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“Buying Black is Political”

Picture of the CEO and Founder of BLACK FOODIE, two black women in food
BLACK FOODIE CEO, Elle Asiedu (left) and BLACK FOODIE founder, Eden Hagos (right)

When the Black Lives Matter movement inspired protests around the world in response to the murder of George Floyd, the online platform BLACK FOODIE gained a ton of new followers. The founder of the popular website and social media force, Eden Hagos, attributed it to non-Black people looking for ways to engage with and uplift the Black community. “There was a shift that started happening in the marketing world,” she says, “they could no longer ignore us, and they were being held accountable for the way that racism seeps into their campaigns and their ways of recruiting influencers. The community that I had built and the voices we had in this space started to be sought out by people.”

Hagos started BLACK FOODIE after experiencing racism at a restaurant during her birthday dinner in 2015. The incident led her to reevaluate her own assumptions about Black food and eating African food in public. “I was upset that I wasn’t treated with respect, and that there were a lot of assumptions made about my group because we were Black,” she says. “But, I was also reflecting on my own thought process. I wasn’t really proud of my food and cuisine.”

She launched BLACK FOODIE on the first anniversary of that racist incident, with the goal to celebrate Black food culture and show the many ways in which the diaspora is connected through food. The site features their own original recipes, food content and promotes Black businesses and restaurants. Its aim is both to educate and entertain.

Since its launch, BLACK FOODIE’s Instagram account has amassed more than a hundred thousand followers around the world. Hagos says it’s become “a platform for other creators and other Black chefs and restaurant owners to share their stories and their recipes with the world.”

During quarantine, Hagos and her BLACK FOODIE team (herself as creative director and owner; CEO Elle Asiedu; and a roster of freelance creatives) cooked up their dream project: the BLACK FOODIE Battle, a fun take on classic cooking competitions on TV. The video series (for now, it lives on BLACK FOODIE’s YouTube channel, website and Instagram) invites home cooks, pro chefs and foodies to compete using ingredients that “would never be featured on Food Network, like okra and collard greens.” Every episode centres around an ingredient— recently coconut and sweet potato – and participants use the featured ingredient in any recipe they’d like and BLACK FOODIE followers vote on their favourite. Winners’ recipes are posted on BLACK FOODIE’s website.

This past September, Hagos and her team hosted their first-ever BLACK FOODIE Week in Toronto. Each day of the event, a different local Black chef, restaurant or entrepreneur was featured on BLACK FOODIE’s Instagram feed. The team also hosted cook-alongs, drink and learns, and panel discussions with Toronto food insiders.

Such events forge connections between community and Black-owned businesses, an important goal for Hagos. Restaurants are more than just places to eat, she says, they’re like community centres, places for people in the diaspora to connect to their homeland and culture. “You can feel at home and you can get a taste of home. My parents had an Ethiopian restaurant, and that was a place where a lot of the Eritreans and Ethiopians in Detroit and Windsor could come and get a taste of home.”

Of course, home comes in many flavours given the vast diaspora, and Black Foodie strives to contextualize discussion of food to highlight the different cultures that exist and educate people outside of those communities. “It’s necessary because we’re not a monolith,says Hagos, “There’s so many different cuisines that exist within black culture and so many different experiences and religions, and just all of these things that affect the way that we eat.”  A listicle is not enough to represent it all, she says, “And that’s where we were coming in.”

For years, Hagos supplemented her income with side hustles while working on BLACK FOODIE as a passion project. Then came 2020 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Suddenly, marketers and brands wanted to collaborate with BLACK FOODIE, in partnerships and ad campaigns. The BLACK FOODIE Battle show, for example, recently got a branded boost from Guinness.

BLACK FOODIE CEO, Elle Asiedu (left) and Black Foodie founder, Eden Hagos (right)
A picture of carribbean food plate called Ful

Ethiopian-Style Ful

A Eden Hagos Family Recipe.

A popular dish across the Middle East and Africa (especially Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan), ful is a popular protein-packed stew with lots of potential. The base of the dish is created with red onions, tomatoes, and garlic which are cooked down before fava beans are added in with various spices. Together, these ingredients deliver a rich and spicy umami flavour that leaves you feeling satisfied and energized.

” Every family recipe is different, but here’s the one that we love in my house for breakfast. I hope it becomes part of your morning routine too!”–Eden Hagos

1

Ingredients:

For the ful
  •  1 Can of fava beans, drained
  •  1 tsp Garlic, minced
  •  1 tsp Cumin
  •  1 Large tomato, diced OR 3tsp of crushed tomatoes from a can
  •  ½ Jalapeno pepper, minced
  •  1 Small onion, minced
  •  ½ cup Water
Toppings for the ful
  •  ½ Red onion, diced
  •  2 tsp Berbere spice
  •  1 Small tomato, diced
  •  ½ Green bell pepper, diced
  •  2 Boiled eggs
  •  2 tsp Olive oil
  •  2 tsp Yogurt or sour cream

2

Directions

1. Empty and drain the can of Fava beans into a bowl.

Crush the beans roughly with the back of a wooden spoon and set aside. Alternatively, you can add the whole beans to the stew and crush them together with the garlic-tomato mixture — it’s up to you.

2. Saute the diced onions until they’ve softened. Then, add the cumin, garlic, and crushed tomatoes.

Stir the mixture together until well combined.

3. Add the fava beans (make sure they’re drained!) and stir them into the mixture, adding water if it becomes too thick.

If you like a spicier stew, add in the minced jalapeno peppers at this stage.

4. Simmer the bean stew on medium heat until it has reached the consistency you prefer. I typically cook it down for about 10 minutes.

Taste the stew to ensure that salty enough for you.

5. Scoop the ful from your saucepan/pot and spread it evenly in each bowl.

6. Top it with diced red onion, tomato, bell pepper, the boiled egg sliced in half, Berbere spice, olive oil, and a dollop of yoghurt or sour cream.

3

Serve the ful with your favourite flatbread for a complete meal.

Make sure you eat it with your hands for an authentic East African experience. Enjoy!

Since its launch, BLACK FOODIE’s Instagram account has amassed more than a hundred thousand followers around the world. Hagos says it’s become “a platform for other creators and other Black chefs and restaurant owners to share their stories and their recipes with the world.”

During quarantine, Hagos and her BLACK FOODIE team (herself as creative director and owner; CEO Elle Asiedu; and a roster of freelance creatives) cooked up their dream project: the BLACK FOODIE Battle, a fun take on classic cooking competitions on TV. The video series (for now, it lives on BLACK FOODIE’s YouTube channel, website and Instagram) invites home cooks, pro chefs and foodies to compete using ingredients that “would never be featured on Food Network, like okra and collard greens.” Every episode centres around an ingredient— recently coconut and sweet potato – and participants use the featured ingredient in any recipe they’d like and BLACK FOODIE followers vote on their favourite. Winners’ recipes are posted on BLACK FOODIE’s website.

This past September, Hagos and her team hosted their first-ever BLACK FOODIE Week in Toronto. Each day of the event, a different local Black chef, restaurant or entrepreneur was featured on BLACK FOODIE’s Instagram feed. The team also hosted cook-alongs, drink and learns, and panel discussions with Toronto food insiders.

Such events forge connections between community and Black-owned businesses, an important goal for Hagos. Restaurants are more than just places to eat, she says, they’re like community centres, places for people in the diaspora to connect to their homeland and culture. “You can feel at home and you can get a taste of home. My parents had an Ethiopian restaurant, and that was a place where a lot of the Eritreans and Ethiopians in Detroit and Windsor could come and get a taste of home.”

Of course, home comes in many flavours given the vast diaspora, and Black Foodie strives to contextualize discussion of food to highlight the different cultures that exist and educate people outside of those communities. “It’s necessary because we’re not a monolith,says Hagos, “There’s so many different cuisines that exist within black culture and so many different experiences and religions, and just all of these things that affect the way that we eat.”  A listicle is not enough to represent it all, she says, “And that’s where we were coming in.”

For years, Hagos supplemented her income with side hustles while working on BLACK FOODIE as a passion project. Then came 2020 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Suddenly, marketers and brands wanted to collaborate with BLACK FOODIE, in partnerships and ad campaigns. The BLACK FOODIE Battle show, for example, recently got a branded boost from Guinness.

BLACK FOODIE CEO, Elle Asiedu (left) and Black Foodie founder, Eden Hagos (right)

Hagos says some who reached out to BLACK FOODIE were only doing so for optics: “I think some people were trying to look woke and things like that.” But others took BLACK FOODIE seriously and wanted to pivot from how they worked in the past. “For so long, ‘Black’ was treated like a dirty word,” Hagos says. “Literally last year was the first time that I saw that start to change.” Brands now wanted to collaborate because they were Black, not in spite of it.

And that’s fine with Hagos, who has always viewed her work with BLACK FOODIE as deeply political and in conversation with Black activists. Being a Black woman in business is political. “Buying Black is political,” she says. “Building sustainable Black businesses and generational wealth and being able to be self-sufficient, that’s really important to me and so many others in the Black communities.”

While people have pushed back on Hagos’ insistence on Blackness in her work, she says emphasizing the Black in BLACK FOODIE is one of the most important parts of her work. “I probably get messages daily like, ‘why does it have to be Black, why is everything about race?’” she says. “It’s completely racist, it’s literally the fear of Black people doing well and having something of their own. And that’s why it’s important that I keep Black Foodie like this. We don’t actually have to fit in. We can support our own businesses, thrive, and be proud of our Blackness.”

When LiisBeth profiled Hagos at BLACK FOODIES’ launch five years ago, she envisioned events bringing together the community as well as a web series or television show. And now? “There’s going to be even more storytelling about food in video format, more programming like the BLACK FOODIE Battle,” she says. “Whether you’re a Black foodie or not, there’ll be something for you.”


Publishers Note: Fifth Wave Labs is Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for women in digital media. It is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and social justice into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner and ally. Interested? Apply here.

A picture of carribbean food plate called Ful

Ethiopian-Style Ful

A Eden Hagos Family Recipe.

A popular dish across the Middle East and Africa (especially Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan), ful is a popular protein-packed stew with lots of potential. The base of the dish is created with red onions, tomatoes, and garlic which are cooked down before fava beans are added in with various spices. Together, these ingredients deliver a rich and spicy umami flavour that leaves you feeling satisfied and energized.

” Every family recipe is different, but here’s the one that we love in my house for breakfast. I hope it becomes part of your morning routine too!”–Eden Hagos

1

Ingredients:

For the Ful
  •  1 Can of fava beans, drained
  •  1 tsp Garlic, minced
  •  1 tsp Cumin
  •  1 Large tomato, diced OR 3tsp of crushed tomatoes from a can
  •  ½ Jalapeno pepper, minced
  •  1 Small onion, minced
  •  ½ cup Water
Toppings for the Ful
  •  ½ Red onion, diced
  •  2 tsp Berbere spice
  •  1 Small tomato, diced
  •  ½ Green bell pepper, diced
  •  2 Boiled eggs
  •  2 tsp Olive oil
  •  2 tsp Yogurt or sour cream
 

2

Directions

1. Empty and drain the can of Fava beans into a bowl.

Crush the beans roughly with the back of a wooden spoon and set aside. Alternatively, you can add the whole beans to the stew and crush them together with the garlic-tomato mixture — it’s up to you.

2. Saute the diced onions until they’ve softened. Then, add the cumin, garlic, and crushed tomatoes.

Stir the mixture together until well combined.

3. Add the fava beans (make sure they’re drained!) and stir them into the mixture, adding water if it becomes too thick.

If you like a spicier stew, add in the minced jalapeno peppers at this stage.

4. Simmer the bean stew on medium heat until it has reached the consistency you prefer. I typically cook it down for about 10 minutes.

Taste the stew to ensure that salty enough for you.

5. Scoop the ful from your saucepan/pot and spread it evenly in each bowl.

6. Top it with diced red onion, tomato, bell pepper, the boiled egg sliced in half, Berbere spice, olive oil, and a dollop of yoghurt or sour cream.

3

Serve the ful with your favourite flatbread for a complete meal.

Make sure you eat it with your hands for an authentic East African experience. Enjoy!

Related Reading

Black Foodie Turns The Table

Shoddy treatment at a restaurant inspired Eden Hagos not to stay home but to go big with her business ideas. She sees huge potential in the Black Foodie brand and envisions it evolving into a web series or television show in the future.

Read More »

Black Foodie Turns The Table

Shoddy treatment at a restaurant inspired Eden Hagos not to stay home but to go big with her business ideas. She sees huge potential in the Black Foodie brand and envisions it evolving into a web series or television show in the future.

Read More »
Categories
Our Voices

A Founder’s Story: The Making of LiisBeth

An illustration of birthday cake, liisbeth.com logo and Liisbeth women
Liisbeth.com celebrates it's fifth Year anniversary

I still remember the day we began, five years ago.

LiisBeth Media was conceived, like a lot of womxn-led enterprises, in a small meeting room with flip charts, markers, oodles of red wine and, in my case, two dear friends and enterprise midwives, Valerie Hussey and Abigail Slater. Each of us had started, operated and exited $2 million to $30 million+ enterprises, but I was the only one eager to plunge in and do it all over again.

Nursing a deep, still-fresh founder-exit wound that ignited an unabiding, to be honest, rage, I needed to do something about its root cause – patriarchy.

That was 2014. And Canada’s testosterone-drenched economic policy and entrepreneurship ecosystem did not give a hoot about womxn entrepreneurs — especially those working to create stable, livable, care-centered enterprises.

In my experience, those boys’ club policies often promoted entrepreneurship to women as an escape from careers full of barriers, which, in effect, lured thousands of women out of salaried jobs with benefits and deeper into precarity, poverty and trauma without  support. 

Yes, I was lit. And fortunately not alone in my concerns. 

I asked myself and others: What can we do to change things? Why was feminism absent in discussions about women’s entrepreneurship? How could we better support those working to dismantle and re-build the system anew-so it could work for everyone?  What could mobilizing look like? What stories do we need to tell to change the narrative?

I attended numerous women’s entrepreneurship events that year to float a few radical ideas, but it seemed that attendees were there, mainly, to toke on empowerment energy. Few wanted to talk about how systems of oppression held us back. Collective action to change those systems was never on the agenda. When brave folks did stand up to at the mic to share stories of trauma, racism, sexism, or other injustices experienced as entrepreneurs, speakers — usually financially successful, privileged white women — would smile and tsk “If I can do it, so can you!”

I left these events provoked.

If so many of us were struggling, surely it wasn’t because women were “not as good as men” but because the systems were designed by men and for men to succeed — not us. I believed a way to make these systems visible was to find what was growing, unnoticed, between the cracks and hold those things up for all to see: nonconforming enterprises founded by solutionaries producing wildly imaginative, generative ideas.   

Ureka.

In May 2015, LiisBeth Media signed with Merian Media led by Meredith Brooks, to build the LiisBeth site.

A picture of merian media's first website proposal for LiisBeth.com in 2014
Merian Media Branding Proposal for LiisBeth.com, 2014.

We published our first article on the site in Sept 2015. As the founder, I wrote it. Because we didn’t have the money to pay someone else to do it- yet.

We launched officially in February with writer and editor Margaret Webb serving (we joke) as the curmudgeonly “Lou Grant” to my overly optimistic “Mary Tyler Moore”. Webb also wrote the first feature, Diversity Rules, about Rajkumari Neogy, a Silicon Valley diversity consultant.

A picture of Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore talking about a story
LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 16: THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW episode: 'The Good-Time News'. Initial broadcast: September 16, 1972. (From left): Ed Asner (as Lou Grant) and Mary Tyler Moore (as Mary Richards). (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
colourful illustration of six feminist women gathering to talk and work

What have we learned?

You can read about some of what we learned in How to Be in Right Relationship With Your EnterpriseSlow Growth, and Gaslighting. But here’s another thing or two we picked up along the way. 

1

Businesses are essentially communities. You can’t do anything without community. And communities are relationships—not just easy ones but hard and painful ones. Without these relationships, there is no business, no resilience and certainly no fun. 

2

Most of the value an enterprise creates can’t be accounted for on a balance sheet. We have yet to figure out how to value connections, care of people, strengthened ecosystems. Society continually undervalues –even forgets the feminist economy and activist work.

3

A micro-business (defined by Stats Canada as one that employees 1-4 people) is not only a real business, it’s a challenging, complex Starship Enterprise. The average micro-entrepreneur leverages a tech stack of 20 to 30 apps, programs, and platforms, without an IT department. If you are in business right now, you are a freakin’ genius. So many womxn entrepreneurs are told scale is king—when really complexity deserves the crown. 

4

Making money is fair game—but capitalism serves straight, white patriarchy and actively undermines the rest of us. Still many founders and business womxn of all backgrounds vote for Trump-like policies — minimum wage cuts,tax breaks, environmental deregulation, policies that enable exploitation of others – because they believe it’s good for business. It’s not. It’s good for the 10 percent. For the other 90 per cent to thrive, we must work every day to re-invent entrepreneurship and government to serve a coming post-capitalist, post-patriarchal world in which we can all flourish. 

5

Society and governments need healthy enterprises. Enterprises need healthy societies and healthy governments. Capitalism would have you believe government is the enemy. A lot of business leaders talk anti-government shit. Their neoliberal, winner-deserves-all rant is self-serving. We have witnessed supportive and impactful collaborations between government and womxn entrepreneur organizations at all levels. It’s all about a new social contract.

In my experience, those boys’ club policies often promoted entrepreneurship to women as an escape from careers full of barriers, which, in effect, lured thousands of women out of salaried jobs with benefits and deeper into precarity, poverty and trauma without  support. 

Yes, I was lit. And fortunately not alone in my concerns. 

I asked myself and others: What can we do to change things? Why was feminism absent in discussions about women’s entrepreneurship? How could we better support those working to dismantle and re-build the system anew-so it could work for everyone?  What could mobilizing look like? What stories do we need to tell to change the narrative?

I attended numerous women’s entrepreneurship events that year to float a few radical ideas, but it seemed that attendees were there, mainly, to toke on empowerment energy. Few wanted to talk about how systems of oppression held us back. Collective action to change those systems was never on the agenda. When brave folks did stand up to at the mic to share stories of trauma, racism, sexism, or other injustices experienced as entrepreneurs, speakers — usually financially successful, privileged white women — would smile and tsk “If I can do it, so can you!”

I left these events provoked.

If so many of us were struggling, surely it wasn’t because women were “not as good as men” but because the systems were designed by men and for men to succeed — not us. I believed a way to make these systems visible was to find what was growing, unnoticed, between the cracks and hold those things up for all to see: nonconforming enterprises founded by solutionaries producing wildly imaginative, generative ideas.   

Ureka.

In May 2015, LiisBeth Media signed with Merian Media led by Meredith Brooks, to build the LiisBeth site.

A picture of merian media's first website proposal for LiisBeth.com in 2014
Merian Media Branding Proposal for LiisBeth.com, 2014.

We published our first article on the site in Sept 2015. As the founder, I wrote it. Because we didn’t have the money to pay someone else to do it- yet.

We launched officially in February with writer and editor Margaret Webb serving (we joke) as the curmudgeonly “Lou Grant” to my overly optimistic “Mary Tyler Moore”. Webb also wrote the first feature, Diversity Rules, about Rajkumari Neogy, a Silicon Valley diversity consultant.

A picture of Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore talking about a story
LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 16: THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW episode: 'The Good-Time News'. Initial broadcast: September 16, 1972. (From left): Ed Asner (as Lou Grant) and Mary Tyler Moore (as Mary Richards). (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Valerie Hussey gave our early editorial heft with a series of columns about feminist business values and practices, starting with “How to Embed Feminist Values in Your Company.”

Then, came November 8th, 2016. I was at an election party along with 30 or so others, at the home of SheEO founder Vicky Saunders. We drank champagne around a life-size cardboard figure of Hillary Clinton, excited to see the first woman elected US president. By eleven o’clock, we realized the unthinkable – the US would elect, instead, a serial harasser of woman, a racist, and neofascist.

What I loved about the U.S, having lived and worked in New York for three years, was its relentless thirst for firsts. That night, I went home early and cried.

Yet, almost immediately, the smoldering feminist movement caught fire across North America. The next morning, many of the 300-plus women entrepreneurs attending the first-ever national women’s entrepreneurship conference in Toronto showed up wearing black. We were in mourning, and we compelled the mistress of ceremonies to interrupt the proceedings and acknowledge the catastrophic psychic blow we had just suffered. In January, more than one million marched on Washington to denounce Trump; 60,000 came out to the women’s march in Toronto; similar protests erupted around the world. Feminist blogs, newsletters, and TV shows sprang up.

If there was a positive to Trump’s election, he dragged into the open what we had struggled to see. He embodied what we needed to fight against: systemic sexism, racism, colonialism, exploitive capitalism – and on and on.

LiisBeth was born into this tumultuous year — the timing could not have been better on some levels. Yet, surviving as a reader-supported feminist media venture has been far from easy.

Growing Between the Cracks

For two years, the magazine was the result of kitchen table efforts by mostly myself, Margaret, and a handful of contributors – Priya Ramanujam, Mai Nguyen, and others we recruited. We survived on part-time hours, volunteer time, a DYI ethos, and $3-per-month subscriptions.

The magazine grew-slowly like a spindly pine tree seedling determined to survive on a patriarchal and capitalism scorched earth.

In 2018, we invited writer and video producer Lana Pesch to our team as newsletter editor and contributor – she’s now host of the The Fine Print in our new online community, the Feminist Enterprise Commons.

It’s 2021—Where are we now?

The conversation about women’s entrepreneurship in Canada has made meteoric gains in the last five years. LiisBeth worked towards sustainability hand in hand with these organizations: SheEO (2015), the Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy (2019), the Women’s Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (2019), the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce (2019), and countless grassroots women’s entrepreneurship support groups, networks and programs (some serving as consciousness raising groups), plus new women-led venture funds.

We jumped into action, writing about these new players and spaces – helping make them visible, amplifying their more radical voices. And together, we sharpened critical thought; forged allies; deepened intersectional thinking; shone a spotlight on bold changemakers; tackled social injustice; celebrated triumphs; collaborated and shared research; pushed each other to be better through debate and healthy conflict. We flexed muscle to show what women could bring to the table; raised a bit of rage; and found comfort in good old-fashioned grassroots sistering.  

This was feminist-led and feminist informed work.

Today, Canada’s diverse pluralistic one-million-plus women entrepreneurs have far more choices regarding funded, diverse programs and supports to help design, grow and sustain their ventures — on their own terms.

But the work is far from done. As American civil rights lawyer Florynce Kennedy said: “Freedom is like taking a bath. You got to keep doing it every day.”

The pandemic has made that clear, with women getting slammed.  Womxn entrepreneurs, a constituency growing at double digit rates, will have to rally and fight for new initiatives and policies to ensure the progress made over the past five years continues.

Back to LiisBeth

Today, LiisBeth Media has 30,000 unique annual readers (20 per cent ahead of last year), 2,800 newsletter subscribers, and about 10,000 followers on our various social channels. We have published more than 300 features and 70 newsletters since we started. More than 35 per cent of our articles feature Black, Indigenous or women of colour entrepreneurs (BIWOC); 40% of our articles are written by BIWOC journalists and writers. We pay our contributors above average rates in our sector and pay fast – in days, not months.

We have been top three finalists — twice — in the Canadian Digital Publishing Awards competition in the General Excellence category for small publications. We launched the Feminist Enterprise Forum (FEC), a new online community in 2020, and just invested in migrating to a new platform.  We achieved break even (on a five-figure budget) in 2020.

(Video: The way we were ….before COVID-19)

The fact that we are still here after five years puts us in a rare category for both startups and media: survivor. Now we are working towards the next stage: thriving.

We believe we can get there by adjusting our business model and deepening relationships with our allies, creators and diverse enterprise founders. We aim to be the go-to, womxn-led/owned media outlet for radical womxn entrepreneurs engaged in deep systems-change work.

Reflect, Recharge, Repeat

The world that lit the spark of LiisBeth is not the same world that LiisBeth Media now lives in.

As the founder, I am more certain than ever that we need to create fight for more support for safe, brave spaces for diverse womxn entrepreneurs, enterprise leaders, feminists, activists and critical thought leaders to tackle challenges ahead.

We must build a healthier, more just economy. This change won’t come from multi-national corporations designed to produce profits for shareholders, at the expense of everything else.

The change we seek will be driven by a plethora of diverse, connected communities supported by local livable, care-centered thriving small enterprises.

And we will be here to tell this revolutionary story.

Time to get back to work.

colourful illustration of six feminist women gathering to talk and work

What have we learned?

You can read about some of that in How to Be in Right Relationship With Your EnterpriseSlow Growth, and Gaslighting. But here’s another thing or two we picked up along the way. 

1

Businesses are essentially communities. You can’t do anything without community. And communities are relationships—not just easy ones but hard and painful ones. Without these relationships, there is no business, no resilience and certainly no fun. 

2

Most of the value an enterprise creates can’t be accounted for on a balance sheet. We have yet to figure out how to value connections, care of people, strengthened ecosystems. Society continually undervalues –even forgets the feminist economy and activist work.

3

A micro-business (defined by Stats Canada as one that employees 1-4 people) is not only a real business, it’s a challenging, complex Starship Enterprise. The average micro-entrepreneur leverages a tech stack of 20 to 30 apps, programs, and platforms, without an IT department. If you are in business right now, you are a freakin’ genius. So many womxn entrepreneurs are told scale is king—when really complexity deserves the crown. 

4

Making money is fair game—but capitalism serves straight, white patriarchy and actively undermines the rest of us. Still many founders and business womxn of all backgrounds vote for Trump-like policies — minimum wage cuts,tax breaks, environmental deregulation, policies that enable exploitation of others – because they believe it’s good for business. It’s not. It’s good for the 10 percent. For the other 90 per cent to thrive, we must work every day to re-invent entrepreneurship and government to serve a coming post-capitalist, post-patriarchal world in which we can all flourish. 

5

Society and governments need healthy enterprises. Enterprises need healthy societies and healthy governments. Capitalism would have you believe government is the enemy. A lot of business leaders talk anti-government shit. Their neoliberal, winner-deserves-all rant is self-serving. We have witnessed supportive and impactful collaborations between government and womxn entrepreneur organizations at all levels. It’s all about a new social contract.

Related Reading

When a Catalyst Becomes an Inhibitor

Catalyst Canada defends its choice to appoint another male bank CEO to be its board chair, saying leaving women’s advancement up to men who have a lot of people working for them is a good strategy. But is it? More importantly, has it worked?

Read More »
Categories
Transformative Ideas

If These Streets Could Talk

Chloe Doesburg on Driftscape | Photo Provided

There’s something special about exploring a city on foot. Whether you’ve lived in the same place for twenty years or are visiting someplace new, going for a wander—headphones in, music on, people watching, popping into shops, turning down a side street and discovering a hidden gem—is a consummate pleasure. 

What if, though, you could engage more intimately with the cityscape by accessing information about it—events, history, restaurants, music—as you move through it? That’s the idea behind Driftscape. Co-founder and CEO Chloe Doesburg calls the app a “cultural discovery platform,” which allows the user “seamless connection” to the physical spaces they occupy. 

Driftscape offers a selection of topics—from architecture to history to arts and literature. As users approach things that might interest them, the app on their cellphones will send a notification. This could be a piece of trivia, a festival nearby, or what Doesburg calls the most “sophisticated” option: an immersive experience such as a Jane’s Walk, free urban tours inspired by Jane Jacobs, who penned the classic, The Life and Death of American Cities, and advocated for mixed-used, walkable streets; or First Stories, which documents the rich Indigenous history of Toronto; or Queerstory, which will leads to sites in Toronto’s vibrant LGTBQ2S+ culture.

Driftscape, which now employs six, officially incorporated in 2017 but had been “in the works” for at least a year before that and involved a lot of “serendipity,” says Doesburg. She was inspired by a “location-specific project” called Murmur, which existed before smartphones: You could dial in and hear a story about a specific place. She was also working with a musician friend who was recording an album of location-specific songs set in Toronto; they created Track Toronto, which allows users to listen to music associated with places in the city as they pass through them, now used by Driftscape.

“People were super enthusiastic” about the experience, says Doesburg. While working on that concept, she met programmers working on a similar project, and together they dreamed up Driftscape.

The project has evolved significantly since its inception, adding more layers of information by becoming a subscription platform. For a fee—Driftscape partners—which range from not-for-profits to private content producers to businesses and municipalities—provide content for the app, such as visitor’s guides, self-guided tours[1] , and digital walks. There’s a sliding scale for partners, ranging from $1,000 to $4,000 a year. More content draws more eyes to the app, which draws more users to the app and, in turn, more partners subscribing, creating a positive feedback loop.

Says Doesburg: “We’re working with municipalities who are layering these things with tourism information so that we can become (their) digital visitor’s guide, which is even more relevant now, in the time of COVID-19. People want to do more digitally. People are looking for self-guided tours, for ways they can be their own guide, and also just looking to rediscover their own city and places nearby, the way the way you would as a tourist.”

“We’re working with municipalities who are layering these things with tourism information so that we can become (their) digital visitor’s guide, which is even more relevant now, in the time of COVID-19″.

Chloe Doesburg

That style of subscription service, however, is not without issues. Open the Driftscape app and you’ll be presented with a map of Canada, with Driftscape’s points of interest and services— loaded by its subscribers. The first thing you’ll notice is that most of the content is based in Southern Ontario, and the vast majority of that in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), making the app, at present, tremendously urban-centric. In Northern and rural areas, programming options include things like Historica Canada and its Heritage Minutes, providing a perspective that can skew to colonial, cis-heteronormative Settler norms. That’s a very different experience than users can access in the GTA, where Driftscape offers more of a mosaic.

This discrepancy is due to growing pains, Doesburg says. Driftscape can’t offer a wider variety of content in more remote areas until they bring on a wider variety of partners. “That’s certainly something we’ve spent a lot of time talking and thinking about and we’re trying to layer in other perspectives wherever we can. We are especially working to grow the Indigenous voices on the app.”

“We would certainly welcome organizations anywhere in Canada and in North America to host their content on the platform,” she adds.

In April, Doesburg participated in Fifth Wave Labs, a four-month feminist incubator geared towards supporting women-identified digital media entrepreneurs in Southern Ontario. She says the program provided mentorship and networking in a time when, due to COVID-19, everyone was feeling very distanced from each other. It also altered the way she thought about her business practices. 

Although Doesburg doesn’t necessarily consider Driftscape a specifically feminist enterprise— “We haven’t really been using that word”—she thinks of it as being in keeping with those values.

“Before doing the Fifth Wave labs program, I didn’t really think about feminist business practices,” says Doesburg, “but certainly while we were part of that program I was like, ‘Oh, this is what we already do.’” 

Doesburg says she thinks of Driftscape as a social enterprise. That “seems very, very similar, although not identical (to feminism) but certainly in terms of just looking at business as something that has profit as one of its goals, and not its only goal.”

The company’s social values, she says, include “a commitment to supporting the cultural community and being part of that ecosystem” as well as “how we run our business, that we’re committed to making the best place to work for employees. “We’re committed to having a really transparent company where we involve everyone at all levels of decision making. We’re really open about what we’re doing and what our values are, what our challenges are.”

In contrast to multinational social media giants serving up information, Driftscape features diverse local experts. Says Doesburg: “We boost the voices of local organizations who are creating fantastic content, and we create a place where users can access a wide-range of otherwise hard-to-find local information on an ad-free platform at no cost to the user.”

Driftscape is Doesburg’s first entrepreneur venture. Until 2015, the University of Waterloo graduate worked as an architect, a profession that obviously gives her a special appreciation for cities and the nature of place. “Being an entrepreneur certainly offers more freedom and flexibility,” she says of the change. “Buildings take years to complete so, compared to architecture, working on software is refreshing because it’s possible to iterate quickly, see what works, and make changes easily.”

With Driftscape growing, adapting and adding new directions, Doesburg is content knowing what entrepreneurial path she is on. “I don’t have any next steps in mind. For now, I’m focused on growing Driftscape.”


Contributor’s Bio: Lori Fox is a queer, non-binary journalist based in Whitehorse, YT. Their work focuses primarily on issues of class, gender, sexuality and environment, and has appeared previously with Vice, The Guardian, CBC, and The Globe and Mail. You can find them on twitter @fox.e.lori.


Publishers Note: Driftscape is a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner and ally. Apply here.

Related Reading

Categories
Feminist Practices

How to Govern Like a Feminist

Photo by frankieleon | CC BY 2.0

Just over a year ago, Shaanaz Gokool, a woman of colour and CEO at Dying with Dignity, wrote a letter to her board of directors of the Canadian nonprofit. She presented a list of grievances, including pay equity (her predecessor had been paid more despite a narrower range of responsibilities) and ongoing experiences of systemic discrimination that undermined her ability to do her job. The pay equity issue was eventually resolved—but the systemic discrimination issues, which Gokool found to exceed federal and provincial human rights code thresholds — remained. Gokool requested a third-party mediation so that she, and the enterprise, could resolve the issues and move on in a positive way.

Soon after, the head of the Board’s human resources committee requested a meeting – Gokool thought to kick off the long-awaited mediation process. Instead, three board members showed up at her office and said, “You’re fired.” They slid an envelope across the table containing the paperwork, handed her a box for her things and coarsely ushered her out the door which made Gokool feel like she was a military grade threat. When she stopped to comfort a close colleague who, after hearing the news, was sobbing in her office, one of the board members attempted to block Gokool’s path.

“I really believed the organization was going to fulfill its commitment to mediating. I was surprised…it was abrupt…it was very shocking.”–Shaanaz Gokool

A few months later, a new CEO, a white woman, was hired as Gokool’s replacement.

To this day, the board denies any wrongdoing. So much for dignity. Hello trauma for all. 

A year later, Gokool has not been able to find employment in her field.  She believes it’s because she now has reputation as whistle blower, a troublemaker, an untouchable.

The nonprofit, the board clearly failed to treat their living employees with dignity. As for governing with care via a social justice lens or in accordance with their own stated “person-centered code of conduct,” The Dying with Dignity board, even if on safe legal grounds, gets a total fail.

Unfortunately, Gokool’s experience is far from unique. 

Set Up to Fail

There is a profound lesson here for founders. Most startups and their advisors ignore what is now one of the most important steps in the creation of a new enterprise — crafting meaningful and enforceable organizational bylaws.

But guess what? Times are a changing. Social justice is now a global concern. Forget shareholder activism. Today’s stakeholder activism demands your bylaws protect human rights and fight systemic racism — with increasingly loud voices. Failing to listen could sink the reputation of your enterprise along with access to funding, talent, government contracts and customers. And you could well be slapped with a human rights lawsuit.

Need more convincing?

Consider the impact on the Green Party of Canada when they recently hired an Executive Director who had a history of sexual harassment related allegations against him. During his several years on the leadership team of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) (#aidtoo), Prateek Awasthi also participated in IWB executive team efforts to discredit and orchestrate retaliation against whistle blowers. Former EWB employee Chelsey Rhodes broke her nondisclosure agreement in 2019 and created an online space for other victims to connect and come forward. About 90 people expressed support and 35 additional incidents were reported. Aakhil Lakhani, another former EWB employee who was sexually harassed and silenced, also broke their nondisclosure agreement in early 2019 to call out Awasthi’s conduct. Still the Green Party, while under the leadership of Elizabeth May, hired Awashi in May 2020. Several Green Party leaders and staffers protested his hire. Two staffers quit.  Party members threatened to leave.

The Green Party’s Federal Council’s (board) response to the outcry: maintain their position that he had learned from his past mistakes and, well, all that was in the past. 

Those harmed disagree, vehemently. His misconduct still impacted their lives. Many had not yet healed. Chelsey Rhodes, who filed her grievance seven years ago, organized a recent GoFundMe campaign to help Lakhani with their legal costs associated with breaking their silence, an example of feminist solidarity.

All this raises an important question. Who gets to decide when it’s ok to exonerate past behavior? The perp? Or the victims? And how much did anyone learn given the uproar from past victims and the Green Party’s stubborn defence of their hire?

The Green Party’s constitution and bylaws outlines a clear fiduciary duty to advance social justice, but its Federal Council  gets a fail on follow through and implementation. It’s not enough to market progressive intentions, the governing body has to act in alignment with those values and be clear about interpreting them — who will the board protect, the organization or the people the organization serves?

Another social justice organization, Equal Voice, faced similar fallout after firing three women of colour –initially hired to increase diversity then fired for speaking up about oppressive practices. The national nonprofit, which promotes women in politics, later struggled to keep funders, four directors resigned, and even supporters called into question the rationale of organization’s entire mission. Equal Voice bylaws make zero reference to social justice responsibilities although the goal of the nonprofit is to advance equality.

In August, LiisBeth called out the government funded nonprofit incubator Futurepreneur for its bungled response to a complaint of racism levelled against one of its volunteer mentors. Did their conduct follow rules in their bylaws when it comes to social justice issues? Hard to say. Unlike our other examples cited here, their bylaws are not available online via a Google search.   

Underlying all these cases is a problem of governance, namely, out of touch and/or ignored bylaws. And that leaves enterprises purporting to advance social justice doing the exact opposite – casting out whistle blowers as troublemakers instead of embracing them as solutionaries to advance their cause.

Why Entrepreneurs Need To Get Their Bylaws Together

I work with hundreds of entrepreneurs and founders. Few understand or appreciate the importance and role of bylaws.

Bylaws are essentially your house rules — backed by the rule of law. They are the heart of your organization. They tell investors, stakeholders, customers and employees how you really show up in the world. They lay out what you see as your duty of care and the quality of fiduciary conduct you expect from directors.

They are more powerful than any website mission or diversity and inclusion statement. And they work to align staff conduct policies (which are often more progressive) with director conduct expectations.

But too often, bylaws are bare bones, written in haste and deliberately kept short. Lawyers routinely advise founders to do so because bylaws are harder to change later due to the consensus building required. Deferring the development of contemplative bylaws saves a startup time and money. And many will argue that badass bylaws, ones that demand accountability beyond minimum legal requirements, will make it harder to entice directors to join your board.

But template bylaws and laisse-faire attitudes towards them reflect classic patriarchal standpoints.They protect directors, not enterprise stakeholders.They focus fiduciary duty on money, power and efficiency. In recent years, more progressive organizations have amended their bylaws to follow the ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) standards, which gives a nod to the environment (do no harm) and corporate social responsibility (CSR), which is primarily about giving back to a community, not doing what is just in your organization.

And it doesn’t go nearly far enough in throwing off the shackles of systemic oppression.

Why Bylaws Need a Feminist Frame

It’s time to move past governing like a patriarch to governing like a feminist. And this means reconsidering how power is distributed, centering the concept of care, and articulating a commitment to social justice.

Yes, this applies also to enterprises with a founder/director of one. Un-incorporated sole proprietors would also do well to consider these issues.

The first step? Acknowledge that we live in a white supremacist, patriarchal, colonial and neo-liberal capitalist society, hence, so are the bylaws such a society spawns. Accept that it’s no longer acceptable to perpetuate these and other oppressions fueling inequality. And move, embracing guidelines for better conduct.

The next step is to boldly commit to change and consider the following:

  1. Centre care and healing as a key fiduciary responsibility: Add an expectation of care and dignified treatment of all stakeholders, especially survivors of oppressive treatment as a result of your enterprise’s actions. Duties should also include working to help those unintentionally harmed by hosting a healing circle, funding trauma counselling and sponsoring meaningful anti-oppression training.
  2. Make clear your committment to advance social justice: Incorporate a commitment to meet or exceed  Employment Standards, pay equity and the Human Rights Act. Most bylaws say something general about following the laws of the jurisdiction.  But making compliance explicit sends a clear message.
  3. Offer the Right to Be Heard: Update language regarding the right to file grievances, request independent third-party mediation, and survivor support — especially when the grievance relates to a harassment or human rights issue. Consider appointing an independent ombudsperson.
  4. Clarify and restrict the use of nondisclosure agreements: Sometimes these are appropriate and serve all parties. But when it comes to rights violations, silencing someone from talking about trauma experienced under your watch is akin to cutting out their tongue. It also forestalls healing for all. There is no plainer way to say this: Stop this practice. Work to offer healing to all parties involved, even after a formal relationship is severed.
  5. Reconsider the distribution of power: Boards are beginning to ensure diverse representation, but should also consider diversity of roles. Too often boards operate like aloof Kings and Queens in the Game of Thrones. Sure, they source input from staff who have lived experience running the day to day, but afford them little formal power to see their concerns addressed or ideas adopted. Establish voting seats for key staff, beneficiaries and/or customers. Diversity of roles incorporating lived experience along with distributed power will strengthen your organization’s ability to make wise decisions on tricky issues.
  6. Make your bylaws accessible and transparent:  Post them on your company’s website. Make it clear what your company expects of its directors. Articulate them in clear accessible language. Invite stakeholders to review bylaws and comment before ratifying. By the same token, stakeholders — clients, partners, allies, beneficiaries and staffers — need to know board bylaws and play a part in holding directors accountable. Never seen them? Ask for them.
  7. Own your good, bad and ugly: If you as the founder or board makes a mistake, don’t hide. Come clean. Tell people.  Explain how you are working to fix it. And share what you learned. Futurepreneur gets points on this one.
  8. Adopt zero tolerance: Make it clear: Your enterprise will not accept any board candidate with a confirmed history of sexism, racism or human rights violations. Period. Do your homework. Many bylaws openly “cancel out” directors with bankruptcy declaration histories (an indicator of being a poor money manager). Enterprises who work with vulnerable populations require police checks. A socially progressive startup should not tolerate a record of misconduct on human rights issues.
  9. Extend duty of care to include next generations: Consider including the Indigenous “Seventh Generation Principle” in board decision making to acknowledge that what we do today impacts future generations. This principle is often thought of in context of our relationship to mother earth. But it also applies to the relationship between the sexes and entire peoples – Indigenous, BIPOC, and migrant communities — for the benefit of future generations. Include a “reach out” principle, making it a fiduciary duty to forge meaningful connections with those harmed by our collective past. Chamber of Commerce member?. Sign up and support the Women’s/Black/LGBTQIA Chamber of Commerce as well, and articulate board support for aligned activism (such as Black Lives Matter or TheLEAP).

Still need more convincing?

At the recent Social Values conference, Stephen Nairne, Chief Investment Officer of Raven Indigenous Capital Partners, an Indigenous-led and owned financial intermediary, told the audience this: “Your enterprise will be called to account. We have to learn how to heal it when breached and potentially even reorganize to maintain their core purpose under radically changed circumstances.”

Or put another way, if you are not taking stakeholder activism seriously, rethinking your bylaws, or taking care in crafting new ones, you are screwing your investors, stakeholders, and community. Not to mention the future.

Be the change?  Fuck that. Get out there and lead the change.


Contributor’s Bio: pk mutch (she/her) is a white, cis top end Gen X serial entrepreneur, feminist, street journalist, consultant and educator who lives in Toronto and enjoys getting from place to place by bike. pk mutch is also the founder and publisher of LiisBeth Media and Eve-Volution Inc. 


 

LiisBeth Media is a womxn-led and owned indie enterprise which is surveillance free, ad free and supported by reader donations. If you found this article of value, please consider a $10 one time donation. Help us continue to amplify feminist voices and ideas in times when these voices are needed.

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Categories
Our Voices

Why Embodied Feminist Spaces Matter. And Why We Need to Bring Them Back

In the foreground,  Annapurna Malla is a community organizer, educator, musician, dance-theatre artist and performer of mixed Kashmiri and English ancestry. Feminist Art Conference, March 7, 2020—Photo by Brian Armstrong

 
Last week, while wrestling with a sense of feeling lost at sea, I picked a notebook from a shelf above my desk—at random—and began to absentmindedly flip through it.
I stopped at a page where I had written down, in big bold letters, “How not to be a bitch to the system.” It, obviously caught my attention. But why did I write that? Where was I? Who said it?
I thumbed through the next few pages, looking for answers.
The next 15 or so pages were scribbled notes, ideas and quotes I had made while attending no less than five feminist events over the ten precious days before the pandemic lockdown, March 4 to March 14.
Wow. How times have changed. And so has the way I attend to my personal liberation and professional publishing work.
I suddenly felt nostalgic. But why? Now there are an infinite number and variety of online feminist events I can attend – anywhere, anytime – and all from home, at a much lower cost in dollars and time.
I came to a page marked 03/07/2020.  A Saturday.
I had showed up early that morning to take in and write about the Feminist Art Conference festival at the Ontario College of Art and Design University. This was my third time attending.
There was a coffee stain on the page.  It triggered my memory which in a flash, reconstructed scenes from the day. I purchased a coffee from a feminist barista entrepreneur wearing a beret; she told me about her activist work while she poured. We exchanged cards. Once in the lecture hall, found an empty seat in the second row for the plenary. I rummaged in my bag for a pen and this notebook, and a few minutes later splattered some my still steaming coffee on the page as I bumped elbows with the person I sat next to.  Immersed in the scene, I noticed how the room was animated with people moving about in full bodied ways.  The  crowd’s mish mash of hats, scarves, gloves, coats, bags, everyone squished together, arm to arm, shoulder to shoulder looked like a quilt of moving colour. You could tell by the clothing it was early spring.
Will we ever experience being together like this again?
At “gathering time,” the electrifying music muted as MC Justine Abigail Yu took the stage. I had read about her work as a diversity advocate and publisher of Living Hyphen, a magazine and community that explores the experiences of hyphenated Canadians. With a rally-cry voice, she looked out at the audience and said assertively, “Good morning! Are you ready to smash the patriarchy?”
Affirmed by the “WOOT WOOTs, Yu asked. “Are you ready to decolonize? Are you ready to end capitalism?”
We shouted back “Yes,” louder with each sentence, signalling “We are fully present.”
The rally cry culminated in disorderly applause.  I remember how it felt, how subversive to shout such things in solidarity with a diverse crowd. These spaces inspire me: grassroots, feminist, places where we can safely talk about how to end capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy without having to explain or justify why we need to.  These spaces are sacred.  And far too few in number.
As the clapping died down, Yu said “I think this is probably the only place I can say that and get applause.”
I flipped the page.
More opening remarks. Grateful-to-have sponsor shout outs. A spiritual and thoughtful land acknowledgement. Then a “narrative healing” dance and spoken word performance. And facilitated discussions on subjects such as Afrofuturism, resistance, rematriation movements, inclusive feminism, what a decolonized economy might look like. With everyone invited to participate, you never knew what would happen or come out of it. Aha moments and learnings collectively generated—versus pipeline fed.
Someone quoted Tracee Ellis Ross, an American Black actress and activist, and I wrote it down:  “I am learning everyday to allow the space between where I am and where I want to be inspire me and not terrify me.”
During breaks, I took in the art show in the main hall and snapped a few pictures.
The Brown Paper Bag Test, by Ashley A. Jones, @artbyaaj, FAC Residency artist. “I am interested in questions of identify and the experiences of Black women in America. My work explores colourism and the legacy of the brown paper bag test. African-Americans would contrast a brown paper bag against a person’s skin. Only individuals with skin lighter or the same shade as the brown paper bag were considered beautiful and granted certain privileges. FAC 2020. Photo by pk mutch.

Later that afternoon, I Lyft-ed over to a solidarity concert held at the Paradise Theatre in support of the Wet’suwe’ten land rights standoff (remember that?).  I heard a line up of amazing emerging female musicians including Stones, Lavender Bruisers, Mimi O’Bonsawin, Caroline Brooks (Good Lovelies), Skye Wallace, Tange and Moscow Apartment. I loved one song by the band Tange so much, I listened to it ten times when I got home and licensed it  to accompany our International Women’s Day slide show.
All women—musician and band led Wet’suwet’en solidarity concert, Paradise Theatre, March 2020.  Photo by pk mutch

I must have been swept away by the concert. Because I made no notes. Not even musical ones.
I turned the page.
More scribblings and quotes, this time from a fundraiser for The Redwood (A women’s shelter) few days later. They screened “The Feminist in Cell Block Y”, an incredible documentary about a convicted felon who taught feminist literature to fellow inmates in an all-male prison in Soledad, California. I wrote down my impressions of seeing the men read, out loud, passages from bell hooks’ books. I copied notes from the facilitator’s flip chart in the film —  how patriarchy incites violence, rape culture, crime and anger because it’s the only way most men can live up to and rail against patriarchal ideals of masculinity.
A still from the documentary movie, The Feminist on Cell Block Y

After the screening, a panel of filmmaker and grassroots activists gathered on stage to share their impressions of the film with the 200+ plus who attended.
I recalled sharing a link to the film afterward on social media. And going for food and drinks with my partner to talk about our experience.
I could have spent hours flipping through this notebook.
Instead, I spent time thinking about how these gatherings compare to their ZOOM replicant.
Why can I remember so much about in-person gatherings whereas with online gatherings and events, I  struggle to remember anything at all?  Who was there? What season –or even day was it?  Can technology mediated spaces even can create memories or lasting impact?
Danielle Montgomery, Ottawa Feminist Fair, entrepreneur, Ottawa 2019. Photo by Jennifer Prescott

Over the summer, I engaged in oodles of online events. Gatherings of five to 500. Breakout rooms. Whiteboards. Cool speakers. Yet, when I try to recall them, it’s like they never happened. Ideas and conversations , unanchored, rise and evaporate in minutes. How can I retrieve and build on what I took with me without the aid of sensory clues? Stains on my notebook caused by a seatmate’s wandering elbow?
I realized I not only desperately miss these feminist and embodied gatherings; They served as essential wayfinding experiences for someone on a transformational journey.
To do their magic, they actually require all this: Subversive, stark gathering spaces with uncomfortable seats. Being in full-bodied community with people. Craft tables selling feminist art. Zines. Screen-printed patches and pins for sale. Challenging large scale art works to be experienced, not just viewed (at one event, a large pink-and-red vagina made of silk veils and pillows that you could walk through; at another, a re-interpreted Judy Chicago table setting which you could touch). Hand-illustrated name tags with pronouns. Music by emerging female, trans or queer talent who don’t get enough stage time in mainstream venues. The extraordinary care paid to creating accessible, safe spaces where we could have brave, vulnerable conversations with strangers. Seminars and performances coming alive with diverse, fierce, feminist grassroots educators, questioners, creators, writers and entrepreneurs aged 16-93.
In these spaces, even on days when it feels as though there is a hole at the bottom of my cup, I could always count on an upcoming opportunity to refill it from a flowing fountain of rebellion, reflexive learning, camaraderie and inspiration.
Ultimately, it this deep respect for the incredible work of revolutionary feminists creating such spaces that inspires the work we do at LiisBeth Media and, more recently, the Feminist Enterprise Commons.
IWD Day vendor fair, 2018. Photo by pk mutch

Much has been written about how the pandemic has surfaced and re-confirmed the nature and depth of the mess we have made of the world we live in.
It has also, I hope, irrevocably, lifted our understanding of what it means to be human and tightly fastened the insight that that only humans—not technology—can truly, meaningfully transform the world we live in.
Sadly, we won’t be able to be together like ways I described again for a long time.  Realizing this makes me sad—and question my own stamina to do this work in the absence of these vital re-fuelling stations.
But giving up is not a really a choice.   And surely, feminist gatherings and events will comeback soon.
Opening up to the last page of this notebook, I hastily over-wrote;  If mushrooms and wild flowers can grow strong in mud, shit and decay, then so can I.  Underline.


Publisher’s note: If you are looking for meaningful feminist conversations online, consider The Feminist Enterprise Commons (operated by LiisBeth Media, Canadian based),  The Continuum Collective (U.S. based, founded by Jillian Foster) and PowerBitches Gather (U.S. Based, founded by Rachel Hills).


LiisBeth Media is a 100% womxn-owned and led, reader supported media enterprise. If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more, please consider becoming a $10-25 one time donor today!  [direct-stripe value=”ds1577111552021″]


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The Art of Change

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Categories
Activism & Action

A New School of Writing

Sarah Selecky (middle) with teachers from her writing school.
(Photo provided)

 

Sarah Selecky distinctly remembers the feeling of being an emerging woman writer.

It was 2010. She had just published her first book, This Cake is for the Party. It was nominated for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize soon after, generating a load of publicity for the little-known writer – and the small publisher, Thomas Allen and Son. Readers reached out to Selecky on Twitter, asking where they could buy copies of her book as it wasn’t widely available at big chains or local bookstores. 

Selecky decided to “open up the conversation” and tagged bookstores in a Tweet, asking them where readers could purchase copies.

That prompted a call from her publishers to say that the bookstores weren’t happy with the tweet or her challenging the hierarchy, suggesting, next time, she go through her publisher or agent.

At first, Selecky felt like she was being “smacked for disobedience.” But when she really thought about it, she realized she was just being herself and getting the word out. “I asked, am I doing something wrong, or am I doing something different?”

In her question, she found her answer. And it set the tone for much of the work she does today.

In 2011, Selecky audaciously launched the Sarah Selecky Writing School with one main purpose: to create a different space for new and emerging writers to learn the craft.

Start Small, Think Big

Selecky was an avid reader growing up—books by C.S. Lewis and Michael Ende—but the Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene gave her the idea that maybe, someday, she could be a writer. In 2005, looking to find her “way in the world and make a livelihood,” she enrolled in the MFA program at the University of British Columbia, which offered one of the first optional residency writing programs at the time, allowing her to study from her home in Toronto.

But as a distance student, Selecky could not work as a teaching assistant at the university. That experience seemed crucial, as a way of testing whether she wanted to become a professor.

So Selecky started teaching small classes from her living room, and in teaching others, she learned more about herself, her future and her craft. “I would find that people would have a question about point of view, or a question about structure, and I wouldn’t know from my own experience so I would go deep into research for that.”

She appreciated the freedom to do things her own way—and doubted she would have as much as a professor. “My own experience of creative writing and the art of it went beyond what I saw was possible in an academic setting back then.”

As well, women writers she was reading, studying with or being mentored by—Natalie Goldberg, Lynda Barry, Zsuzsi Gartner and Karen Joy Fowler—questioned Selecky’s decision to do an MFA as they felt creative writing taught in institutions encouraged patriarchal storytelling.

They also championed the idea that women’s stories didn’t have to be about “romantic relationships with men and betrayals and affairs,” but could have women alone, at the forefront of their own journey.

School as a Feminist Conversation

As way of keeping that conversation going, Selecky consciously hired women instructors when she launched her school (presently,18 out of 19 are women) knowing that  teachers would help shape the stories students write.

She encourages students to rethink and reimagine the stories they read and are trying to write. “So much needs to change or be destabilized in order to open it up for different voices and different ways of seeing.”

That means taking on patriarchal storytelling—namely the constant rewriting of the “hero’s story,” says Selecky. That structure is often centred around a male character, documenting his journey of overcoming extraordinary challenges. These stories are not only prevalent in literature, but in every form of storytelling—from opera to film. “The architecture of our story is baked in through generations and generations of what we live and what we learn. It’s also a part of how we think and how we move our bodies through this world, who we are and who we talk to. It’s what we learn, what we consciously absorb and digest, and read and pay attention to and make and feel and listen to.”

Realizing that simply casting a heroine in place of the hero doesn’t exactly upset that patriarchal story structure, Selecky follows a writing process she calls “flow” or “embodied writing” and teaches her students that it’s not about pursuing the hero’s or heroine’s story or an idea of a story they think is good or publishable, but about writing a story that feels authentic to them, whatever that may look like. “An embodied piece of writing that is imperfectly written but perfectly felt, I think, is worth a lot.”

What does flow look like? Selecky’s second book, Radiant Shimmering Light, follows the lives of two women in business (listen to Selecky read an excerpt from the book here). It refuses the hero’s journey and the structure of protagonist and antagonist crossing paths; rather, the female characters work together to fight an “antagonistic force” that Selecky describes as an unsolvable dilemma in their lives. To resolve it, they have to leave this dimension.

“They could not solve the dilemma of wanting to live this life they loved, wanting to be successful businesswomen, artists, friends. They couldn’t resolve that in the structure they were moving in and so they left. And the question for one character is, does she die? And for the other is, did she lose her mind? The answer is, I don’t know, what do you think, and let’s talk about it.”

Embedding Feminism in Business

Like her writing, Selecky wanted to create a feminist structure for her business. “The first driving force was this idea that it’s a feminist act for a woman to be independent and financially solvent. I thought we need to stop undervaluing the arts, and we need to stop undervaluing feminized skill sets, which involve deep listening, observation, reflection and teaching. By bringing value to it, I thought it was a feminist act.”

And a gutsy one. Not only did the emerging writer create a writing school, but she did so online, back when platforms such as Zoom were years away and people did not exactly turn to the internet to learn, especially creative writing. But the venture proved successful because of what Selecky calls “growth at the speed of trust.” She pays fair and equal wages and strives to hire graduates of her courses, and they return to the school as teachers because they trust what the school stands for and what it teaches.

The teachers at her school play an important role in the decision making that takes place when it comes to the courses and the direction the school is taking. Selecky gives teachers the freedom to teach the Story Intensive course in the way that works best for them and their students, while following the established curriculum and syllabi, and also invites teachers to play a role in developing and modifying the curriculum each year.

Says Selecky: “This year we have Dr. Stacy Thomas as our mental health consultant because our teacher, Daphne Gordon, brought her into the community. Our lead teacher, Sonal Champsee, has been helping all of us to look into how we talk about writing and cultural appropriation. Teachers also choose new teachers — I ask them to advise me on who we should bring into our network as new TAs each year, based on their experiences with students and graduates.”

Selecky says a lot of her leadership style is based on what she learned from reading and re-reading adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. One of the chapters that particularly resonated with her is about the role of people, team and community remind us of the common ground we share. “She knows she’s a good leader. And she knows she needs her people to help her see her blind spots. This resonated with me.”

In its ninth year this year, the school boasts more than a thousand graduates from its 10-week Story Course and around six hundred from the Story Intensive. More than 30 students have published books from the Story Intensive course alone.

With the school growing, Selecky strives to deepen her feminist practices. Four of five staff who manage operations, marketing and finance are women. Selecky participated in Fifth Wave Labs, Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media. Created by the Canadian Film Centre’s (CFC) Media Lab, the program helps accelerate and sustain the growth of women-owned/led enterprises in southern Ontario’s digital media sector.

The mentorship proved valuable. “Feeling that we all want to create a society that flourishes for everyone—not just the founder, but everyone that it ripples out and touches. It’s moving to feel aligned with other womxn but also other womxn-led and women-supported businesses.”

The Next Chapter

The anti-Black racism protests following the murder of George Floyd and ensuing conversations prompted Selecky to reimagine the next phase of the school.

Selecky wants to attract more BIPOC instructors and students. Her latest hire – a student returning as a teacher this fall—is Darrel J. McLeod, author of the memoir Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age, and winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.

But the question troubling her is how to teach embodied writing while acknowledging that racialized trauma may prevent students from doing so. “One of the things that I’ve learned from meditative practices is that asking someone who has experienced trauma or is triggered by it to sit with it can actually make it worse. What I want to know is how much does an embodied writing practice move through the body, and is writing like talking or is it like moving? Or is it both? Because an embodied writing practice is about moving things through the body.”

To answer the question, Selecky started working with a somatic therapist to include trauma-aware, mindfulness therapy and body practices in her classes. Running her own school allows her the freedom to do so. “I would not be able to bring a somatics therapist into my university classes if I was a professor. So, I feel grateful for the opportunity, and I’m also aware I have a lot to learn because, in a writing class, if someone is experiencing racialized trauma, asking them to drop their armour and write expressively and freely—there’s an assumption that it’s a safe space, but they may not feel safe to do that.

“I think this is one of the transformative moments I find my school and myself in, where we can’t separate therapeutic writing from literary craft anymore. I think that is a false separation that has kept a lot of voices and a lot of stories out of the literary canon.”


Publishers Note:  The Sarah Selecky Writing School is a participant in Canada’s first feminist accelerator program for womxn in digital media, Fifth Wave Labs. The Fifth Wave is a year-round program offered by CFC Media Lab and its partners to support the growth and development of women entrepreneurs in the digital media sector in southern Ontario. Fifth Wave Connect, the pre-accelerator program is currently accepting applications here.  All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner. 


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