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Activism & Action

A New School of Writing

Sarah Selecky (middle) with teachers from her writing school.
(Photo provided)


Sarah Selecky distinctly remembers the feeling of being an emerging woman writer.

It was 2010. She had just published her first book, This Cake is for the Party. It was nominated for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize soon after, generating a load of publicity for the little-known writer – and the small publisher, Thomas Allen and Son. Readers reached out to Selecky on Twitter, asking where they could buy copies of her book as it wasn’t widely available at big chains or local bookstores. 

Selecky decided to “open up the conversation” and tagged bookstores in a Tweet, asking them where readers could purchase copies.

That prompted a call from her publishers to say that the bookstores weren’t happy with the tweet or her challenging the hierarchy, suggesting, next time, she go through her publisher or agent.

At first, Selecky felt like she was being “smacked for disobedience.” But when she really thought about it, she realized she was just being herself and getting the word out. “I asked, am I doing something wrong, or am I doing something different?”

In her question, she found her answer. And it set the tone for much of the work she does today.

In 2011, Selecky audaciously launched the Sarah Selecky Writing School with one main purpose: to create a different space for new and emerging writers to learn the craft.

Start Small, Think Big

Selecky was an avid reader growing up—books by C.S. Lewis and Michael Ende—but the Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene gave her the idea that maybe, someday, she could be a writer. In 2005, looking to find her “way in the world and make a livelihood,” she enrolled in the MFA program at the University of British Columbia, which offered one of the first optional residency writing programs at the time, allowing her to study from her home in Toronto.

But as a distance student, Selecky could not work as a teaching assistant at the university. That experience seemed crucial, as a way of testing whether she wanted to become a professor.

So Selecky started teaching small classes from her living room, and in teaching others, she learned more about herself, her future and her craft. “I would find that people would have a question about point of view, or a question about structure, and I wouldn’t know from my own experience so I would go deep into research for that.”

She appreciated the freedom to do things her own way—and doubted she would have as much as a professor. “My own experience of creative writing and the art of it went beyond what I saw was possible in an academic setting back then.”

As well, women writers she was reading, studying with or being mentored by—Natalie Goldberg, Lynda Barry, Zsuzsi Gartner and Karen Joy Fowler—questioned Selecky’s decision to do an MFA as they felt creative writing taught in institutions encouraged patriarchal storytelling.

They also championed the idea that women’s stories didn’t have to be about “romantic relationships with men and betrayals and affairs,” but could have women alone, at the forefront of their own journey.

School as a Feminist Conversation

As way of keeping that conversation going, Selecky consciously hired women instructors when she launched her school (presently,18 out of 19 are women) knowing that  teachers would help shape the stories students write.

She encourages students to rethink and reimagine the stories they read and are trying to write. “So much needs to change or be destabilized in order to open it up for different voices and different ways of seeing.”

That means taking on patriarchal storytelling—namely the constant rewriting of the “hero’s story,” says Selecky. That structure is often centred around a male character, documenting his journey of overcoming extraordinary challenges. These stories are not only prevalent in literature, but in every form of storytelling—from opera to film. “The architecture of our story is baked in through generations and generations of what we live and what we learn. It’s also a part of how we think and how we move our bodies through this world, who we are and who we talk to. It’s what we learn, what we consciously absorb and digest, and read and pay attention to and make and feel and listen to.”

Realizing that simply casting a heroine in place of the hero doesn’t exactly upset that patriarchal story structure, Selecky follows a writing process she calls “flow” or “embodied writing” and teaches her students that it’s not about pursuing the hero’s or heroine’s story or an idea of a story they think is good or publishable, but about writing a story that feels authentic to them, whatever that may look like. “An embodied piece of writing that is imperfectly written but perfectly felt, I think, is worth a lot.”

What does flow look like? Selecky’s second book, Radiant Shimmering Light, follows the lives of two women in business (listen to Selecky read an excerpt from the book here). It refuses the hero’s journey and the structure of protagonist and antagonist crossing paths; rather, the female characters work together to fight an “antagonistic force” that Selecky describes as an unsolvable dilemma in their lives. To resolve it, they have to leave this dimension.

“They could not solve the dilemma of wanting to live this life they loved, wanting to be successful businesswomen, artists, friends. They couldn’t resolve that in the structure they were moving in and so they left. And the question for one character is, does she die? And for the other is, did she lose her mind? The answer is, I don’t know, what do you think, and let’s talk about it.”

Embedding Feminism in Business

Like her writing, Selecky wanted to create a feminist structure for her business. “The first driving force was this idea that it’s a feminist act for a woman to be independent and financially solvent. I thought we need to stop undervaluing the arts, and we need to stop undervaluing feminized skill sets, which involve deep listening, observation, reflection and teaching. By bringing value to it, I thought it was a feminist act.”

And a gutsy one. Not only did the emerging writer create a writing school, but she did so online, back when platforms such as Zoom were years away and people did not exactly turn to the internet to learn, especially creative writing. But the venture proved successful because of what Selecky calls “growth at the speed of trust.” She pays fair and equal wages and strives to hire graduates of her courses, and they return to the school as teachers because they trust what the school stands for and what it teaches.

The teachers at her school play an important role in the decision making that takes place when it comes to the courses and the direction the school is taking. Selecky gives teachers the freedom to teach the Story Intensive course in the way that works best for them and their students, while following the established curriculum and syllabi, and also invites teachers to play a role in developing and modifying the curriculum each year.

Says Selecky: “This year we have Dr. Stacy Thomas as our mental health consultant because our teacher, Daphne Gordon, brought her into the community. Our lead teacher, Sonal Champsee, has been helping all of us to look into how we talk about writing and cultural appropriation. Teachers also choose new teachers — I ask them to advise me on who we should bring into our network as new TAs each year, based on their experiences with students and graduates.”

Selecky says a lot of her leadership style is based on what she learned from reading and re-reading adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. One of the chapters that particularly resonated with her is about the role of people, team and community remind us of the common ground we share. “She knows she’s a good leader. And she knows she needs her people to help her see her blind spots. This resonated with me.”

In its ninth year this year, the school boasts more than a thousand graduates from its 10-week Story Course and around six hundred from the Story Intensive. More than 30 students have published books from the Story Intensive course alone.

With the school growing, Selecky strives to deepen her feminist practices. Four of five staff who manage operations, marketing and finance are women. Selecky participated in Fifth Wave Labs, Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media. Created by the Canadian Film Centre’s (CFC) Media Lab, the program helps accelerate and sustain the growth of women-owned/led enterprises in southern Ontario’s digital media sector.

The mentorship proved valuable. “Feeling that we all want to create a society that flourishes for everyone—not just the founder, but everyone that it ripples out and touches. It’s moving to feel aligned with other womxn but also other womxn-led and women-supported businesses.”

The Next Chapter

The anti-Black racism protests following the murder of George Floyd and ensuing conversations prompted Selecky to reimagine the next phase of the school.

Selecky wants to attract more BIPOC instructors and students. Her latest hire – a student returning as a teacher this fall—is Darrel J. McLeod, author of the memoir Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age, and winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.

But the question troubling her is how to teach embodied writing while acknowledging that racialized trauma may prevent students from doing so. “One of the things that I’ve learned from meditative practices is that asking someone who has experienced trauma or is triggered by it to sit with it can actually make it worse. What I want to know is how much does an embodied writing practice move through the body, and is writing like talking or is it like moving? Or is it both? Because an embodied writing practice is about moving things through the body.”

To answer the question, Selecky started working with a somatic therapist to include trauma-aware, mindfulness therapy and body practices in her classes. Running her own school allows her the freedom to do so. “I would not be able to bring a somatics therapist into my university classes if I was a professor. So, I feel grateful for the opportunity, and I’m also aware I have a lot to learn because, in a writing class, if someone is experiencing racialized trauma, asking them to drop their armour and write expressively and freely—there’s an assumption that it’s a safe space, but they may not feel safe to do that.

“I think this is one of the transformative moments I find my school and myself in, where we can’t separate therapeutic writing from literary craft anymore. I think that is a false separation that has kept a lot of voices and a lot of stories out of the literary canon.”

Publishers Note:  The Sarah Selecky Writing School is a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. Fifth Wave Connect, the pre-accelerator program is currently accepting applications here.  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. 

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Our Voices Systems Uncategorized

Creating a Feminist City: We Rise by Lifting Others

Imagine equality. (Photo Think Urban, Women’s March on Washington, 2017)

What if we could rank cities according to how desirable they were for women and gender minorities to live, work and play? And what if this equated with sustainable economic growth for all? If we could pinpoint and, hence, strengthen factors that would attract women and in particular, women entrepreneurs and investors, to move to a city, what might those factors be?  Consider:

  • Safety in all areas of a city, during day and night.
  • Refuge sites and high quality support for victums of gender violence. (or better yet, declining numbers)
  • A thriving diverse women-led entrepreneurship ecosystem.
  • Equal wages (Ontario has a 31% gap).
  • Equal gender representation on corporate and non-profit boards as well as city council.
  • Affordable and accessible daycare.
  • Vibrant, inclusive mentor networks.
  • A five block feminist and social justice centered enterprise district.
  • A thriving feminist art, music, media and culture scene.
  • Subway stations and main streets re-named after prominent women and gender minority leaders.
  • Subsidized feminist summer and March break camp programs-for all genders.
  • Plenty of green space for recharging and connecting root chakras with Mother Earth.
  • Progressive attitudes towards women in all sectors including civic affairs, the legal system, and reproductive health.
  • A self-identified feminist Mayor.
  • (Add your idea here)

Sounds attractive? Welcome to The Feminist City.

Poster for Un Habitat Student Competition 2016

Why The Feminist City?

We bet women (and their families) from around the world would flock to The Feminist City—to live, work, invest, and thrive. And we bet men would gain too. As would gender nonconforming folks and others from diverse backgrounds.

In addition, the economy would experience a much needed spark. There is a strong business case (jobs, tourism dollars, quality of life) behind the idea that The Feminist City would produce incredible economic development opportunities—cities could do themselves (and us) a big favour by trying to become one.

Progressive Politics Produce Economic Benefits

At the turn of this century, when cities were looking for a competitive edge or ways to save enfeebled economies, urban theorist Richard Florida, extending the brilliant work of urbanist Jane Jacobs,  seemed to provide the answer: Find ways to attract the “creative class” who were deemed to be the force capable of reviving rusting, industrial age economies. Creative-class infused cities would later become the economic heroes of the times. The Harvard Business Review hailed his book, The Rise of The Creative Class, as the major breakthrough idea of 2004.

Who comprised this creative class? The “super creative” ten per cent epicentre of this class or worker included scientists, engineers, university professors, poets, novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers, and architects”. (Note: All male-led fields). But essentially, the bulk of the creative class folk were primarily socially marginalized people considered to be dreamers, sketchy or undesirables in prior decades. Florida proposed that cities that invited diversity and were were more tolerant of outliers were and would continue to be, more economically resilient and successful. At that time, his indicators for tolerance was measured by how friendly a city was towards “unconventional people – gays, immigrants, artists, and ‘free-thinking bohemians’.”

Florida did not consider gender equity as part of his original creative class formula. In fact, he didn’t consider the health of the local feminist ecosystem as a key driver of economic success in subsequent updates of his theory—that is, until 2012.

Now, with gender inequality persisting and mother earth being pummelled to breaking point (Coincidentally? We think not!) Feminism has remerged from the deep like Godzilla (who is female by the way) to level the field and fight the dark blue scourge. Florida took notice and reflected this in his most recent work. As did others interested in saving economies gasping for air. Advancing women has suddenly become the neoliberal capitalist equivalent to trading bitcoins—perceived huge potential for outsized returns and fast.

Today, many national governments and multi-national corporations are betting that advancing equality for women and girls will fuel new economic growth. Consequently, more people than ever before in history are working to advance gender equity in all sectors. However, the idea that progressive pro-women urban development policy can attract high-growth, next-gen industries, new tourism dollars, and make our cities more livable/visitable for all genders is only just now starting to catch on at the municipal level.

Buh-bye Creative Class? Welcome The Feminist Class!

As evidence, progressive female urban planners are increasingly organizing and working together on about at how to make cities better for women and girls. Their tactics include getting more women involved in urban planning, shaping policies that advance gender justice, and designing more inclusive, safe public spaces. In step, progressive economic development officers are working on strategies to attract high-growth, women-led enterprises.  In other words, they are talking about criteria and strategies for creating a feminist city.

The media has also jumped on the idea by writing about what cities are best for women. In 2014, Bustle, a U.S. based feminist magazine, identified the eight best cities for women to live in in the United States. Editors considered factors like the gender wage gap, laws related to reproductive health, and the depth and “breadth of the city’s historical foundations of progressive feminism in the city.” The list of cities included San Francisco (CA), Austin TX), Philadelphia (PA), and New York City (NY). While these cities have earned a reputation as being female friendly, local governments don’t market themselves as such nor do they demonstrate any specific commitment to gender equity or the advancement of women and girls. They still have a long way to go to being truly feminist cities.

A Tale of Two Cities

Across the pond, Spain’s capital of Madrid is actively marketing their commitment to gender equity and feminist ideals in an attempt to boost tourism—and their annual growth rate in that sector already generates hot green envy amongst peers.

The Mayor and City Council of the city of 3.6 million has declared straight up, loud and proud, that Madrid is a feminist city. And they back it up with action. Just over a year ago, the City Council created the Department for Policies of Gender and Diversity “in order to coordinate efforts to eradicate the perverse effects produced by our patriarchal society.” Says Mayor Manuella Carmena Castrillo: “It is a task that involves all branches of government, even if these are themselves fueled by such a culture.”

Madrid’s effort to advance equity and inclusion is multi-faceted. The “Espacios de igualdad” (“Spaces of Equality”) are 13 projects located in districts around the city that “act as a place of reference for citizenship.” The “spaces” offer workshops and activities to raise awareness of how a culture transmits inequality. They have legal, psychological and professional development initiatives to train all citizens on how to promote gender equality and transform the culture.

The city has also launched two extra-curricular educational programs — “Escuelas de Empoderamiento (“Schools of Empowerment”) and Escuelas de Igualdad (“Schools of Equality”)—that “raise awareness and mobilize the population around issues of equality by disseminating the great contributions brought about by feminism and implications around the concept of gender.”

We could go on. But let’s stop and think about how such initiatives might fly in North American cities. In LiisBeth’s hometown of Toronto, a city similar in size and scale of influence to Madrid, it’s nearly inconceivable to imagine the current mayor or council, both conservative leaning, seizing on feminism as an opportunity.

Toronto’s mayor, John Tory, recently spoke at Move the Dial, a big-budget, Silicon Valley style event to promote women’s participation and advancement in STEM sectors. In a fireside chat with Canadian tech entrepreneur celebrity Michelle Romanov, Tory boasted about his team’s success in luring another hollywood-style bro-owned and led tech conference-Collision–which featured Eva Longoria (acress from Desparate Housewives) as a draw in 2017-to the city for the next three years. He said that a big attraction for organizers was Toronto’s diverse talent pool in STEM. In fact, he mentioned Toronto’s diversity—we counted five times—as a primary draw for people and companies who come to Toronto. Because Toronto is home to people from some 230 different nationalities who negotiate life here, eat each other’s cuisine, and live side by side largely peacefully.

But the city is far from being a beacon of a gender equity progress. Step one in creating a feminist city is making cities safe for women and girls and every six days, a woman is killed by her intimate partner in Canada—Toronto, as Canada’s most populous city, shares this burdensome stat. Only 30% of Toronto’s new city council are women. Toronto’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion website lists 10 specific equity initiatives—but not-a-one related to gender equity.  None of Canada’s TSX top 60 companies—the majority headquartered in Toronto-are headed by a woman. There are only two independent women-led entrepreneur co-working and incubator spaces in existence within city boundaries. Rather than working to shore up women’s entrepreneurship ecosystems, especially in the human-centered economy sectors, the city closed EMBER, the city’s only women-led/women-centred startup incubator program, in 2016. If you type the word “feminism” into the City of Toronto’s website, you get two hits (Madrid=3020 hits).  As a result, Toronto’s tourism and economic development strategy (Read: tech, tech, more tech, nothing but tech. Did we say tech?) looks like it is stuck in the 1990s—the decade the internet went mainstream. All this is unfortunate and dated if Madrid is any indication. Time to run toward where the ball is going-not where it’s been.

The city of Madrid is not perfect. But it takes action. In April, thousands across Spain took to the streets to protest the lenient sentencing of five men in the violent, video-taped “wolf pack” gang rape of a teen attending a bull running festival in Pamplona. Thousands of men and women across Spain took to the streets to protest. The ruling was seen as especially out of touch with the Madrid’s feminist leaning societal values. Madrid responded by banning the men from travelling to Madrid (where the victum was from), and stepping up initiatives to ensure the safety of women and girls in its streets. This included setting up “puntos violetas” purple coloured posts during city festivals where anyone feeling unsafe could get help or advice. The city has also funded a new hotline and specialized network to respond to gender violence. The “Neighborhoods for Good Treatment” initiative includes signs and door hangers for businesses and homes to signal they are safe spaces.

How a city responds to gender-based violence says a lot.

Last spring, Toronto also experienced a high-profile horrific case of gender-based violence—a man driving a van intentionally veered off the road and onto a sidewalk, targeting women. He managed to kill 10 people, eight of whom were women. On social media, the 25-year-old van driver had declared himself an incel (involuntary celibate) and was angry at woman for not wanting to have sex with him.

Torontonians held emotional vigils and flags few half-mast. But there was no follow on city funded initiative launched to advance safety for women and girls or promote gender relations dialogue in response. Surprisingly, Toronto has only one rape crisis centre for a city of 2.7 million. People wait for up to 18 months to get help. Furthermore, its meager funding is currently on the line.

That’s chilling, really.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. And lack of action around ensuring safe cities for women might soon hurt those municipalities who continue along a similar path. It’s not a situation a feminist city would accept.

Going Forward?


Image from Messurbanism Blogspot

Move over creative class. It’s 2019. Today’s activists, still closeted intersectional feminists of all genders are the new  transformational urban “undesirables”. And listen up L.A., Berlin, Tokyo, London, Melbourne, Cape Town, and Toronto—embracing feminism and working to elevate gender equality can supercharge your economy—and more importantly, transform the lived experience of your citizens, in amazing, positive ways previously unimagined.

Imagine the sign on the highway as you cross into city limits: Welcome to The Feminist City: We Rise by Lifting Others. Please Take Our Values Home.

#womenaresafehere #transpeoplearesafehere #genderqueerpeople are safehere. 

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