Categories
Activism & Action

Q&A: National Day of Conversation with Wanda Deschamps

Photo by Paul Tessier |Stocksy

Wanda Deschamps is a crusader for inclusion:

  • founder of Liberty Co, an organization helping to increase the participation level of the neurodiverse population in the workforce,

  • a champion for the Inclusion Revolution, a worldwide movement launched in 2018 to spearhead broader thinking about disability, especially disability employment,

  • advocate for gender equality through the #women4women collective,

  • co-founder in 2019, with Liz LeClair, of the National Day of Conversation, a digital conversation about the issue of sexual harassment of fundraisers in the charitable and nonprofit sectors.

We spoke with Deschamps about hosting the second National Day of Conversation on Nov. 26  this year.

Wanda Deschamps, co-founder of National Day of Conversation (NDOC), Nov 26 2020.

 

LiisBeth: Why did you start a conversation on this topic?

I’ve been a gender equity advocate my entire life. And I worked in the charitable sector for a generation—25 years. I have noticed questionable behaviour, inappropriate behaviour. I have certainly been aware of the sexism…and the lack of equity at the top. Seventy per cent of our employees are women, yet we participate at about 30 per cent of the leadership level.

But it didn’t all come together until my experience at the University of Waterloo. I was sexually harassed for the three years that I was there. And I complained, and I experienced retaliation.

On Jan. 2, 2019, I was—like so many people—reading the national headlines for the first business day of the new year. It was a cold, dark morning. And I saw the oped in the CBC by Liz LeClair where she shared her own experiences of sexual harassment as a professional fundraiser.

I sat there, stunned. I did not think, given my experiences, given the retaliation, that someone would speak out that way. And so, I was in touch with Liz right away, as were a number of people.

Gradually, our movement was born and we decided on a day of conversation about sexual harassment in the charitable and nonprofit sectors. And that’s how we got to where we are today.

LiisBeth: How has COVID-19 affected equity in the charitable sector, and how does the National Day of Conversation address that?

The pandemic has highlighted inequity and the charitable sector is part of that inequity. But awareness does make a difference; addressing an issue begins with awareness. You can’t address inequity if you don’t think there’s a problem. When I was walking home last year from our in-person session, I thought we are making it increasingly difficult for people to say: ‘I didn’t know. I didn’t know there was a problem. I didn’t know there was an issue. I didn’t know so many people were affected by this. I didn’t know that it was having such an impact.’ And after the online sessions on Nov. 26 this year, I believe that we will feel the same way.

LiisBeth: What do you hope people take away from the National Day of Conversation this year?

On November 26, at 11:59 PM, will our work be over? No.

We need to keep doing what we’re doing; we need to keep the conversation going.

We say that we have a trifecta call to action: promote the day in your social media channels, join the conversation online, and register. And we have hours of virtual dialogue and speakers lined up from across Canada and beyond who are thinkers, leaders, advocates, experts, so we believe there’s something for everyone to learn.

Participate in the National Day of Conversation by posting and sharing content with the hashtags #NationalDayofConversation and #NDOC on your social networks, and start a conversation at your workplace about the sexual harassment and assault of fundraisers – review organizational policies and support systems with leadership.

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As I reflected on defining moments in my life, I was astonished by how often I drew on the work of feminists to navigate through challenging times. 

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Categories
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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Related Reading

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/02/28/when-aunt-flo-becomes-ceo/

Categories
Activism & Action Our Voices Systems Uncategorized

What We Are Talking About When We Talk About White Privilege: Themes From the White Privilege Conference in Toronto

An Alternative model of whiteness painted by Golnaz Golnaraghi

I am a first-generation immigrant woman from Iran, standing in a room comprised of mostly white folks. I had a paintbrush in my hands and found myself creating art that represented a model of whiteness, an alternative model.

I was participating in a workshop that was part of the White Privilege Conference – Global, held recently in Toronto. “Whiteness without White Supremacy,” was facilitated by Dr. Dori Tunstall, Dean of the Faculty of Design at OCAD University — the first black dean to hold such a post in North America.

What emerged in my art conveyed my vision of a model of whiteness with a strong and rooted core grounded in love, power sharing, co-creation, empathy, iterative-learning, equality, and belonging.

I hadn’t considered writing about the conference — until after, when I felt compelled to share my reflections. But first, a bit of background.

The conference was hosted by Ryerson University’s Office of Equity and Community Inclusion, headed by Vice President Dr. Denise O’Neil Green. It followed on the heels of the 2016 White Privilege Symposium hosted by Brock University. The WPC was founded in 1999 in the United States and brought to Canada by Dr. Eddie Moore Jr., a diversity, privilege and leadership consultant and educator who also founded The Privilege Institute.

At a Ryerson Soup and Substance Session held prior to the WPC, Dr. Moore explained that when he was a practitioner working towards a PhD and attending and presenting at conferences, he felt that diversity was the one topic that seemed stunted at a basic level, without a growth process. “We would never accept that if our kids stayed in math in the same course all the way through their high school.” So, he set out to make the WPC the Calculus course for diversity. The conference, utilizing what he calls an “inclusive relationship model,” offers a space for deep dialogue and solutions-based action around systems of supremacy, privilege, power, and leadership.

Walking into the theatre hall on my first day of the conference, I felt a palpable excitement in the room. There were more than 500 participants—one of the most diverse I’ve ever experienced—from a range of genders, races, religions, and sexual orientations and hailing from a broad mix of sectors, most notably education and non-profit.

The quality of the seven keynote speakers (four women and three men) was impressive—all accomplished thought leaders, educators, and activists from Canada and the United States. The conference also featured 65 workshops, a Youth Action Program for youth in grades 6-12, a marketplace of more than 20 vendors, and the 10th annual Viola Desmond Awards & Banquet Dinner, named for a Black business woman who challenged racial segregation in Canada but was only recently recognized, becoming the first woman on Canadian currency.

For me, to attend this conference with hundreds of people (many white) eager to learn, explore and talk about diversity at the deepest levels, with a spirit of curiosity and respect, was a moving experience. I was inspired by the keynote speakers who dedicated their lives to social justice, despite potential risks of becoming targets of backlash.

At the Soup and Substance Session, Dr. Moore explained that risk: “What I’ve learned doing this conference is if you’re really good at this work, people will put your life in danger.” He said that was a significant threat, as the father of two young children. But he vowed never to let fear hold him back from taking action.

That is no easy thing. In her book So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo cites retaliation as the number one concern for people of colour engaged in racial justice work. Activists face harassment on social media, protests at public events, and threatening emails, just to name a few threats. The WPC in Toronto was no exception as protesters held a public rally on the last day of the event, calling a conference on white privilege “racist.”

But as Oluo aptly reflects in her book, “Conversations about racism should never be about winning. This battle is too important to be simplified. You are in this to share, and to learn. You are in this to do better and be better.”

The purpose of the conference was not about blaming a group of people but, instead, acknowledging the systemic causes of oppression and inequalities—and their effects. Ultimately the goal was to move us towards meaningful conversations, solutions and change, in societies and ourselves.

The conference explored many rich concepts, far too many to cover in one article. What I seek to share are themes from the keynote speakers that stood out for me.

We must reject talking about white privilege in a disembodied way

We cannot talk about white privilege without speaking about white supremacy, so said Toronto-based social activist and freelance journalist Desmond Cole. He emphasized that white supremacy is a system of power that designates value to individuals based on the perception of skin colour and ethnic ancestry, creating a racial hierarchy with notions of whiteness at the top. And, that white supremacy gives rise to white privilege.

Ritu Bhasin, an advocate for authenticity, inclusion and empowerment, defined white supremacy as the “ideology that white people are better, more valuable, more deserving, more competent, more able than people of colour and indigenous peoples; how it shows up and how it manifests is by way of power and privilege.”

Cole called on us to reject conversations that speak about white privilege in a disembodied way, as if white privilege were not connected to the history of colonialism, slavery, capitalism—a white privilege “that just exists, ‘cause it exists, ‘cause it exists and is sad and unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is. Heck, can you even change it? Maybe it’s a force of nature!”

Cole pointed out the ways white supremacy plays out in the policing system. Cole, himself, was arrested at a police board meeting where he took the microphone to speak out about Dafonte Miller, a Black teen who was allegedly severely beaten by an off-duty Toronto police officer and his brother. As a prominent voice and critic of the Toronto Police, Cole was also part of a successful effort to remove police presence at Toronto public high schools.

We must recognize privilege and how it affects us, in different ways

In basic terms, privilege is a set of benefits, advantages or ‘perks’ afforded people who fit into a particular social group. We hear about male privilege. But what about straight privilege? Ability privilege? Class privilege? White privilege? It may be difficult to recognize our own privilege while we are enjoying the perks, but we must seek to understand them based on different aspects of our identity such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, physical ability, etc.

We can be privileged in some aspects of life while experiencing oppression in other areas. To underline this point, Sian Ferguson’s White Privilege 101: A Quick and Dirty Guide offers an example of white people who believe they don’t experience privilege because they are of modest means. Being poor can be an oppression but does not negate the benefit that comes with being white. Cole drew an analogy of a 100-meter sprint: “Some people are starting at 70 meters and some people are starting at zero. And some people are going to get arrested as soon as the shot gun goes off to start running, so that they have to be put back to the beginning.”

For those who may struggle with seeing their own white privilege, Dr. Adrien K. Wing, Associate Dean at University of Iowa and editor of Critical Race Feminism, suggests a read of Dr. Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh, a white woman, offers a personal account of taking a closer look at her own daily experiences with white privilege, which she once took for granted. These are some of her observations:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  • I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.

Wing reminded us of recent incidents that might extend the list—Going to Starbucks While Black and Dozing at Yale While Black. “Every single day another one of these episodes happen and for some of you it can be like ‘Wow that’s sad,’ but for those of us subjected to that potentially every day, this is no joke.”

We must look at Allyship as not a noun that we are, but an action we do

That powerful comment, from one of the conference MC’s, captured the essence of the conference for me.

Cole urged the audience to stop using the word “allyship” and, instead, to consider, “Are you my friend? Cause my friend would see me being harmed and would stand in front of me to protect me…I want you to be my friend and I want you to be, ideally, if we can get really close, my family.” What I took from Cole’s message? We must move beyond talk, beyond calling ourselves allies, towards taking action—with courage and heart.

Dr. Jane Fernandes, President of Guilford College, and the first deaf woman to lead an American college or university, has also been active in addressing critical race justice issues. Growing up as a deaf white woman, she experienced a structure of hierarchy in the deaf community that mirrors the hearing community, with whiteness also at the top. “If we share an oppression with people of colour, like deaf black people and deaf white people, we share deaf and then we’re fighting for deaf rights, and we can forget that we are white.” But by understanding what goes on in the intersections, we can begin to dismantle and transform the system. Doing so makes our advocacy more inclusive and effective.

“Our choice when we know about our white privilege and we understand all these things about how it was created,” she said, “is to use it in such a way as to dismantle our system (of oppression).” That starts with small acts. “If everyone here disrupts the system a little bit five times a day, every day, that’s massive.”

We must be self-empowered warriors to make change

Dr. Shirley Cheechoo, who achieved a double first—first female and first Aboriginal Chancellor at Brock University—is also an award-winning artist, actor and filmmaker. She shared a moving account of her eight years in the residential school system where she experienced harrowing emotional, physical and sexual abuse. She turned to drugs and alcohol to blunt the pain—until she decided to quit, cold turkey, and turn her life around. She recalled her grandfather’s advice: “Forgive but never forget about it. Shirley do not let anyone choose your path in life. You have to let go of the old self. Self is not something already made. It is through your choice of actions that you create your best self.”

Cheechoo chose not to forget her past, but to stop being a victim of it. “We cannot wait for the next generation to make a difference. We are responsible, and we have the opportunity to make change.”

Motivated by a deep passion to serve indigenous youth, by helping them live their potential, she founded De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre Group (the only professional theatre company located on a reserve in Canada) and Weengushk Film Institute (a film and television training centre unlocking the creative potential of indigenous youth). “For years I have asked as a mother, as a woman in my community, how long, how many more years are we going to leave the children and the youth in the hands of unemployment? How many more people will have to fall into the trap that steals and butchers lives, dreams, and hopes of our next generation to come? We must learn to defeat the system and fix the problem now, and we must do it together. The Third World Country is right here, in our backyards.”

We must take the bridge on the path forward

Dr. John A. Powell, an internationally recognized author, speaker, and Director and Chancellor’s Chair at Hass Institute at UC Berkley, gave a rich talk on “Rethinking White Privilege in the Age of White Supremacy and Ethnic Nationality.”

Powell explained that when we talk about white privilege and ethnic nationalism, “We’re talking about a process of ‘othering,’ we’re talking about some people claiming that they belong, and those same people claiming that other people don’t belong.” He suggested that this process of ‘othering’ is a problem that has gained power into the 21st century and is happening all over the world.

Othering, Powell said, can be thought about as “the way we marginalize people, the way we distribute resources, the way we recognize consciously and unconsciously as well as structurally, people’s humanity. You can ‘other’ someone without necessarily having a conscious animus towards someone.” And that can be based on a variety of dimensions—gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion and on and on.

“The opposite of ‘othering’ is not ‘saming,’ it’s belonging,” he said. “When you think about integration, inclusion, you think about people coming into your space, but it’s still your space. You can ask them to leave.” But belonging, he pointed out, is saying “It’s not your house, it’s not my house, it’s our house. When people really belong, they co-create the thing they belong to.” According to Powell, this is done through a process of bridging, listening, engaging, organizing, and love.

Ethnic nationalism, he pointed out, has become more explicit because of migration patterns and increased diversity, specifically that of the ethnic ‘other.’ That reminded me of narratives reflected in the 2016 elections in the United States, the global refugee crisis, the US travel ban, the US migrant crisis, as just a few examples.

He offered two dominant stories in society available to us: “One is breaking, which is stories about the fear of the ‘other,’ in some way threatening or taking something away from who we are. And the other is a bridging story, which is that we are actually going to enlarge the ‘we’ and the ‘other’ will be a part of that new we.” Bridging takes us towards a path of human connection and belonging.

Powell also talked to the changing demographics in Canada, citing Joe Friesen’s Globe and Mail article that said, “By 2031, one in three Canadians will belong to a visible minority. One in four will be foreign-born, the highest proportion since the end of the last wave of mass immigrantion that began around 1910.” Powell asked the audience to consider what Canada’s story might be and who will tell that story? “And so, will we bridge? Or will we break?”

We must move forward

And so, I left the conference with my painting of what an alternative model of ‘whiteness’ might look, realizing that it’s a ‘we-ness’ we must strive for, rooted at the core, grounded in love, power sharing, co-creation, empathy, equality, belonging. And the call to me, to take the bridge forward through action, translating that painting into all the narratives that shape our lives: schools, teams, workplaces, boardrooms, business models, advisory groups, government. And on and on.


For more information about the White Privilege Conference in Toronto, click here. For more information about the 2019 White Privilege Conference in Iowa, click here.

Additional Resources:

To watch recordings of the keynote speakers at the Ryerson White Privilege Conference, click here.

Categories
Activism & Action

Steal Our Feminism, But Admit It

T.L. Cowan, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Toronto

What happens when companies appropriate the ideas of feminism to increase “diversity” and “inclusion” without giving due credit to feminism? According to T.L. Cowan, a professor of media studies at the University of Toronto and deep thinker on feminism, that theft pushes feminism to the radical edges, which stops the rich flow of ideas from feminist activists, scholars, and practitioners, and stalls actual progress on diversity and inclusion.

LiisBeth caught up with T.L. Cowan and her research colleague Prateeksha Singh at Verity, a women’s business club in downtown Toronto, to talk about Cowan’s new research project that focuses on how feminist entrepreneurs, scholars, and activists are influencing education and industry. For instance, she wants to know how feminist research actually reaches practitioners who can put those ideas to work.

Cowan, who was a former Yale University Visiting Presidential Professor, Canadian Bicentennial Visiting Professor, and Digital Humanities Fellow before joining the University of Toronto, was keen to get to know the feminist entrepreneur community in Toronto—and LiisBeth was all too happy to help out!

In turn, LiisBeth wanted to pick her brain about how feminism can shape today’s corporate agenda. Here’s our conversation.


LiisBeth: In political, social, and economic change circles, we talk about feminism. In corporate circles, we talk about diversity and inclusion. What’s the difference? How do these two realms intersect?

T.L. Cowan: I think the diversity and inclusion conversation would not be possible without feminism, anti-racist, disability, LGBTQ2S, Indigenous, civil rights, and other activist social movements. Quite simply, while of course it’s great to aim for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, the “diversity and inclusion” framework is an example of corporate culture taking credit for these initiatives without citing the generations of social movement work that have shifted values and norms. So it’s like these new business models plagiarize activist ideas and practices without citing the movements or incorporating the analyses of power that inform this societal shift.

Diversity and inclusion policies and practices are not always uninformed or misguided but they are often more oriented to corporate metrics than to broader political or cultural change. In the worst-case scenario, it’s like taking the easiest possible route to a progressive-looking company photo for the website without accounting for the real work of being within and working across difference. However, in the best-case scenario, a diverse and inclusive workplace and work culture that is flexible enough to transform itself rather than expecting all the new “diversity and inclusion” hires to reproduce the existing company culture can be a very positive experience for everyone involved.

LiisBeth: Can diversity and inclusion professionals learn anything from feminism?

Cowan: I’d like to see diversity and inclusion professionals educate themselves on the long histories of feminism and other activist struggles within and beyond the corporate world and the labour movement. We have been fighting for a more just and equitable society, including employment justice and equity for a long time. These are not new ideas produced within a boardroom. These are ideas that have been generated from kitchen tables, community centres, and the streets!

One of the things that happens when diversity and inclusion mandates are annexed from feminist and other activist movements without citation and taken out of context is that those movements then become caricatures of an unpopular kind of radicalism. My friend, professor Jacqueline Wernimont, writes brilliantly about this in the context of academic culture, but her analysis is applicable here. She notes that the mainstreaming of some feminist principles without naming them as such is a “dangerous kind of appropriation … of many of the insights and practices of various feminisms but strips out their identification as such, thereby eliding the many ways in which feminists and feminist paradigms have effected change.”

Extending Wernimont’s argument to the corporate sphere, the “diversity and inclusion” framework is part of a general trend that “systematically subsumes” feminist work. She explains that “not only does this make the work of scholarly feminism invisible, once again writing women out of history, it also creates a vision of 21st-century feminism as what is left over, what has not been claimed by other now mainstream methodologies, merely the hysterical rantings of angry women (again).”

Another reality that happens when you formulate a diversity and inclusion policy or strategy without paying attention to the long histories of feminist activism is that you cannot benefit from the lessons learned within feminist movements. For example, the framework of “women and other underrepresented groups” in B Lab’s Inclusive Economy Metric Set does not attend to the ways that white women have benefited disproportionately from corporate feminism. There is a long history in feminist politics that allows us to understand how racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination against recent immigrants and Indigenous people do not function separately, but rather intersect and accumulate (see readings below). What this means is that decontextualized diversity and inclusion frameworks are least likely to benefit folks who are multiply minoritized by overt or implicit long-standing, traditional, systemic, and structural biases.

By the standards set in this document, a company could have a 100% white employee pool and still meet the challenge, as long as some of those white people were women, queer, disabled, or transgender. Or 100% male, as long as some of the men met some other diversity requirements. Head-counting can only get us so far in our goals for a just and equitable corporate culture and broader society. We actually have to account for how long histories of discrimination and the maldistribution of life chances (see Spade reading below) continue to shape even our ideas of diversity and inclusion.


A select list of further reading by T.L. Cowan:

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. London: Duke University Press, 2012.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press, 2010.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43.6 (1991): 1241–1299.

Enke, Anne. Transfeminist Perspectives in and beyond Transgender and Gender Studies. Temple University Press, 2012.

Hooks, Bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2015. (Especially, “Feminism: A Transformational Politic.”)

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, Calif.: Crossing Press, 2007. (Especially “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.)

Malhotra, Ravi. Disability Politics in a Global Economy : Essays in Honour of Marta Russell. 2017.

Razack, Sherene, Malinda Smith & Sunera Thobani, eds. States of Race : Critical Race Feminism for the 21st Century. Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 2010.

Spade, Dean. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

Wernimont, Jacqueline. “Whence Feminism? Assessing Feminist Interventions in Digital Literary Archives.” 7.1 (2013): Digital Humanities Quarterly.