Activism & Action Uncategorized

Feminist in Law

woman in suit headshot
Darlene Tonelli, founder of Inter Alia law. Photo provided.

Darlene Tonelli founded Inter Alia Law seven years ago. The boutique firm specializes in tech, media and entertainment law. She also co-hosts Lawyer Life Podcast, which explores the personal, political and professional lives of lawyers. We spoke with Tonelli about her journey into law and feminism.


LiisBeth: How did you get into law?


I grew up in a small town, and am the first kid in my extended family of many, many, many, people to go to law school or any kind of professional school. I was a figure skater in my youth, which was a good training ground for competition; individual sports helped shape my discipline and sort of going after things that I was interested in doing. I went through political science at the University of Calgary (1994-1998), and most of my work there [was] on feminist issues. I wrote almost every single paper on the looming dangers of pornography to women and the movement. It wasn’t a very popular position at the time, but I certainly wish I had kept working on it because it’s now an epidemic. But it wasn’t clear then what a big thing it was going to become. When I went to law school, I just took a big corporate job to pay off my student debt.


LiisBeth: How did you come to create your own law firm?


I did work in a traditional law firm setting for two summers and three years. It wasn’t a structure that made sense to me for the things that I wanted to have in my life. I wanted freedom over my time—I didn’t mind working long hours, but I didn’t want to be in a position where I couldn’t call my own schedule for like 10 to 15 years, which is the model and how it works. I was also lucky to get on a file early on that was really on the wrong side of my principles. Working for a big corporate law firm, I would not be able to honour my own values all the time. You have to work on what you’re given, and that that wasn’t something that I was cool with.


I transitioned through [working] in house at a record label, which I loved. Through that experience, I realized that [I didn’t want to] work for these big organisations where I was just a cog in the wheel. [I wanted] to create my own organisation where I could really shape the culture, the people, the projects that we took on, the approach that we take. So when I started Inter Alia law, I was really just trying to make a law firm that I wanted to work at.


There are now 10 of us, and we focus very much on creating a real sustainable life of authenticity. We focus on giving clients a level of service that comes from empathy and emotional intelligence to get better results for them.


LiisBeth: What are some of the gaps in Canadian law that you’re trying to fill?


I think there are a couple of big issues in law, and we’re addressing two of them. One is the cost of legal services, which is very, very high. There are statistics, something like 80 per cent of people who need access to lawyers don’t have it for financial or other reasons, so we try to make our services pretty accessible.


We’re also very affordable in a range of other things, which is facilitated by the type of model we run, which is a low overhead where everyone has a predictable share of revenues. So a normal model is a partnership where you buy in and you get to work your way up the ranks, and the higher up you are, the more business you bring in, the more money you make. We definitely reward in our model; for example, high performance is something that’s rewarded, but we don’t set it up so that, if you’re not a partner, the way you make money is by oppressing other people. That’s a very standard feature of the current legal landscape.


The second thing is we’re very focused on taking an educational approach with our clients. So, we don’t talk to them like they don’t know what they’re doing and we’re the gurus; we talk to them about what their needs are, what they would like to see out of a situation. And we try to get to know them as people, to help them get a better result that actually fits with what they need. We’re sensitive to what they need in a way that I think is increasingly important, but I don’t think is yet the norm.


LiisBeth: How do you embed feminist practices in the work you’re doing?


I would say it’s not been by design, it’s been more by accident. We don’t, for example, define ourselves as a feminist law firm. We are five men, five women, very gender balanced. But I would say we have real allies on the team for feminism, who really support a different way of doing things and understand the challenges that we experience.


And as far as influences, just to give a little bit of a shout out to some of the stuff that LiisBeth publisher PK Mutch and feminist author CV Harquail are doing, in educating women about being part of a bigger ecosystem of entrepreneurs. I built Inter Alia on my own and then I encountered CV and PK maybe a year ago and I thought, ‘Oh, [Inter Alia] is a feminist business.’ I didn’t realize that prior to meeting them. I think there are a lot of us out here doing what we do, just understanding that things are still quite oppressive in the workforce for a lot of people. And I think that the women who are building businesses from scratch are taking a really different approach—it might not be the one that you read about a lot in the press, but we’re out here.


I also think the general feedback that you get from people in traditional business models is that feminist business is not about profit maximizing. My answer is that feminist business is profitable, but not to the exclusion of people. I don’t want to make my profit by hurting other people, and I think that a lot of women share that approach.

About the author

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What the EFF? Top Six Takeaways from the 2018 Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum

Left to Right: Chanèle McFarlane (Do Well Dress Well), Karin Percil, (Sisterhood), Rachel Kelly (Make Lemonade) and Amanda Laird (Heavy Flow Podcast)

On December 2 and 3, LiisBeth co-sponsored the second Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum (EFF) in downtown Toronto. The annual entrepreneurship conference brought together the growing community of feminist entrepreneurs to learn and share experiences around feminist business practice.

This year, the message was clear: connect and take action.

Taking action at the EFF


We’ll post a full roundup next year but here is a list of six action items to consider incorporating into your 2019 resolutions.

1. Type “Indigenomics” into a document. When the red squiggly line appears indicating a spell-check error, right-click then press “add word,” because the relatively new term is picking up speed in Canada’s lexicon. “When you talk about water and trees you talk about resources. When we talk about water and trees we talk about relatives.” – Carol Anne Hilton, Indigenomics By Design: The Rise of Indigenous Economic Empowerment.

2. Visit Kelly Diels for feminist marketing tools, tips, and resources. If you missed her at the EFF 2018, you missed out, but fear not. Diels offers workshops and coaching sessions where you can develop (among other things) a social media strategy and system based on her Little Birds and Layer Cakes, Social Media Workbook.  “If you hate marketing, it means you have a sense of justice.” – Kelly Diels, Feminist Marketing for an Emerging, More Inclusive Economy.

3. Build our communities. CV Harquail reminds us that we can build our collective path to the entrepreneurial feminist future by standing on and grounding ourselves in each other’s work. Every presenter, facilitator, and participant is doing work that we can build on — so let’s follow each other on Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, refer to each other’s work, and celebrate our growing community. View the full list of presenters here.

4, Unplug and Read (okay two actions) Sarah Selecky’s new novel: Radiant Shimmering Light. It’s the holidays so not everything has to be about work. However, you may find your own takeaways in Selecky’s novel about female friendship, business, and online marketing that skillfully balances satire, humour, and truth. Selecky also credits Kelly Diels in her acknowledgments as the person who coined the term Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand and met Diels at the EFF, so maybe it is about networking.

5.  Decolonize your mind: Decolonization work begins with taking the time to critically examine how colonization has influenced your personal world view and sense of self. Sit down. Make a list. Check it twice. Then consider re-embracing cultural practices, thinking, beliefs, and values that are a part of who you are and where you came from, but were systemically dissed by the dominant culture. “If we want diversity and inclusion, we have to decolonize design so that the practice itself stops traumatizing our diverse students and professors.” – Dr. Dori Tunstall, Whiteness without White Supremacy: Generating New Models of Whiteness

6. Sign up for LiisBeth’s newsletter here and receive rants, downloadables, recommended readings, profiles, feminist freebies! and stay informed about LiFE (LiisBeth’s Incubator for Feminist Entrepreneurship)–a membership only feminist business practice “school” and learning commons.

In addition to the action items above, what else did EFF participants get from the conference? The five most meaningful leaves on the wall of inspiration sum it up best:

  • We all have something of value to offer
  • Nothing grows without sharing
  • Connected
  • Who knows what will happen!
  • #rise

Rooted in values that take good care of people and planet, feminist entrepreneurs are building justice into products and services, operating models, and relationships. In the process, we are building collective power to change the economy.

Join us.

Activism & Action Featured Our Voices

Change Makers: A unique residency supports women entrepreneurs on the front line of social innovation

Centre for Civic Innovation participants at dinner


In 2016, Atlanta earned the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of income inequality among big cities in the United States, after years of inching up the rankings. By then, Rohit Malhotra had decided to make it his life work to improve the city’s economic challenges, and he tapped into a unique source of talent to do so – women entrepreneurs.

Malhotra founded the Center for Civic Innovation (CCI) in 2014, after working on civic innovation initiatives in the Obama administration and studying how civic innovation could be a tool for addressing inequality in Atlanta at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. After hearing about CCI, perhaps the city’s most influential female entrepreneur, Spanx CEO and founder, Sara Blakely, reached out to Malhotra. She was interested in creating positive change in her community while also supporting female entrepreneurs and decided to partner with CCI to establish a residency to support civic-minded women entrepreneurs who are, as Blakely describes it, “the new guard of social change – operating at the intersection of entrepreneurship and philanthropy.”

The one-year residency provides financial and development support to entrepreneurs to cover salaries, health care and product development as well as coaching, mentorship and workspace in CCI’s offices. So far, 18 women leading startups have participated. This year, the residency will expand to include four men, though the women will still have an independent program backed by Blakely. Says Blakely, “I am inspired by the work they are doing and excited to see what their futures hold.”

So what is that work?

It’s about addressing “challenges that are at the root and the systemic reasoning for inequality to exist in the first place,” says Malhotra. And the residency measures its entrepreneurs by how much they achieve – not by financial indicators.

Consider the Dharma Project, which brings yoga to organizations that experience high levels of stress dealing with effects of income equality, such as police officers. “What we’re looking for is not just does that yoga studio sell a bunch of yoga mats because that’s how they can make a ton of money. What we’re interested in is: What has city hall changed about the way that they measure performance and reduction of stress of police officers?”

Cooking Up Big Ideas

I visited one of the Residency’s newest members, Jenn Graham, at her breezy home on a tree-lined street in Old Fourth Ward, the diverse Atlanta neighborhood where Martin Luther King, Jr. was born. Graham’s seven-week-old baby was sleeping upstairs as we sat downstairs at the kitchen table where Graham often holds staff meetings for her startup, Civic Dinners.

The 34-year-old founded the company after working with Atlanta Streets Alive, a project that closes some streets to cars for a few hours to allow people to socialize and experience the neighborhood without the buzz of traffic. People often live in bubbles, she says, that prevent them from meeting with others with different perspectives or backgrounds, especially true in a financially unequal city such as Atlanta. But she saw the power in connection. And that’s what gave birth to her idea for Civic Dinners.

Its goal is straight forward: Gather diverse people for meals to discuss issues that affect them such as mobility, transit, and livability in their community. “We launched this idea of let’s bring people together over food, just make it fun, make it social and have a conversation,” Graham says. She started experimenting with the idea in 2014, officially launched the company in 2017 and today it has 10 employees with clients ranging from cities, regional planning commissions, nonprofits and even thought leaders eager to tap into diverse perspectives.

Anyone can sign up to host a dinner for six to eight diverse community members. Hosts pick a time and location, either a restaurant or their home. Every guest pays for their meal, and Civic Dinners provides organizational tools to bring people together as well as questions to spark conversation. In short, it’s a civic focus group fueled by the joy of sharing a meal.

Conversations at the intimate dinner parties bring up unique thoughts, ideas, and opinions on topics of concern to clients, whether it’s aging or affordable housing. After the dinner, Civic Dinners emails hosts and guests to gather insights discussed over dinner. Civic Dinners may also follow up with interviews and prepares a report for each client with key findings.

Change in action

The Atlanta Regional Commission, a civic planning agency, typically gathers feedback from meetings and surveys with Atlanta residents. It turned to Civic Dinners to tap deeper into community concerns. Graham says feedback from dinners they organized influenced ARC to create a new bike-pedestrian plan.

“We can reach further and deeper in conversation and allow for real dialogue, real questions and inquiry,” says Graham. “It’s been useful in convincing some political leaders who may not hear these perspectives in their day-to-day life.”

In 2016, Civic Dinners piloted a series of dinners about the state of women, to connect women and foster civic leaders among them. Two who met at one of the dinners became business partners and started a women’s co-working space in Atlanta. The dinners proved so popular, Civic Dinners is looking to partner with an organization to relaunch them.

Value of shared leadership

The company operates much like the events they organize. Graham describes it as a flat structure with shared leadership. Employees work remotely but gather together for lunch every Thursday, alternating who hosts and leads the team meeting. Graham says great ideas can come from anyone and usually come up at these lunches.

Saba Long, the chief marketing and communications strategist, concurs. “We are very much a believer in team. There’s no one-upmanship. If I need support on something, I’m not afraid to ask for support. It’s very much a collective type of environment. We’re working together for a common good.”

Graham, who has just begun her CCI residency, will use the support to help her company scale up. So far the company has held more than 900 dinners worldwide; it plans to hit more than 1,000 for 2018 alone. Graham wants Civic Dinners to become the go-to platform for holding community conversations and make it easier for organizations, governments, universities and companies to more easily engage people in creating social change.

Teaching With a Difference In Mind

A member of the first residency class in 2017, Tiffany Ray, founded Generation Infocus in 2013 to offer equal and inspiring project-based learning opportunities to kids from pre-K through grade 12, introducing kids to careers and entrepreneurial aspirations they may never have considered.

The social-innovation educational company is headquartered in a renovated historic building in Hapeville, a city adjacent to Atlanta. It has class space, an art gallery, a wearable technology lab, and a garden that supports vegan cooking classes. They work with schools, run after school and summer programs, and recently launched a “Mobile Maker Space” in the form of a bus that travels to community groups and schools to teach STEAM —science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.

Generation Infocus charges schools and libraries for programs while parents pay for after-school programs, but the company secured a grant from the county to offer free programming for children from lower income households.

Ray, 37, says the CCI residency allowed her to meet and work with other entrepreneurial women. “One of the great advantages to being in a collective like that was to have other people who are in the trenches, who have different challenges,” she says. “The conversations that happen around those classes can be phenomenal at times, so you’re really learning a lot being with other women.”

Importance of self care

She also took advantage of the residency’s wholistic approach to supporting entrepreneurs, which means not just taking care of business but taking care of yourself. She used the health-care stipend to hire a personal trainer and managed to shed 50 pounds during the program.

Ray also used her year to explore expanding Generation Infocus, through franchising and licensing. Her long-term goal is to create services, including curriculum and leadership development, for educators starting business ventures.

Ray has established a track record on that front already, hiring local talent who often suffer precarious employment—such as an actress to teach theater or a seamstress to teach in the wearable technology lab. That helps creatives diversify income and still have the time to build creative careers.

Ray also offers monthly management training for her employees to develop leadership skills. “Sometimes, they may not have the skillset. They never hired staff before. They never learned how to manage in crisis or how to provide customer service to parents who may be upset. So there are so many different facets to being a leader, particularly in education.” She says it’s relevant and critical to build up the people that work for Generation Infocus. “Because then they’re not stagnant. Then they want to stay and then they want to grow.”

April Singley started with the company as a theatre teacher in 2016 and is now a program director. She says Generation Infocus fosters teamwork and encourages its employees to share ideas. “Everybody works together very much as a team, but also we are looked at as individuals. We do recognize the strengths in our peers and our colleagues. We want to foster that, and we also encourage people to keep cultivating that, keep bringing their ideas forward.”

And that’s exactly the sort of values the founder of CCI, Malhotra, looks for in supporting CCI residents. He says each entrepreneur has designed her business model with feminist values at the core. “What I love about ventures we work with is they are values-driven first. Those are values that will not be compromised for financial returns.”

For more changing-making enlightenment:

LiisBeth asked company founders interviewed for Change Makers for books that inspired them. Tiffany Ray suggested EntreLeadership while Jenn Graham recommended Enlightened Power: How Women are Transforming the Practice of Leadership

Featured Our Voices

Another Brick in the Wall: Anti-Feminists in Canada

CV Harquail, Feminists at Work

Yes, Virginia. Canada has an anti-feminist movement too. So, in February 2018, LiisBeth invited feminist and management science scholar CV Harquail to review Canadian award-winning author Lauren McKeon’s book on Canadian anti-feminism which was published last fall by Goose Lane Editions. 

Lauren McKeon, an award-winning, Canadian feminist author wants us to know where feminism has gone wrong. She’s worried that women are “abandoning” feminism, can’t agree on what it means, and assume they don’t need it. In F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, she invites us into the anti-feminist universe so that we can listen directly to our biggest critics, learn from their views, and develop some kind of coordinated response. Her argument: we need to listen to those who despise feminism because their views are becoming more hateful and contorted yet better broadcasted than ever before.

I’m not as confident as McKeon that feminism has gone wrong or that people are “abandoning” it rather than increasingly adopting feminism as a perspective and an identity (as data shows). But her larger point remains: there are folks out there, organized into movements, who hate feminism and everything they imagine feminism stands for.

McKeon proves a trustworthy and entertaining guide taking us through the tangled mess of lies, deliberate misunderstandings, and sad self-centredness that characterize the groups arrayed against the progress of feminism. Occasionally funny and appropriately snark, she introduces us to five.

First up are the female members of the pro-patriarchy men’s rights activists (feMRAs) who use the voice and the social power that feminism earned for them to spit invective in feminism’s face—and McKeon’s too. Stepford doyennes of New Domesticity invited us “back to the kitchen,” cloaking their arguments in a comforting nostalgia for a gendered simplicity and social peace that never actually existed. A well-documented and rangy chapter about women and paid employment reminds us of nagging questions about the wage gap, the mom penalty, and the dearth of feminist business leaders, and offers a succinct review of the Gamergate scandal as an example of how tough it is for women to make a living doing work they care about.

And then McKeon takes us into the “bucolic” guest room of a woman I can only call a “Mother Defending Misogyny,” a woman who simply can’t believe that her own son might be capable of sexually assaulting a woman. As a mother, I can understand the emotional and cognitive distortions these women might go through wanting desperately for their children to be innocent, indeed, incapable of intimate, dehumanizing cruelty. It’s simply easier to see a frat boy son as a target rather than a rapist. But did these moms ever consider the harmed daughters, or the moms of their sons’ victims? At this point, I had to put the book down for a few days.

For the final stop on this tour of anti-feminist hell, McKeon takes us to the anti-abortion movement to meet activists who proclaim they are “pro women” while working to constrain the rights of those facing unwanted pregnancies and to undermine the autonomy of all women.

What we learn from our travels with McKeon is that Patriarchy and its nasty buddy, Misogyny, are powerful, resilient, and sneaky. Patriarchy doesn’t fight fair. It doesn’t use science or recognize facts. It nurses emotions like bitterness, fear, and, on a nice day, nostalgia for a fictional past. Patriarchy values illegitimate power—hoarding it, wielding it, normalizing it—to fight liberation, not just for women but for everyone.

McKeon writes of these anti-feminists bending to that power: “I needed to know more, and also maybe barf a bit.”

The quality of her writing—empathic, funny, curious, skeptical, open-minded—kept me attentive as I held my nose through this well-researched tour. And then I exhaled during her final chapters. Here, McKeon makes an important feminist move by adding her own life experience to her avalanche of interviewees’. She lets down her cool-girl posing (a nice counterpoint to the ugliness of the anti-feminist rhetoric) to share her own story of being raped as a teenager.

For me, this was the moment McKeon revealed the high stakes of this conversation, when the weight of anti-feminist attitudes shifted from offensive to acutely, personally painful. As McKeon writes: “Rape culture doesn’t happen in a bubble. It happens because women (like these) are telling other women their experiences, while unpleasant, could have been stopped if only they’d said no, emphatically.” My takeaway: These anti-feminists are crazy and they are actively hurting us and each other. As McKeon writes later, “I can tell you that rape breaks us, even when we want to be strong.”

In the final chapter, McKeon returns to her old high school, to the gender studies class where she got an early dose of consciousness raising. Here, she finds hope in feminism among the teens, their level of engagement and quality of thought and advocacy. As an “old,” I must challenge the inference that we need the young’uns to save us. They are able to do what they do now because they stand on the feminist foundations built by the waves of activists who came before them. No one wave is going to wash away patriarchy, no matter how pretty or hip that wave looks on Instagram.

Given how much louder and broader the anti-sexism conversation has gotten in the last ten months, with #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #TimesUp, McKeon’s book might already feel a bit dated. Unfortunately, it is not. The anti-feminist movement remains strong and feminists must find ways to be stronger.

But I remain unconvinced by McKeon’s argument that doing so requires knowing more about these anti-feminists. Or feeling sympathy for them. Or getting in touch with their hurt or their fear, much less their bile. And it’s not because (as McKeon seems to assumes of her readers) I’m willfully ignoring them or self-righteously disdainful of them. I don’t think that anti-feminists are stupid, necessarily. But they are misinformed and so misled as to be unable to think their way to a more positive future.

So how could it be useful to try to understand their limited worldviews? Perhaps it might be more beneficial to look at the ways that racism and other systems of oppression are shaping these anti-feminist movements. McKeon herself says, “We (feminists) are unequivocally failing” when it comes to opening doors and including more than upper middle–class white women in the feminist movement. Yet she fails to investigate the whiter than whiteness of the five anti-feminist movements she discusses. If women and men of colour, newcomers, the working poor, and other marginalized groups are absent from anti-feminist movements, doesn’t that say something? Isn’t that important for us to understand? Would this help us find useful ways to crack the rigid worldviews of these anti-liberation movements?

McKeon talks a lot about “feminism” and what “feminism” has done wrong and needs to do. For example, she says, “If feminism wants to survive and grow, it is vital that it learn to communicate within itself.” She treats “feminism” as a big F thing, with its own independent agency. If “feminism” has the ability to act that means we can hold feminism responsible for its shortcomings. Certainly, that’s how anti-feminists treat feminism, as a thing we can fault.

But what—or rather who—is this “feminism” that McKeon and the anti-feminists are wagging a finger at? Feminism is not a unified, monolithic entity that can be faulted; rather, dear readers, “feminism” is us. As activists, we are diverse, we are many, we connect and work together and, because we are so varied, sometimes we don’t. While McKeon’s book is useful in showing how anti-feminists mischaracterize feminism, that’s about as much time as I want to spend thinking about them. Personally, I would rather look at the many dimensions of feminism and consider ways we can move forward. Where should we look for more leadership, where can we find energy to persist with change efforts, and what new actions might we try to make things better? After finishing this book, I wanted to get right back to work doing that.

Other articles on LiisBeth by CV Harquail: