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Feminist Practices Our Voices

What We Heard Report: Closing the Gap – Intersectional Perspectives for Realizing Economic Justice in Canada

A woman, Cass Rudolph, with long brown hair wearing a blue stripped dress, standing in an indoor garden. White brick walls behind her.
Cass Rudolph, founder, Lucky Ones | Photo by Ashley Senja and Cass Rudolph

On November 3, 2022, the Equal Futures Network in partnership with the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce (CanWCC), hosted an interactive incubator discussion examining the key challenges facing women, gender-diverse, Indigenous and racialized communities when it comes to advancing economic justice. This was the first Equal Futures Network incubator session dedicated to examining the intersection of economic equity and gender equality in Canada. A total of 35 participants attended the session and engaged in the Q&A session. Participants heard insights from the CanWCC, Moms at Work, Canadian Women of Colour Leadership Network, the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association (NACCA) and the National Collective of Women in Business (NCWIB) who shared their perspectives and insights about the issues, challenges and obstacles that create barriers towards achieving economic justice from their lived and professional experiences. 

Following this in-depth discussion, participants were encouraged to share their thoughts and experiences. This open dialogue was also an opportunity for participants to develop ideas into partnerships. Advancing economic equity will require a substantive shift from the status quo by addressing systemic and structural challenges with women, two-spirit, gender-diverse, LGBTQ+ and IBPOC communities leading the way and in solidarity with each other.

Here is what we heard:

Why Economic Equity Matters

Around the world, women, in all of their diversity, perform the most underappreciated work, earn less than cis-gender men and do more unpaid and care work. As a result, they are bearing the brunt of the widening wealth gap. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented economic crisis which has hit the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalized communities the hardest.

Economic equity matters because women, racialized (Indigenous, Black and people of colour (IBPOC)) and 2SLGBTQ+ communities are the most at risk to experiencing the effects of a global recession and these communities are already at a place of disadvantage due to existing systemic barriers to equitable participation in the global economy. At a systemic level, social, political and institutional norms have created structures that support unequal policies, legislation and economic tactics that at best are exclusionary, and at their worst, purposefully perpetuating harm and create barriers for equity deserving and marginalized groups. 

Barriers to Achieving Economic Equity

Youth voices are missing from economic decision-making spaces

Youth are almost entirely left out of the conversation around economic equity. As a result, youth do not see a role for them reflected in the in the work being undertaken to advance economic equity. This work can be inaccessible for youth as it is discussed in technical language that is disconnected from individual lived experiences which further isolates and disengages youth from the process. In order to engage youth, they need to be talked to in accessible and relatable language that is grounded in shared experiences. This will build youth capacity to express their needs and shift the power dynamics so that their voices are heard and involved in decision-making. To see substantive change, we need to create an empowered generation of youth who are aware and understand how economic inequities impact individuals and their communities. 

Individual Economic Empowerment

In the push for advancing economic equity, the role of the individual is too often left out of the conversation as the focus is placed on the systemic level. We need to shift focus to the economic education and empowerment of individuals. Current systems underestimate the decision-making power that is held in the hands of the average person – for context in 2021, small businesses made up 98.1% of all employer business in Canada – this is where change is going to come from. Widespread access to economic education and advocacy is the path towards equitable solutions that shift the narrative, change minds and equalize the balance of power. 

Gatekeeping and industry siloes in the economic ecosystem continue to not only hold back individuals, but also our collective advancements for economic equity. For example, in advocacy spaces economic discussions are inaccessible. Economic equity is talked about in overly technical language, this creates an exclusionary environment that gatekeeps people with different lived experiences and backgrounds from accessing these spaces.   

Indigenous, Black and Racialized Erasure 

Indigenous, Black and other marginalized communities experience significant erasure, silence and barriers within the economic ecosystem. For example, there is a hundred billion dollar Indigenous economy that is being underserved by mainstream financial institutions because they are considered too high risk for investment. These economic policies further reflect ongoing colonial legacies in Canada and demonstrate the multitude of systemic barriers that IBPOC communities face when it comes to advancing their own economic capabilities.

Supporting economic development within Indigenous communities across Canada is a core part of NACCA’s mandate. Over the course of the pandemic. NACCA was able to provide over 1000 business loans of over 100 million dollars in total value and created 3800 full time jobs. This investment in Indigenous communities not only contributes to Canada’s overall GDP but creates a deep and meaningful social impact that drives community wellbeing and closes the dignity gap that many Indigenous and underserved groups face across Canada. 

Steps for advancing economic equity in Canada (and around the world)

Collaboration and Partnerships

Equity work must be done across the board and apply an intersectional lens by focusing on empowering individuals, building partnerships and inclusive spaces. When applying an intersectional lens, we must ask ourselves how to incorporate reconciliation and decolonization into our work. Progress is prevented by division, which is very prevalent in the not-for-profit sector as the system is set up to be inherently adversarial, especially when it comes to acquiring limited funding and resources. For example, a lack of sustainable and long term funding, strict eligibility criteria within the grant model (i.e. needing charitable status to have access to certain grants) and competition for minimal funding dollars pits organizations against one another and breeds a system of insecurity. 

Additionally, the constraints of grants around certain advocacy pieces means that you may not have the ability or freedom to speak/be an advocate for change as your financial security is bound within the constraints laid out in your funding agreement. All of this hinders progress and creates a system of competition that at the end of the day takes away from the work of the movement. We need to work as a collective to figure out ways to operate outside of these systems, to decolonize the spaces where we operate and create partnerships that are supportive and allow for collaboration as we will only see progress through collaboration and coordination. Coming together as an economic equity movement to build understanding and consensus on the issues that are impacting our communities will facilitate change at the individual, organizational and systemic levels and empower grassroots communities and movements. 

Pay equity

Pay equity is a powerful symbol of economic equity and a tangible step forward to rally around. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to close the wage gap.  Women’s labour continues to be undervalued. Additionally, globally, legislation and policies are still being created that are directly biased towards men and create situations where women, on average, are always going to be poorer than men. The wage gap is even larger when you consider intersecting identities like race, ability and sexuality and they are at a heightened risk of experiencing the negative effects of a global recession. Achieving pay equity would be a major step forward towards overall economic equity. 

Post-pandemic recovery and progress 

COVID-19 further exacerbated the economic challenges faced by women, racialized and gender-diverse people in Canada. Over the last two years, there has been a lot of discussion about what is needed in Canada’s post-pandemic recovery. Inequities were brought to the forefront of these discussions and showed us just how much work still needs to be done in order to achieve gender equality in Canada and around the world. Now is the time to think outside of the box and find innovative solutions while amplifying the voices of equity-deserving groups. There is a willingness from decision-makers for community engagement and community driven solutions to economic inequities Through partnerships and collaboration, we can create collective understanding and consensus by bringing people with different perspectives and lived experiences together to address key issues and advance them at all levels.

Lucky Ones Project: Open Studio x StreetARToronto

How do you do things differently?

With Lucky Ones, we prioritize people over schedules, over getting the best shot, over everything. For me, it’s about making sure that everyone working on a project with us is treated with equity and respect. I want to make sure that everyone can sit comfortably in their own values.

My company is small – it’s mostly just me until we’re ready to go to camera and ready to get on set. Staying small allows me the flexibility to make sure that people who are joining the team know what they’re in for. Letting people fully consent to what they are signing up for is so important to me.

I try to be as transparent as possible by sharing the scenes we’re going to shoot, the interview questions, the schedule for the project, the breakdown of where the money is going. We can all take care of each other if we know where things are going if we know schedules well in advance.

This transparency is integral to our culture at Lucky Ones. I want people to be able to come to me with any questions or comments. I want them to know I’m not running the show, I’m just guiding. What we’re doing is a team sport and I’m just shaping the pathway. From there, I encourage everyone’s input.

What are the challenges you’ve experienced in this industry?

 It’s still very male-centric. There is a huge barrier to entry to secure bigger commercial clients. If you want to work on a big commercial or TV show, you’re going to run up against clients who want a guarantee of who’s going to be on set. Pitching the fact that we are a people-first production company can hurt us in a lot of ways because these clients want a super tight turnaround, they’re reluctant to take a chance on a crew they haven’t worked with before, especially when the people you work with aren’t the people you typically see on set.

That’s the issue right now. We’ll put the representation on screen but when you go behind the scenes, it’s still very much status quo.

I read your equity and inclusion statement, and appreciated the recognition of representation both in front and behind the camera. Can you speak a little bit more to the importance of that?

I personally identify as being on the margins and so I know what it’s like to exist in environments where you’re not considered. For example, if you’re shooting a documentary and filming outside, most production companies would say that you need to hire people who are physically fit, or a Director of Photography who can lift 50 lbs. For me, you want to make concessions for people who are really good at their job. You want to give people opportunities to be good at their job.

If a good camera person can’t carry heavy equipment because they have a disability or are immune-compromised – especially now that we have COVID, many people have lower lung capacity – let’s just hire someone who can carry that stuff.

It’s important to me to hire neurodivergent people, to hire people who have disabilities – people who have great skills but are otherwise overlooked. Lucky Ones never wants to put the schedule ahead of people. We want to hire people who might not otherwise have this opportunity to flourish.

You identify as ‘being on the margins,’ can you share your social location and how that has informed your commitment to equity and inclusion?

I’m neurodivergent. I have Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). I also exist in a fat body.

I started my career in the music industry, I also do photography. These are industries that are super adverse to fat people enjoying anything. This is where I’m coming from. I’m used to being the person who is not necessarily considered for a lot of opportunities, like being a camera person or taking part in projects where there is a lot of travel involved. I want people to know that regardless of what other barriers they may have faced in other companies, that won’t be an issue with Lucky Ones. We can make it work.

What does the future look like for Lucky Ones?

We want to move into additional language markets like French and Korean. I’ve always had an interest in language learning. I grew up in French immersion and in high school, I learned Spanish and still carry that. For the last five years, I’ve been learning Korean and for me, it just adds to the richness of the stories I can tell.

To be able to communicate directly, even if just a little bit, can put people at ease. It also allows me to hire people from different countries and integrate them into the production of the project without having them feel othered. I would love to be able to travel and tell as many stories in as many languages as possible.


At a time when we are inundated with headlines about ‘The Great Resignation,’ ‘Quiet Quitting’, burnout, and the push for unionization, it’s rare and refreshing to meet business leaders who are prioritizing the needs and well-being of their staff. Leading with care and transparency is a much needed and radical rebuilding of the systems that no longer serve us.

Cass Rudolph’s model at Lucky Ones is one I hope we see much more of in the years to come.

Publishers Note: Lucky Ones participated in the Fifth Wave  Initiative, 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 and commerce sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to a minimum of 50% participation per cohort by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth ally sponsor at the Lighthouse level

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Allied Arts & Media Our Voices

Serving up “MILF and Cookies”

Image of comedian Ann Marie Sheffler in the foreground and theatre billboards in the background highlighting her shows.
Canadian actor and producer of nine one-woman shows, Ann Marie Scheffler. Photo by Time Leyes

Look, between the ongoing global pandemic, crushing defeat of Wade v. Roe and an escalating international conflict low-key threatening to go nuclear, we at LiisBeth know it’s been a tough year (or three) but rest and pleasure are an important part of resistance work. To lighten things up a little (and help you get your laugh on) we interviewed Anne Marie Scheffler, a long-time career actor, writer and producer, about her new, up-coming holiday show MILF and Cookies.


Q&A

LiisBeth: Let’s start with the facts. Who is Anne Marie Scheffler?

Scheffler: I was born in Toronto, Rexdale in fact. I’m a first generation Canadian. My parents are German and Polish. My father was a bank manager and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. I started getting paid as an actor at the age of 15. I went to the University of Toronto, got a degree in English, and was at the same time booking professional acting gigs while writing my university exams. From there I went to George Brown Theatre School for formal training. And TV. Oh boy, I wanted to marry TV. With TV you could talk to the world, and I really wanted to talk to the world. Not surprisingly, I’ve been in over fifty TV commercials and love being on TV.

LiisBeth: You’re an actor first and foremost. What led you to write and produce your own shows?

Scheffler: When I got my first agent in my 20s, she got me film and TV auditions. And I was thrilled! Until I saw the roles: rape victim. Go into the audition room and scream. Look, I did go into the audition room and scream. But I kinda didn’t want to get the booking. And another audition was “girl number 1” and I went in with “guy number 1” and we had to neck. That was the actual audition. No lines. So, I’m thinking, “maybe I need to write the roles I want to play.” And so I wrote funny monologues for myself. Honestly, I wrote my first play in grade 3 that our class put on in front of the whole school. I had always been writing for myself. Doing improv. Imagining the possibilities.

When you’re hungry and ambitious in your twenties, you want to act as much as possible. My fellow actor friends and I would do open mic nights, fundraisers, anything to see if our stuff worked. I had about five monologues in my back pocket that I wrote for myself and auditioned with. Artistic directors would be like: “That was great! Where did that come from?” And I’d say “I wrote it.” And that sometimes got me writing job offers which I never took because I was an actor!

In 1994, I had a spot in the Summerworks theatre festival in Toronto. Basically you pay for a spot to put on a show in a respected theatre festival. I had been doing clowning at the time, but my clown partner had left me, and all of a sudden, I didn’t have a show! The producer Benj Gallagher said to do a one woman show. I was like, “Hell, no!” but I was working at His Majesty’s Feast as a singing wench, and my fellow wench, Sarah Sked, said she’d be my director. I sewed my five funny monologues together and created my first solo show Situation: NORMA. 

NOW magazine’s late, legendary and much-beloved theatre critic, Jon Kaplan, was at my show on opening night. He loved it so much that he sent a photographer to my house the next day. My picture appeared in the theatre section, with Kaplan’s glowing review in which he called me “a gem.” My career took off. I got a better agent, I worked even more in TV and film, and I wrote two more Norma shows: Watch…Norma’s Back and Leaving Norma.

I toured my Norma shows at fringe festivals in Canada and the US, selling out and getting rave reviews and honing my comedy chops on stage, really poking fun at what it was like to be (supposedly) following society’s norms. I make fun of myself in my comedy, spoofing the conditions I find myself in, to actually shine a light on the ridiculousness of the roles we play in order to be good.

In 2001, I went to a taping of Everybody Loves Raymond at The Warner Brothers studio in Burbank, and the penny dropped. At this point, I was doing TV roles, TV commercials, doing my own live shows, and here was a multicam sitcom. A marriage of theatre and TV. I fell in love with multicam. Soon after, my live comedy show Not Getting It long-time into a one-hour Comedy Now! special for CTV/ The Comedy Network by SFA Productions. A seven camera shoot. Of course, I’m still priming the pump for the seven season multicam series–or single camera, I’m flexible–but the path was unfolding.

Ironically, my old agent said to me: “I can see you being like the wife on Everybody Loves Raymond!” And I said “I’m Raymond!”

LiisBeth: What is your relationship to feminism? When did feminism come into your life? 

Scheffler: In terms of feminist influences, I can start with my mother. She taught me unconditional love. She is a walking love machine. My mom is, literally, love

My father told me that to have my own money is to have my own freedom. That shaped me a lot. I didn’t think in terms of being a dependent, or a wife, I wanted to make my own money, make my own success, in the way that I wanted to.

That worldview was ingrained in me. It’s why I said no to demeaning roles. I wasn’t up for a career of playing victims. I lobbied with my actor’s union to influence producers to have more women roles that reflected whole, real women.

I knew how to write, and I took charge of my career and wrote and produced “myself.” As Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) told me in an article I wrote for the Alliance of Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) on women in the business: “Don’t wait for the phone to ring–call yourself.” Now that I am older and coming from a place that is so much more whole, I have moved way beyond the “pick me, pick me, pick me!” approach to my career to one where, basically, I pick myself. 

LiisBeth: So as a woman actor making her way in a Harvey Weinstein world, how do you reconcile a highly sexualized approach to comedy and use of the term “MILF” in a world where sexualization of women in entertainment is seen by many as problematic? 

Great question. So, as a comedian, it’s my job to mirror our shared experience as a society back at that society. I push the boundaries. I say what we are all thinking but I’m not afraid to say. To quote my comedy special: “I’ve achieved my goal! I’m fuckable! But now I’m offended by it!” Honestly, the comedy special is partly based on my experiences as an actor in really inappropriate situations with a producer. Which could have been victimizing, but instead I turned it into comedy gold.

Turning on your sexy and beautiful self shouldn’t be bad and unsafe. And if it feels bad or unsafe, I’m happy to shine the light of love and humour on it and expose it.

Collection of comedy clips from Anne Marie Scheffler shows (4 minutes)

As for MILF, I renamed and reclaimed a term that really offended (some people) but now has become less charged. Maybe soon you’ll be able to google ‘MILF’ and instead of porn, mostly comedy will come up. MILF and Cookies is sexy and hilarious.

LiisBeth: What’s next for Anne Marie? 

Scheffler: Like other actors/producers such as Reese Witherspoon and Pamela Aldon, I’ve been a great artist, now I want to shift to be an equally great business person.

I’d like to turn my one woman show MILF Life Crisis into a limited series like Phoebe Waller-Bridge did with her show Fleabag, and create blockbuster comedy movies. I’ve written myself two comedic vehicles–The Bachelor Whisperer and Princess Candy Cane–and am looking for the right producing partners. 

LiisBeth: Congratulations on an incredible journey as a woman in a tough industry! What advice do you have for others? 

 I remember being in my early 40s, and being a new mom with two little boys. I was juggling childcare to go to auditions, and lying in bed at night, thinking it’s very possible my life and my career are both over. And then I turned on the TV to a new show: 30 Rock. What? A new face? Tina Fey? A woman in her 40s? A mother? Who created a TV series she wrote and stars in herself? Again, the penny dropped. There was still hope. There is always hope. The only one who can limit you is you. Find your own voice and work it. There are a million different flowers in the garden. There is room for everyone. Decide what stories you want to tell, and then tell them really well.

LiisBeth: Speaking of stories, tell us about your upcoming holiday show, MILF and Cookies. 

MILF and Cookies is Anne Marie 2.0. It’s our sexy, single lead from MILF Life Crisis, with a woman who now has decided to be comfortable as a single MILF. She owns her MILFdom but then finds herself spending Christmas eating pot cookies with her BFFs and examining all the men she’s loved, all the men she didn’t love, and the men she is about to love. People walk away feeling lighter. And stronger.

LiisBeth: Sounds a lot like you Anne Marie! Thank you for sharing your talent with the world. 


MILF and Cookies plays December 15- 23rd at Toronto’s Comedy Bar Danforth’s main stage. Tickets available at comedybar.ca/shows/milf-and-cookies

Not in Toronto? You can catch Scheffler’s one-hour comedy special, Not Getting It, Monday December 19th on MTV2.

Publishers Note: Anne Marie Scheffler is a member of Fifth Wave Connect, a community of feminist women entrepreneurs who participate in the Fifth Wave  Initiative, a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women self-identified feminist entrepreneurs in the digital media and commerce sector in southern Ontario. Fifth Wave sponsors a series of profiles highlighting their work.  Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to a minimum of 50% participation per cohort by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth ally sponsor at the Lighthouse level. Fifth Wave 

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Feminist Practices Our Voices

Leading with Care and Transparency

A woman, Cass Rudolph, with long brown hair wearing a blue stripped dress, standing in an indoor garden. White brick walls behind her.
Cass Rudolph, founder, Lucky Ones | Photo by Ashley Senja and Cass Rudolph

Getting to the heart of a story is integral for every production company, but in a world that prioritizes growth and efficiency, what is often lost are the people creating that story. Lucky Ones aims to change all of that by being a media production company focused on prioritizing the wellbeing of their staff while also telling stories with heart and stories that give back. They always try to include an element of community building and aim to highlight women and marginalized people.

I sat with Cass Rudolph (she/her) founder of the company, who shared the ethos and vision behind Lucky Ones.

 

What’s at the heart of your story?

 Part of building Lucky Ones was to circumvent the traditional career path. It was a conscious decision to grow slow and avoid the politics and dangers of male-dominated spaces. The initial vision was to stay small, maybe grow to a team of five. But after working as a production coordinator for a much bigger show, it’s made me realize that I actually want to grow to scale because there is such a need for people-first productions.

The truth is that I was sexually harassed out of a job. I started in the music industry where I was working in-house creating for a record label. It was an incredibly toxic work environment. I was then given an opportunity to work at an advertising agency with one other person. I was treated even worse than at the record label, and there was no one to talk to about what happened. There was no HR department to report what had happened to me. That was the last straw.

I decided to do it alone and do it better. I carved my own path and now I’m working on bigger projects that are much more rooted in who I am and what I believe in.

Lucky Ones Project: Open Studio x StreetARToronto

How do you do things differently?

With Lucky Ones, we prioritize people over schedules, over getting the best shot, over everything. For me, it’s about making sure that everyone working on a project with us is treated with equity and respect. I want to make sure that everyone can sit comfortably in their own values.

My company is small – it’s mostly just me until we’re ready to go to camera and ready to get on set. Staying small allows me the flexibility to make sure that people who are joining the team know what they’re in for. Letting people fully consent to what they are signing up for is so important to me.

I try to be as transparent as possible by sharing the scenes we’re going to shoot, the interview questions, the schedule for the project, the breakdown of where the money is going. We can all take care of each other if we know where things are going if we know schedules well in advance.

This transparency is integral to our culture at Lucky Ones. I want people to be able to come to me with any questions or comments. I want them to know I’m not running the show, I’m just guiding. What we’re doing is a team sport and I’m just shaping the pathway. From there, I encourage everyone’s input.

What are the challenges you’ve experienced in this industry?

 It’s still very male-centric. There is a huge barrier to entry to secure bigger commercial clients. If you want to work on a big commercial or TV show, you’re going to run up against clients who want a guarantee of who’s going to be on set. Pitching the fact that we are a people-first production company can hurt us in a lot of ways because these clients want a super tight turnaround, they’re reluctant to take a chance on a crew they haven’t worked with before, especially when the people you work with aren’t the people you typically see on set.

That’s the issue right now. We’ll put the representation on screen but when you go behind the scenes, it’s still very much status quo.

I read your equity and inclusion statement, and appreciated the recognition of representation both in front and behind the camera. Can you speak a little bit more to the importance of that?

I personally identify as being on the margins and so I know what it’s like to exist in environments where you’re not considered. For example, if you’re shooting a documentary and filming outside, most production companies would say that you need to hire people who are physically fit, or a Director of Photography who can lift 50 lbs. For me, you want to make concessions for people who are really good at their job. You want to give people opportunities to be good at their job.

If a good camera person can’t carry heavy equipment because they have a disability or are immune-compromised – especially now that we have COVID, many people have lower lung capacity – let’s just hire someone who can carry that stuff.

It’s important to me to hire neurodivergent people, to hire people who have disabilities – people who have great skills but are otherwise overlooked. Lucky Ones never wants to put the schedule ahead of people. We want to hire people who might not otherwise have this opportunity to flourish.

You identify as ‘being on the margins,’ can you share your social location and how that has informed your commitment to equity and inclusion?

I’m neurodivergent. I have Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). I also exist in a fat body.

I started my career in the music industry, I also do photography. These are industries that are super adverse to fat people enjoying anything. This is where I’m coming from. I’m used to being the person who is not necessarily considered for a lot of opportunities, like being a camera person or taking part in projects where there is a lot of travel involved. I want people to know that regardless of what other barriers they may have faced in other companies, that won’t be an issue with Lucky Ones. We can make it work.

What does the future look like for Lucky Ones?

We want to move into additional language markets like French and Korean. I’ve always had an interest in language learning. I grew up in French immersion and in high school, I learned Spanish and still carry that. For the last five years, I’ve been learning Korean and for me, it just adds to the richness of the stories I can tell.

To be able to communicate directly, even if just a little bit, can put people at ease. It also allows me to hire people from different countries and integrate them into the production of the project without having them feel othered. I would love to be able to travel and tell as many stories in as many languages as possible.


At a time when we are inundated with headlines about ‘The Great Resignation,’ ‘Quiet Quitting’, burnout, and the push for unionization, it’s rare and refreshing to meet business leaders who are prioritizing the needs and well-being of their staff. Leading with care and transparency is a much needed and radical rebuilding of the systems that no longer serve us.

Cass Rudolph’s model at Lucky Ones is one I hope we see much more of in the years to come.

Publishers Note: Lucky Ones participated in the Fifth Wave  Initiative, 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 and commerce sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to a minimum of 50% participation per cohort by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth ally sponsor at the Lighthouse level

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Our Voices

The Politics and Practices of a Feminist Entrepreneur

Line of of illustrated men in suites with hedgehog in the line up looking fierce
Images by Grodno, Belarus and Christos Georghiou |Shutterstock| Mash up by pk mutch

I remember the sting felt while listening to speakers at a small business conference ten years ago. It was there that I sensed alienating and regressive elements about the small business space. Table talk centered to the political right, and sometimes far right of center. I sensed contradictions between the values speakers espoused and their operating practices. For example, firms that showcased donations to local food banks while paying temp workers $14.00 per hour to minimize labour costs. It became evident who in the room had power through voice and who did not. This moment has not left me. Further forays into small business spaces have reinforced my initial impressions.

Small business communities are not, of course, homogeneous. In my experience, the pulsing heart remains male-dominated, conservative, and increasingly populist. When it comes to advocating for justice, diversity and inclusion, its leaders are more likely to push for initiatives that put money in owner pockets without consideration how they might affect a wider group of others.

Given the size and power of the small business community, those of us working for change should be concerned. Social change makers cannot ignore Canada’s small business community. From 1.2 million incorporated, for-profit enterprises in Canada: only 380 (.0003%) are ‘Business for Good’ BCorps. 

Business as a force for good?

It’s 2022. The world is on fire. I am getting impatient. Being a conformer in business is not enough. If we want a better world, we need progressive small business owners to put their weight behind advocacy and organizations working for social and economic justice. 

History has shown that for-profit founders can be powerful allies to movements for justice. In the 18th century, small business traders and merchants helped peasants and serfs accelerate change from feudalism to capitalism. Dutch bankers risked their lives by leveraging their wealth to resist the Nazis in the early 1940s. We can look to the founding of women-owned credit unions in the 1970s. Today, small business owners have been successful in fighting interest rate hikes and landing COVID-related recovery measures. Small business advocates are powerful when they want to be. The community knows how to organize and have impact, when its interests are perceived to be at risk.

If today’s economic system that shapes our lives is hurting most of us, doesn’t it make sense for small business owners to challenge capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy and other forms of oppression?

In Canada, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) represent 97.9% of all incorporated companies. 53.8% are companies with 1 to 4 employees – including the founder – employing 67.7% or 7.7 million Canadians. These businesses generate 37.5% of private sector GDP. Women-majority owned businesses represents only 16% of incorporated SMEs, and another 13% are equally owned by men and women.

Clearly, the small business part of our economy is big, influential, and while women are making progress, still mostly male-led.  

The small business entity is unique from it’s large, often publicly traded, hired CEO-led counterparts in that these founders have considerable freedom to choose and operationalize their politics and values. They can also pivot and implement changes quickly. Given this freedom, and the weight and size of the Canadian small business community in aggregate, it has the power to change — everything. Instead, it primarily chooses to work at maintaining and perpetuating the status quo.

This set me on a journey. 

Are there others looking to re-imagine the role of small enterprise in these times of growing, grotesque inequality? Are there other founders interested in leveraging their passion for innovation, fairness, inclusion, resilience building and enterprise crafting to help dismantle rather than protect capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy and white supremacy?

Intersectional feminist Entrepreneurship – a porchlight in the storm

Turns out there was.

However, finding the feminist entrepreneurship community was a bit like finding a stick insect in a forest. They were there, but they’re hard to find. This required patience and persistence.

But find them I did.

The feminist enterprise community is an informal, intergenerational, diverse, international group of brave pioneers who are scattered across the world. The composition includes feminist thought-leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, writers, artists, academics, activists, corporate ex-pats, and dreamers. Today, they are my core community of practice-as-a-feminist entrepreneurs.

Our conversations and debates cracked me  open and let the light in. Online meet-ups and in-person conferences, and ongoing debates provide nourishment, support, teaching and provocation Through these experiences, I have emerged from beneath a heavy blanket of no longer relevant beliefs, values and teachings, including those espoused in my MBA courses—accumulated and internalized as unassailable truths gathered over the decades.

Come Sit At Our Table

Today I am a proud and vocal feminist entrepreneur. I do business very, very differently because of what I have learned.

I dream of a day when saying ‘We are a feminist business’, tells people what the enterprise stands for. But first, we need more people to understand what feminist founders believe and what feminist enterprise community is about.

So, draw up a chair, and let me share what I have learned from my teachers:

  1. It’s not new. Feminist enterprise crafting goes back to long before suffragette days. There have always been folks who align their enterprise skills and ability to marshal resources with social movements.
  2. Intersectionality rules: Feminist entrepreneurship as a field and practice are predicated on Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality which reoriented today’s feminist work to focus on ending all oppressions because they are all ultimately linked.
  3. Not only women: The feminist enterprise movement includes all people, trans, queer and those who experience gender-based oppression.
  4. How to tap bountiful alternative resources: Most feminist enterprises are bootstrapped. Why? Founder independence and progressive politics turn off many investors and corporations. By necessity, founders work to grow and sustain their enterprises by working like individual hydrae in nature’s underground mycelial networks—adapting, collaborating, sending and receiving and sharing, so each has what they need and so that the whole is ultimately stronger.
  5. Deep learning and questioning: The feminist entrepreneurship community demands deep study beyond topics like mastering social media. To unearth viable, innovative alternatives, we dig into radical and subversive ideas for insight. We examine the thought leadership of Karl Marx, adrienne maree brown, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kate Raeworth, Alicia Garza, Vandana Shiva, Nick Srnicek, CV Harquail,  Dr. Barbara Orser, Tim Jackson–not just Lean Startup by Al Reiss. We co-create, elevate radical, alternative ideas for leading, designing, growing enterprises that are missed in mainstream entrepreneurship education and support programs.
  6. It’s about the how: Feminist entrepreneurs prioritize how versus why and what of enterprise work. We think about how systems of oppression work, are embedded and perpetuated in how they operate. We work to liberate or disassociate our venture practices from these systems.
  7. The personal and organizational is political: Feminist entrepreneurs are fiercely, transparently political, and careful about who gets our time, attention and money. We march. We write to our elected officials. We don’t do business with founders who are trans-exclusionary, businesses who fund alt-right or anti-choice organizations.
  8. Non-extractive: We see ourselves as accountable, stewards of resources not masters of extraction.
  9. Solidarity: We support indie feminist activists, feminist media and feminist organizations including nonprofits, collectives, and non-registered grassroots initiatives. We see the feminist economy as one big sisterhood, undivided by legal formation choices.
  10. We have fun. This is a love centered, loyal, joyous, complex community that is re-learning what it means to build post capitalist enterprises.

This all said, we are not yet organized as a strong political voice. But we are working on it. It is critical that we do this work to sustain our collective voices, have resources to be allies, and mobilize this small business body politic.

Workshop at the 2018 Entrepreneurial Feminist Forum. Over 200 attendees participated.

Growing the new, inside the old

The feminist entrepreneur’s movement remains an outlier. It’s not an idea. It’s a practice. 

It is ignored by labour, the left, and side-eyed by some who see feminist entrepreneurs as neoliberal lipstick capitalists.  Mainstream entrepreneurship and small business people think we burn bras for a living.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

If we are to build a post 20th century capitalist world in which all can thrive, we need activists and movements to take a closer look at the small business space as an ally and to find ways to mobilize individual change makers within it.

We need entrepreneurship educators and training institutions to overhaul programming—which emphasize enterprise skills and knowledge developed in the 1990s.

Just imagine if all SMEs were a force behind transforming capitalism towards a healthier, fairer, market-based system that operates in anti-oppressive, non-extractive, human-centered ways of strengthening community! 

Imagine if they are not. 

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Activism & Action Our Voices

Coping with Activist Burnout in Extraordinary Times

Illustration of a woman weilding a sword with text that says heal your warrior
Illustration by John Mutch

Each week, I am privileged to lead “check in” calls for several communities of feminist enterprise activists– people who create and leverage their enterprises to support feminism plus other social and eco-justice movements they believe in.

 

If you were a fly on the screen in one of these conversations you would witness compassion, friendship, plus a few heart-quickening, Hannah-Gadsby-style “fuck that shit” rants that that generate both laughs and tears. You would hear stories of both the inner and outer work (not sure which is more difficult) required to work to advance social justice; and the mother-bear creativity and grit that goes into resourcing an enterprise that resists patriarchal, extractive capitalistic and winner- take-all-entrepreneurship creeds.

In your notebook, you might write “activist communities are awesome,” and maybe underline it twice.

However, in these past two weeks, you would have witnessed a community processing pain, dealing with feelings of powerlessness (does anything we do really matter?) and sheer exhaustion. You would also notice that the groups are smaller than usual—because even regulars in these meet ups can’t bear to talk about the horrific events of the past several weeks just yet.  In your notebook, you might write this in big bold letters:

ACTIVIST BURNOUT?

While still reeling from the pandemic, we witnessed what was basically a snuff film on social media—the slow, public execution of a Black man by a sadist cop and three fellow officers. And while all eyes were on George Floyd protests, we also learned that Chantal Moore, an Indigenous woman, was shot five times by an officer performing a wellness check in New Brunswick. Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black Toronto woman, “fell” 24 stories after police arrived at her home to check on her, and Caleb Tubila Njoko, a London ON man, who died under similar circumstances. In Dallas, a Black trans-woman, Lyanna Dior, was beaten by mob of Black and other racialized men, underlining the critical need for an intersectional lens on racism, reminding that all Black lives matter .

While protests raged, Louisiana and several states threw up new obstacles to access to abortion, provoking more protests. And we heard yet more news about increases in domestic violence around the world during COVID lock downs.

I could go on. And on.

Change makers are hopeful that innovative new policies may result, but history tells us that overarching systems of oppression (patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy, to name a few) are not easily dismantled, even when we seemed primed to embrace change.

Despite Roosevelt’s New Deal in the ‘30s, the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s, another revival of feminism in the ‘70s, building environmental movement over the past 40 years, still gross economic inequality, racism and misogyny (led by misogynist-in-chief Donald Trump) rages on.

All this, along with pandemic related unpaid work (home schooling anyone?), no wonder activists are questioning whether real change will result this time — and feeling burned out.

Why Activist Burnout BURNS

You might feel burnout toiling for an over-demanding, clueless boss or in a soul-sucking work culture. But you can always escape by changing who you work for.

But activists struggling to change a system are stuck working in that system.

Studies on activist burnout highlight unique stressors: slowness of progress, lack of resources to affect change, consequences of being a systems outsider, the weight of the emotional labour required to develop a “deep understanding of overwhelming social conditions related to suffering and oppression.”

Symptoms are similar to other forms of burnout: physical depletion, insomnia, negative thinking, depression, anxiety, lags in attention and memory, poor health, procrastination and increased substance abuse.

Those can trigger activists to withdraw entirely—at the very time they are most needed. Like now.

How to Heal Yourself—and Others

Annahid Dashtgard is a Canadian, author, change-maker and co-founder of Anima Leadership, a highly respected international consulting company supporting transformational change, especially in areas of diversity and inclusion. Previously Dashtgard helped lead the anti-corporate globalization movement (including organizing the 100,000 strong anti-globalization demonstration in Quebec in April, 2001) and has frequently been referred to as one of the top activists to watch.

In her recent book, Breaking the Ocean, Dashtgard writes about her 20-plus years as an activist. “Saving the world was a relationship of passion requiring fidelity and obsession…there was never any time for here and now. My activism and identity became one.” And burnout was the consequence.

Dashtgard says activist burnout results when we push beyond what we and our bodies can sustain. She advises activists to “Go at the speed of your own nervous system,”  as well as “learn to say no”and “unplug when you feel you need to.” She reminds us that “not a single one of the systemic issues any of us are working to change is going to change overnight, so pace accordingly.”

To those feeling despair, Dashtgard reminds us that activism does lead to positive change– history shows that, over time, “the arc of the universe tends towards morality.”

When it comes to guiding activist-led enterprises, she cautions against reacting too quickly to current events. “Often there’s such urgency to jump into action, but any change efforts need to be built on a solid foundation.” She recommends talking to people and gathering perspectives before taking next steps.  “The answers are often in the group, and often unfold through a process of listening as much as directing.”

Caring for the Movement

As well as heeding sound self-care advice, we can also experience a recharge by caring for our movements and each other. How? Consider this additional advice from other long-time activists:

  1. Write Activist Love Letters: Syrus Marcus Ware, a Black Lives Matter and trans rights activist, encourages people to think about their role in sustaining movements by writing love letters to activist leaders. He has personally mailed thousands of letters around the world to activists and organizations “as a salve to heal activist burnout.” Ware adds, “It’s [also] been amazing to get replies and be connected to activists around the globe.” Imagine the shot of energy we could bring if we each wrote five love letters to people working hard to change the world?
  2. Shift Your Focus: If the glacial pace of change gets you down, one way to refill your cup of hope is to take your eyes off the sky (the big picture) and focus on the ground – at the “emergent forms of life in the cracks of the Empire” — advice from Joyful Militancy authors carla bergman and Nick Montgomery. Activist-led experiments and startups below the radar are doing amazing work. Find them. Collaborate. Nourish them. Your support in whatever form that takes can make make an impact in ways that are felt right now versus decades from now.
  3. Say Yes to Pleasure: In Pleasure Activism, author adrienne maree brown suggests making space for pleasure – it’s a fierce form of resistance and critical for changing the world and staying resilient in fucked-up times. She recommends that we get in touch with our erotic and deep desires as part of our resiliency practice. “I touch my own skin, and it tells me that before there was any harm, there was miracle.” Tantalize your senses, take your mind on a trip, open up to great sex, take delight in the very beauty of existing.

 

We know that unless systems of oppression are dismantled, none of us will be free. If we don’t re-imagine our economic system, a handful of predominately white male billionaires will continue to call the shots. With rampant environmental destruction, Mother Earth will echo George Floyd’s now iconic plea “I can’t breathe” for years to come– and we will all suffer.

But we can’t do this vital work when we’re suffering to the point of burn out.  Self care, yes. But also remember that just being alive is a miracle worth celebrating everyday. Take a look at the flowers growing in between the cracks in the cement, cracks you are creating.  They will remind you that a better world is possible and indeed emerging.


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Categories
Feminist Practices

When Great Granny Inspires Great Work

Gurbeen Bhasin, Founder of Aangen, at work. Aangen celebrated it’s 20th anniversary, March 2020. Photo by Zlatco Cetinic

Gurbeen Bhasin grew up hearing stories of her great grandmother’s aangen (Sanskrit for courtyard) in Bombay, India. Traditionally, mothers and grandmothers gathered in this section of an Indian household to pickle foods, organize religious get-togethers and weddings, enjoy tea, and gossip with neighbours. The aangen became the site of a Wednesday morning tradition: She welcomed neighbours—irrespective of caste, class, or religion—which developed into a sisterhood community sharing joys and sorrows and helping each other solve domestic issues.

Bhasin’s grandmother continued the tradition when the family moved to Iran, as did her mother when the family fled to Canada after the Iranian revolution in 1979 when Bhasin was just eight. Gatherings in the family’s Toronto condo became help sessions for immigrant women in need. That planted the seed for what would become Bhasin’s Aangen, a unique non-profit social enterprise that employs 44 staff and at-risk people in four income-stream businesses. It also runs a community kitchen that prepares meals for several homeless shelters and helps impoverished kids attend school in Nigeria.

It’s an aangen on a grand scale, infused with “the soul of my great grandmother,” as Bhasin puts it, and a balm to her own childhood experience of losing nearly everything and being torn from her home, family, friends, and sense of belonging in her birth country of Iran.

Bhasin, who turned 50 this year, recently held an anniversary bash to celebrate opening Aangen’s doors 20 years ago, which is headquartered in a three-storey detached house on Dovercourt Road in the west end of downtown Toronto. She and her partner live on the second storey of the house with their son, who begins training to be a chef at George Brown College this fall.

From the start, Bhasin’s mission was clear: to be a non-profit that supported community needs but would do so through social enterprises rather than relying on grants.

Her “aha” moment came when she was interning in the University of Michigan’s Department of Social Services after completing a master’s in social work there. As a student, Gurbeen volunteered serving meals to the homeless, which re-ignited her passion to help others in need. While reviewing grant applications, she would often find herself calling applicants to advise them about including certain buzzwords that might help them win funding. Why did viable community projects have to beg and bend to political protocols in order to do good work? To Bhasin, that defied logic. “Social work is meant to serve the community. It’s not about writing grants, which is like wasted energy in creating systems of dependency that are not going to last,” she says.

Left to Right: Gurbeen Bhasin.  Names two colleagues pictured are being witheld to ensure their protection and ongoing healing. Photo by Zlatco Cetinic

By contrast, Aangen generates a sustainable, ongoing income stream by running an eclectic mix of businesses. One, started by Bhasin’s mother in the early 2000s, sells tea to health professionals and retail outlets. Another buys butter, eggs, honey, and maple syrup from Ontario farmers within 100 kilometres and resells them to two dozen cafes and local restaurants. Aangen also offers wellness and communications workshops for a fee, and the revenues in turn funds Aangen’s community service work. Its Chance for Change program is a residential and commercial cleaning service that employs refugees and people struggling with mental illness, homelessness, and addiction. When a staffing firm asked her to handle their payroll, Bhasin added that service to the mix.

“I call us the land for misfit toys,” jokes Bhasin. “That’s what we are, starting with me. I do not fit in anything else. Everyone came to us for a reason and we all kind of don’t fit in a bank or a retail store. We’re like dropouts.”

Revenue generated from each business pays Aangen’s administration, overhead, and staffing costs. Any donations made to Aangen go directly to supporting its end users, for example, by paying rent, utility bills or groceries for recipients in its Families in Need program.

Like so many of Aangen’s endeavours, that kitchen came about in response to a cry for help. During an extreme cold spell in the winter of 2018, a downtown social services agency contacted Bhasin with a desperate request. “They had 300 homeless people and they needed food. The moment I heard people were hungry, I sprang into action,” says Bhasin. She immediately reached out to Toronto Deputy Mayor Ana Bailão, one of the many ardent supporters of Aangen’s work. Bailão offered up space once used to cook food by Parkdale Public Health, which had been shuttered by Premier Doug Ford’s budget cuts. Since then, Aangen has been running a commercial kitchen from the rent-free space, where it prepares meals for Toronto’s homeless.  In the two-yer period from January 2018 to December 2020, it served half a million meals.

With so many different ventures, Bhasin realized she needed her own aangen of problem solvers and supporters, so she put together a unique governance model by operating two types of boards: a board of directors with authority to oversee the non-profit community kitchen (which includes the power to remove the executive director), and an advisory board for the income-stream social enterprise.

Each member on the social enterprise advisory board, which now consists of eight members chosen by Bhasin and her executive team, brings experience, knowledge, and contacts from a broad spectrum of networks within the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and internationally. They share Bhasin’s passion for food security and community welfare while adding specialized expertise. “I have actively sought skills that I don’t have. I don’t have a business background. I don’t have a legal background. I don’t have a financial background. But I know more about social work and social enterprise than any one of them. It’s really a supportive role that the board plays rather than a punitive one,” she says.

Aangen’s integrated board meets periodically in person and online to discuss ongoing and upcoming projects, which can be diverse. “Because we do not depend on grant funding, we have the flexibility to evolve in a way that’s not typical to the [non-profit] sector,” says Bhasin.

Dr. Sairupa Krishnamurti, a naturopathic doctor, joined the board in 2015. She had been facilitating wellness workshops at Aangen since 2010. “With our separate professional networks, we are able to bring in more fundraising ideas,” says Krishnamurti. “If a board member were to leave, they are not replaced immediately. The system works more fluidly based on what Aangen’s needs are at that point.”

For instance, Bhasin wanted to strengthen her leadership skills so she invited Jennifer Love, CEO of One More Woman, a company that helps leaders grow and manage money better. Says Bhasin, “Having Jennifer on board was like getting an MBA in the work we’re doing.”

Aangen in Action

Despite all her business ventures, Bhasin is still very hands-on. When I caught up to her one Friday night, she was loading groceries into the trunk of her red sports car to deliver to a woman who had called the previous night for help; her four children were hungry, their pantry was empty. “This is why I love what I do,” says Bhasin, a diminutive figure, barely more than five feet tall, with a magnetic personality. After she loaded in cans of chickpeas and other non-perishable food items, we jumped in the car and stopped by the community kitchen to pick up more supplies for the desperate mother—a couple of bags of apples, red peppers, baby potatoes, and packets of green beans.

At the kitchen, Webb said that one of her farm vendors had bought the produce—just a few days old—at the Ontario Food Terminal for $15, then donated them to Aangen. “All these fruits and vegetables would have been thrown away, but they’re still good to eat,” says Webb. On that evening, Webb was prepping more of the donated produce—potatoes and onions—to cook meals for 100 people at a homeless shelter.

Having such flexibility and efficiency differentiates a non-profit social enterprise from a more traditional non-profit or charity, Bhasin points out. “Let’s say a donor gives us $100 and tells us that they want us to get groceries for people who can’t afford it. Because Aangen’s making money through its business side to cover administrative, overhead, and bookkeeping costs, we don’t need to skim off the top of that $100. The $100 goes into a separate bank account, a donation fund. And then, if a single mom calls to tell me she’s struggling to provide food for her kids, I can take the $100 to get her what she needs. That $100 is going directly to the end-user.”

With that explanation, Bhasin flies out the door to deliver the care package to the mother of four. While she is thrilled to help, she’s irked that such help is still needed. “It’s 2020 for God’s sake and we’re still talking about hunger,” she says, steering through rush-hour traffic. “This capitalist society is long overdue for failure. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.”

And so the calls still pour in, and Bhasin gathers her Aangen to find solutions. Recently, she joined forces with Spiritan Self Awareness Initiative (SSAI) in Joy Village, a Catholic non-governmental organization (NGO) in Nigeria that provides menstrual pads to impoverished girls so that they can continue to attend school. Bhasin also helped Father Charles, founder of the SSAI, purchase farmland to grow food to feed the children, when he noticed that many of the children were coming to school hungry. Surplus produce from the farm also generates funds that sustain the charity’s work.

With her social enterprise achieving such impact, Bhasin figured there must be more to draw inspiration from, but that has not been the case. “I’ve looked globally, not just locally, and I’ve found it very hard to find one with a significant social impact,” she says.

Finally, we arrive at the mother’s apartment, just in time for supper. The mother is deeply relieved she can now feed her four children, all severely disabled.

Bhasin describes the work as akin to raising a child. “There are no breaks. There’s no downtime,” she says, adding, that she does it out of love “for my passion to help people who struggle to find belonging.”


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