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Activism & Action Our Voices

Coping with Activist Burnout in Extraordinary Times

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.


LiisBeth is one the few indie, 100% womxn-led and owned media outlets in North America. If you enjoyed this article, please consider becoming a subscriber donor today! [direct-stripe value=”ds1577108717283″]


Related Reading

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/05/30/the-revolutionary/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2018/11/27/solutionary-ideas-from-a-love-based-revolutionary/

 

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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Categories
Activism & Action

LiisBeth's #IWD2020 March Playlist: Marching On, Each for Equal

Brampton rapper Haviah Mighty won the 2019 Polaris Music Prize for the album 13th Floor. (Photo by Mark Matusoff)
 
Here are 10 new songs for us to march to on Sunday, March 8, for International Women’s Day. I believe that working towards equality is a balance between doing our own inner work and taking action in the world. We must be able to honour our pain and the learning we still need to do, and also look outwards to see where there is injustice in our communities and step forward proactively.
The artists below are each striving for equality in their own way, using their platforms and voices to help us all learn and grow. We are each here to contribute to that greater purpose. Let this #IWD2020 be an inspiration for us on how we can march forward, and what direction we are heading in.

Bikini Kill, “Girl Soldier”

Bikini Kill, known for pioneering the Riot Grrrl movement, was one of the first all-female bands in punk to speak out against abuse and misogyny. “Girl Soldier,” truly an anthem to march to, points to the irony of men fighting overseas when there is a war happening on our own homes against women, women’s lives, women’s bodies, women’s rights. Seen here in a live video from the early ’90s with “Turn Off Your TV” draped behind them, Bikini Kill inspired a revolution and called us all to action. 2020 sees them reuniting in a world that just might be ready for their message.

Haviah Mighty, “In Women Colour”

Brampton rapper Haviah Mighty made history in 2019 when she became the first female rapper to ever win a Polaris Prize. The opening track to her album, 13th Floor, cuts hard to the truth of how racist and misogynistic our world (let alone the music industry) still is. She tells her powerful story, how none of it could break her, and now as she breaks boundaries with her art, she is changing the landscape for Black women in this country.

Backxwash, “F.R.E.A.K.S”

Rising Montreal rapper Backxwash identifies as queer and a witch—two communities that have historically been broken through hateful, patriarchal culture. F.R.E.A.K.S is an anthem to all the incredible people existing in the margins of society who are changing our culture by showing up unapologetically. Historical change has always come from queer and marginalized communities, pushing the restricted boundaries of normalcy and redefining identity. Today we celebrate all the amazing freaks.

Riit, “qaumajuapik”

Riit, a Juno-nominated and rising artist from Nunavut, is an embodiment of the slow but real change beginning to happen in the music industry. Her Inuktitut lyrics and throat singing speak of her experience growing up in the Northern Territories, and the strength she has found as a woman through much of it. “qaumajuapik,” the first video from her 2019 album, landed her on many incredible shows and festival lineups, a massive hurdle for an artist living in such an isolated population. Making space for voices like Riit’s is the reason our individual actions matter.

Tei Shi, “Alone in the Universe”

Colombian-born singer Tei Shi often sings on themes of love and loss but her 2019 anthem “Alone in the Universe” is a song for us to march to. If there is a God, and if she is a woman, she’s dropping the ball, Tei Shi proclaims. She follows it by promising to speak up for the sake of others, where she hasn’t been able to speak up for herself. It’s a powerful reflection on the isolation of being a woman, and the importance of taking action on behalf of ourselves and others.

Lido Pimienta, “Eso Que Tu Haces”

Lido Pimienta returns this April with her first album following her 2017 Polaris Prize win, titled Miss Colombia. “Eso Que Tu Haces” depicts the magnificent colour, warmth, and dance tradition of San Basilio de Palenque, the first place of refuge for those fleeing slavery in the Colonial Americas. Her magnetic voice and storytelling has begged Canada for years now to be accountable to continued racism in the country, and this song is no different as she sets a boundary around what can be considered a “loving action,” and what is false.

Sudan Archives, “Glorious”

This video is Black Girl Magic personified as Brittney Parks imagines her own prayer to God in the style of old oral tradition hymns. Inspired by Aisha al-Fallatiyah, the first woman to ever perform in Sudan, “Glorious” prays for money, a foundation of life in our world. It is a stunning and raw nod to intersectional equality—if we want an equal world, we have to understand that it takes marginalized genders, races, and identities that much more effort to get what they need to survive in it.

Austra, “Risk It”

Austra returns this year with new music after four years when we last heard “Future Politics,” a plea for a more equal, utopian world. “Risk It” is a call to action that can be interpreted in our love lives, our political lives, or both (since there’s really no separation in the end, is there?). As we march to the beat of this song, we can contemplate risk as an essential part of growth and change. There are places where we all need to risk it in our lives in order to see equality grow in the world.

Black Belt Eagle Scout, “Indians Never Die”

This song is a beautifully haunting comment on our Earth and the Indigenous communities that have cared for it over many generations. Colonial violence is still painfully active and destructive in the 21st century, and we are each responsible for our part in ensuring that the land we live on and the individuals who continue to care for it do not waste away. Perhaps the physical earth can be part of our vision for equality, too.

Vagabon, “Every Woman”

Do not be deceived by the gentle strum of this song. In the lyrics lives a war cry, a proclamation that Laetitia Tamko is not afraid of the battle that women face every day to exist and be free. There is a solidarity in her lyrics as we understand the importance of every woman coming together in the name of equality. We may be tired, but there’s a ways to go still before we sit down.

Related Playlists

You can also find all our playlists on Spotify under LiisBeth.
https://www.liisbeth.com/2017/07/11/summer-reset-playlist-feminist-entrepreneurs/
https://www.liisbeth.com/2018/03/15/a-change-makers-playlist/

Categories
Activism & Action Allied Arts & Media

The New Measure of a Womxn: Wielding Power

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

 

Yesterday, while at a local theatre, I waited in line for the gender-segregated washrooms. As usual, the queue for the women’s went straight out the door and halfway down the hallway, while the men’s looked almost empty.

Most of us have grumbled about this poor architectural planning, but after spending this past week with Lauren McKeon’s No More Nice Girls: Gender, Power, And Why It’s Time to Stop Playing by the Rules, I labelled the problem differently: this is yet another example of how the world is designed for cis men.

No More Nice Girls, Lauren McKeon. Released March 2020 by Anansi Press

No More Nice Girls is a well-researched and infuriating (in all the right ways) book about power and how women’s and non-binary people’s power is routinely undermined. It’s packed with statistics on how marginalized people are taught to shoehorn themselves into a system intentionally designed not to fit. With an intersectional lens, the author lays out the way power inequities play out in politics, the economy, law, media, science, technology, city planning, and other areas.

McKeon challenges the myth that more women need to just work harder (and be “nice” while doing so) to reach for the top of existing power structures. Here’s one of the shocking statistics: when women CEOs do manage to reach the top, they earn $0.68 to every dollar their male colleagues make.

She also takes on the #GirlBoss trend, which encourages women to contort and bend instead of working to change the system. “They must be a boss, but not bossy; authentic, but Insta-trendy; real, but not harsh; beautiful, but effortless; killin’ it, but not thirsty; busy, but glowing with Goop-ified self-care; vulnerable, but just the right amount; tough, but just the right amount; confident, but not extra; warm, but not weak; decisive, but not rude; your bitch, but not bitchy.”

What interested me most about No More Nice Girls were the examples of how power might be reimagined and redefined, and how this power can lead to social equity.

For example, what if we viewed power as breaking silence and healing from trauma? Citing Tarana Burke, #MeToo’s founder: “What we’re doing with #MeToo is building something that doesn’t exist. Literally. It’s an international survivor-led and survivor-focused social justice movement.”

Power can also look like projects that intentionally decentre cis men and focus on the needs of women and non-binary people. McKeon offers anecdotes about the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club, The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and the co-working space The Wing, all of which were created to be safe spaces and “where men no longer write the rules.”

But feminism is a work in progress, and McKeon raises essential questions about who gets included and excluded in these spaces, urging feminists to challenge their intersectional praxis: “In many ways, the women-only movement has mirrored the challenges of feminism itself: the centering of biological definitions at the expense of transgender women; the exclusion of Indigenous women and women of colour from its most visible and influential positions; claims of battling tokenism while institutionalizing that same philosophy in its own histories and organizations.”

Another chapter is devoted to the power of feminist entrepreneurship, such as Ali Ogden’s Bon Temps Tea Company, which gives micro-grants to women to encourage and support their feminist work, and Taran and Bunny Ghatrora’s Blume, a chemical-free period-product subscription box that includes politicized information about menstruation. These and other examples spotlight ways in which “a feminist-first enterprise that’s built with sincerity can phenomenally change the economic landscape.” They can create kinder workplace cultures that value mentorship, collaboration, staff wellness, and are trauma-informed. Among other things, they can include breastfeeding rooms, child care, and be more intentional in their hiring practices.

McKeon ends with reflections on Women Deliver, a global feminist conference that took place in Vancouver in 2019. Moderators closed main-stage panels with a question about how speakers would use their power. McKeon optimistically writes, “This question was a way of reminding everyone there that they did have power, now, even if it didn’t always feel like it—even if their power didn’t look anything like traditional power…. All of it put a drop more power into this new bucket. It evened things out. It remade the world.”

No More Nice Girls made me ponder the ways I use my power. I’m an author working within a publishing industry context that is still racist, sexist, ableist, and heterosexist. I do my best to mentor, share space (and when appropriate, make way for others), amplify the work of marginalized writers, collaborate to create opportunities, and push from the outside to help steer the slowly moving literary ship in the right direction. It’s easy to grow cynical, to question whether these efforts drive real change, or are just drops in a bucket. But McKeon’s optimism made me reconsider the power of this work. Could it remake the world?

I know that it’s possible to design washrooms to be accessible, safe, inviting, and not segregated by gender. It’s possible because people have done the advocacy and work to design them. Now it’s time to use our power to disrupt oppressive systems and create a world that includes all of us.


Farzana Doctor is the author of four novels, including the forthcoming Seven (Dundurn, August 2020).


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Categories
Activism & Action Our Voices

Lunch with a Feminist Icon

A feminist icon has lunch at The Pilot in Toronto

Let me gift you with a feminist trivia game for your next feminist holiday gathering. And I’ll wrap it up with a big hint: the questions all have the same answer.

Question #1: Who was the woman who saved the life of abortion rights advocate, Dr. Henry Morgentaler, by fearlessly stepping in front of an attacker wielding garden shears at Morgentaler during the opening of Toronto’s first abortion clinic on Harbord Street?

Question #2: Who led the fight to get abortion legalized in Canada in the 1980s, while serving as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NACS), the feminist lobby group that represented more than 700 women’s rights groups across Canada and, from 1971 to 2007, successfully pressured the government to take action on daycare, birth control, women’s right to choose, maternity leave, family law, poverty, racism, women’s equality in Canada’s Charter of Rights, and violence against women—to name just a few issues?

Question #3: Who is Canada’s Gloria Steinem? Okay, that’s not an entirely fair question as we like to think Canada has a few. But, on top of authoring seven books, hosting a prime-time TV show, and writing countless articles about the women’s movement and social justice, this woman also co-founded rabble.ca, Canada’s largest independent, alternative news outlet and discussion site, and served as its publisher?

Question #4: Who understood and acted on intersectional feminism—social justice for all women—long before it was a thing?

Still stumped? You can imagine my frustration when I excitedly gabbed to everyone I knew that I was meeting Judy Rebick for lunch! Too often, the response was, Who is Judy Rebick?

Judy Rebick’s latest book is a memoir titled Heroes in My Head

 Who is Judy Rebick?

Well, I can tell you that Judy Rebick is a woman who not only shows up when she’s needed—she gets there early. She was already waiting for us at The Pilot tavern, a hangout for writers, musicians, and artists since Toronto’s Yorkville hippie days in the 1970s. Gordon Lightfoot performed with Bob Dylan here. It’s also steps away from the Toronto Reference Library, a place where writers spend a lot of time.

When I arrived, Rebick looked up. Though we had never met, we recognized each other immediately. Her stance, head of thick but now graying curls, and iconic glasses gave her away. Rebick greeted me with a big “in solidarity” hug. LiisBeth’s associate editor Lana Pesch, rushed from her day job, as eager to meet this feminist icon as I was, joined us soon after.

We quickly ordered coffee and lunch so that we could get down to talking without further interruptions. Rebick, now 73, was as keen to know about us as we were her. We shared histories and some great stories, then I shifted the conversation to a topic we came to learn more about: growing a sustainable media outlet in a time of turmoil for media enterprises in general.

Judy Rebick on Idle No More

I asked her what we, as feminist changemakers and publishers, could learn from her experience both as a long-time feminist journalist and as a co-founder/publisher/editor of rabble.ca, an alternative online publication (launched 2001) and now one of the country’s most successful, attracting 800 members, two million page views, and 350,000 unique visitors per month according to Google Analytics.

Specifically, for LiisBeth and our readers, I wanted to know the path to rabble.ca’s success. How did it ever get off the ground and survive this long, without a major foundation footing bills, angel investors or sponsors, or even a paywall?

Rebick told us that she and her co-founders were convinced that Canadians were frustrated by the mainstream press extolling neoliberal narratives. They wanted and deserved an alternative point of view on current issues and events. So Rebick and friends created a plan and hit the road to find funding. In one year, they raised $200,000 in startup funding including $120,000 from the Atkinson Foundation along with funds from some 18 unions—enough to code and launch rabble.ca.

Seventeen years later, Vancouver-based rabble.ca now generates approximately $350,408 in revenues, of which $121,000 (34.8 percent) come from reader donations. Income from sustaining partners (unions) represented another 50 percent while 14 percent comes from grants and various sponsorships. While the site promotes its advertising utility, less than 1 percent of its revenue comes from ads.

Rebick explained that unions backed rabble.ca as the publication offered a way for the left to connect and unions to connect with their constituents about ideas, critiques of policy, and economic analysis that the mainstream media largely ignored.

The idea of an online newspaper and participative forum for readers was totally rad at the time. That was early-stage internet and way before Facebook or Google.

Since its launch, some 90-plus independent news and magazine channels have appeared, and none have readership figures as high as rabble.ca yet. In Canada. But as Rebick filled us in on rabble.ca’s journey—the type of stories they chased and how—we were reminded how critically important alternative media is to any functioning democracy. Such media organizations hold political and business leaders accountable, bring new business models to light and offer an outlet for ideas of alternative world–making.

We were also reminded that financially sustaining an alternative indie media enterprise is a little like figuring out how to keep a fish alive and healthy out of water. After all, how do you challenge the status quo if you’re trying to raise money from people who benefit from systemic inequality?

Rebick certainly got us thinking, because at LiisBeth, we have similar values and face many of the same challenges as rabble.ca. We believe passionately that feminist entrepreneurs can change the world. We have faith in the idea that grassroots storytelling and discussion opportunities matter. And we dig deep to figure out what it takes to create, grow, and leverage a sustainable, social justice–forward digital media enterprise in today’s world.

Rebick believes that technology-enabled movements, aided by aligned alternative media outlets, are transforming power. Social movements—not governments, lobby groups, or corporate social responsibility initiatives—are correcting the course, exploding our ability to imagine new worlds, advance democracy and human rights, and force action on climate change. Rebick explained how different recent tech-enabled protests such as Arab Spring, Idle No More, and Occupy were to the anti-globalization rally in Quebec in the late 1990s. And she should know. She was there. On the ground. Involved in it all.

And suddenly, it was 2 p.m. Rebick was in demand again, at another meeting. She signed my copy of Ten Thousand Roses, the book she wrote on the making of a feminist revolution, and graciously rushed out.

Lana and I lingered, talking about how our conversation with Rebick was like getting drawn into an incredible living book on Canadian feminist action and social progress. The entire meeting was so engrossing that we completely forgot to document the occasion. No group selfie or even a picture of Judy. And we are a social media organization, with an online magazine and newsletter!

How will anyone ever recognize this incredible feminist icon? Chagrined, we took a picture of the chair she sat in.


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Categories
Body, Mind & Pleasure Our Voices

She Scores!

Kristi Herold . Founder and CEO, Toronto Sport & Social Club

During a recent Sunday evening at a school gym in Toronto, the Ninja Monkeys, a co-ed floor hockey team comprised of five women and seven men who have played together for nearly a decade, nailed their competition to the wall. Then they headed to a nearby bar to celebrate their 13–9 win with a round of drinks.

Team captain Tammy Symes, a 39-year-old recreational athlete, loves to play sports so much she signs up for two softball teams and two floor hockey teams each year, sometimes adding in ultimate frisbee or soccer for an extra dose of fun. “I’ve made so many friends, it’s unbelievable,” said Symes. She also gets to flex her leadership skills, serving as captain for most of the teams she plays on.

Supporting all that healthy fun and personal growth is a unique business model. Kristi Herold founded the Toronto Sport & Social Club in 1996. She had competed on rowing and ski teams at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., but when she graduated and moved to Toronto, she fell into an accessibility gap in recreational sports—especially for women.

“I thought maybe I could play soccer. But at the time, the only soccer I could find for women was highly competitive,” said Herold during a recent interview at the company’s Toronto office. “I couldn’t play at that level.” Yet she also couldn’t imagine her post-university life without sports. “If you go and play after work, you’re going home happier, you get a little sweaty, you’ve had some laughs on the field. You’re going to be less stressed, and your health is going to be better.”

Herold, who ran two small businesses while completing her commerce degree, seized on the gap in recreational sport for adults as an opportunity to launch her own company. “I realized I had to go out and do something on my own,” said Herold, who sports an athletic build, wild curls, and a ready smile. “I’d heard about these clubs in the US and I thought, well, I’ll give it a try.”

That was back in the analogue days, so Herold called up friends and friends of friends to see if they might be interested in playing on a co-ed sports team in a downtown location. She explained her idea as “intramurals for people who aren’t in university anymore.” By targeting recent graduates who faced the same lack of sporting options she encountered, Herold managed to sign up 52 co-ed teams that first season to play soccer, ultimate frisbee, flag football, basketball, and beach volleyball.

She charged $350 per team for the season, signed Spalding and Wilson as equipment sponsors, and launched a sporting enterprise that, 23 years later, has 130,000 annual participants playing about 30 sports. It employs some 50 full-time and 250 part-time staff, has expanded to eight Canadian cities, and can boast of being one of the largest sports and social clubs in North America.

Even in her first year running the future sports empire, Herold knew she was on to a good thing. “I was out at games every night…and showing up at sponsor bars afterward to make sure everyone had a good time.”

The concept is relatively simple. Players pay to play for a season that runs about 12 weeks. They can join either as an individual or a group can sign up as a team. Sport & Social Club handles all the organizing: matching individuals with a team, providing equipment, setting rules, creating a schedule, renting venues, tracking standings, and arranging social gatherings.

There are single-sex, co-ed and open leagues. The goal is to make it welcoming to anyone, regardless of skill or experience, with an emphasis on fun and making friends. On co-ed teams, there must be a minimum number of both men and women in play at all times. As Symes said, “If you join, you get played, and you have a good time.”

Said Herold: “I wanted to show it was possible to start something that everyone can play.”

When her business proved to have legs that first year, she formed a 50/50 partnership with her boyfriend, Rolston Miller. He had recently retired as a semi-pro cyclist and was looking for flexible work. As the company had no money for stamps, his first task was to deliver printed flyers that promoted seasonal registration. He did that, of course, by bike.

The two married later that year. Miller focused on building a digital platform for the company that would eventually become the foundation for internal and external communications. Herold led the business as CEO. “We were really hustling,” said Herold. “We grew by word of mouth, didn’t spend much on marketing.”

One of the club’s earliest hires was Rob Davies, an operations whiz. In 2007, Herold and Miller invited Davies to buy into the company, which is now run by the three partners, with Herold as CEO, Davies as president, and Miller as director of marketing.

Meanwhile, on the home front, Herold and Miller were struggling to manage a growing family with three young children. They found ways to distribute the workload at home according to practicality, rather than gender expectations. Still, Herold often felt overwhelmed. She’d grown up in Sudbury; her father was an entrepreneur and her mother stayed at home. “I grew up wanting to be both of them, which was challenging,” said Herold. “I felt I was failing, both as an entrepreneur and a parent.”

That crisis led Herold to take bold action. In 2005, she decided to step away from the business for 16 weeks of the year. She did that for several years. It wasn’t easy, but it seemed possible, Herold said, because of her innate leadership style, which she described as “bottom up.”

“I like to think of me as the base of a tree. I’m here to support. I say, tell me what I can do so you can go and do your work. It’s not me, standing on top, talking down.”

She and Miller divorced in 2012 but they’ve maintained their business relationship.

Now, after a decade of focusing on family while Herold placed the business in a slow-growth mode, she’s back in her CEO chair full-time. And she has a new goal of getting one million people off the couch, which means leading the company into an era of ambitious expansion.

Over the past two years, Sport & Social Group has expanded into new markets by buying up clubs that were already operating in Ontario and Michigan. Leaning on the parent company’s infrastructure and its custom digital platform, the newly acquired clubs can sign up and retain more members than they had previously. More acquisitions are in the works.

In the #MeToo era, ambitious growth in the sport industry comes with a responsibility to create a safe place for women. Herold aims to create gender balance—in the workplace and at play. Currently, about 40 percent of the club’s staff is female. And about 45 percent of its membership is female. Herold celebrates those stats in the male-dominated sporting industry.

So far, the company has not faced harassment issues, but Herold wanted to be ahead of the issue and hired an old friend from Queen’s University, Bay Ryley, to deliver online training for employees, teaching them how to identify and report harassment.

Sport & Social Group’s also developed gender policies that are trans-inclusive. Such measures are particularly important in co-ed sport, with teams required to have a minimum number of both genders in play at all times. For example, on the soccer field, two of six players must be women and two must be men. The other two can be any gender.

To register in single-sex or co-ed leagues, players can self-identify as either male or female at registration. Those who don’t identify a gender when they register are welcome to play, though their teams may not count them as either men or women to meet gender requirements. In open leagues, there are no gender requirements.

Within Herold’s expansion plans is a mission to improve access to sport for children. The company has started a foundation called Keep Playing Kids and aims to connect adult mentors—including Sport & Social members—with kids who need sport support. “We know that if you play when you’re younger, you develop a love for it, and you’re more likely to play as an adult,” says Herold. “We want everyone to keep playing.”


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