big,” says Marchand, “which I love. When we started this, it was so individual. It was Bianca and I struggling in this system.” They clawed their way through extreme poverty at startup (zero funding or loans), suffered through nightmare relationships (Marchand with an ex-husband, and Sprague and Nugent with the sperm donor for their daughter), and battled oppression from the medical system, all while raising children. “We did what we needed to do to get out of it. Then we wanted to do that for each individual person,” says Marchand.

Building their company “to do seven figures this year” is clearly satisfying, but they delight in seeing their clients around the world rising and thriving, from putting their passions last to setting up businesses and achieving financial independence. “There’s a ripple effect,” Sprague says about their business this flourishing. “It’s really magical to see the healing and what’s possible.” People help others. They flee abusive relationships. They secure homes and support for their family. Their children see them happy.

Bebo Mia at play. From left to right:  Natasha Marchand, Bianca Sprague, and  Alana Nugent

Says Marchand: “We know that we are birthing in a broken system that is broken on purpose, to keep us broken. So, we are actively hoping that by letting our voices be loud, people will know they have choices, they can make their own decisions, and they can say ‘no’ within the birth space and have the birth that they want. That will have a better outcome health-wise. They will basically have a better start to their life and start as a whole person with autonomy and personal choice and feeling strong. If this parent is strong, then this baby is strong. We’re trying to fix things from the very beginning of life.”

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Feminist Practices

Can a Professional Matchmaker be a Feminist?

Photo by Jana Sabeth, Unsplash

Fourteen years ago, I got a job as a matchmaker at a high-end dating agency in downtown Toronto. It was awful. Once I learned how the company operated, my dreams of putting perfect matches together were shattered. Our members had paid ridiculous amounts of money to join our closed network; they could only be matched with other people who had also paid to join. And as far as I could tell, most of these members wanted nothing to do with each other. Salespeople charged outrageous and whimsically fluctuating prices, and the company embraced dishonesty as a policy. No wonder our clients were always angry.

As a “dating consultant” in the Matching department, my job was to try and convince these disillusioned people to say “yes” to each other. I heard “no” a lot and spent far too much time making notes on people’s disappointment with our company, and more hauntingly, their loneliness. It was frustrating being unable to help my clients, and I was disgusted by the sexist sales structure. Women routinely paid three times as much as male clients—often well over $10,000 for four to six “introductions,” which our company (and most traditional matchmakers) defined as the exchange of contact details. I learned that this is the norm for “traditional” matchmaking and dating agencies.

Still, I enjoyed putting people together—especially the clients who hadn’t heard from us in years—and I managed to make some good matches in that wasteland. I also learned some valuable things about human nature: People really cling to stereotypes when it comes to dating, even if they seem enlightened about everything else; most people would rather hear the truth than a comforting lie; plus, everyone—and I mean everyone—self-identifies as youthful, with a good sense of humour.

But most of the time, I was ashamed of the way the company forced me to lie and stall people. I quickly tired of fielding justifiably angry phone calls. I actually began advising my favourite members that they would be better off spending their time and energy on a dating site.

That company folded—a victim of the 2008 economic crisis—while I was on maternity leave. I hadn’t imagined that I would ever go back there, but I was surprised and disappointed that I never had the chance to say goodbye to my members. Fortunately, a handful of them had given me their email addresses. In 2012, when I launched my own business, Junia Matchmaking Services, they became some of my very first clients.

Ann Marshall, founder of Junia Matchmaking Services

I operate almost exclusively online, using existing dating sites. I consider myself a matchmaker, but also a dating coach and online dating surrogate/concierge. Essentially, I am e-Cyrano. I’m often better at writing about you than you would be yourself. I write dating profiles. I also curate and edit my clients’ pictures. Sometimes I even take the photos myself. I then set clients up on dating websites like POF (formerly PlentyOfFish) and Match, where I run their profile(s) entirely. I’m the online version of them.

I get the irony in what one of my clients said about my service: “You don’t realize you aren’t being yourself until you are finally allowed to be.” Bonnie, 55, is living with the man I found for her on POF a little less than a year ago. “I was looking in all the wrong places,” she laughs, admitting that she was stuck on “eye candy.”

My services are particularly valuable to women, although I serve clients of all genders, including non-binary people. Most people outside of my industry aren’t aware that men consistently outnumber women on dating sites and apps. This gap persists because so many women are hesitant to “put themselves out there.” Many women hire me because they’ve heard of or had a “gross” experience online. I’ve been using dating sites professionally for eight years, and I know a lot about the privacy settings, which keeps intrusive messages to a minimum. I immediately delete offensive or sexual remarks and block users who display any impatience. I’m always amazed by how many people think 24 hours is too long to wait for a response to a question about the last book you read.

I also pay very little attention to the unsolicited messages my clients receive; rather, I spend my time searching the websites for prospects who meet my client’s criteria, running those candidates by my clients, and then sending friendly messages to any matches a client approves—signed with my client’s name. If the conversation goes well, and the client is willing to meet the person I’ve been talking to, I will set them up on a first date.

My clients don’t wait to hear from the people they might want to meet, because I am starting that conversation for them.

My mission is to make my services accessible and affordable to anyone who wants to use them. I have virtually no overhead, working from an office in the basement of my Guelph, Ont., home. Many—but not all—of my clients would have difficulty finding representation with a traditional matchmaker, including singles disadvantaged by intersecting forms of oppression. I often work on behalf of older women, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and people of colour. My regular clients pay a monthly fee of $475 (including HST), but I offer services on a sliding scale for seniors, students, artists, and anyone else on a limited income or facing financial hardship. I never turn away anyone I think I can help.

I work with clients month by month until we’ve found someone they want to keep seeing—or until they’ve gained the confidence to work their profile for themselves. I don’t always get to hear the follow-up story. My definition of “success” is pretty fluid. Marriage isn’t always the goal. People come to me for different reasons. Some haven’t dated in 40 years and they just want to learn the “ropes.” Some want to find a lifetime love but never live together. Some just want to have sex again, with or without love.

They also come to me at all stages of life; my youngest client was 24, and my oldest was 77. That client, Georgina, is getting married to a 73-year-old in June. A lot of former clients keep in touch. I get invited to at least one or two weddings a year—the ones where one spouse has told the other of my role. I can also take credit for about a dozen babies so far.

Right now, things have definitely slowed down as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Almost all of my clients have chosen to put things on hold for the moment. It’s hard for people to imagine paying hundreds of dollars to “meet” someone they might not actually meet face to face for a year. But it’s also an excellent time to be online dating, for that exact reason. You can be as picky as you like right now! And, well, the only safe way to search for love now is online.

But nudging matchmaking into 21st century reality isn’t only about being online. While the industry remains heavily burdened by patriarchal convention, there is a growing number of matchmakers willing to stand up and be counted as feminist. Many are members of a large Facebook group, “Professional Love Connectors”. Tammy Shaklee, an Austin, Texas–based matchmaker who runs the company, H4M, is a “straight ally” who exclusively serves the LGBTQ+ community, providing one-to-one introductions for clients all over the United States. She’s also committed to making social justice a pillar of her work, and H4M donates thousands to LGBTQ+ charities every year, while encouraging its mainly affluent clientele to do the same.

Another group member, Amy Van Doran, says “feminist” is the word that started her career. She is the founder of New York City’s Modern Love Club, and defines a feminist matchmaker as one who “enables women to have as much agency in the dating process as their male counterparts.” She runs her “hyper-curated” old-fashioned matchmaking business out of an East Village gallery space in Lower Manhattan. She fills her company’s Rolodex by interviewing 54 people a week during “office hours,” and hosting regular art openings and events in the evening that draw an eclectic mix of artists, professionals, and other NYC singles. There’s a dedicated “free dating spot” right outside the storefront in warm weather months, for visitors who want to get to know each other on the premises. From that potential pool, she agrees to arrange matches for only “16 remarkable clients a year.”

Fees are hefty, starting in the $20,000 range, and Van Doran only takes on those she really feels she can help—and who can obviously pay. But that doesn’t mean the standard cis-het, white professionals only—she’s more interested in what’s going on inside a person’s head. Van Doran prefers to match “really interesting people, with a lot going on intellectually.” In her experience, the more unique, original, and engaging a person is, the harder it is for them to find love in the wild. That’s where she comes in; not just putting two people together, but convincing them to take a leap of faith or see potential in someone they are inclined to dismiss.

She cites the recent match of her yoga instructor in New York City with a man she met at Burning Man who lived on a commune in Oregon. “I was like, ‘Listen. Hear me out. This guy is your guy.’ It was so weird, but it was just obvious.” Her client listened. He left the commune. They now live in upstate New York, and they’re getting married.

Van Doran says she helps her clients free themselves from “thinking that you have to date a certain kind of person.” She believes criteria such as matching incomes, racial preferences, and even height parameters are obstructing the most important part of the matchmaking process. “We need to get away from all that and just ask, ‘Does this person make me happy?’ Everything else is going to change.”

One challenge of matching extraordinary people—and women in particular—is that they often expect a partner to bring exactly what they offer to a match, in terms of ambition, education, or material success. Van Doran challenges her clients to stop thinking that they have to date someone with a very similar lifestyle and career. “You don’t need two people who are running at top speed all the time.”

In my own matchmaking work, I have discovered that while complementary lifestyles can be extremely important, opposites who don’t tick all of each other’s boxes often make good matches. Van Doran and I both agree that the most important thing in finding a good match is paying attention to how a person makes you feel. Do you feel heard when you are talking to them? Do they make you laugh? Do you smile when you think of them? Are you excited to see their name come up on the phone? Would your best friend, your grandma, or your dog get along with them? Now that’s a match!

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Feminist Practices

At Home With Your Values

A fourth pig? Photo by Jeff Wasserman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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