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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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Our Voices

A Feminist's Response To COVID-19

Illustration by Cactus Creative Studio. On Stocksy.

As feminists, we know this about the COVID-19 pandemic:
It will show, with brutal clarity, what the 5000-year old patriarchal system and this modern incarnation of capitalism really is – a social construct created for the privileged few it serves and devastating for everyone else, including the planet.  It will also lay bare, especially for our friends in the United States, how fragile democracy has become in the face of unprecedented concentration of power and wealth.
Both history and lived experience tells us that this crisis will disproportionately affect women who will take on the bulk and danger of caretaking, as usual.
The crisis will divide us in two:  Those who believe this crisis is short term. A Blip. And those who believe it marks the birth of a new world.
More on the positive side, we will be astounded, even in this age of deep political and social divisions, by our capacity to reroute our lives, give and minister to disruption. The meaning of the term inter-independence is now on full display. Social cohesion, which we usually take for granted, is the platform that supports all of us. Self-interest overtakes long defended beliefs. Just watch those neo-liberals, meritocracy disciples and anti-government libertarians rush to fill out forms for government help.
As we enter into police or drone enforced lock downs, we now also know that this is not a simple interruption of business as usual.
This is a historical trigger event, an event so powerful that the entire world takes an abrupt turn down a new political, social and economic path.
Will it be a turn for the better, as when the bloody French Revolution gave birth to greater equality, expansion of human rights and political participation, and new ways of thinking about how government and economies can work better — to serve human flourishing rather than the other way around?
Will it be a turn for the worse, as when the scapegoat fueled evil of Nazism took hold of Germany during the world-wide economic collapse of the Great Depression.
The current pandemic, projected to sicken and kill in the millions, has delivered a severe shock not only to the global economy but our faith in the values that have been driving it. The trigger has been pulled. The question now is, how will we react to it?
A critical majority of people may well be open to new ideas previously thought too bizarre to challenge the current status quo or to change thought too painful to implement.
For feminist leaders, entrepreneurs and creators, our work in this new very moment is critical. We can’t unpull the trigger of the pandemic. But we can certainly summon our unique foundational strengths and serve as death doulas for the old; Midwives to the new.   We can shape the future that will emerge from it.
Consider this from Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower:

In order to rise

From its own ashes

A phoenix




So what to do at this critical moment, beyond social distancing, washing hands, keeping sane, staying afloat economically?
All of that is important, of course, but I want to talk about the future – or what kind of work we need to embrace if we are to create the kind of future we want to emerge from this shocking, painful rupture.
I have five suggestions — informed by the thought leadership of such feminists as CV Harquail (feminist values), adrienne maree brown (Emergent Strategy and pleasure activism) and Octavia Butler (Parable of the Sower; God is change) — that I believe can help us find our feet during this cosmic interruption and work with others to shape and accelerate a world without partriachy, greed and gross inequality.
1. Create a new-world vision board: Pull out that Bristol board (or the online version). Take the time to think deeply and engage in wide-ranging conversations about the world you want to see emerge in the next 24 months. Consult with friends and family. Make it a staff and team activity. This is a given: Pandemic measures will be with us now in some way for up to 18 months and this experience will change the world irrevocably. Everything we do now and moving forward is based on assumptions we make about the world, what and who we are, what and who will be here for us, what systems we can rely on and what systems have failed us. Our assumptions need a reset, so a few questions to ask: What role does/should government have? What are/should be its priorities? What policies matter/should matter most? How will enterprises and communities change/should change? As feminist entrepreneurs, we must ask ourselves this: How relevant is my enterprise and creative work in light of the change I want to see? Is my lifestyle in step with emerging realities and opportunities? What inner work do I need to do in order to figure out how to engage with new opportunities and ways to serve?  We don’t have to finish this work in a week. In fact, we can’t. So let’s put time into creating a new vision board for our world, enterprises and ourselves. Read visionary fiction to open your mind to possibilities. Step back from the process. And repeat the process.
2. Take action because activism matters, now more than ever: With the pandemic, critical issues did not suddenly disappear overnight. Climate change, Indigenous rights, the rise of hate, racism, ageism and weakening democracy in many parts of the world will, in fact, be more amplified by this crisis. We need to continue fighting for a world in which all can flourish. As feminists, we need to be vigilant — to speak loud and clear — to ensure that the specific needs of womxn and other marginalized communities are appropriately addressed in government aid packages. They must apply a gender and social-justice lens — rigorously. If you don’t have time for activism, support organizations whose mission is to advocate on your behalf. The Canadian Women’s Foundation and the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce are just two of many (and yes, LiisBeth too). Go ahead and sign one of the many important petitions going around, but they come and go. We are better off strengthening organizations who will advocate for us over the long haul.
3. Respect and value the dynamics and power of inter-independence: If you have never mapped out or “pod-mapped” your personal and enterprise ecosystem, now is a good time to do so. Pod-mapping is a term that arose out of specific transformational justice work but is now broadly relevant. Even if you are a sole-preneneur, you have clients, suppliers, professionals, colleagues and numerous others who make up your enterprise pod or web. Map them. Analyse them. Find ways to strengthen this ecosystem. Think about ways to lift all boats as we transition to a new world. Consider each action, as Harquail recommends, by asking these three questions: “Who might benefit? Who might be hurt? Who might be left out?” Or, using management guru Mary Parker Follet’s framework, ask “who do I have power over, where do I power under, and where can I exert power with.” If you have power (and we all do, to a degree) use it fairly and in ways that serves many rather than one or a few. Remember, this moment will change but people have long memories.
4) Spark generativity: The world has just cracked open, and paused in many ways! What a tremendous time to apply your imagination, experiment and play. Get out the paints. Make art. Journal. Connect with strangers (at a socially distant space!). Join a new think group such as LiisBeth’s Feminist Enterprise Commons. Create a group by inviting 10 people from your social media lists you have never met but always wanted to get to know. Get creative in how you engage online. Interact in new ways. Take chances. Play music together or share poetry. All this can lead to uncovering new opportunities, connections, interesting solutions and recovery ideas. For example, Catherine Chan, founder of Fit-In, was inspired by conversations she had on social media and subsequently pulled an all-nighter to come up with a new service for her customers — a live feed during business hours that keeps kids engaged while parents work at home.
LiisBeth advisory board member Valerie Fox now actively looks for international futuristic think tank conversations and Zoom talks that have popped up online. “I didn’t have time for this before. I just love what I am hearing and learning—it gets me outside of my bubble.”
Creating new conversations and tapping into communities you don’t normally hang out will generate a sense of greater belonging and maybe even the “AHA” you need in your life right now.
5) Focus on Pleasure: In her prescient book Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown writes “I touch my own skin, and it tells me that before there was any harm, there was a miracle.” Allowing ourselves to feel pleasure, intimacy, desire, and lead erotically powered lives — even in times of pain — is a precondition towards becoming truly liberated from oppressive narratives. It will break open what limited our imagination, will lead us to live in right relationship with our full personal and collective potential. Now is the time to explore our desires as living, sensual beings capable of accessing incredible relational, creative and communal power. Don’t worry, shelves will get stocked with toilet paper. Free your mind to connect with long-forgotten or new sources of joy. Surrender. Adapt.
Afterall, what is a better world, if not one that capable of generating danceable levels of joy.

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Allied Arts & Media

Moving Pictures: What We Learned from Women Filmmakers at TIFF 2019

Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) on the red carpet in at TIFF 2019 in Toronto. Photo by Frazer Harrison

Last year, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and its counterparts in Cannes and Venice committed to achieving gender parity in film selections by 2020, signing the historic 5050×2020 agreement. With the Share Her Journey fundraising campaign, TIFF created the Micki Moore Residency (for female screenwriters), the inaugural TIFF Talent Accelerator (for female directors, producers, and writers), and achieved gender parity in both the TIFF Filmmaker Lab and TIFF’s programming team.

Despite those initiatives, the total number of female-fronted films barely nudged up from 35 to 37 percent at TIFF, a fact lamented by TIFF’s own co-head, Joana Vicente. In 2019, Venice selected only two films by female directors for its 21-film competition while Cannes selected four out of 19. Unlike Vicente, the heads of Cannes and Venice argued that redressing exclusion by quotas alone could dilute quality.

Women directors enjoyed the last laugh at that, with Manele Labidi’s Arab Blues winning Venice’s audience choice award, and Mati Diop taking the Grand Prix at Cannes for her film Atlantics, while also making history as the first Black woman director to compete at Cannes.

Here at LiisBeth, we wondered what happens when women get the opportunity to direct the storytelling? Do film plots, points of view, and ideas shift? And what might feminist entrepreneurs directing enterprises of their own take away from these narratives?

Five Films, Five Takeaways

At TIFF 2019, many international films made by women rejected facile notions of “girl power” or “leaning in” in favour of more dissonant, challenging plots. Take this cross-section of five films, which unsettle assumptions about who women are, what we can achieve, and what our models for work can be.

Arab Blues: Things Rarely Go According to Plan

I can see why French-Tunisian director Manele Labidi’s bittersweet comedy won the audience choice award at Venice. It was my favourite, too.

The film follows young, intrepid Selma (Golshifteh Farahani), who studied in Paris for 10 years, as she returns to her hometown in Tunis to start her own psychotherapy practice for locals, post-revolution.

Challenges abound. The labyrinthine licensing bureaucracy forces Selma to work around the law. Locals are amused or irritated by her services. Yet her sessions soon become truly rewarding moments in the film. They not only reveal the limits of Selma’s tacit mentor, Freud (whose portrait hangs on her office wall), but also how she is an outsider in her own hometown.

Ultimately, Selma’s status as an outsider helps her forge her own path and build a more culturally nuanced “talking cure.” Starting from a vague desire to “help,” Selma learns why she really chose this path, which deepens both her practice and her clients’ lives.

The takeaway: Entrepreneurs know that the best laid (business) plans can fall apart fast. Many opportunities must be seen—and seized—on the fly. Only much later can we see why we started.

How to Build a Girl: Success at Your Own Expense Equals Failure

Courtesy of Protagonist Pictures

Coky Giedroyc’s UK film brings to life Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical novel. Working-class ’90s teenager Johanna (a dynamite Beanie Feldstein) morphs into “Dolly Wilde,” a mean-spirited music journalist alter ego. Her scathing review of Queen, for example, bears the withering headline, “Bohemian Crapsody.”

Discussions of entrepreneurship often emphasize the value of failure. How to Build a Girl, however, reveals that failing can be a lot harder for a working-class girl stuck among posh bros. For Johanna, there’s no safety net if she doesn’t win, yet dudes set the terms for that “win.”

The more Johanna becomes Dolly, and the more men reward her, the more we see all the problems of her “success.” That makes for a refreshing feminist rebuke: Don’t mistake sexist cynicism for intelligence, let alone success.

No spoilers, but this well-written script will have women, especially those who’ve had to play “one of the guys,” cheering on nerdy, smart-girl Johanna long past the closing credits.

The takeaway: Trying to become someone you’re not isn’t worth it—even if all signs point to a win.

 Harriet: Don’t Lead Later, Lead Now

After directing the haunting Eve’s Bayou in 1997, Kasi Lemmons joined a coterie of Black American filmmakers who seemed on the cusp of transforming the film industry. Sadly that did not materialize thanks to persistent Hollywood racism.

Lemmons’ latest, Harriet, suggests a new day. It’s a suspenseful biopic of Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and then returned to lead others to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Indeed, Harriet begs the question of why it took so long for the story of this amazing woman to reach the big screen.

Played with verve and grit by Cynthia Erivo, the diminutive Harriet displays a fierce will to eliminate slavery. Underestimated, even by herself at first, she begins in fear-driven flight, and then buoyed by faith and success, dives undaunted into leadership.

Harriet illustrates and intertwines three layers of Black female leadership—Harriet Tubman, Erivo in an Oscar-worthy performance, and Lemmons as auteur. For all three, defeat should have been inevitable, but they persevered.

The takeaway (in Harriet’s words): “I’ve come this far on my own, so don’t you dare tell me what I can’t do.”

Atlantics: Communities, Not Individuals, Generate Heroism

For those in social justice–driven enterprises, it’s hard to keep fighting the good fight, day after day. Directed by Mati Diop, this Senegalese-French-Belgian co-production, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, is both ghost story and love story, a poetic, magical take on how we can keep on pressing on—if we don’t try to go it alone.

Atlantics opens with several men demanding, but not receiving, unpaid wages for their work on a half-finished high-rise in Dakar. From there, we see the relentless, sun-bleached ocean. Crashing waves foreshadow how the men will soon be doomed refugees, a juxtaposition that drives two star-crossed lovers apart.

Or do they part? Atlantics dives into magical realism to suggest that unresolved historical trauma will have the last say. Mourning women left behind start to embody the men’s ghosts—and demand retribution. Eschewing realism, Atlantics offers a powerful, poignant parable.

The takeaway: By acting as a community, substantive social change can unfold.

Three Summers: Adversity Can Reveal Surprising Allies

We don’t always know who our allies are until push comes to shove, and those who show up may not be whom we expect.

This Brazilian-French film, directed by Sandra Kogut, offers a canny exploration of class struggle. The legendary Regina Casé plays Madá, the lead housekeeper at a wealthy resort in Rio de Janeiro. Over three summers, we see how her boss’s white-collar crimes affect but do not defeat Madá.

Based on the real-life Operation Car Wash investigation in Rio, Three Summers isn’t interested in rich criminals. They’re more sad sacks than masterminds. Instead, the film spends time with the staff, mostly women led by Madá. They are as pragmatic and resourceful as they are funny and kind, even when caught in the crossfire.

Madá transitions from identifying with her employers to supporting her coworkers and strikes up a friendship with her ex-boss’s elderly father, Lira. He’s abandoned—like the staff—and considered useless by his own self-absorbed family. Three Summers builds a plucky collective of who’s left behind, and how they survive this failed (last?) resort.

The takeaway: Allies take surprising forms. We need to stay connected to those who show up for the hard work, for these allies will prove far more valuable in the end.

That’s a wrap! If you attended TIFF, what films made you leave the theatre inspired and ready to act?

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Activism & Action Feminist Practices

Brewing Up A Revolution


Annabel Kalmar, Founder, Tea Rebellion,  Photo by PC Foo

Annabel Kalmar learned first-hand how hard it is for farmers to earn fair prices for their products. As a student of agriculture economics in the late 1990s, she harvested coffee in the fields of the Dominican Republic, interviewing farmers along the way. The experience sparked a passion for changemaking.

“I wanted to help farmers get access to a different way to market,” explains the German-born entrepreneur, who went on to work in microfinance with the World Bank, earn an MBA at the London School of Business, and work in the UK as a business strategist.

Recently, she pivoted to entrepreneurship as a means for changemaking. After moving to Toronto with her husband and three children in 2017, Kalmar launched Tea Rebellion. Her idea—two decades in the steeping—is to disrupt the way tea is traditionally marketed, traded, and consumed. By buying and selling single-source, direct-trade tea, her company creates economic opportunities for several female-led farms in developing countries, takes an active role in community building, and supports organic farming methods.

But Kalmar’s ambitions aren’t just altruistic. She grew up in Germany drinking loose-leaf black tea, but what she tasted of London tea culture failed to impress.

“I was always disappointed with what was in front of me,” says Kalmar, explaining that mass-produced teas are typically blended from multiple sources, then finely ground and packaged in bags. What ends up in the cup, she contends, is undrinkable without sugar and milk.

As a student of agriculture economics, Kalmar had seen how new trade models transformed chocolate, coffee, and wine. Educated consumers came to appreciate—and pay more for—flavours associated with particular regions, ensuring that growers of those premium products are fairly compensated.

“A lot of people learn about wine, but they know nothing about tea,” says Kalmar. “I wanted to bring that knowledge and appreciation of the origins to more tea drinkers.”

With Tea Rebellion, she intends to shake up the status quo. “I’m not just selling tea.”

Instead of participating in the commodity markets in tea-growing countries—many with roots in colonialism—Kalmar initially sought out fair-trade certified suppliers. Since her World Bank days, she knew the certification system could improve working conditions on farms by setting standards for fair pay and ethical treatment of producers. She reached out to Fair Trade Canada and began contacting farmers.

To her surprise, farmers were not saying, “Oh great, let’s do fair trade,” remembers Kalmar. “The farms I talked to said it’s too difficult. It creates additional costs. There is too much bureaucracy.”

Rather, the farmers—even some fair-trade certified producers—pointed to direct trade as a preferred alternative.

Both fair trade and direct trade have their places, according to Kalmar. They may create similar results in some cases, but they start with different goals.

Fair trade aims to improve the lives of farmers by setting ethical and environmental standards and creating transparency. Certification establishes minimum prices to ensure farmers are paid fairly. Incidentally, fair-trade standards may also improve the quality of the end product.

Tracey Mahr, tea lover and fellow traveler to Kanchanjangha, Dunbar Kumari, founding mother of the tea cooperative, and Annabel Kalmar, founder of Tea Rebellion /Photo by Nichsal Banskota


The goal of direct trade is to bring premium products to market. This model allows farmers to differentiate their products and charge prices that are typically higher than the minimums set in fair-trade systems. Higher prices will almost certainly improve the lives of farmers.

Kalmar dug into the research and discovered that many consumers are confused by a recent proliferation of certifications, which influenced her decision to change her strategy to direct trade.

Tea Rebellion now buys from six farms around the world: Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, Nepal, Kenya, and Malawi. That allows Tea Rebellion to work with smaller, socially minded farms—not just those that are scaled to afford a fair-trade certification process.

The direct relationship means there is no middleman; Kalmar can visit frequently to influence the end product and the social impact of the farm.

In Nepal, Kalmar helped raise CAD$10,000 to build a primary school for the children of workers living on the tea farm. The school will save some 30 children from walking several hours over rough terrain to attend school, which improves attendance and frees parents to work consistently.

In Malawi, Kalmar chose to buy from a farm that provides health care infrastructure for the community surrounding the farm. In Japan, where chemical farming methods have historically been the norm, Tea Rebellion works with a pioneer of organic farming.

In three of the six farms she buys from, Kalmar has formed close partnerships with women in leadership positions, strengthening their positions in what has been a male-dominated business. She didn’t initially set out to work with female-led farms, but she found that in developing countries where language or gender created barriers, she was able to form better relationships with farms where women led.

For example, in Taiwan, Kalmar works with Ai Fang, one of two daughters involved at Jhentea, a family-owned farming operation. Ai Fang has worked in the family business since the age of 18, learning the art and science of tea growing, processing, packaging, and brewing from her mother.

Kuei Fang and Annabel Kalmar, Yilan Country, Photo by Ai Fang

According to Jhentea’s website, the company was founded by a man in the early 19th century, but a marital split in the mid-20th century left a woman in charge. She was the first female tea master in the region, and ever since the farm has been passed down to female family members. Ai Fang’s daughter, Valencia, who is now learning about tea, represents the next generation.

In Shizuoka, Japan, the Kinezuka family operates NaturaliTea, a cooperative of farmers. Though the farm’s formal leaders are men, Kalmar formed a direct business relationship with one of male founder’s two daughters, including Tamiko Kinezuka, who manages the farm’s tea processing and is responsible for quality control. That relationship has been beneficial to her career.

“In Japan, the tea industry is still overwhelmingly controlled by older men at all levels, from the farms to the markets,” Kinzuka explains. “Some of this is changing as younger generations take over, but the shift is very slow. Working with someone like Annabel allows us to demonstrate the unique contributions that we can make, and prove our commitment to rejuvenating a stagnating industry.”

Kalmar loves to share the stories of growers she works with, shining a spotlight on tea producers through Tea Rebellion’s packaging, website, and social media. When tea drinkers know more about growers, growing methods, and the country of origin, they can learn to appreciate the difference between the chocolatey undertone of a black tea from the high mountains of Nepal, and the bright and floral flavour of a black tea grown in Taiwan. Says Kalmar, “I want to help people develop their palates.”

By telling the tale behind each tea, Tea Rebellion also shares power with farmers. They can then develop recognizable brands, creating a rationale for higher prices, which injects more money and investment into their communities.

Kalmar has a vision that would connect tea growers and tea drinkers, as well as put Tea Rebellion on the tips of tongues everywhere. She would like to rival a global brand like Twinings as the “go-to” for tea drinkers, and source tea in many more tea-growing countries.

For now, Kalmar is bootstrapping her business growth, investing her own funds, working from home, and depending on interns to lend a hand. Her website lists 24 types of tea (you can order direct) and she sells to some 25 retailers, most of them in Toronto. Prices are similar to other premium brands, though competing North American labels such as Tease and David’s Tea don’t promise single-sourced products.

Kalmar’s goals include hiring a team and marketing her brand at tea festivals and conferences around the world. That will require a significant investment, and she’s gearing up to present her idea to investors.

But the ultimate goal is to build prosperous tea farms. “If I can build a sustainable business with Tea Rebellion, I can support these farms for the next 10, 20, 30 years,” she says. “And that’s really what I want.”

LiisBeth is women-owned/led. We support womxn founders, advocate for diversity, inclusion and economic inclusion, plus encourage emerging writers. Was this article of value to you? Consider helping us publisher more! [direct-stripe value=”ds1554685140411″]



This article was sponsored by Startup Here Toronto.

Related Reading

Activism & Action Body, Mind & Pleasure

The Revolutionary

adrienne maree brown author of both Emergent Strategy and Pleasure Activism addresses social change makers at Lula Lounge in Toronto, ON on May 6th, 2019.


Detroit-based feminist philosopher, doula and social-change strategist Adrienne Maree Brown has written works described as “luminous” in its “imagining the future of climate change, making different worlds through direct action and social movement-building, and creating transformative change through visionary speculative fiction.”

Brown is just as luminous -and visionary-in real life.

Judging by the engagement and enthusiasm from the more than 2000 who attended her recent talk about her new book, Pleasure Activism, at Toronto’s Lula Lounge earlier in May, her work is more compelling than ever.

Pleasure Activism aims to “explode the dour myth that changing the world is just another form of work” when, according to Brown, that work can be a source of great personal healing and pleasure. Brown believes it’s important for those choosing to make a living via alternative world-making to take the time to heal from day to day grappling with darkness and systems of oppression that comes with the job.

Going against the grain is heavy lifting and recovery from that intense emotional labour is difficult.  Pleasure Activism is a form of slow-release medicine for those battered by the work.

After the program, LiisBeth had an opportunity to talk to Brown about how and why we need to move beyond reform to radical systems change;  the role of social change organizations, leaders, and individuals in that fight; and her views on implementing feminist ideas as an organizational leader.

You can read the interview below. But you can feel the interview by listening to the audio recording below.

Listening to the audio will take only 12 minutes out of your day and and we guarantee you will be blown away by Adrienne Maree Brown’s powerful and inspiring personality.

Alternatively, the transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length, is below.

LiisBeth:  You mentioned tonight that you believe our institutions and systems are beyond repair.  What else can we do if what we want is a fair and inclusive world?

adrienne maree:   Your asking me how, right? (Laughing). Revolution [versus reform] is something I’m really committed to, and I try to talk about it a lot. I try to get a lot of people to be thinking about it. I encourage them to be in relationship with the idea of revolution. To me, it’s fine to be involved in activities or reform as long as you understand that they are not the outcome.

A slightly improved system is not actually a liberation for most of us because the current systems are set up to [foster] such an extreme level of inequality that small changes won’t make a difference. I always talk to them [reformers] like, it’s great to be taking steps to have more equal rights. It’s great to be moving towards more equity, but if you have an entire society that is based in white supremacy, an entire society that is based in competition rather than cooperation, then it’s always going to be a marginal [part of the program] to be bringing all identities of all people in when making decisions about the world.

So, a lot of the work that I do is about revolution but, I also really believe in building the new in the shell of the old.

LiisBeth: If revolution is what we need, how can we invite more people in to the be a part of it?

adrienne maree:  I tell people, everyone can be a revolutionary. Wherever you’re sitting right now is a potential revolutionary space. Where you are right now is the revolutionary front line. If you’re a banker [or entrepreneur] what can you do to change the system? What can you do to make it more fair? What can you do to create more access no matter where you sit?

Actually, the greatest changes in the world have happened because people who thought of themselves as ordinary people were willing to develop and [put into motion] subversive strategies within whatever systems they were in.

I also think it’s important to invite people to think about why they exist because all of us are in a lineage of survivors. Everyone can trace their personal lineage back to people who were revolutionary and come to realize that they exist today because of their work. Even if you think you’re too scared to be a revolutionary in this lifetime, your ancestors somewhere along the line were revolutionaries. Somewhere along that life your job is to pick that up and bring it to present.

LiisBeth:  Let’s talk more about fear and the role that fear plays in preventing people from doing what’s needed or right for the world we live in right now.

adrienne maree:  Audrey Lorde is a writer I recommend to everyone [who is thinking about this]. She talks about the fact that we’re going to be afraid no matter what. Why not be scared and try to intervene? We need to actually learn, that being scared is a social control mechanism. As long as you’re scared of creating a change, as long as you’re scared of disrupting the status quo, nothing will change.

Left to Right: Co-presenter Chanelle Gallant (activist, writer and educator with a focus on sex and justice), adrienne maree brown and on-stage interviewer, Yami Msosa, a grassroots feminist organizer, frontline worker, consultant, and educator.  

LiisBeth:  You served for a while as the Executive Director of The Ruckus Society a small but long-established non-profit focused on supporting activism.  What was that like for you? Was it an easy job?

adrienne maree:  I went into it with a lot of ego. I looked at how everyone else is doing the executive director role, and decided I was going to totally do it differently. I was going to make sure we were super fair, flat structures, all the things. And then I got into the job and I was like, oh, actually, the system of philanthropy actually constructs how things work—not the person leading it. The current system of [funding] makes it almost impossible to have integrity and be a boss. You’re constantly being asked to jump through hoops for what big philanthropy says are the goals of what the work you’re doing should be, rather than trying to make sure the work is actually serving your community.

So as an ED, you get hired because you have all these visions, values and ideas, but then quickly realize, especially in a small non-profit, that you are continually in a desperate financial situation, and, rightly, also need to prioritize the welfare of the six people whose healthcare and income relies on the organization’s financial sustainability, which translates into me getting the resources in.

So, I think being a non-profit ED is an impossible job. When I am coaching others doing that job, I remind them that they have been asked to do an impossible thing. The board expects them to be great at budgets, managing people and fundraising, plus have and be able to implement a great, new vision.

Most people are good at one or two of those things, maximum. So, I think it’s an impossible job. I think we should stop having it as a singular job. In most institutions the strength would come from having two to three people sharing the role.

Lisbeth: When it comes to feminist leadership, what have you found works? And doesn’t work?

adrienne maree: I think it really, really works to have spaces informed by feminism. However, if those ideas are not embraced at the board level, it doesn’t work.

Your board should also reflect the community that you’re trying to serve. If the board is only the rich people and then the community seen as down there, there’s going to be an impossible tension that the organization is trying to hold and manage between what far away funders and the community want. So, a board should be in a space where there’s a balance.

I also think that a lot of times people assume that if a woman is in charge, it signals that it is a feminist institution. I think we have to really challenge that.

It’s not enough to just have literally a woman there. I think that we have to think about what are the aspects of feminism that person is trying to bring in. To me, that means thinking about how the person approaches the Collaborative [ecosystem around you] and the Care. Think about not just being collaborative, but how are we being collaborative with each other. We need to ask how is this person or organization working with others to share limited resources versus how men get trained to be alpha males competing over those same resources.

adrienne maree:  We also must ask how does this leader care for the entire structure? How is this person developing the deep connections needed to withstand the pressures of oppression? How do you deal with all the “no’s” in the system?  Everyone in a feminist organization should be cared for. They need to feel like a valuable member versus working in a type of ‘Top is cared for, but the bottom can be fired anytime’ type of hierarchy.

I think another practice that’s really important is to look at how maternity, paternity and parental leave happens. To me, a feminist institution is a place that says to both parents “if you have a baby, you got a lot of time to go take care of that kid, you don’t have to worry about it, and you get to come back [to work].” In my view, whoever made this baby has to go take care of this baby.

Lisbeth:  Tell us about your new institute?

adrienne maree: I recently founded something called the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute. A few years ago, I put out this book called Emergent Strategy, which is about how do we learn from natural operating systems to do our organizing [and planning] in right relationship with the planet. The institute is basically offering intensive training, facilitation, coaching and mediation to help people who are interested in taking that path, do it as well as they can.

Last year, we held several “immersion” workshops where people would come and play with adaptation, play with fractals, and play with how to create more possibilities. So, this year we’re doing seven that are spread out across the U.S. We are also conducting facilitation training in Detroit. I brought on a team of about 20 people who are all incredible facilitators, coaches and other things who I know are all practicing it, so that I know it doesn’t get bottle-necked with me.

LiisBeth: Amazing. Well, hopefully you’ll be doing services in Canada.

adrienne maree:  Oh yes, oh yes. I’ve got Canadians on my team. I’m ready to come to Canada.

LiisBeth:  So, thank you so much

adrienne maree:  Thank you. I appreciate you (Hugs)

LiisBeth:  I appreciate you, too. (Hugs back)


Feminist Practices Our Voices

Fearless Fashion Connects Community and Culture


Lorna Mutegyeki, 32-year-old founder of Msichana

In an industry notorious for unfair wages, waste, and horrible working conditions, 32-year-old Edmonton-based fashion designer and business owner, Lorna Mutegyeki stands out. Born in Uganda, she emigrated to Canada at the age of 18. In 2017 Mutegyeki launched Msichana, a sustainable luxury fashion label that is committed to advancing employment opportunities for women in Africa. The social enterprise employs and empowers women through every step of the production and sales process. Msichana ensures that textile makers are paid fairly, have great working conditions, and that each garment is unique and handmade using the highest quality fabrics on the continent.

Msichana cigarette pant, 2019 collection–you can find more images on Instagram.

“Each piece is a handmade, one-of-a-kind work of art with much love and attention put into it,” says Mutegyeki.

The creations are designed in Canada and proudly produced in Africa by weavers, dyers, and embroiderers. The company’s supply chain is completely transparent and ethically made for women, by women. Materials are meticulously sourced. That includes tracing the cotton all the way down to where the seed was grown. Ethical fashion is hard work.

From belts to dresses, jackets to jumpsuits, prices range from $80 to $600+. The enterprise appeals to a largely affluent segment of the North American women’s fashion market comprised of those supportive of environmental and social justice centred, artisanal scale enterprises. Benefits? Zero mass production. Zero waste. Assurance of thrive-level wages plus a progressive company culture for women in Uganda. Leveraging your economic power to advance women and gender equity. 

Msichana is also breaking stereotypes by providing new opportunities in traditionally male sectors for women in Africa. Mutegyeki told us that in Ethiopia, most weaving work is traditionally done my men. Her goal is also to unshackle women and show the impact that financial independence can have on their lives, families, and community.  Winnie Nabukera, one of Msichana’s artisans explains her point of view in a short interview supplied via iPhone video by Msichana, “African women sole-preneurs are not well supported in a male dominated society”. Nabukera adds that Msichana has created new income opportunities that also helps address the gender pay gap, plus provides an opportunity to upgrade skills, which in turn, helps her connect with other new clients of her own.

LiisBeth introduced Msichana in our February newsletter, and then spoke with Mutegyeki on the phone last week to ask more about her personal journey as an entrepreneur.

LiisBeth: What does Msichana mean?

Mutegyeki: It’s actually the Swahili word for young woman. Swahili is a combination of many languages, a coming together, an intersection. I thought it would be a great way to express the values of the brand.

Liisbeth: You invested in an expensive MBA degree, and successfully leveraged this to get a well-paying job in the finance industry. Why take a risk at becoming a fashion entrepreneur–a brutal industry for start ups– after just a few years?

Mutegyeki: I gave up my golden handcuff job because it was, for me, unfulfilling, and I felt I needed to get out before the handcuffs became tighter. I also wanted to have an impact in the world. I grew up in a strong feminist household. My mother was bold, strong, and not afraid to get emotional and assert herself. I noticed once how a respected local female politician, [the Honourable] Miria Matembe, was treated when she spoke out about rape, domestic violence, the need for Ugandan women to have an education, and equality. Because of her views, she was called unladylike. People said she was losing it. And didn’t take her seriously. I noticed how women as a gender were oppressed in my own country and have to say, was surprised to find out that a first world country like Canada still grapples with similar issues—just like Uganda back home. I understand the current conversation about rage. I myself feel rage, carry intergenerational rage, when I see how women are still treated and made to feel like they are never enough. I wanted to help create a world where the feminine, women’s bodies and women are truly valued for what they authentically bring to the table. A world where the ability to be soft is a sign of courage and inner strength.

LiisBeth: How did you fund your startup?

Mutegyeki: I thought I could save up and then jump in. So I’d been saving for [starting my business] for a long time. Five years. Just waiting until I had enough. I just eventually realized I was just never going to have enough money to do it. The up-front costs for what I wanted to do were far beyond what I could save within a few years. I not only had to buy equipment, I also knew I would have to make a big investment in training our women suppliers before we would have a product. I knew it would be a long time before we were ready to have anything to sell.

So saving enough was a no go. As an alternative, I thought I could start the business by working after hours, nights, weekends. That way, I could continue funding my startup through my earnings. But I failed. I completely failed. My job was too demanding and after one year of trying, I learned I could not do both. I had to commit to one or the other.

So finally, I quit. And jumped in. While it is tough not having that income, I don’t think I could have made the progress I made in a relatively short time if I had tried to do my full-time job at the same time.

LiisBeth: The Federal Government of Canada has recently made an historic investment in the advance of women entrepreneurs in this Country. Is it helping you?

Mutegyeki: I have been following the announcements and it is very interesting and exciting. And government here does a lot to help entrepreneurs. But I feel that most of the funding is tailored to help established enterprises. The funding is also project-based. So that means to qualify, you to have start a new project. For example, launch a new product line or service that augments your established business. But what if your entire business is a new project? As a startup, the last thing you need is to finance a new project when what you really need are the resources to grow the project you already started. What early stage ventures need is operational funds. Money for more people to scale what they are already doing—not just money for things the existing business is not ready to handle.

LiisBeth: Have you ever asked yourself the hard question—should I keep going or just quit?

Mutegyeki: That’s a hard question to answer. To be open, when I’ve had crushers, I do ask myself that question. And I’m always assessing all my options. The quit option has been on the list at least twice. Especially when I feel lost sometimes, because, if something’s too close to your heart sometimes you can’t see very clearly. But then, just in time, my mentors, my husband, and even clients many who act like mentors, reach in, pull me back to the centre, and ask me point blank the hands on hip “is that absolutely necessary?” kind of question? The biggest thing mentors do for me is ask the tough questions I work hard to avoid by being too busy to think about them. Their support and helpful ideas keep me going and fire me up to tackle the issue—rather than run from it.

LiisBeth: What’s next for Msichana?

Mutegyeki: Right now, I am doing a slight pivot by introducing accessories which are a lower price point than our garments. I also know I need to invest more in marketing. And that I can’t keep “D-Y-I-ing” everything. It’s starting to show. I need to hire someone. But am not at a level of cash flow where it is possible to do so. And I am nervous about raising outside capital. I don’t want to compromise my triple bottom line values. I would consider a loan—but I already have sleepless nights. A loan is just another thing to stay awake at night about. Ideally, I would find a strategic partner who is interested in achieving the same things.

LiisBeth: What is your word for the year?

Mutegyeki: Authenticity.

LiisBeth: What are you reading these days to keep you on track?

Mutegyeki: Anything by Eckhart Tolle, and Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

LiisBeth: Lorna, you are fierce and very brave! It’s been a pleasure.

Mutegyeki: Thank you.

Find out how Msichana fashions are made!

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