Outbreak. Pandemic. The world halting. How do I feel? Where do I feel it in my body? What wants to break out of me? What I really want to say is, I would like the world to stop spinning. To reverse its rotation. And to go back to December.
No, that’s not true. I don’t want that at all. Why would I want to go back to 2019?
We needed to stop. We needed the tipping point before now.
We needed to wake up years ago. To see ourselves and to see each other. To connect with ourselves and with each other. Something needed to give.
Immediate satisfaction. Fast fashion. Disposable smartphones. Human trafficking. Child labour. Modern slavery. Climate gambling. Mass refugee migration. Fake news. Cyber attacking. Instant messaging. Online bullying….
Social distancing was already happening to us. We stopped caring about each other. We stopped seeing our collective whole; instead, we saw only our individual desires.
My heart feels heavy for the fire we must now walk through together. We must. My hands feel stiff from the tension of searching for others to walk with. Will we have enough of us? Will we build an army of Hope and Decency to create a new world in 2021? And who, and how many, must we lose on this journey?
I desperately miss my grandmother. A feeling that directly contradicts my selfish gratitude that she is no longer here to suffer through this crisis. This catastrophe. This painful transformation of our civilization.
She was an elder. My elder. The elder. Every word she spoke was strength, wisdom, and assurance. We need our elders.
My favourite people are old. Did I ever tell you that? Several years ago, I met a 92-year-old gentleman on the Yonge subway line. He wore a hat and carried a cane. I make it a habit to never talk to anyone on the subway, but we spoke for nine stops. He rode the Yonge subway every day to have his coffee and pastry at a downtown café. Every day. I loved him immediately like he was my own grandpa, and I still regret not ditching my appointment to join him for a coffee and pastry that day, for more time with this gentle elder.
We will lose these wise souls. The ones who relish subway rides and pastries, who read real books while commuting, and sneeze into their handkerchiefs. I love old people. I miss my old people. We need our old people.
Some may feel a virus that targets the old and the vulnerable is a good virus or a ‘not so bad’ virus. They are wrong. A ‘good virus’ is one that takes the assholes, the rapists and the pedophiles, the abusers, the Trumpers and the Koch Brothers, the dictators, the racists, the misogynists, the polluters, the sport hunters, the ocean dumpers, the cruise ship operators, the drug lords, the gang leaders, the road ragers, the fucker who hit my first car and didn’t even leave a note…
Now that would be a ‘good virus.’
The only good that can come from this virus is what we make of this moment. If we can emerge from this social isolation, joining hearts, holding hands, walking towards Hope and Decency.
Most practices of the Christmas season contradict my feminist values, the gendered narratives of Christianity conflated into the season of “giving,” with women carrying the burden of holiday shopping, cooking, and social coordination. Then there’s the “give and get”—giving a charitable donation in time to get a charitable tax receipt by year end.
For me, holiday giving and celebrating should not be powered by a capitalistic consumer agenda but by love, thoughtfulness, kindness. During the holiday season, winter solstice in particular, I focus on hope and gratitude for female* energies rather than the pinging of POS machines in shopping malls driving us into debt. Do our loved ones really want that? I don’t think so.
This year I endeavoured to find a way to engage with the festivities, in ways that make my heart happy. I visited three events featuring feminist makers and changemakers: the Made by Feminists Market at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel; Ottawa’s Feminist Fair; and the Indigenous & Ingenious Show and Sale in Toronto. You can check out their crafty arts online, as I am sure they will inspire you to new ethical shopping heights, as they did me.
Here are some of my feminist faves that are sleighin’ it!
This powerhouse family team walks the feminist talk! Sisters Sarai (22), Jahdiel (25), Kristine (27), and their mom, Carolyn, run SaSa Naturals, an ethical, all-natural approach to self-care that emphasizes the power of women’s bodies. The co-founders are incredibly knowledgeable about each product and ingredient as well as traditional hygiene and wellbeing practices of women around the globe. They source goods directly from female-run shea nut farms in Ghana and even visit regularly to ensure female farmers are being treated equitably and that plant-based products are produced sustainably and free from chemicals. Products include all-natural deodorant alternatives, delectable soaps, bath bombs, lip chap and Yoni steam kits (unlike Amazon’s selections, these vaginal cleansing kits use herbs that honour the sacredness of womanhood). By using traditional medicinal practices rather than chemicals, the SaSa team is building a sassy brand that reminds women that our natural selves are our true selves. Check out their Instagram pageto place orders that can be shipped to both Canada and the United States.
Kristen Campbell, an ecological restoration maven, founded her company almost two years ago as a way to make beautiful change in the era of climate crisis. She handmakes seed bombs—ethically sourced native plant species balled up in clay—that you can chuck at any barren patch during your morning walk or your own garden for that matter. Add rain, and flowers spring up. Bees and butterflies will love you, as native habitat springs from these flower bombs. Beautifying the world has never felt so therapeutic as hucking an enviro-friendly bomb of life to Mother Nature! An excellent gift for the outdoorsy, flower-loving, tree-hugging types in your life or for anyone who just wants to drop an f-bomb—and feel great about it.
Helena Verdier discovered a love for transformative upcycling while studying at Carleton University. Now 26, she has made a business of repurposing some of our favourite literature into works of visual and wearable art. She creates paper flower crowns, centrepieces, and floral decor, showcasing and selling her flower-power pieces on her Instagram page. Seeing Verdier’s artistry highlighted on the Feminist Twin’s page enticed me to make the trek to their Feminist Fair in Ottawa for their sixth annual event where I discovered plenty more feminist gift-giving ideas.
Remember those framed embroidery pieces hanging in grandma’s house, greeting you with cheesy, sentimental sayings, like “Home is where the heart is” and all that? Well, Claire DePoe-Collins’s embroidery art is not that. The 30-year-old stitches radical, feminist ideas into her hoops such as “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” and “Ovaries before brovaries” as well as slogans for the woke such as “If it is inaccessible to the poor it’s neither radical nor revolutionary” and “Hang on lemme overthink this.” She also draws on racialized voices for inspiration. From Serena Williams: “The day I stop fighting for equality…will be the day I’m in my grave.” Such soulful, gut-punching, and often hilarious affirmations gave me the most painful belly laugh—and sure to deliver the same kick to your pals. DePoe-Collins ships her work straight to your door—and accepts custom orders should you know exactly what will tickle a friend’s feminist fancy.
At Indigenous & Ingenious, I visited Chief Lady Bird, an Anishinaabekwe artist who resists colonization through her mixed media prints, brilliant murals, skateboard decks and youth-focused projects that focus on Indigenous resilience, sex and body positivity, as well as calling attention to the importance of Indigenous women in our communities. She recently illustrated Nibi’s Water Song, a brilliant children’s book about Nibi’s quest to find clean water in her community, highlighting the need to listen to Indigenous voices and protect our planet for future generations. You can order Chief Lady Bird’s art on her Instagram page. She takes commissions for custom pieces too.
But the greatest gift I took away from my foray into these feminist fairs? The knowledge that every dollar we spend casts a ballot for the world we want to inhabit. One maker told me that the money she made at the event will help pay her rent this month. When we buy from our brilliant sisters, we are also giving a gift of survival and support in the fight to dismantle the patriarchy. Now, I can deck the halls with that!
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Feminist Art Conference 2014, OCAD University, Toronto
The process for art-making can boil down to something like this: Make art, get feedback, make art better. Sounds easy, right? It wasn’t for Ilene Sova. In 2012, the Toronto artist-activist was painting portraits of women who had disappeared in Ontario for her Missing Women Project. She wanted to talk about the hard issues she was tackling in her art—patriarchy, misogyny, systemic racism, violence against women—but there wasn’t a group of fellow feminist artists to turn to, at least not a formally organized one.
Sova put out a call for submissions and volunteers and got a rush of responses, including from people in Kenya and Colombia. On International Women’s Day in March 2013, she launched the first Feminist Art Conference (FAC), a multidisciplinary event that brought together artists, activists, and academics of different gender identities, ages, nationalities, and feminisms so they could show their work and use it to spark discussions around important feminist issues.
The conference sold out in two days, attracting 120 participating artists and 150 attendees. “Clearly what I had been missing in my own social practice was something that others in our creative communities were also yearning for,” says Sova. FAC’s subsequent annual conferences have been equally as successful, especially the 2017 event that happened the day of the Women’s March.
‘Ashaba’; No human can look at her directly by Karen White explores unseen oppression. By covering her face while staring straight at the viewer, the artist makes us feel both complicit and engaged in the exploration of colonialism and imperialism.
Art That Moves
Feminists have been long fed up with the fact that women’s art continues to be undervalued, underrepresented, and often completely ignored. The feminist activist group Guerrilla Girls have been calling out the gender and racial inequality in the arts since 1985 when they picketed the Museum of Modern Art in New York for featuring only 13 women out of 169 artists.
That inequality persists today. Female visual artists earn just 65 percent of the annual income of their male peers, according to a 2018 report by the Ontario Arts Council. Since 2013, women have only accounted for 36 percent of solo exhibitions at Canadian galleries; it’s dramatically less for non-white women. Gender disparity also exists in the performing arts space, which FAC attempts to redress in their events.
FAC has heard all the reasons why feminist work is often shut out of commercial spaces and public institutions. It’s not mainstream or universal (i.e., not male). It’s too angry and personal (i.e., too female) to be good.No one (i.e., men) will buy it. FAC’s response? Carve out spaces to showcase intersectional work that might be deemed taboo elsewhere, for instance, on topics such as rape culture, transphobia, racism, ableism, domestic violence, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, media representation, cultural appropriation, environmental degradation, and Islamophobia. Nothing is off limits. FAC featured a graphic novel about trauma and abuse, Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee, which contains such difficult subject matter that FAC added its first-ever content warning.
Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee explores themes of trauma and abuse by drawing the viewer into the narrative.
According to Sova, people attending FAC events say they are really touched because the art reflects current social issues that affect them. “This creates a very impactful experience for those viewing art or experiencing a performance,” says Sova.
After hosting four conferences, FAC changed its name to the Feminist Art Collective to reflect its expanding mission. It now hosts artist residencies on the Toronto Islands. And its next event—the Feminist Art Festival, March 5 to 7, 2020, at OCAD University—will include a reception, conference, performances, film screening, makers’ market, and a two-week exhibition featuring the work of visual artists.
The Art of the Action
Since day one, FAC has operated as a grassroots organization run entirely by volunteers. Currently, the core team consists of 30 people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.
Carissa Ainslie, who took on the coordinator role after Ilene Sova became the Ada Slaight Chair of Contemporary Painting and Drawing at OCAD University, describes their current organizational structure as non-hierarchical. “We try to be intersectional in terms of who we’re including in the conversations that we’re having,” says Ainslie. “Ensuring that everyone has a voice at the table is really important regardless of what their experiences have been.”
FAC’s biggest challenge is finding the time and money to put on events, particularly without a physical office or paid staff. It didn’t help that the Ontario government slashed arts sector funding from $18.5 million to $6.5 million earlier this year but, before that, FAC did not have much success getting grants as their conferences are so unique they don’t “tick all the eligibility boxes.” Instead, they’re exploring other options such as sponsorships with companies that align with their values.
For now, FAC relies on in-kind donations for printing services, food and beverages for receptions, and space rentals (OCAD University is a signature partner and hosts the festivals as well as committee meetings). Ticket sales (with pay-what-you-can options) and their annual Made by Feminists market at the Gladstone Hotel also brings in funds.
Despite budget constraints, FAC continues to grow. Submissions for the 2020 festival were up to 187 from 130 in 2017, coming in from Australia, South America, Europe, United States, and Canada. Ainslie says the political landscape has changed since their last conference in 2017 with the #MeToo movement encouraging people to talk openly about sexual harassment and gender inequality.
A voting committee of 11 people (artists, curators, activists, community members and academics) will select the final artists to participate at the festival, through a selection process that considers social justice issues, intersectionality, the collective’s mission and, of course, the strength of the art itself rather than the artist’s professional record.
Not Missing, Not Murdered by Amanda Amour-Lynx features the shirt the artist wore the night she was sexually assaulted. Photo:Black Umbrella Photography, Rebecca Tisdelle-Macias
With FAC serving as a spring board, past participants have gone on to show or perform their work in other venues and countries, collaborated with artists they met at FAC events, and even started conferences (see Black Futures Now and M.I.X.E.D) as well as a literary magazine (Living Hyphen).
Says Ainslie: “The world is a bit ridiculous and I hope people can come together and have some good conversations. We try our best to support the artists the way we can. We can’t always do that with funds but we can by creating a space where artists can build their CV and present work that may not be welcome anywhere else. We just want the best for all the artists involved.”
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Part memoir, part theory, and part geography, Feminist City: A Field Guide is the latest book by Leslie Kern. It delivers a fresh perspective with feminist intersectional ideas to inform urban development. And Kern is not alone. People like Ellie Cosgrave of the UK’s Urban Innovation and Policy Lab, Madrid’s mayor Manuela Carmena Castrillo, and Lucinda Hartley of Australia’s Neighbourlytics have been advocating for urban change for years.
Kern is an associate professor of geography and environment, as well as program director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. As an academic, she writes about gender, gentrification, and feminism, while teaching urban, social, and feminist geography.
Her book, FeministCity, will be published by Between the Lines on October 24, 2019, just in time when Canadians will be venturing out into their own neighbourhoods post election, in need of an inspiring read that will ideally help them think about their streets and parks in a new light.
LiisBeth spoke with Kern on the phone from her home in Sackville. We talked about what she thinks a feminist city could look like, her influences, and the wider impact that a feminist city could have on society.
LiisBeth: Tell us a little bit about how the book came to be. What was the catalyst?
Leslie Kern: In my day job, I get to be a feminist urban geographer, and I really love taking that approach to cities. I love teaching that material, I love writing about that material. So much of it is, for me, really connected to the things that women and other people in cities really experience on a day-to-day basis. It’s not just abstract, theoretical things that only academics are interested in. It’s about what it’s like to try to cross a busy intersection, or to access public transit. The catalyst for me was thinking, How can I bring some of these insights and ideas and provocations from the scholarly field, and bring it to a wider audience in ways that I think will allow people to connect to their own experiences of living in, travelling to, working in cities?
Did you have an “aha” moment? One where you were in a class and thought, “This has got to be bigger?”
I just started writing it in my head, almost as a thought experiment. If I was going to write about this, what would it sound like, what would the stories be, and then thought, Why don’t you actually write it? In a broader sense, I think coincidentally, the Me Too movement really exploded just at the time that I was writing the book. That seemed like an exciting coincidence where so many people, mostly women, but many people were standing up and saying harassment of all sorts is rampant, it affects our lives in dozens and dozens of ways, some visible, some invisible. It has a huge impact on the presence of women and other marginalized people in politics and art, and education, culture, science, and all of these fields. I was thinking, yeah, from a geographer’s perspective, the kind of harassment that women face in public spaces, but also private spaces like workplaces and educational institutions and so on, is all sort of tied together, thinking about what kind of spaces we can access, where we feel that we belong, where we have to kick down doors just to get in, and where we might be pushed out of. It felt like a great moment to bring that geographical perspective to this issue that so many people were talking about.
Those are external influences on your thought process. Were there any writers that influenced you?
There’s been a really productive boom in feminist public writing recently, maybe the last decade or so. People like Rebecca Solnit, who also writes about a lot of urban issues. She writes about the experience of different sorts of cities, inequality in cities, policing and violence, all sorts of things. She’s a big influence.
People like Roxane Gay, Rebecca Traister, Tressie McMillan Cottom are feminist public intellectuals who do such amazing work weaving stories of their personal experience, starting from their realities, their lived realities as women, as Black women, as women living in cities in some cases, and connecting that to really deep, critical, social analysis.
Listen to a 6 min reading by Leslie Kerns from Feminist City:
In your opinion, why hasn’t this [creating feminist cities] happened sooner?
Any society, and any of the built environments that societies create, such as cities, they reflect the power relations that exist in that society, and I think we know who has traditionally or for a very long time held the power. We’re talking about wealthy, propertied, able-bodied, cis, white men. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the urban environments that we have are really set up to support their success, their power, their daily needs.
In order for something like a feminist city, or the principles of a feminist city to evolve, you really have to have a lot of social pressure for that to happen, whether that comes in the form of activism, or legal changes, or other kinds of social movements, or just the wider entry of women into positions of power in cities and government, policymaking, architecture, design, all those sorts of things. It’s sort of a slow moving process.
Do you think a feminist city wasn’t at the forefront, or did the idea exist back in the 1960s and 1970s?
I do talk about this in the book. Feminist ideas for urban design, neighborhood design, and household design have existed for a long time, and they actually go back to the 19th century. Women, particularly coming out of socialist movements and so on, were thinking about the ways in which the built environment was set up, and in many ways it was to isolate them, to keep them busy with unpaid domestic work, to keep them from sharing their domestic labour with other households, to keep them out of the spheres that were properly designated for men, the public sphere, politics, education, science, and so on.
It’s not a brand new thing to be thinking about how cities, neighbourhoods, communities could be set up in ways that support other sorts of social ideals, including feminist ones.
Interestingly, you can actually look back in time and see women coming up with their own ideas for how neighbourhoods could be structured to really reshape the household, and reshape women’s labour, and make more time for women. Over time, some of those things have just been lost, other trends have been more dominant, and of course I think it’s fair to say that the feminist social movements of the 20th century have been really focused on things like legal change and equality in the formal, legal sphere.
Vienna is an interesting example of a city where what they call gender mainstreaming has really been put into practice. The idea behind that is that any kind of city policy, or planning, or new urban design plan, whether that’s a park, or a new neighbourhood, or transit lines, those have to be first looked at through a gendered lens. What that means is asking, How might this affect men and women differently?Will it increase gender equity, or will it maybe decrease gender equity? With the aim of explicitly increasing gender equity in cities, cities like Vienna that have done gender mainstreaming are making sure that all of their redevelopment and new design projects support that vision. That has tended to mean things like more public transit, and better access to things like child care, and other sorts of social services that are better integrated with home environments, and all those sorts of things.
When you say it like that, it just seems so obvious.
Whose behaviour do we need to change, and how do we do that?
We could look at this on a very day-to-day, interpersonal level in terms of the regular relations that people experience in cities, and certainly things like harassment and violence come to mind as major factors where we could think about, okay, there is an actual behaviour there that needs to change.
Of course, we also have to think about the systemic level, where it can be difficult to point to individuals and say, there’s some conspiracy to be sexist, or racist, or homophobic there, but over time we can look at patterns of choices and decisions that are made at city hall, and in planning offices and so on, that either uphold the status quo or challenge the status quo. To change that, then we have to use the power of social movements, of our vote in electoral politics, and education as well would be an important component of that.
How do you convince politicians, planners, and the general population that this is the right thing to do?
Unfortunately, arguments that are in favour of equality and inclusion aren’t always enough to sway people, even though we might think ethically they should be. We can turn to arguments that emphasize the wider array of benefits that can come, so that it’s not fixing things just for women, but what about everybody else?
A lot of feminist urban research is about starting from a gender lens, then the kinds of improvements that you might make to the city can affect people more widely. Like how do women with strollers get around the city? If you want to improve that, then you’re going to be improving access for disabled people, for the elderly, you’re going to be probably creating a more accessible public transit system which is good for the environment. There’s all of these sorts of associated benefits that impact a wider swath of society than just women. Of course women are 50 percent of society, but you can make arguments around sustainability, environmental sustainability, that when you pay attention to gendered concerns which often do have a lot to do with things like access to public transit and so on, that if you want to encourage people to use public transit more, and you want to make it safer, harassment-free, affordable, accessible, then you’re promoting that goal of sustainability at the same time.
If you can show how these feminist, gendered concerns intersect with other issues, then maybe we can make a little more headway with those people in power.
I hope that my book is one of many voices that talk about these issues more generally. I tried to touch on some things that maybe aren’t talked about as much, even within feminist urban research. Talking about friendship, women’s friendship, and cities, and how that sort of relationship and certain kinds of spaces can support that relationship.
What will it take to create these cities in terms of resources and timelines and budgets? Combined with that, what do you think a feminist will look like?
To me, a feminist city has to be one where issues around safety and freedom from fear are prioritized. There are certain kinds of changes to the physical environment that can facilitate that, but it also has to be a wider social commitment to equality and non-violence. A feminist city, I think, has to be one where public space in general is safe and accessible, not just for women, but for people of colour, for homeless people, for queer folks, for trans people, for disabled people. A public space where everybody feels welcome and everybody feels that they are contributing to the city through their presence.
It has to be a kind of city where the heterosexual nuclear family is not presumed to be the default. When we think about the kinds of housing that we build, or that we’ve been left with over decades of suburban building, the kind of homes that we have are designed with that default in mind. That is increasingly not the norm in most people’s lives, or it’s not the norm for their entire lives, given divorce, later-in-life marriage, same sex relationships, polyamory, singlehood, all sorts of blended families, all sorts of different household forms. A feminist city has to be one where different kinds of households can flourish, and not feel that they’re being pushed into a box that wasn’t made for them.
Is there anything that you physically envision?
Green space could be an example, but communal and collective spaces for things like growing food or preparing food. More shared spaces for things like child care, more spaces for people to come together. At the moment, we look around and we think there’s a lot of public space, but a lot of it is privately owned, it’s patrolled by private security forces. It’s not really all that public, and it can be quite difficult to actually engage in different forms of social relations there, for example, cooking for people. We could think about spaces that exist within the built fabric that we have, but that are able to be used for a wider variety of purposes.
A library is one of those places that fulfills so many sorts of social needs in society, and yet we’ve seen it be really under attack by austerity-leaning governments that see those sorts of public spaces as easy funding cuts. We know that they’re about so much more than books.
Do you think the rise in co-working spaces is a precursor to what could happen?
I think those spaces can be good examples of the kind of flexibility that can be helpful for people, especially women, who are trying to juggle multiple roles, both their paid work roles, their community roles, their home roles, their parenting roles, all those sorts of things. Co-working spaces might provide locations where people can easily go to work. They are the sorts of spaces where the people who use them can maybe create their own culture and rules and norms about what goes on there, rather than a corporate-derived culture.
What do we stand to lose as a culture if feminist cities aren’t created?
We stand to lose out. Or maybe we should say continue to lose out, because I think we could argue that we’ve long lost out on so many contributions from women and other marginalized people in terms of public life. Their contributions to politics, education, culture, art, science, business. If we continue to have built environments that are both physically and socially inaccessible or unwelcoming, or that just make people’s everyday lives really fearful or really difficult, then they’re not going to be in those spaces that we need them to be.
Not to end on a doom-and-gloom note, but let’s face it, climate crises are already here, as are crises of inequality. And cities are really going to be on the front lines of having to deal with those crises. Cities are not going to either survive or thrive if we don’t figure out ways to address those problems, and to address the ways that those things intersect together. We know that the future is a little bit fragile right now, and if we keep going forward doing the same things that we’ve always done, it’s not going to make for a very bright future for anybody.
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Join LiisBeth and Jane’s Walk TO on September 29 in Toronto for the city’s FIRST-EVER Feminist City Walk & Talk. Get tickets for the event here.
Our foray into Oregon’s newly legalized recreational cannabis industry earned us a spot on the cover of the local newspaper for two weeks running – though not in a good way. The headlines described us as facing “complications,” but the content quoted angry locals as saying we were bent on manufacturing and selling drugs across the street from a family-friendly park filled with kids.
This publicity followed on the heels of a town hall meeting to obtain a state-mandated Conditional Use Permit from the local municipality. The permit was the State’s way of ensuring that local governments were informed of any cannabis businesses opening in their jurisdiction and also enabled those municipalities to take a cut of the development money. Our town, like most in Oregon, took a big cut.
Several new facilities had already petitioned for permits, but ours threatened to be the “one too many.” Like many small towns, the public felt overwhelmed by the influx of new people and distrustful of the new recreational cannabis industry as a whole. The meeting drew a packed house with an organized group of protestors testifying against us, shaking their fists and yelling that we would ‘have dope fiends hanging off the fences’ of our property.
My husband and I, the cofounders of Full Circle CO2, kept our cool, agreed to all the City’s stipulations, and left with our approval.
But our buildout also became something of a circus. There were, at times, up to six people parked on lawn chairs across the street watching – and often hurling ugly comments — as we pulled out 400 feet of old, crumbling sidewalk; poured new, handicapped accessible curbs; and installed an eight-foot landscaped greenway on all public-facing sides of the property as well as cedar fencing (mandated by the city to replace the old chain link). There were several incidents of angry locals not just yelling at us but throwing rocks. The worst of the vitriol was directed at me – the female cofounder in our start-up cannabis enterprise. Since I was the one who spoke at the meeting in this conservative logging town, I got nailed. Trolls in online forums, coffeeshop gossip mongers, and people on local radio call in shows dismissed my cofounder and husband, Paul, as “a pretty boy” and went after me as a “domineering b*tch” that didn’t know my place. That a cannabis company had moved into their town was tough enough to swallow; the front person being a woman just ratcheted up the hysteria.
We kept our heads down and focused on putting the fence up.
It was an episode that was emblematic of my experience as a woman in the cannabis industry. Sometimes you have to keep your head down and focus on the task at hand, and sometimes you have to step into the center ring and advocate for yourself. The trick for me has been to remain true to the vision and mission of our business and not allow anyone else to define who I am or what role I should be allowed to play in this male-dominated business.
This is the story of that journey, but, first a bit of background.
CANNABIS GOES CANNABIZ
In 2014, Oregon became the third state in the U.S. to legalize cannabis for recreational use by adults. It would take three years for the industry to transition from the past two decades of loose oversight under the medical program to a functioning recreational market. In that time, thousands of businesses would start and fail, many even before receiving their licenses. Today, only a small percentage of the hundreds of initial applicants are still in business, even fewer with their original owners. Those that did survive have largely done so because of huge amounts of investment money that allowed them to ride out those turbulent early days of legislation, rulemaking, black market leaks, and oversupply. Today, only a handful of the small-scale, Oregonian-owned, self-funded operations that dominated the medical market remain.
My husband and I own one of those companies, Full Circle CO2. We are a two-person, self-made cannabis processing facility that stands out as much for our 50 percent female ownership and unique business model as we do for our hand-crafted products. This year, for the first time, we will see steady revenue, enough to cover both our business and home expenses, though I still supplement our income with writing. It’s been a long road filled with construction, research, networking, policy advocacy, and out-of-the-box business development. But we’re still here, and we’ve learned a lot that can help other small businesses thrive, especially those in highly regulated markets such as cannabis and alcohol, even in the midst of big-money competition.
Our journey — and that of any early-to-the-game cannabis company — can be divided into three phases: pre-legalization/medical, licensing, and early market. I call our current phase “early market” because like most new industries, regulations and consumer preferences change quickly in the early years, preventing the stabilization of industry practices and norms. How long that kind of volatility will take to even out is anyone’s guess; in the cannabis space, we expect the unexpected as long as national and international laws continue to evolve.
FIND THE MARKET NICHE
My husband, a construction contractor and long-time believer in the healing effects of cannabis, entered the industry in the waning years of medical, before we married. He was in his early thirties and started with a small-scale grow operation in an outbuilding on his residential property, with just enough space to provide flower (the bud) to a few patients.
Pretty immediately two things became clear: He wasn’t very good at growing cannabis, but he saw high demand in value-added products such as vape pens, tinctures, topicals, and edibles. As well, nicotine-based vaping products were growing in popularity. That drove him to research the manufacturing of cannabis-based vape oils, a difficult project after nearly a hundred years of research suppression. He persisted though, and, in 2015, he settled on using CO2 for extraction, which is a non-toxic, non-explosive method of extracting the essential oil (which includes the THC, cannabinoids, and terpenes) from the cannabis plant. It’s a method widely used in the production of essential oils from plants such as lavender and roses.
But entry into the cannabis industry via processing appeared cost-prohibitive, especially for lower-middle class Americans, which we were. At that time, a mid-sized, no-frills extractor ran to $250,000 or more and the ancillary equipment commonly used for post-processing and refinement could cost another $100,000 to $300,000 (all figures in US dollars). We scraped together financing for the extractor and bare necessities with small personal loans, savings, and credit cards. And then Paul started down the long road of learning how to make cannabis extract while I learned everything I could about operating a small business.
The first thing that hit me was pretty obvious: Nearly everyone in cannabis was male, and it had been that way as long as anyone could remember. In pre-medical, black-market days, women were customers (often in need of a male escort who could vouch for them) and arm candy relegated to wait on a couch while stoner dudes talked breeds, trichomes, and pricing. Under medical, it wasn’t much better. Since mostly men had been growing, mostly men continued to run cultivation, distribution and management. If women gained entry to the sector at all, it was usually filling roles as low-paid trimmers or clerks in the newly-allowed dispensaries.
REGULATION TAMES THE WILD WEST
Our marriage in 2016 coincided with the dawn of the recreational market and a promise of change. The State of Oregon began issuing administrative rules, making it clear that the recreational market, in stark contrast to the medical days, was going to be highly regimented. The old way of doing things would not cut it. Opportunities opened for people with skills in mainstream agriculture, manufacturing, retail, and distribution. Like myself, a lot of women made the transition, applying their diverse life and work experiences to the cannabis industry.
I brought an advanced degree in geology, five years of experience in environmental consulting and community college instruction, as well as hefty student loans to the sector. Remarkably, that set me up well to sift through the weeds, as it were. While Paul focused on the extraction side, my role touched every aspect of the start-up — reading up on the administrative rules and keeping us in compliance, overseeing the application process, setting the timeline for construction, and managing the budget. Most in the industry paid thousands to attorneys to read and interpret the hundreds of pages of guidance documents and legislation the state was pumping out, while I read and reread every page. When I had any questions, I never hesitated to pick up the phone and call a regulatory agency or policy maker directly. Apparently, this is infrequent in an industry still wary of government officials. For us, this initiative was essential. And it’s something I recommend any business owner make a habit of doing, whether for occupational health and safety, weights and measures, or simple building code compliance. The best information always comes directly from the source, and I found regulators are often are surprisingly eager to help.
One of the state’s first regulations was a restriction on operations in residentially zoned properties. That left most of the industry, including us, without a place to operate, even for research and development. The scramble for agricultural, commercial or industrial space created a land race. Within months, the inventory of cannabis-appropriate properties (the guidelines stipulated distance from schools and lot size) dwindled to almost nothing. Pricing — for purchase or lease — responded to the demand, increasing to twice or three times the asking price of just a year earlier. Worse, even those companies lucky enough to secure a property before prices soared often found themselves back in the search after counties and cities held special elections to opt out of cannabis.
We were lucky. Just eight months into our search, we found a lot to lease in a small town 30 minutes from our house. It had a roof and reasonable rent and that was about it. Then we had to endure the hell fire of obtaining our permit to build. And then there was the tall task of fulfilling the requirements of the permit, which dictated everything from storage (we would need a secure vault) to surveillance (our 25 by 30-foot structure has seven cameras that record 24/7), to the prep counter material (food grade). It was like building a mini casino.
DIY ON THE FLY
Most of the industry solved this particular logistical nightmare by throwing money at it. The average processing facility build-out at that time cost between $500,000 and $2 million. For us, frugality became the mother of invention — and one of the reasons that we survived this roller coaster industry. From the beginning, we drew on our own skill sets and invested our own sweat in the build out. My husband’s contractor license enabled us to handle most of the construction. As a registered geologist and with my experience as a researcher, I was able to write our complex Standard Operating Procedures, safety plans, and training manual myself. When we required outside expertise for landscaping and irrigation, plumbing or website design, we reached out to people in our network, finding friends and contacts willing to work for labor in kind or low fees.
We also hunted out bargains. From my time in research, I knew labs paid a premium for equipment so I sourced kitchen, farm and alternative industry suppliers for devices that could collect, contain, measure, and disperse liquids — and we bought everything we could secondhand. We found office furniture at salvage stores, and we pulled heavy steel storage cages and security gates out of autobody shops to make our vault. One day, we emptied out most of a recently closed restaurant, scoring stainless-steel tables, cleaning products, mop buckets and even a picnic table to give us a place to eat lunch — all for less than $500. After being quoted upwards of $13,000 for a security system for our tiny space, we took the regulations into a big box store and made friends with a clerk willing to read them. We left with $250 of equipment that kept us in compliance until we could upgrade to something more robust. We still use vintage sterilized mason jars we pulled out of a farmhouse canning room to store and transport our bulk product.
Finally, in January 2017, we became one of the first of 40 licensed processors in Oregon. After we paid $5,000 for the license fee, we had maxed out every credit card we had and were left with just $7 to our names. But we had done it! We had built a processing facility, and we were shipping stock.
WOMEN: MIND THE WELCOME MAT PULL BACK
By then, the media had picked up on the uptick of women in the industry, a welcome shift from the b*tches and buds’ mentality that had dominated the cannabis market for so long. While our numbers still lagged far behind men, there were more women in the industry, and those women were holding greater positions of authority. Women-owned dispensaries and wholesale facilities were becoming common, as were woman-dominated farming collectives. There were even Facebook groups for women in the industry, and woman-only cannabis business groups.
But that pink-in-the-green uptick didn’t last long.
In the fall of 2017, Oregon cannabis farmers harvested more than a million pounds of cannabis, far more than enough to supply the state. As regulations still don’t allow for export, the bottom dropped out of the local market. Prices plunged, farms failed and guess what? The good old boy network kicked back in. Competition became cutthroat with men infiltrating women-only spaces — online and in meetings — drowning out our voices and preventing us from networking. Next, they shut women and their products and services out of the game by excluding them from consideration and shelf space. Finally, they targeted our less established and therefore more vulnerable businesses for takeover in an ongoing consolidation process. Now, some dispensary owners estimate that nearly 80 percent of the value-added products on the shelves are held by just three parent companies.
STAY SMALL TO SURVIVE
We survived that first market collapse mostly because we were so small that no one saw us as competition. And our frugal build-out and lack of employees meant we had comparatively little overhead. We only needed a sliver of the pie to stay alive. Competitors tried to undercut our prices, and I faced several instances of blatant condescension and inappropriate sexualized comments, to the point that I started bowing out of “first-contact” business meetings. Instead, Paul began handling initial contacts to vet the value system of potential clients and partners — and shield me from potential negative behaviors and attitudes. It’s a policy we still follow today.
As with the build-out, we took a contrarian approach to other businesses fighting to establish their brands in a crowded market. Instead of promoting our own brand, we built a business model based on servicing the industry. So instead of investing money to launch a Full Circle line of products, we offer business-to-business services, providing custom processing and value-added products for a toll fee. We turned potential competitors into clients, and that helped us maintain a degree of independence and ride out market fluctuations. The strategy also insulated us from high-cost regulatory changes in labeling and testing, shifts that shuttered many start-ups.
But we don’t shy away from taking an active role in advocacy and policy making, both in the state and nationally, partly out of necessity. In the summer of 2018, with no notice or explanation, the state issued a verbal “cease and desist” order for our business. After all our effort to start up, we faced being shut down – and there appeared no means for appeal or reinstatement. I took to the phones, calling everyone from the small-business ombudsman at the Secretary of State’s office to the governor’s cannabis liaison to our federal senator. I often got through as we had taken the time to build relationships with all these people during the previous three years. We showed up for town halls, provided public comments on proposed rules, and lobbied directly. That all helped. As did going out of our way to become a part of the community that initially slammed us, by participating in arts events, spending money at locally owned businesses and being good neighbors.
TURN YOUR ENEMIES INTO FRIENDS
Ironically, it ended up being our good standing in our small town that made the difference. After a two-week shutdown, the local fire marshal went to bat for us. We knew him by first name, and he was already familiar with us, our business and how we operate. He wrote a strongly worded letter, which was backed up by the ombudsman, and we got our permission to operate. The Secretary of State’s office even informed us that we could lodge a formal grievance over the shutdown, but I declined; instead, I requested to be placed on the rules-making committee so I could prevent this from happening to others. They did. I was the only female processor in the room.
Running our business has gotten a little easier since those hurly burly start-up days. We have regular clients and our products, under their brand names, are sold in nearly every dispensary in the state. We still process, pack, and label everything ourselves, but we like the freedom that comes with that. There are still challenges, not the least of which is navigating the gray area that still exists between state legalization and federal prohibition. Because banks are federally insured and our business is not legally recognized federally, we can’t get business loans or a line of credit, which limits our ability to obtain credit and puts our current banking accounts at risk of closure.
And yet, we abide. This summer, we will launch a line of Chong’s Choice. The contract to process products for Tommy Chong (a cannabis activist who made his name in Cheech and Chong comedies) came to us via word of mouth, great references from our clients, and my husband’s determination to stick with his unique brand of craft CO2 oil. It will provide, we hope, the first stable source of income we’ve had in years.
But there is still a long road ahead of us to reach financial stability, and an uphill battle for women in the industry. I’m still almost always the only woman in the room. Most of the women in this industry still seem to work on the retail side, though there are some family and women-led farms that are surviving. And even though women control two-thirds of the purchasing power in the U.S. and so should be a primary target demographic, cannabis marketing still focuses on young men.
I remain hopeful. I look forward to the day that, for a change, women farmers and business owners dominate policy discussions and our products dominate the shelves. My current goal is to build a business that is sustainable over time and generates revenue and creates jobs in the same community that was so against us at the outset. For myself personally, I’d like to see Full Circle provide Paul and I a stable income and a means of taking care of my parents as they age and ourselves into retirement.
And I’d like to pay off my student loans, a goal I almost gave up on but now seems within reach.
In my line of work as a program consultant, I am often hired to help startup incubators and innovation spaces attract and, more importantly, retain more women entrepreneurs; in Canada their public funding support is increasingly dependent on doing so. Turns out, marketing only to women — tossing in a few pink bean-bag chairs, and offering free tampons and perfumes in newly labelled gender-neutral washrooms — doesn’t cut it. Neither does creating women-only startup programs embedded in co-ed spaces with programs that reinforce the patriarchal status quo. They sound good at first, but soon after the program starts, women entrepreneurs end up feeling ghettoized and stigmatized. They end up frustrated. They leave. And they don’t come back.
Somehow we still haven’t cracked the code. Ineffective acceleration programs for female founders costs Canada alone billions of dollars of lost economic opportunity–not to mention the waste that comes resource misfires. What economy can afford that?
Many people leading co-ed entrepreneurship and innovation incubators acknowledge the issue. They are also familiar with the mountain of research out there which confirms, again and again, that women face additional barriers as entrepreneurs thanks to gender-bias in our financial systems and a sexist economy that privileges those who can delegate caregiving and don’t need time off after physically growing and finally squeezing a an eight pound plus new human out of their diet riddled bodies – not to mention feeding that hungry little human via your boobs for months after. In fact, people running incubators witness examples of the many barriers women face first hand. They have VIP seats in the stadium when it comes to observing how women experience and must navigate entrepreneurship differently to succeed. They also see how women of colour, Indigenous women, queer women, immigrant women, and low-income women experience additional challenges, some making ends by going to food banks.
So why are these VIP innovation and entrepreneurship process and skills experts having so much trouble figuring out how to help women founders, and their enterprises, flourish?
The Sisterhood Strikes Back
Some say “who cares”! If the system isn’t serving women, we do what they we always done—roll up our sleeves and start building alternative ones of our own.
That’s why privately run, often community-based, intersectionally-minded, women-led incubators, accelerators, funds and even online programs are springing up everywhere. In addition to providing first-class support, they also create safe, culturally relevant and often child-friendly spaces; offer programming outside of peak caregiving times; plus validate alternative business models and gendered innovations.
Sadly, unlike mainstream co-ed spaces, few if any receive government subsidies or corporate financial support. Thus, they are tasked with trying to create economic impact on shoestring budgets. To sustain their operations, they need to charge for the services that mainstream co-ed incubators can offer for free or at subsidized rates (leaving women with less to invest in their own company). In the US, women-only spaces are also being challenged by men’s rights activists.
What co-ed incubators must do to truly unleash the potential of women entrepreneurs
While sitting in one of these “women-friendly” co-ed programs last fall, I noticed the incredulous looks on women’s faces when the presenter started talking about how to conduct a pitch to venture capitalists and how to “dress for success” at such meetings. Incredibly, his advice was geared entirely to men—all the pictures in his presentation were men and his dress for success advice included images of fashionable suits, ties, and polished wing-tipped shoes. After noticing that half the audience was female, he joked that women didn’t need advice on how to dress because “Girls already know how to look good.”
Organizers cringed. The penny dropped.
If incubator leaders want to succeed in advancing women-led startups, they have to start by gutting and re-building, from scratch. The three most important parts of any incubator program: The roster, the ecosystem and the program.
Here are just a few practical ideas.
When recruiting mentors, instructors, or entrepreneurs in residence, make an effort to weed out the “I don’t care about gender—as long as the business is good” meritocracy types. Try to steer clear of those who clearly don’t understand how systems of oppression intersect to shape experiences, opportunities, and choices. Attempts at credibility–even if their expertise is useful- by these folks are going to fall flat.
Require mentors and staff to complete a gender-based analysis (available online for free) or, better yet, offer a “Feminist Perspectives on Gender and the Economy 101” session. Or have them sign up to Jennifer Armburst’s online Feminist Business School, recently written about in Forbes magazine, to explore just one feminist’s approach to entrepreneurship-there are many. Challenge mentors, entrepreneurs in residence, and experts to interrogate their own beliefs before perpetuating regressive strategies when coaching others. Help them update their presentations as well as their mindset by exposing them to deeper knowledge about broken systems they unwittingly perpetuate by refusing to get woke.
Diversify mentor stock. It’s not enough to have a reasonable proportion of men and women; it’s critical to include people with experience building successful companies in alternative ways. Like Laura Jean Berhardson, for example, founder of the Fresh Collective (Based in Toronto), who can talk to budding entrepreneurs about how to create and run a successful, non-biased, community-focused collective.
Set a strategic goal to develop a gender-enlightened ecosystem of support specifically for women entrepreneurs, which includes reaching out to and engaging diverse women-centered business networks such as the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce, Women’s Enterprise Centres), Immigrant Women in Business, How She Hustles, as well as feminist organizations in your community and women’s studies faculties.
And finally. Seriously overhaul the increasingly irrelevant Silicon Valley inspired curriculum. The economy is shifting at a macro level-again. Yet, for the most part, incubator programs tell people that the real way to start and grow a successful company is to run down your environmentally-poisoned immune system, take up parkour as a stress reliever, and alienate your friends and family while working 24-7. That’s how Silicon Valley works, right? Oh, don’t forget to throw in patriarchal aspiration of building a sustainable, profitable or exit-ready company from scratch in less than 18 months. In these environments, entrepreneurial success depends on mastering that master hype and, often, getting on board with toxic masculinity.
Not surprisingly, women entrepreneurs and, increasingly, people of all genders aren’t buying in.
Presently, there are more than 47 mainstream incubator programs operating in the province of Ontario (Over 8000 across the globe; less than 10% are women-centered in the U.S.) and not one of them touches on feminist business practice as an opportunity to develop alternative ways of designing, funding, and operating successful ventures.
“Pink” marketing and recruitment tactics may very well get more women in the door. But retaining their talent in the startup and innovation ecosystem means acknowledging and respecting there are many ways to start and grow a successful enterprise. This includes celebrating the power of feminine values, effectively supporting alternative approaches to venture creation, and rethinking patriarchal practises.
Given the poor rate of participation of women in these spaces, it’s time incubator leaders take these ideas seriously. This is an urgent issue.
Stop renovating. Hit the demolition button. And rebuild from scratch. With new tools.