Categories
Our Voices

Dare to Dream in Pandemic Times

Sabrina Dias (left) and colleague Boniface Shuuli in Ngara,Tanzania

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….

Sabrina Dias, MineAfrica March 2020 during PDAC week in Toronto – Moderator (with microphone), Bertrand Montembault, Herbert Smith Freehills LLP

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.

Rant over (for now).

Love Sabrina Dias

Sabrina Dias is the founder and CEO of Soop Strategies


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https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/02/28/this-woman-rocks/

 

Categories
Activism & Action Transformative Ideas

Transforming Construction

Kalen Taylor is the founder of Purpose Construction.

We asked LiisBeth board member Jack Jackson to share a transformative story about someone who has inspired them, in celebration of International Transgender Day of Visibility (TDOV) on March 31.

Jackson is the co-founder of the inspiring social impact project, Don’t You Want Me (DYWM), a global documentary photography project showcasing LGBTQ people with their rescue dogs. Queer and trans people, who are often rejected by family and friends and live on the fringes of society, tell their stories of finding new purpose and connections, of reintegration and resilience, the catalyst being the arrival of their rescue dog. Look for the DYWM banner exhibit on display outside the Toronto Humane Society for TDOV.

Jackson chose to highlight the story of fellow entrepreneur, Kalen Taylor, owner and founder of Winnipeg-based Purpose Construction. The non-profit social enterprise’s mission is to hire people who face barriers to employment in the trades: women, queers, trans and non-binary people, newcomers, refugees, and people transitioning out of the justice system. The company offers a trades-training program, living wages, and a deeply supportive work environment.

Started in 2010, the company has completed $11 million in commercial and residential contracts and given employment to 244 people over that period. It has recently reached $2 million in annual revenue, with a payroll of 40. For every dollar that goes to Purpose Construction, $4.29 goes towards social impact.

As Taylor says, “Really, we are in the business of economic inclusion, carving out a safe space in construction for those of us who aren’t straight white men.”

As Jackson says, Taylor’s work shows us what happens when love is taken away—by discrimination, hate, and ignorance—and how people flourish when it’s given back. In the midst of a pandemic, stories like these remind us of what’s needed—and what’s possible.

Here’s their conversation.


Jack Jackson: How did you start working in the traditionally male-dominated construction industry?

Kalen Taylor: I come from a construction family. My parents both ran small businesses in the construction trades. When they couldn’t find child care when I was young, they would bring me along to construction sites. If I was sick, I was hanging out under the boardroom table while the adults argued about building projects. So, in many ways, construction feels like home.

At the same time, I grew up listening to my mother’s stories about how brutal it was to be a woman working in the trades in the ’70s and ’80s. She told me stories about throwing up from anxiety because the sexual harassment on site was so bad. She told me stories about clocking a guy on site for grabbing her butt. “Because sometimes kiddo, you’ve got to hit the guy first and ask questions later.” She was my hero.

I also knew that construction was not a place for everyone. It was, and is, an overwhelmingly white, cis-male space. The gatekeeping is no joke. Even today.

Jackson: Can you recall a specific moment of wanting to effect social change or did it happen organically?

Taylor: I also saw the power of the construction trades to change people’s lives for the better. When I was growing up, my older brother spent some time in and out of jail. A criminal record effectively excludes you from the legal economy, leaving you with very few options to earn a living and support yourself. I watched how that economic exclusion can lead to a cycle of recidivism as people are driven back into the illegal economy to support themselves—through no fault of their own.

Construction is one of the few sectors of the economy where a person can earn a middle-class wage with limited formal education–and where there are real opportunities for continuing advancement. In the end, my parents pulled some strings and found my brother a job as a construction labourer. Ten years later, he earns more than any of my university-educated friends. He’s had the opportunity to turn his life around, and he has. I can’t think of any other sector of the economy with the power to transform lives the way construction can. Especially if you’re white, cis, and male.

But what about the rest of us? What about the women, the queers, the trans and non-binary people, refugees, newcomers, and people coming out of prison without family connections to pave the way to a career?

I live in Winnipeg, a deeply racially divided city where the Indigenous population is dramatically over-represented in the prison system and systemically excluded from the economy when they are released—a cycle that has been going on for generations. The construction industry remains a totally unsafe space for visibly queer/non-binary people like me, so I made my own company to ensure we all have access to the economic opportunities construction provides.

Jackson: Who has your company helped?

Taylor: I’m totally humbled by the people I work with. They’ve experienced pain and hardship that most people will never come close to understanding. Senay Masazghi, our lead carpenter, fled religious persecution, was kidnapped and imprisoned. The jail he was sent to was underground, no one knew where he was, and no one could visit him. There was a single hole that let in air and sunlight. Senay was imprisoned there for five months. Senay travelled for months on foot across borders to reach Canada, surviving a migration that many others didn’t.

Jackson: You changed your name, pronoun, and had gender-affirming surgery. How did you navigate this while running a company?

Taylor: A few years ago, I came out at work as non-binary. I’d put it off for a long time simply because I was nervous about marginalizing myself further in a sector where I was already an anomaly. As the public face of Purpose Construction, I was also worried that I wouldn’t be able to bring in clients and the whole company would suffer. But I realized that if I was dedicated to making sure there was a space for all of us in construction, that meant me too. All of me.

The response has been mixed but, overall, better than I thought. Within Purpose Construction, there has been nothing but support.

A few months ago, a really beautiful thing happened. Our team was interviewing a new hire—they were queer, Indigenous, and had a history of involvement with the justice system. At one point, one of my colleagues asked what their preferred pronoun was. There was a really long pause. Finally, they said, in a really low voice, “Oh, it doesn’t really matter. I’m sort of in the middle. But whatever, it doesn’t matter.”

Then, everyone started talking at once.

“It does matter! And it’s all good.”

“The boss is non-binary! Whatever you want us to call you, we’ve got you.”

“You just tell us what you want to be called and we’ll do it.”

It was a really nice moment. It was also a moment when I realized how important it is to be doing this work in public as a non-binary person. How, maybe, I can create small places for other non-binary and trans people to come out, feel safer, and be respected. Visibility is important. I’m still here, and I’m still bringing in new clients, and I’m getting better and better at navigating people’s questions and responses to my gender.

I’ve learned the importance of owning my story. Being non-binary isn’t something I need to apologize for. It isn’t something that’s getting in the way of my work. It’s a part of the work. It’s a part of the reason why Purpose Construction exists.

Jackson: You’re doing groundbreaking work. Can you tell us a bit more about your latest project?

Taylor: In the last year, our team has found ourselves bumping up against the same problem again and again. Many of our employees don’t have access to safe, affordable, and secure housing. The personal ramifications of this are devastating, not to mention the ripple-down effects. We have parents working for us who have children in the child welfare system. They have stable employment, they’re clean, their life is on track. So why aren’t they with their children? Because they can’t afford a house with enough bedrooms to meet the legal requirements for family reunification.

There are over 700 families on the waiting list for subsidized housing units over two bedrooms. There are just no options for these families. The Canadian government is separating families, largely Indigenous families, based on poverty alone. My employees are part of my family, and I can’t see them suffer like this and do nothing.

One day in the office, we just had this collective moment. We were like, “Fuck it. We build stuff. If no one is building affordable housing, why can’t we?”

We purchased three vacant infill lots in Winnipeg’s North End and, today, we’re getting ready to build our first three houses.

They’re going to be physically accessible, highly energy-efficient four-bedroom houses. By waiving all profit and administration fees, partnering with granting organizations, community partnerships, buying discounted materials from suppliers, we’re able to build a house for about $230,000—and sell the house to people working with us for about $140,000, with no down payment requirement.

It’s huge. It means that families would be paying $650 a month for a brand new four-bedroom home. It is truly affordable. It means they own it, they get to build equity and value in that home over a lifetime. It’s a retirement asset. Most importantly, it means that people can be reunited with their kids, and can raise a family in a safe and secure place.

This is early days yet. We haven’t even broken ground on the first three houses. But we’ve been in negotiations with the City of Winnipeg to give us 20 more vacant inner-city lots for a low cost or free, so we can build a lot more affordable housing in the neighbourhoods that need it most. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need in our community, but it is something tangible we can do with the skills we have.

Discrimination, both systemic and societal, remain a major contributing factor to minorities ending up in the justice system, living in poverty, or living on the outskirts of society. Purpose Construction is giving people and communities a fighting chance at leading a normal life, of building a sustainable and stable life for themselves and their families.

Jackson: Beautiful! What a transformative story! It’s time we told our stories.


Did you enjoy this story?

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Activism & Action

How Do We Remake The World?

 

SheEO founder and CEO Vicki Saunders opens the SheEO Global Summit. Photo: Dhalia Katz

A flurry of COVID-19 related conference cancellations this week didn’t stop more than 600 women entrepreneurs and 93 speakers from attending the first SheEO Global Summit held in Toronto on Monday, March 9.

It was just too important to miss.

SheEO is an innovative, feminist-forward, Canadian-based initiative designed to propel women and women-identified entrepreneurs and their enterprises to the next level. Vicki Saunders founded the organization out of frustration with both the “women are just mini-men” approach of existing male-dominated startup programs, as well as her lived experiences as an entrepreneur and mentor. She decided enough was enough.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the SheEO Global Summit for women entrepreneurs in listening mode. Photo: Dhalia Katz

“Everything is broken. What a great time to be alive.” –Vicki Saunders

The first SheEO event, just over seven years ago, consisted of just 10 entrepreneurs plus a handful of women mentors sitting on pillows in a circle in a small university meeting room. The plan was to meet once a week. During that time, participants shared their experiences, hopes and dreams in a space that acknowledged their experiences and authentic selves. They strategized, shared skills, collaborated. As a result, they made surprising, unparalleled progress in a short time. The experience was transformational for all who participated, including Saunders.

The next step? How to scale this experiment so that many more women leading businesses could access a support network that truly worked.

Today, SheEO operates in five countries with 70 more in the pipeline. It has funded 53 ventures (the average loan being $100,000 per venture) and, globally, it has more than 4,000 activators or mentors who also donate to the fund. Its work has been featured in mainstream press around the world.

What started as one woman’s conviction—that if systemically oppressed women entrepreneurs were unleashed from systems that were never built by them or for them, they could have significant impact on the growth, strength, and character of our economy (an estimated $150 billion in Canada alone) within five years—has turned into a global movement.

And that has led to serious government attention.

The opening day of the SheEO Global Summit attracted politicians and diplomats such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; Mary Ng, Minister of Small Business and Export Promotion; Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario; and Isabelle Berro-Amadeï, Ambassador of France and Monaco.

 

From left to right, front row: Wendy Cukier, Ryerson Diversity and Inclusion Institute; Julie Merk, BMO; Mary Ng, Minister of Small Business and Export Promotion; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario; Ambassador Isabelle Hudon; Michelle Savoy, SheEO Activator; and Beth Horowitz, SheEO Board Member.

In 2018, the Canadian government committed to investing more than $2 billion in research, policy development, and support (The Women’s Entrepreneurship Strategy) for Canada’s estimated 1.3 million women sole proprietors, small business owners, and startup founders. In making the announcement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “It’s not just about the fact that we need the full participation of women in today’s economy. It’s also about the fact that women entrepreneurs bring forward fundamentally different solutions than male entrepreneurs.”

Join PK Mutch outside of the Liberty Grand for an interview with Minister Mary Ng about what’s next for the Women’s Entrepreneurship Fund (WES) and her thoughts on challenges facing women entrepreneurs in Canada. 

SheEO’s summit agenda delivered practical advice to women entrepreneurs on topics such as growing globally and building a productive relationship with your bank as well as action workshops where participants and SheEO founders collaborated on developing strategies to overcome current business challenges in real-time.

It also offered provocative sessions on feminist business practice, decolonizing systems, and emergent economies. The summit provided on-site child care as well as a quiet room to decompress, reflect, and decide what you need to leave behind so that it can no longer hold you back.

Dr. Dori Tunstall, Dean of Design of OCAD University: “Asking diverse peoples to dance to a white European, male, CIS, hetero, middle-class, able-body and -mind, Christian status quo (i.e. the power structure) is genocide to our spirits.”
A quote from CV Harquail, presenter of “The Feminist Economy” at the SheEO Global Summit, 2020.
Joy Anderson, founder of Criterion Institute: “We’ve privileged the finance world over the knowledge of the world. We need to get into a point where a diverse set of knowledge is included in our understanding of risk—and truly valued.”

The summit drove this home:

There are lots of traditional business conferences and neo-liberal incubator and accelerators led by patriarchal, privileged dudes (and a few like-minded women) who still believe their recipe for success is relevant, which is to focus on disruption at all costs and finding the next billion-dollar unicorn enterprise at the expense of all else.

But to collectively flourish, we need women and all women-identified entrepreneurs of all genders to flourish. We need women-identified leaders creating the next-gen powerhouses that are truly inclusive and capable of generating fair returns, fair wages, and strengthening community and planet. And we need organizations like SheEO Global Summit to challenge and blow up norms, narratives, and systems that might hold women back.

 


Related Reading

For the list of new 2020 Canadian SheEO ventures, click here.

https://www.liisbeth.com/2020/01/22/feminist-enterprise-commons-launches-looking-for-members-and-feminists-in-residence/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/10/29/how-can-we-collectively-build-a-better-future-for-all/

Categories
Our Voices

Decolonizing Our Hearts

Decolonize Your Mind Exhibit. Photo: Krui.fm Radio 2016

When you hear the word “decolonization,” what comes to mind? Land acknowledgements, the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, or the Medicine Wheel? Learning Indigenous traditions and the history of colonization? The act of offering the lands that were taken from Indigenous people back to their rightful owners? (See further reading by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang below.)

Diem Marchand-Lafortune, who created an intensive two-day workshop called “Decolonizing the Heart,” describes decolonization as “a process” that guides us to look, with a critical eye, at the history of North America and its power structures, including economies and governments, which “have been formative in developing one’s own and one’s ancestors’ worldview.” It requires “working to dismantle and transform one’s way of seeing and being in the world,” and that means unlearning principles that we may take for granted. For instance, this could include analyzing our business practices and offering up products and services as gifts to people in need rather than expecting money for them.

Marchand-Lafortune, a Cree-Métis and Jewish woman who was adopted and raised by an Acadian/Mi’kmaq father and Scottish mother, says she synthesized and “indigenized” 40 years of knowledge, life experience, philosophy, psychoanalysis and practice in negotiations and law school within the two-days of teachings. The program is not a 101 on Indigenous issues. It includes complex ideas. Marchand-Lafortune warns that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who feel invested in exploring decolonization in more depth should be prepared for “hard work and self-examination.”

One goal of the workshop is “to understand oneself better so that one can interact with other people in a more healthy way,” she says. “I’ve put all these disparate things together that allow people to learn we can’t reconcile with other people till we reconcile with ourselves.”

I began to learn about decolonization when I was doing my Masters of Social Work at the University of Toronto through academic readings, experiential re-enactments of colonization, and cultural competency training. However, I felt my education on Indigenous issues was insufficient, especially following a poorly facilitated class discussion on the findings of “cultural genocide” from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (see further reading below). Students were upset and complained to the administration. Seeing the harm social workers have caused and continue to cause Indigenous people prompted me to take a class on building Jewish-Indigenous relationships at the Lishma Jewish Learning Project.

I heard about the Decolonizing the Heart workshop from a fellow student in my master’s program. Monica Henriques is a social worker of Dutch and Jamaican ancestry who took the workshop and became Marchand-Lafortune’s executive assistant.

The workshop was a lot for me to take in. I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the ideas floating around in my head while simultaneously trying to remember how to put the tools into action. Undoing nearly 35 years of colonial education, changing deep-rooted emotional reactions, and relating to others in new ways may take me more time and practice. However, the experience left me with a great deal to think about.

Decolonizing the Heart Workshop participants–photo by Carmelle Wolfson

About a dozen people attended day one of the workshop at the Toronto United Mennonite Church in Toronto’s east end, including educators, non-profit professionals, writers, social workers, and religious professionals. The workshop integrated seemingly disparate topics throughout, including traditional Indigenous teachings, anti-oppression practices, conflict resolution strategies, and object relations theory approach to human development. It involved lectures, group discussions, experiential activities, visual mapping of individual ancestry, personal reflective writing, role-playing exercises, and video re-enactments. A second day was added to allow more time to cover the expansive material and practice role-play exercises.

On the second day, we simulated a variety of scenarios in which we responded to racist remarks. In one role play that took place at a liquor store, a customer suggests to the cashier that she shouldn’t serve Indigenous people and uses an offensive racial slur. The workshop teaches tools to guide us in identifying what may have happened in our past to trigger our emotional reactions to the situation, and for bystanders to take a few moments before acknowledging the harmful comment so that we can “call in” with compassion for the person causing the harm, trying to empathize and understand that person’s motivation, rather than “call out” the harmful comment through shaming and blaming. As the type of person who tends to freeze up in conflict situations, I have a hard time finding the right words to speak up. In one role play, the bystander asks, “What did you mean by that?” The customer says that Indigenous people are prone to alcoholism and wants to protect them. The bystander then provides information found on their phone’s web browser on alcohol rates among Indigenous populations in Canada. When the discussion wraps up, the Indigenous customers jokingly suggest the customer making the racist comment might pick up the tab at a nearby cafe–in exchange for conversation and a reading list to deepen the learning.

The workshop led me to reflect on standard practices in health and mental health care that I learned during my master’s. For instance, the Medicine Wheel includes four sections that represent the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical realms of each person. Well-being is feeling balanced in these four areas. Within health care and mental health institutions, the spiritual component of healing is usually missing. Though it may sound simple, finding that sweet spot where mind, body, heart, and soul are aligned is anything but simple. In this way, traditional Indigenous teachings hold the knowledge that Western society is lacking.

The workshop also reminded me of how important relationships are to our continued survival. This includes our relationship to other people, the natural environment, and ourselves. Indigenous societies lived on the land, co-existing with plants, animals, and their natural environments long before Europeans colonized and settled North America. Living in Toronto, I rarely have the chance to connect with nature, and I do not need to think about how the food I buy in the store is cultivated. I was also raised to compete with others for limited resources and taught to be independent and self-sufficient, ideals upheld by capitalism. However, Marchand-Lafortune explains the importance of collaboration with others and building strong ongoing relationships with the people around us.

This is the fundamental question that arose for me after attending this two-day workshop: Do you want to participate in colonization and colonial practices or do you want true change? When decolonizing the heart, you may never feel like you’re getting it right, but if you are not grappling with difficult questions, then you’re probably getting it wrong.

Marchand-Lafortune offers this analogy: “It’s really hard to be a feminist if you start acting like entrepreneurs that are in the capitalist paradigm—competition, aggression, all that stuff.” Put yet another way: though people may crave sugar, we don’t need it so why not consider what is driving that craving for sugar? She suggests focusing on meeting needs rather than creating businesses that are feeding “false needs.”

The Heart in Practice

The workshop provoked months of contemplation on decolonizing the heart. What does this look like in practice? For me, that process looked something like this while writing this article:

1. Acknowledging my power and privilege as the writer crafting this story and asking critical questions. Why am I, as a white settler journalist, believed to be an expert on decolonization after attending one workshop? Whose voices are heard and whose are not? Who is given credit for this knowledge, who is benefiting from it and in what ways (financial gain, prestige)? Why are Indigenous writers reporting on Indigenous issues rarely published?

2. Engaging in ongoing conversations with the editor, publisher, and workshop facilitators while trying to understand the motivations and needs of each one. Prioritizing relationships, by allowing time for these conversations, rather than being rigid and guided by speed and productivity.

3. Identifying my emotions when they arise (anxiety, anger, frustration, sadness) and asking which unmet need each feeling is connected to. Taking the time I need to do something to dampen these emotions before re-engaging in discussions.

4. Showing up to retake the workshop a second time even though I felt exhausted and overwhelmed by the start and end of the day. Offering to help make coffee after arriving and staying after it ended to clean up.

5. Asking for advice from friends and doing additional reading on the topic. Then giving credit to those involved in my creative process at the end of this article.

6. Connecting with the spiritual traditions of my ancestors in a way that is meaningful to me.

7. Rewriting this entire article while incorporating what I learned in steps one through five.

With files from Diem Marchand-Lafortune, Monica Henriques, freygl gertsovski, and Emily Green.


Further Reading and Resources

KAIROS Blanket Exercise

Decolonization is not a metaphor by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012)

Canada grapples with a charge of ‘genocide.’ For indigenous people, there’s no debate by Alicia Elliott, Washington Post (June 2019)

Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (1961)

Women and the Gift Economy: A Radically Different World is Possible, Edited by Genevieve Vaughan (2007)

The Maternal Roots of the Gift Economy, Edited by Genevieve Vaughan (2018)


This article was made possible thanks to the generosity of Startuphere Toronto!

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Categories
Feminist Practices

Time's Up Tech

Dr. Sarah Saska at the #movethedial Global Summit in 2019 (Photo by Photagonist.ca)

There’s a new form of domestic abuse, and so-called “smart” home devices are the weapons.
And, yes, women are more likely to be affected by this perverse use of technology. Here’s how it works: An abuser can lock a victim into her own home using web-enabled locks, and monitor her every move via video security systems. An abuser can expose a victim to extreme heat or cold by remotely controlling a smart thermostat, or wake her up in the middle of the night by blasting music with a remote control.
Smart home abuse is just one way in which technology is disproportionately harmful to women. A few others: Machine learning algorithms can reinforce gender biases inherent in the datasets used to train them, so recruiting tools for tech workers can be biased against women. Crash dummies are based on male bodies, so car safety tests don’t account for female anatomy. Voice recognition software is more likely to understand a male voice. Mapping apps can provide the fastest route to any destination, though not the safest one. And tech gadgets at our service often have female voices, reinforcing gender power imbalances.
Tech’s dark side arises from who designs and builds it—and who’s excluded from the process. When diverse voices are shut out, so too are diverse ideas, perspectives, and values.
According to a 2019 report by Women in Communications and Technology, men in technology outnumber women by a ratio of four to one. Women who manage to break into the sector wield significantly less power. They earn less than their male counterparts and are less likely to be promoted to leadership positions. Little wonder they’re more likely to flee the industry.
The need to include diverse voices in the innovation process propelled Sarah Saska to found Feminuity, a consulting firm that helps tech companies become more diverse and inclusive. Though her firm’s name blends the words “feminism” and “ingenuity,” Saska wants to do more than just get more women hired at tech workplaces.
From left: Dr. Sarah Saska, Danica Nelson, Leen Li, David Yee, Aziz Garuba, and Shavonne Hasfal-McIntosh at a Leadership in Technology panel discussion in 2019.

Feminuity’s version of feminism is decidedly intersectional. When clients come to Saska saying, “We need to hire more women,” the 30-something entrepreneur takes the conversation deeper. “The goal of 50 percent representation of women in any space is not only shortsighted but also wildly essentialist. You could end up hiring only white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, resourced women. It’s such a limited frame, and we’ll be no further ahead.”
Rather, an intersectional approach takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences. For example, black women, disabled women, gender non-conforming people, and women who care for children and elders may face specific obstacles to employment and promotion. Until a company removes those barriers, it will not achieve equity.
It’s an approach that’s been missing from tech workplaces, says Saska, who grew up in a feminist home and earned a PhD in gender studies and feminist research at Western University in London, Ont. While researching innovation theory for her degree, she began to realize a huge gap. “There wasn’t anything related to humanness, such as gender or race,” she says. “It was absent. It didn’t make sense to me. How could we not talk about the human side of things?”
Wanting to apply her understanding to the business world, Saska launched Feminuity in 2014, along with innovation expert Andrea Rowe (who has since left the company). A 2016 Studio Y fellowship at MaRS Discovery District helped Saska hone her entrepreneurship and leadership skills, build networks, and translate her academic knowledge into business practices.
Says Saska: “I got into this space because, right now, we’re at an inflection point. Some tech companies are larger than entire countries. Tech companies have power, and they’re outpacing our laws and policies and playing in new and grey spaces. Tech can exacerbate or make things better when it comes to equity.”
In Canada’s tech sector, she says the need for diversity and inclusion work is especially urgent. To her knowledge, the massively successful e-commerce platform Shopify is the only tech company with a senior level diversity leader and a team, while the US has many more companies investing in this area. “Canadian tech talks a lot about how ‘diversity is our strength,’ and I find that frustrating,” says Saska. “Diversity is not a given. It’s something that we must design for deliberately and intentionally. There’s a lot that needs to happen before we can say diversity is really our strength.”
Now in its fifth year, Feminuity employs between 10 and 20 people at any given time, contracting specialists as needed to work primarily with small and medium-sized companies that may not have the resources to hire a full-time employee dedicated to diversity and inclusion, yet know they need help.
The process starts when Feminuity conducts a holistic survey of the business, collecting quantitative and qualitative data about processes, physical space, products, and policies.
The quantitative data is decidedly intersectional, with survey questions designed to create a layered picture of how women with multiple identities experience the workplace, helping leaders understand, say, the challenges of a racialized single mother with child care issues.
To gather qualitative information, Anisha Phillips, an associate consultant at Feminuity, conducts video interviews with employees who opt in. Phillips says participants sometimes assume they’ll be asked if they’ve experienced discrimination. Rather, open-ended questions prompt them to describe what they like and don’t like about their workplaces.
“Inclusion has many different aspects,” explains Phillips, adding it doesn’t always look the way people expect it to. In training workshops, the Feminuity team refers to an article that describes 34 diversity characteristics, including gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, language, physical ability, cognitive ability, mental health, social roles within the home, and political beliefs, to name just a few.
After Saska’s team gathers data and analyzes it through an intersectional lens, they co-design strategies with clients, help build an internal steering committee, provide resources and training, and prepare the company to implement the plan, which typically takes six months to a year, though some engage in the process for several years.
Feminuity’s approach may touch on any aspect of business, not just hiring and human resource policies. It could mean diversifying a company’s supply chain to include Indigenous contractors, for example, or improving how work spaces function for people with disabilities, or closing salary gaps that may exist between a company’s most junior and senior employees.
In some cases, Saska may act as a part-time chief diversity officer, a more affordable way to build inclusion into leadership for companies that don’t have the resources to hire a full-time employee for the role. But her ultimate goal is to build internal capacity to embed diversity and inclusion practices in a company’s day-to-day culture and operations.
The key to embedding equity lies in helping leaders see the business through a lens of “futurism,” which, to Saska, means being thoughtful about the long-term impacts of a product or service for everyone—not just the dominant group.
“Is there a chance it could exacerbate inequities that already exist?” she asks. “If your goal is shortsighted, if you just want to get wealthy, there’s always a shadow side. You’re going to benefit some people—those who have dominant identities, those with power—and you’re going to leave others behind.”
Saska sees more tech startups and scaleups baking social justice into their way of doing business from the very beginning. It doesn’t take a lot of resources, she says, but does take a sense of intention. Small startups on small budgets can access Feminuity’s open-source resources—offered free on its website—to create inclusive job descriptions, interview practices, benefits packages, organizational structures, sexual harassment policies, and compensation packages.
Embracing diversity can avoid expensive and complex problems down the road. Saska cites Uber as an example of how failing to consider the needs of women can create a flawed business model, as the money-losing company is plagued by accusations that the car-sharing app makes users vulnerable to sexual assault by contract drivers.
As for Feminuity’s internal hiring process, Phillips described it as “a conversation” rather than about credentials or degrees. She says Saska wanted to know, what her research was about, what types of issues were of interest to her. “It was about getting to know me as a person,” she says.
Saska describes the company culture as being in a continual process of growth. The team is moving to a new space in Toronto and hiring new team members, some of whom will work remotely. That has spurred her to study inclusive practices for remote teams, which she’ll test on her own group.
“We are trying to figure out, embody, and actualize the work we do with our clients,” says Saska. The goal is to distill social justice concepts into habits of thought for groups who create technologies, and that’s an ongoing project.


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https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/04/26/where-are-the-women-in-canadas-women-in-tech-venture-fund/

Categories
Activism & Action Feminist Practices

Homelessness: There’s An App For That

CG Chen, founder of Ample Labs (Photo: David Dines)

Working as a user experience designer at a tech company, CG Chen had done co-design workshops before, but this one was different. Around a dozen young people crowded into a small room at Sherbourne Health Centre in downtown Toronto, to share their experiences with homelessness. They appeared to be  between 16 and 30, identified as LGBTQ2IA, and participated in the health centre’s Supporting Our Youth (SOY) program that promotes wellness for at-risk youth. That day, they didn’t come seeking support, but to lend a hand—and to share their experiences so that Chen’s non-profit startup, Ample Labs, could improve an app to access services for the homeless.

Creating a trusting atmosphere for the youth living on the street took conscious effort. Chen met with SOY staff multiple times in advance to ensure the workshop was a safe space, anti-racist, and anti-oppressive. Then Chen got creative, handing out writing and craft supplies to those gathered around a large table, so they could express themselves authentically and on their terms.

They came from different backgrounds—some had lived in Canada for years, others had recently arrived as refugees—but they all shared a key concern when looking for a place to spend the night: safety. The participants told horror stories of ending up in shelters that weren’t LGBTQ2A friendly—and experiencing violence and trauma as a result.

During this co-design session and many others, Chen and her team of volunteers at Amble Labs also discovered that many initially facing homelessness turned to Google for help as they were often too ashamed to seek out in-person resources. But the Google results that came up were not very helpful. That was one of the main frustrations people in the sessions expressed—service agencies don’t actually involve or listen to the concerns of individuals experiencing homelessness.

Says Chen of Ample Labs’ venture to change that: “We bring the people that we build this product for into our process as much as possible so they’re part of building the solution with us.”

The result? Chen and her team learned that Toronto’s homeless population has high concentrations of people identifying as refugees, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour), and/or LGBTQI2A (particularly youth). So Ample Labs decided to focus on creating solutions for individuals between the ages of 16 and 35 who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness and come from diverse identities and situations. One of their first creations was ChalmersBot, a free web-based chat-bot that provides location-based information. You enter what you need—a warm meal, clothing, shelter—and ChalmersBot suggests a nearby resource. After what they learned at the SOY workshop, Chen and her team added a filter to ChalmersBot to identify resources that are LGBTQI2A friendly.

Chen describes working intentionally and directly in a co-design fashion with the homeless community as a feminist approach. The goal is to understand what the homeless need and empower them to contribute to solutions, so services created are actually used by the community. “It’s easy to identify as a feminist organization because with the app and in everything we do, we are trying to promote equality in this community that often times struggles with inequality.”

Could a Sandwich Start a Revolution?

Chen, now 27, can trace the start of her journey to a sandwich. While studying graphic design at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD), she had to pass by people living on the streets of downtown Toronto—and eventually found she could no longer look away. So Chen gathered some friends and started distributing food to the homeless.

A sandwich often led to conversation—and a new perspective. “I think a lot of us really wanted to understand how people ended up there, what they are like. Who I thought the homeless were was turned upside down because I met previous entrepreneurs and really wealthy people who, through a series of unfortunate events, ended up on the streets.” For instance, a highly educated doctor who wound up homeless after going through a rough divorce.

Chen started seeing homelessness in a new light—a difficult situation that can happen to people of all backgrounds. That realization hit home in 2019 when Chen’s own mother experienced homelessness after a surgery made it difficult for her to find work. “If it was your family, how would you look at things? How would you treat that person you see on the street if she was your mom?” Chen asked in a blog post.

For her undergrad thesis, Chen explored how to use design and technology to help the homeless, redesigning a list of City of Toronto resources into a user-friendly website. She took a tech job after graduation, but a trip to Los Angeles reignited her passion for helping people struggling with homelessness. During a visit to LA’s notorious Skid Row, an area of downtown with a high concentration of homeless individuals, she met a woman teaching computer skills, such as how to craft a resume, to people on the street. What struck Chen? While residents of Skid Row lacked a permanent home, they often had cellphones or access to technology. (In a survey of 421 homeless individuals, 94 percent of respondents said they owned a phone and used it as an essential tool for communication.)

That trip helped Chen envision an opportunity to combine her skills in tech and her passion for helping the homeless. As she had done with her sandwich runs, Chen gathered a group of friends to reach out to the homeless community in Toronto and learn more about their needs.

Simon Bunyi was part of the Ample Labs team when he found himself in the same situation as people they were trying to help. He was laid off from a Fortune 500 company and later evicted from his apartment; this is statistically the most common reason individuals end up homeless in Toronto. Those were his “darkest days,” he says, looking back. “It made me think more about how I interact with people.”

Bunyi had been living in an area of Toronto with a high concentration of people living on the street. He came to realize that the only thing separating himself from them was a regular paycheque. When that disappeared, Bunyi reached out to Chen and Ample Labs to help him navigate the complex network of websites and resources for help. They thought it would be simpler if there were an app for this. And that was the beginning of ChalmersBot. (Watch the full story below.)

So, More Apps for That?

Chen never intended Ample Labs to be more than a side project, but after the beta launch in November 2018, the team of 20 to 30 volunteers realized the service had tremendous potential to help the estimated 235,000 Canadians who will experience homelessness. In the past, that population largely comprised of older, single men, but according to the study, Canada has seen a rise of women and youth ending up on the street. With its ability to tailor resources to specific demographics, ChalmersBot generated attention. Ample Labs raised money from a crowdfunding campaign, grants and corporate sponsors (including TD, Google, and Twitter) and found a home in Ryerson University’s Social Venture Zone. The goal is to generate additional, sustaining revenue selling ChalmersBot services to cities. Barrie, Ont., was the first to buy in. Numerous other cities in Canada and the US have shown interest.

Ample Labs now has 8,000 unique users in Toronto and multiple contractors, prompting Chen to quit her job as a UX designer and become Ample Labs’ first full-time employee. She’s recently hired a second employee and plans to continue expanding the team in 2020. Though the non-profit is experiencing exciting and rapid growth, the culture and core values of Ample Labs remain the same.

“Internally, we’ve built a culture of always learning from each other and making sure it’s diverse voices that are teaching the rest of us,” says Chen. “We want to build something with people, not for people.”


Creating researched and inspirational content to support and advocate for feminist changemaking takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find value and nourishment here, please consider becoming a donor subscriber or patron at a level of your choosing. Priced between a cup of coffee or one take out salad per month.

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This article was made possible thanks to the generosity of Startup Toronto.


Related Reading

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/03/09/move-over-girlboss-its-the-feministboss-era/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/04/26/where-are-the-women-in-canadas-women-in-tech-venture-fund/