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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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Feminist Practices

When Great Granny Inspires Great Work

Gurbeen Bhasin, Founder of Aangen, at work. Aangen celebrated it’s 20th anniversary, March 2020. Photo by Zlatco Cetinic

Gurbeen Bhasin grew up hearing stories of her great grandmother’s aangen (Sanskrit for courtyard) in Bombay, India. Traditionally, mothers and grandmothers gathered in this section of an Indian household to pickle foods, organize religious get-togethers and weddings, enjoy tea, and gossip with neighbours. The aangen became the site of a Wednesday morning tradition: She welcomed neighbours—irrespective of caste, class, or religion—which developed into a sisterhood community sharing joys and sorrows and helping each other solve domestic issues.

Bhasin’s grandmother continued the tradition when the family moved to Iran, as did her mother when the family fled to Canada after the Iranian revolution in 1979 when Bhasin was just eight. Gatherings in the family’s Toronto condo became help sessions for immigrant women in need. That planted the seed for what would become Bhasin’s Aangen, a unique non-profit social enterprise that employs 44 staff and at-risk people in four income-stream businesses. It also runs a community kitchen that prepares meals for several homeless shelters and helps impoverished kids attend school in Nigeria.

It’s an aangen on a grand scale, infused with “the soul of my great grandmother,” as Bhasin puts it, and a balm to her own childhood experience of losing nearly everything and being torn from her home, family, friends, and sense of belonging in her birth country of Iran.

Bhasin, who turned 50 this year, recently held an anniversary bash to celebrate opening Aangen’s doors 20 years ago, which is headquartered in a three-storey detached house on Dovercourt Road in the west end of downtown Toronto. She and her partner live on the second storey of the house with their son, who begins training to be a chef at George Brown College this fall.

From the start, Bhasin’s mission was clear: to be a non-profit that supported community needs but would do so through social enterprises rather than relying on grants.

Her “aha” moment came when she was interning in the University of Michigan’s Department of Social Services after completing a master’s in social work there. As a student, Gurbeen volunteered serving meals to the homeless, which re-ignited her passion to help others in need. While reviewing grant applications, she would often find herself calling applicants to advise them about including certain buzzwords that might help them win funding. Why did viable community projects have to beg and bend to political protocols in order to do good work? To Bhasin, that defied logic. “Social work is meant to serve the community. It’s not about writing grants, which is like wasted energy in creating systems of dependency that are not going to last,” she says.

Left to Right: Gurbeen Bhasin.  Names two colleagues pictured are being witheld to ensure their protection and ongoing healing. Photo by Zlatco Cetinic

By contrast, Aangen generates a sustainable, ongoing income stream by running an eclectic mix of businesses. One, started by Bhasin’s mother in the early 2000s, sells tea to health professionals and retail outlets. Another buys butter, eggs, honey, and maple syrup from Ontario farmers within 100 kilometres and resells them to two dozen cafes and local restaurants. Aangen also offers wellness and communications workshops for a fee, and the revenues in turn funds Aangen’s community service work. Its Chance for Change program is a residential and commercial cleaning service that employs refugees and people struggling with mental illness, homelessness, and addiction. When a staffing firm asked her to handle their payroll, Bhasin added that service to the mix.

“I call us the land for misfit toys,” jokes Bhasin. “That’s what we are, starting with me. I do not fit in anything else. Everyone came to us for a reason and we all kind of don’t fit in a bank or a retail store. We’re like dropouts.”

Revenue generated from each business pays Aangen’s administration, overhead, and staffing costs. Any donations made to Aangen go directly to supporting its end users, for example, by paying rent, utility bills or groceries for recipients in its Families in Need program.

Like so many of Aangen’s endeavours, that kitchen came about in response to a cry for help. During an extreme cold spell in the winter of 2018, a downtown social services agency contacted Bhasin with a desperate request. “They had 300 homeless people and they needed food. The moment I heard people were hungry, I sprang into action,” says Bhasin. She immediately reached out to Toronto Deputy Mayor Ana Bailão, one of the many ardent supporters of Aangen’s work. Bailão offered up space once used to cook food by Parkdale Public Health, which had been shuttered by Premier Doug Ford’s budget cuts. Since then, Aangen has been running a commercial kitchen from the rent-free space, where it prepares meals for Toronto’s homeless.  In the two-yer period from January 2018 to December 2020, it served half a million meals.

With so many different ventures, Bhasin realized she needed her own aangen of problem solvers and supporters, so she put together a unique governance model by operating two types of boards: a board of directors with authority to oversee the non-profit community kitchen (which includes the power to remove the executive director), and an advisory board for the income-stream social enterprise.

Each member on the social enterprise advisory board, which now consists of eight members chosen by Bhasin and her executive team, brings experience, knowledge, and contacts from a broad spectrum of networks within the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and internationally. They share Bhasin’s passion for food security and community welfare while adding specialized expertise. “I have actively sought skills that I don’t have. I don’t have a business background. I don’t have a legal background. I don’t have a financial background. But I know more about social work and social enterprise than any one of them. It’s really a supportive role that the board plays rather than a punitive one,” she says.

Aangen’s integrated board meets periodically in person and online to discuss ongoing and upcoming projects, which can be diverse. “Because we do not depend on grant funding, we have the flexibility to evolve in a way that’s not typical to the [non-profit] sector,” says Bhasin.

Dr. Sairupa Krishnamurti, a naturopathic doctor, joined the board in 2015. She had been facilitating wellness workshops at Aangen since 2010. “With our separate professional networks, we are able to bring in more fundraising ideas,” says Krishnamurti. “If a board member were to leave, they are not replaced immediately. The system works more fluidly based on what Aangen’s needs are at that point.”

For instance, Bhasin wanted to strengthen her leadership skills so she invited Jennifer Love, CEO of One More Woman, a company that helps leaders grow and manage money better. Says Bhasin, “Having Jennifer on board was like getting an MBA in the work we’re doing.”

Aangen in Action

Despite all her business ventures, Bhasin is still very hands-on. When I caught up to her one Friday night, she was loading groceries into the trunk of her red sports car to deliver to a woman who had called the previous night for help; her four children were hungry, their pantry was empty. “This is why I love what I do,” says Bhasin, a diminutive figure, barely more than five feet tall, with a magnetic personality. After she loaded in cans of chickpeas and other non-perishable food items, we jumped in the car and stopped by the community kitchen to pick up more supplies for the desperate mother—a couple of bags of apples, red peppers, baby potatoes, and packets of green beans.

At the kitchen, Webb said that one of her farm vendors had bought the produce—just a few days old—at the Ontario Food Terminal for $15, then donated them to Aangen. “All these fruits and vegetables would have been thrown away, but they’re still good to eat,” says Webb. On that evening, Webb was prepping more of the donated produce—potatoes and onions—to cook meals for 100 people at a homeless shelter.

Having such flexibility and efficiency differentiates a non-profit social enterprise from a more traditional non-profit or charity, Bhasin points out. “Let’s say a donor gives us $100 and tells us that they want us to get groceries for people who can’t afford it. Because Aangen’s making money through its business side to cover administrative, overhead, and bookkeeping costs, we don’t need to skim off the top of that $100. The $100 goes into a separate bank account, a donation fund. And then, if a single mom calls to tell me she’s struggling to provide food for her kids, I can take the $100 to get her what she needs. That $100 is going directly to the end-user.”

With that explanation, Bhasin flies out the door to deliver the care package to the mother of four. While she is thrilled to help, she’s irked that such help is still needed. “It’s 2020 for God’s sake and we’re still talking about hunger,” she says, steering through rush-hour traffic. “This capitalist society is long overdue for failure. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.”

And so the calls still pour in, and Bhasin gathers her Aangen to find solutions. Recently, she joined forces with Spiritan Self Awareness Initiative (SSAI) in Joy Village, a Catholic non-governmental organization (NGO) in Nigeria that provides menstrual pads to impoverished girls so that they can continue to attend school. Bhasin also helped Father Charles, founder of the SSAI, purchase farmland to grow food to feed the children, when he noticed that many of the children were coming to school hungry. Surplus produce from the farm also generates funds that sustain the charity’s work.

With her social enterprise achieving such impact, Bhasin figured there must be more to draw inspiration from, but that has not been the case. “I’ve looked globally, not just locally, and I’ve found it very hard to find one with a significant social impact,” she says.

Finally, we arrive at the mother’s apartment, just in time for supper. The mother is deeply relieved she can now feed her four children, all severely disabled.

Bhasin describes the work as akin to raising a child. “There are no breaks. There’s no downtime,” she says, adding, that she does it out of love “for my passion to help people who struggle to find belonging.”

In the time of Covid-19, LiisBeth is committed to sourcing stories that help us make sense of our new, emerging reality and stories about feminist changemakers who can help show us the way. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting our work. [direct-stripe value=”ds1562331144158″]

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