Categories
Allied Arts & Media

Writers for the Real World

Kulbinder Saran Caldwell, founder and CEO, REALLIFE Pictures. Photo provided.

Not satisfied with the lackluster effort the TV and film industry employs when it comes to including people of colour in writers’ rooms, Toronto-based Kulbinder Saran Caldwell took matters into her own hands. She founded REALLIFE Pictures INC, a literary agency run by agents of colour to represent film writers of colour. The company also runs a film and television production house alongside the “boutique literary agency” that gives “diverse, neurodiverse and LGBTQ screenplay and television writers a voice in the entertainment industry.”

Saran Caldwell said she recognized a “hole in the market.” Producers were telling her they wanted to hire diverse writers, but “didn’t know how to find them.” Or, at least, that was the “excuse” they gave to explain their all-white writers’ rooms.

Initially, she spoke to agencies about carving “out this niche for you under your umbrella.” But, she said, “Across the board, they pretty much said, ‘no, thanks, we’re fine just the way that we are.’ One of them actually said, ‘Diversity is a bubble.’ So, I decided then – okay, fine, if that’s the prevalent kind of thinking (in the industry), I’m just going to do it on my own and I’m going to have to find a way to do it within (my) production company.”

Saran Caldwell said the disinterested response was, in part, due to people “being comfortable in their own lane and not wanting to address some things that may not necessarily be fair, equitable, or inclusive” in their field, but they’re happy—and successful—“doing business as usual.” Not only do people not want to “rock the boat,” doing so may feel destabilizing for their white clients, some of whom feel that diversity initiatives cost them work.

“You have to realize, to a large degree, these agents have been representing white showrunners and white writers for a very long time,” Saran Caldwell said. “When you are all of a sudden advocating on behalf of another group of clients…that becomes a difficult position to be in when they’ve been your client for a long time, right?”

REALLIFE PICTURES table read session. Photo provided.

White Washing: The Stats

Currently, writers’ rooms in Hollywood and Canada are overwhelmingly dominated by white men. In 2017, a study of Hollywood writers rooms found that only 13.7 percent were people of colour – out of 234 series surveyed. An overwhelming 91 percent of show runners were white, and that shows headed by white show runners had no black people in their writers’ rooms 69.1 per cent of the time. By contrast, 100 per cent of shows headed by black showrunners hired white writers. Many of the major production and streaming services—including Netflix, Amazon and Showtime—had either none or just one person of colour in their writers’ rooms for 90 to 100 percent of their shows. The report also found that when people of colour are included in white-dominated writers’ rooms, they often “tokenized.”

Saran Caldwell said that hiring people of colour doesn’t mean pigeon-holing the writer to work only within their specific racial or cultural background; what it really achieves is expanding the repertoire of writers’ rooms by adding in experiences, styles and talents it would not have otherwise. There’s an appetite for stories that are aimed outside the white experience, Saran Caldwell noted, evidenced by the huge success of Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and Kim’s Convenience (its recent abrupt cancellation tremendously disappointed viewers and producers.)

Saran Caldwell saw that appetite first hand when she ran a coaching program for BIPOC students from Ryerson University in 2019. She co-produced a couple of feature films and a web series, all with women of colour filmmakers. When she  realized there was a gap in the industry when it came to connecting BIPOC talent and filmmakers, she started building her agency with a roster of talent, spending a year “reading material, making contacts, figuring out how to present myself, as a brand… because we were new.”

Agent and COO Charanpreet Chall joined REALLIFE in 2020 and is “more hands on with the development,” according to Saran Caldwell. “We chat every morning about our day’s deliverables and divide work and conquer.”

Small-Town Start, Big-City Heart

Although she has called Toronto home for the past two decades, Saran Caldwell, who is Indo-Canadian, is originally from Terrace, a small town in British Columbia between Kitwanga and Prince Rupert. Her father immigrated from India to Kelowna, then moved north to Terrace to work in the sawmills because the wages were better. Saran Caldwell’s mother and four siblings soon came to Canada to join him in Terrace.

Saran Caldwell attended the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver for the first year of her post-secondary education then enrolled at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) to study marketing. She was the first of a family of six to go to university, saying it “wasn’t easy to get permission to go since no one else had gone before me.”

While living in Vancouver, she started REALLIFE as a music video company then shelved the project in her late 20s when she took a job as a news writer for CP24 and moved to Toronto. The position was only supposed to be for the summer, but Saran Caldwell “fell in love” with Toronto and stayed. She resurrected REALLIFE when she was “bitten by the production bug” following work on a pair of short documentary films with South Asian women directors. “I was trying to find out — how can I utilize all of these skills, and my passion to support new and up and coming filmmakers, female filmmakers, and in particular, women of color?”

In 2020, Saran Caldwell went to the Canadian Media Producer Associations (CMPA) Prime Time event in Ottawa; her goal was to build a “rolodex” of 30 people interested in her agency; she came back with 40. Production companies were excited about the agency and to work with her; they wanted to add “diverse storytellers” with “lived experiences” to their writers’ rooms. “I started chatting with production companies… and broadcasters, and all of them loved the concept. They said, ‘This is brilliant, this is exactly what we need!’”

But Saran Caldwell realized that many writers on her roster need help to get “market ready.” Often they were non-union and, due to financial and time constraints, had never attended film school or had access to workshops. To make sure their writers would be ready when they went to pitch their ideas, REALLIFE Pictures started an inhouse professional development program, reading and providing notes on “every single script” that was sent to them.

That personal mentoring is critical, said Caldwell, because BIPOC are often left outside of industry-linked social groups – largely white, middle-to-upper-class people, who have families or friends in the industry or have gone to school together for years. “(Many of my clients) have been overlooked for a very long time, and many of these individuals don’t know how the business side of the business works – how to negotiate, how to ask for what they want (in terms of) working conditions.

Saran Caldwell said she is building an inherently feminist company with a mandate and goals in line with the values of “collective feminism” — “a fair playing field, for everyone.”

At present, the agency represents about 20 writers, with “five more on deck waiting for us to read their scripts,” said Saran Caldwell. Although it’s still early in the process for original projects, Epic Story (Luna, Chip and Inkie), Wildbrain (The Snoopy Show), Frantic Films (Baroness Von Sketch) and KGP (Narcoleap) have all either hired or signed shopping agreements with writers represented by REALLIFE Pictures.

The company is working on expanding into the U.S. and international markets but, Caldwell said, what’s important at a baseline level is the success and happiness of the people they represent.

“What long-term success looks like for me is a very satisfied roster of writers and directors that we’ve worked with for years, and they’re happy–and the industry is happy–with where they have ended up in their career,” says Caldwell.

“I want to know that we have made significant change in the industry, that it’s not putting these individuals in little boxes and then just ticking them off for the sake of funding, or diversity or access, or whatever it happens to be, that (these relationships) are authentic and … have really resulted in positive change.”


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

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Categories
Feminist Practices

Feminist Enterprise Commons Launches! Looking for Members and Feminists in Residence

LiisBeth team launches a new feminist learning space. From bottom left: Margaret Webb, Champagne Thompson, Lana Pesch, PK Mutch, Geraldine Cahill, Francesca D’Ambrosio, Abigail Slater, Valerie Fox, and Anita Li. Missing but with us in spirit, Jack Jackson.

The $1 billion+ fragmented feminist economy comprised of feminist enterprises operating in all sectors to advance equity and equality for women, girls, trans, and queer folk is about to come together.

On January 5, LiisBeth Media, Canada’s only feminist business media enterprise with 2,500 subscribers and more than 19,000 online readers, is launching a new service, the Feminist Enterprise Commons (FEC), an online community built with Mighty Networks technology. It will enable the currently far-flung and splintered feminist enterprise community to come together in a safe, supportive, authentic, radical, change-led, and feminist-values-led space.

As part of the community, members will be able to connect, share valuable insights, ask important questions without outside surveillance, contribute tools, find relevant and new feminist research, and glean new insights to advance their own feminist practice, enterprise, and drive for systems change. They also have the opportunity to work collectively to further strengthen the feminist economy by resourcing, and sourcing from each other.

LiisBeth founder, PK Mutch, says, “We decided to build a new online community because we are increasingly unhappy with policies, bias, and breaches of trust by social network companies like Facebook and Google. Recently, Facebook randomly prevented LiisBeth from posting because they said our group site was too political. Apparently you can’t boost or promote a post about feminism’s point of view on current events without giving them your personal SIN number or driver’s licence. We challenged them on it, and the restriction was lifted—briefly. Still, that was the last straw for me. Once our new network gets going, we will be essentially using our LiisBeth Facebook channel to redirect people to a safer, online space.”

Mutch also adds, “We also aim to keep the community small and engaged. We are not aiming for thousands of phantom users.”

What is a feminist enterprise?

Feminist enterprises are typically founded by visionary feminist entrepreneurs, innovators, creators, investors, researchers, and social justice activists who leverage their entrepreneurial, leadership, innovation capacity, and creative skills expressly to not only create enterprises or projects that advance gender, economic, social, political, and environmental justice, but also to experiment with new ideas that can help us begin to conceive an alternative world beyond neo-liberal capitalism and patriarchy where all people and the planet can flourish.

At present there are no other feminist economy or enterprise-oriented networks in existence. Although, there are an increasing number of feminist business coaches popping up in the US.

PK Mutch explains, “Entrepreneurship is a tough path for all who pursue it to surviving or thriving economically in an increasingly unequal, precarious economy. Heavily promoted corporate responsibility efforts to address broken systems give the illusion that we are making sustainable progress, but the truth is lasting change won’t happen without the engagement of the rest of the economy—entrepreneurs and small enterprise leaders—in a conversation about what an economy beyond modern capitalism and patriarchy might look like.

Feminist entrepreneurs have all that to contend with plus the fact their ideas are marginalized because they challenge deeply held beliefs, and because, often, they move at the speed of humanity—versus the speed of technology.

Mutch adds “The feminist economy has been around for over 100 years (think bookstores and women-led credit unions in the 1970s), yet its work and leaders are systemically and frustratingly overlooked or appropriated without attribution. Most enterprises are grassroots in scale and strapped for time and resources, so finding each other and connecting has been difficult. We saw an opportunity to change that. Ultimately, we believe a stronger, more visible and better supported feminist economy leads to more well-supported experiments with alternative economic models and systems concepts. These tens of thousands of small but bright bonfires for real change will lead to the kind of radical social and economic changes we need to see if we are to ever leapfrog past our currently repressed ideas about the kind of world we have the power to make.”

Canada has a feminist government, feminist budget, and feminist foreign policy—and the Ministry for Women and Gender Equality (WAGE) in 2019 announced the historic $400 million Equality Fund, which combines international feminist grant-making with an innovative investment arm, delivering new momentum for women’s movements and supporting the advancement of gender equality globally. It makes sense that Canada should also be home to the world’s first visionary feminist enterprise community.

Mutch and her team envision that the FEC is intended to become a global community over time.

The Feminist Enterprise Commons

Built on the Mighty Network platform (founded and led by Gina Bianchini), FEC is a space where founders, project leaders, and aspirants can freely ask questions and, with the help of others, refine their ideas about how to flourish differently without fear. A core feature of the community will be the “Feminists in Residence” program. The program will bring in feminist thought leaders who are experts at specific topics and tools like “feminist marketing” or “feminist business model canvas” to share their expertise and will offer exclusive member-only workshops.

Investors, funders, and individuals or organizations with resources to share are also encouraged to sign up and support inspiring founders and transformative ideas that they believe in.

“So many corporations and impact investors are working to support gender equity these days but end up creating their own initiatives to do so instead of finding and investing in feminist enterprises or organizations that are already out there doing this work. The Feminist Enterprise Commons would create an opportunity for them to go to one place to find existing, experienced investees or partners instead of spending time reinventing the wheel,” says Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO.

Elize Shirdel, a feminist tech entrepreneur, says, “When one decides to create a feminist enterprise, it’s easy to feel alone out in the world. Feminist enterprise communities are cross sectoral, grassroots in scale, fragmented, and widely dispersed. Access to aligned startup and growth funding for promising but radical ideas is extraordinarily difficult. This keeps our voices small and weakens our ability to thrive while doing countervailing work.”

Valerie Fox, founder of the Pivotal Point and a LiisBeth advisory board member, says, “I believe in the power of well-connected innovation ecosystems to change the world. So I am excited about this idea. We need feminist enterprises to lead the way if what we want is the ability to imagine what else is possible socially, politically, and economically. It’s especially important to flow investment towards these sometimes ‘hard to love’ enterprises because they work hard to deeply challenge our assumptions about a system that, frankly, works well for some people, but not all.”

Nancy Wilson, founder of the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce, says, “The Feminist Enterprise Commons is a great idea. It seeks to connect unique types of enterprises and leaders with a feminist point of view. Not all women are feminists and not all feminists are women. If they are successful, they will not only be able to strengthen themselves, but also increase their ability to attract resources and influence policy.”

Mutch adds, “This is not a women’s empowerment or women’s booster network. It is an intersectional, queer and trans-inclusive, pro-reproductive rights, and social equity-oriented feminist space where existing systems are critiqued, dismantled, and new status-quo-busting novel concepts and ideas are worked out.”

The Commons is operated by LiisBeth Media, a division of Eve-volution Inc., a for-profit social enterprise and certified B Corporation. However, LiisBeth Media will be spun off into an independent cooperative by June 2020.

Commons host PK Mutch says, “It goes without saying that the leadership, ownership, governance structure, and community conduct agreements will be ultra transparent, developed participatively, accessible, responsive, caring, inclusive, in other words, feminist in every way. We are very clear that we are not going to build another ‘ghost town’ community network enterprise where frankly, the members in the end, are the product, versus the other way around.”

Mutch adds, “We won’t be perfect, but we will be human. We will work through any stumbling blocks along the way together.”


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Categories
Our Voices

How Can We Collectively Build a Better Future for All?

 

Kosisochukwu Nnebe

How do you create inclusive communities through innovation? That question brought together more than 500 leaders from across Canada’s social innovation landscape for the Econous 2019 conference in September. Guided by Indigenous advisors, organizers asked eight members of a Witness Panel to share their personal thoughts (not through the lens of the organizations they work for) on what they had taken away by participating in the event.

Kosisochukwu Nnebe, a Nigerian-Canadian policy analyst and visual artist, had this to say:


My name is Kosisochukwu, which means “as it pleases God” in Igbo. I start with this because every name comes with its own story, and it is my way of grounding what I say next in my positionality as a young Black woman born in Nigeria and raised in Gatineau, Que. It’s taken me many years to love my name and cherish what it says about me and my heritage. It is one element of my bundle—an Indigenous term, as I’ve learned, that refers to sacred items such as feathers and plants, as well as to the collective and personal knowledge that we hold, and the gifts that we come into this world with.

As witnesses [at Econous 2019], we were invited to think about leveraging our own unique bundles to assess and filter what we would be learning throughout the conference. As witnesses, our role was to use our own personal lived experiences as a lens through which to understand and then communicate our learning.

Thinking through the last couple days, two ideas have remained with me constantly: the importance and power of language, and the idea of practice as something that is not linear, but encapsulates past, present, and future. Both concepts are intricately linked and, when harnessed, can help us move towards a more inclusive vision of a social economy that collapses both time and space, in terms of bringing together generations of knowledge that is both rooted in local places but also connected to people and regions across oceans.

I’m quite new to the field of social innovation and social finance, and have often found the terminology heavy on my tongue, filling my mouth with words that seem foreign and abstract, until explained in more accessible terms and applied to more relevant contexts.

How many of you are familiar with the legend of the Tower of Babel? In it, humankind attempts to come together to build a tower to reach the heavens, but is unable to do so because what used to be one universal language becomes mutually incomprehensible dialects. In our context, it is not only language that has the potential to divide us, but also these silos that represent different sectors, different organizational types, and different forms of knowledge production (be it institutional knowledge production within universities or knowledge that is derived from being in community or on the land).

Fundamentally, however, we’re all working towards the same thing, all trying to erect the same tower that will help us generate wealth for all our communities in ways that are socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable. This gathering and the conversations that have taken place are a safeguard against a similar fate (of Babel), and a way of ensuring that we can all collectively contribute to building that tower. It is by coming together to share our journeys and the best practices and lessons learned that we can begin to see and understand the interconnected nature of the greater ecosystem that we are all working within. We all come to this work with our unique bundles—be it skill sets, perspectives, resources, responsibilities and capabilities—and we all contribute towards a common vision, even though we may describe it and name it in different ways.

As I heard yesterday, friendship centres and Indigenous folks have been doing the work of social innovation for years, decades, centuries, even before that since time immemorial—all under a different name. As I discussed with a friend during one of the breaks, within African Canadian communities, the practice of social finance can be traced back to the sou-sou savings clubs of West Africa. Women would pool their savings and come together on a regular basis to then distribute that money to a member of the collective to, for example, start a business. These practices are not new. They have been with us for generations, just under different names. When we speak of diversity and inclusion in our fields, we must remember why this is important. It is not only for the sake of representation—which, though important, often leads to tokenization—but because these communities have access to a wealth of knowledge and practices that have contributed to their resiliency throughout years of oppression, both material and psychological. They have something to offer, something that we can all learn from—if only we can put aside differences in language and really listen to each other. Coming into this space, I became so overwhelmed by language around social finance that I forgot that my own mother had benefitted from a sou-sou when facing difficult times. We need to create a space where these lived experiences are valued and brought to the table as models that can inspire.

As I’ve heard many times throughout the conference, innovation isn’t necessarily about doing something new, but rather about doing something differently. It does not always have to be future-oriented but must build upon the past to orient the present in order to guide the future. Time is not a linear thing, nor is practice. My source of inspiration now is my own mother and her mother and her mother’s mother. How can we value their voices in our work as well?

Beyond time, how can we borrow from fields that seem so separate from ours? Much of my mindset and worldview is influenced by concepts rooted in Black feminism, from intersectionality to standpoint theory (personal experience shapes one’s perspective and is multifaceted rather than essentializing). During the session on feminist economies, we were all reminded of the words of Audre Lorde—a brilliant Black feminist thinker—that the master’s tool will never dismantle the master’s house. In imagining the future that we want to move toward, are we rethinking our tools? Are we rethinking language and organizational structures that we don’t often question yet contribute to perpetuating the status quo? Are we looking outside of our own systems to systems of the past or systems from other regions or countries? In a feminist economies class, we did a simple exercise—completing a feminist business model canvas—and quickly discovered how a simple change of language in the way the canvas was designed could prompt questions and lead to analyses and solutions that are more inclusive, and rooted in care and the flourishing of all.

What we need to build that tower to the heavens in the legend of Babel is an ability to find common language. Language that allows us to see the similarities and potential synergies in the work that we are doing. Language that allows us to understand it as a practice that’s not constantly looking forward into the future, but harnessing the knowledge and the traditions of those who came before us, in order to create sustainable futures for those who come after us. What is required is language that is inclusive—of different traditions, of different geographies, of different methodologies, of those who are not in rooms like today where decisions around common language are made. We must ensure that the language we use does not become a tool to erase and alienate movements and people who are vital to the success of what we are trying to achieve, but rather increases the richness of the work we are doing. We must question the tools at hand and have the courage to reach out for new ones as well.


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Categories
Activism & Action Our Voices Systems Uncategorized

What We Are Talking About When We Talk About White Privilege: Themes From the White Privilege Conference in Toronto

An Alternative model of whiteness painted by Golnaz Golnaraghi

I am a first-generation immigrant woman from Iran, standing in a room comprised of mostly white folks. I had a paintbrush in my hands and found myself creating art that represented a model of whiteness, an alternative model.

I was participating in a workshop that was part of the White Privilege Conference – Global, held recently in Toronto. “Whiteness without White Supremacy,” was facilitated by Dr. Dori Tunstall, Dean of the Faculty of Design at OCAD University — the first black dean to hold such a post in North America.

What emerged in my art conveyed my vision of a model of whiteness with a strong and rooted core grounded in love, power sharing, co-creation, empathy, iterative-learning, equality, and belonging.

I hadn’t considered writing about the conference — until after, when I felt compelled to share my reflections. But first, a bit of background.

The conference was hosted by Ryerson University’s Office of Equity and Community Inclusion, headed by Vice President Dr. Denise O’Neil Green. It followed on the heels of the 2016 White Privilege Symposium hosted by Brock University. The WPC was founded in 1999 in the United States and brought to Canada by Dr. Eddie Moore Jr., a diversity, privilege and leadership consultant and educator who also founded The Privilege Institute.

At a Ryerson Soup and Substance Session held prior to the WPC, Dr. Moore explained that when he was a practitioner working towards a PhD and attending and presenting at conferences, he felt that diversity was the one topic that seemed stunted at a basic level, without a growth process. “We would never accept that if our kids stayed in math in the same course all the way through their high school.” So, he set out to make the WPC the Calculus course for diversity. The conference, utilizing what he calls an “inclusive relationship model,” offers a space for deep dialogue and solutions-based action around systems of supremacy, privilege, power, and leadership.

Walking into the theatre hall on my first day of the conference, I felt a palpable excitement in the room. There were more than 500 participants—one of the most diverse I’ve ever experienced—from a range of genders, races, religions, and sexual orientations and hailing from a broad mix of sectors, most notably education and non-profit.

The quality of the seven keynote speakers (four women and three men) was impressive—all accomplished thought leaders, educators, and activists from Canada and the United States. The conference also featured 65 workshops, a Youth Action Program for youth in grades 6-12, a marketplace of more than 20 vendors, and the 10th annual Viola Desmond Awards & Banquet Dinner, named for a Black business woman who challenged racial segregation in Canada but was only recently recognized, becoming the first woman on Canadian currency.

For me, to attend this conference with hundreds of people (many white) eager to learn, explore and talk about diversity at the deepest levels, with a spirit of curiosity and respect, was a moving experience. I was inspired by the keynote speakers who dedicated their lives to social justice, despite potential risks of becoming targets of backlash.

At the Soup and Substance Session, Dr. Moore explained that risk: “What I’ve learned doing this conference is if you’re really good at this work, people will put your life in danger.” He said that was a significant threat, as the father of two young children. But he vowed never to let fear hold him back from taking action.

That is no easy thing. In her book So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo cites retaliation as the number one concern for people of colour engaged in racial justice work. Activists face harassment on social media, protests at public events, and threatening emails, just to name a few threats. The WPC in Toronto was no exception as protesters held a public rally on the last day of the event, calling a conference on white privilege “racist.”

But as Oluo aptly reflects in her book, “Conversations about racism should never be about winning. This battle is too important to be simplified. You are in this to share, and to learn. You are in this to do better and be better.”

The purpose of the conference was not about blaming a group of people but, instead, acknowledging the systemic causes of oppression and inequalities—and their effects. Ultimately the goal was to move us towards meaningful conversations, solutions and change, in societies and ourselves.

The conference explored many rich concepts, far too many to cover in one article. What I seek to share are themes from the keynote speakers that stood out for me.

We must reject talking about white privilege in a disembodied way

We cannot talk about white privilege without speaking about white supremacy, so said Toronto-based social activist and freelance journalist Desmond Cole. He emphasized that white supremacy is a system of power that designates value to individuals based on the perception of skin colour and ethnic ancestry, creating a racial hierarchy with notions of whiteness at the top. And, that white supremacy gives rise to white privilege.

Ritu Bhasin, an advocate for authenticity, inclusion and empowerment, defined white supremacy as the “ideology that white people are better, more valuable, more deserving, more competent, more able than people of colour and indigenous peoples; how it shows up and how it manifests is by way of power and privilege.”

Cole called on us to reject conversations that speak about white privilege in a disembodied way, as if white privilege were not connected to the history of colonialism, slavery, capitalism—a white privilege “that just exists, ‘cause it exists, ‘cause it exists and is sad and unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is. Heck, can you even change it? Maybe it’s a force of nature!”

Cole pointed out the ways white supremacy plays out in the policing system. Cole, himself, was arrested at a police board meeting where he took the microphone to speak out about Dafonte Miller, a Black teen who was allegedly severely beaten by an off-duty Toronto police officer and his brother. As a prominent voice and critic of the Toronto Police, Cole was also part of a successful effort to remove police presence at Toronto public high schools.

We must recognize privilege and how it affects us, in different ways

In basic terms, privilege is a set of benefits, advantages or ‘perks’ afforded people who fit into a particular social group. We hear about male privilege. But what about straight privilege? Ability privilege? Class privilege? White privilege? It may be difficult to recognize our own privilege while we are enjoying the perks, but we must seek to understand them based on different aspects of our identity such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, physical ability, etc.

We can be privileged in some aspects of life while experiencing oppression in other areas. To underline this point, Sian Ferguson’s White Privilege 101: A Quick and Dirty Guide offers an example of white people who believe they don’t experience privilege because they are of modest means. Being poor can be an oppression but does not negate the benefit that comes with being white. Cole drew an analogy of a 100-meter sprint: “Some people are starting at 70 meters and some people are starting at zero. And some people are going to get arrested as soon as the shot gun goes off to start running, so that they have to be put back to the beginning.”

For those who may struggle with seeing their own white privilege, Dr. Adrien K. Wing, Associate Dean at University of Iowa and editor of Critical Race Feminism, suggests a read of Dr. Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh, a white woman, offers a personal account of taking a closer look at her own daily experiences with white privilege, which she once took for granted. These are some of her observations:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  • I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.

Wing reminded us of recent incidents that might extend the list—Going to Starbucks While Black and Dozing at Yale While Black. “Every single day another one of these episodes happen and for some of you it can be like ‘Wow that’s sad,’ but for those of us subjected to that potentially every day, this is no joke.”

We must look at Allyship as not a noun that we are, but an action we do

That powerful comment, from one of the conference MC’s, captured the essence of the conference for me.

Cole urged the audience to stop using the word “allyship” and, instead, to consider, “Are you my friend? Cause my friend would see me being harmed and would stand in front of me to protect me…I want you to be my friend and I want you to be, ideally, if we can get really close, my family.” What I took from Cole’s message? We must move beyond talk, beyond calling ourselves allies, towards taking action—with courage and heart.

Dr. Jane Fernandes, President of Guilford College, and the first deaf woman to lead an American college or university, has also been active in addressing critical race justice issues. Growing up as a deaf white woman, she experienced a structure of hierarchy in the deaf community that mirrors the hearing community, with whiteness also at the top. “If we share an oppression with people of colour, like deaf black people and deaf white people, we share deaf and then we’re fighting for deaf rights, and we can forget that we are white.” But by understanding what goes on in the intersections, we can begin to dismantle and transform the system. Doing so makes our advocacy more inclusive and effective.

“Our choice when we know about our white privilege and we understand all these things about how it was created,” she said, “is to use it in such a way as to dismantle our system (of oppression).” That starts with small acts. “If everyone here disrupts the system a little bit five times a day, every day, that’s massive.”

We must be self-empowered warriors to make change

Dr. Shirley Cheechoo, who achieved a double first—first female and first Aboriginal Chancellor at Brock University—is also an award-winning artist, actor and filmmaker. She shared a moving account of her eight years in the residential school system where she experienced harrowing emotional, physical and sexual abuse. She turned to drugs and alcohol to blunt the pain—until she decided to quit, cold turkey, and turn her life around. She recalled her grandfather’s advice: “Forgive but never forget about it. Shirley do not let anyone choose your path in life. You have to let go of the old self. Self is not something already made. It is through your choice of actions that you create your best self.”

Cheechoo chose not to forget her past, but to stop being a victim of it. “We cannot wait for the next generation to make a difference. We are responsible, and we have the opportunity to make change.”

Motivated by a deep passion to serve indigenous youth, by helping them live their potential, she founded De-ba-jeh-mu-jig Theatre Group (the only professional theatre company located on a reserve in Canada) and Weengushk Film Institute (a film and television training centre unlocking the creative potential of indigenous youth). “For years I have asked as a mother, as a woman in my community, how long, how many more years are we going to leave the children and the youth in the hands of unemployment? How many more people will have to fall into the trap that steals and butchers lives, dreams, and hopes of our next generation to come? We must learn to defeat the system and fix the problem now, and we must do it together. The Third World Country is right here, in our backyards.”

We must take the bridge on the path forward

Dr. John A. Powell, an internationally recognized author, speaker, and Director and Chancellor’s Chair at Hass Institute at UC Berkley, gave a rich talk on “Rethinking White Privilege in the Age of White Supremacy and Ethnic Nationality.”

Powell explained that when we talk about white privilege and ethnic nationalism, “We’re talking about a process of ‘othering,’ we’re talking about some people claiming that they belong, and those same people claiming that other people don’t belong.” He suggested that this process of ‘othering’ is a problem that has gained power into the 21st century and is happening all over the world.

Othering, Powell said, can be thought about as “the way we marginalize people, the way we distribute resources, the way we recognize consciously and unconsciously as well as structurally, people’s humanity. You can ‘other’ someone without necessarily having a conscious animus towards someone.” And that can be based on a variety of dimensions—gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion and on and on.

“The opposite of ‘othering’ is not ‘saming,’ it’s belonging,” he said. “When you think about integration, inclusion, you think about people coming into your space, but it’s still your space. You can ask them to leave.” But belonging, he pointed out, is saying “It’s not your house, it’s not my house, it’s our house. When people really belong, they co-create the thing they belong to.” According to Powell, this is done through a process of bridging, listening, engaging, organizing, and love.

Ethnic nationalism, he pointed out, has become more explicit because of migration patterns and increased diversity, specifically that of the ethnic ‘other.’ That reminded me of narratives reflected in the 2016 elections in the United States, the global refugee crisis, the US travel ban, the US migrant crisis, as just a few examples.

He offered two dominant stories in society available to us: “One is breaking, which is stories about the fear of the ‘other,’ in some way threatening or taking something away from who we are. And the other is a bridging story, which is that we are actually going to enlarge the ‘we’ and the ‘other’ will be a part of that new we.” Bridging takes us towards a path of human connection and belonging.

Powell also talked to the changing demographics in Canada, citing Joe Friesen’s Globe and Mail article that said, “By 2031, one in three Canadians will belong to a visible minority. One in four will be foreign-born, the highest proportion since the end of the last wave of mass immigrantion that began around 1910.” Powell asked the audience to consider what Canada’s story might be and who will tell that story? “And so, will we bridge? Or will we break?”

We must move forward

And so, I left the conference with my painting of what an alternative model of ‘whiteness’ might look, realizing that it’s a ‘we-ness’ we must strive for, rooted at the core, grounded in love, power sharing, co-creation, empathy, equality, belonging. And the call to me, to take the bridge forward through action, translating that painting into all the narratives that shape our lives: schools, teams, workplaces, boardrooms, business models, advisory groups, government. And on and on.


For more information about the White Privilege Conference in Toronto, click here. For more information about the 2019 White Privilege Conference in Iowa, click here.

Additional Resources:

To watch recordings of the keynote speakers at the Ryerson White Privilege Conference, click here.

Categories
Our Voices

On Diversity and Inclusion: Did Startupfest Fix Its Bro-mess?

In 2016, LiisBeth founder and publisher, PK Mutch, attended Startupfest in Montreal and wrote a critical piece about the rabid bro-preneurship on display and stunning lack of diversity in programming and speakers. (See Problem Bro-preneurship)

Festival organizers contacted Mutch a few months to discuss concerns her article raised – as well as the subsequent public reaction.

Two years later, I had the opportunity to attend Startupfest and discovered that the conference had improved by leaps and bounds on the diversity front.

As part of its inclusion initiative, Startupfest offered 1,000 discounted tickets for entrepreneurs from under-represented communities. This made it possible for me — and others like myself — to attend the much-hyped conference in Montreal, alongside 6,500 other attendees. According to Philippe Telio, founder and producer of Startupfest, about 600 Inclusion Initiative tickets were purchased. Which begs the question, why were the other 400 not snapped up?

There’s More to Gender Parity Than Numbers

As a way to support women in technology and entrepreneurship, Startupfest hosted its first ever women in technology bootcamp. While I did not attend the bootcamp myself, I spoke to a few attendees who did and they all had positive things to say.

This was also the first year that organizers achieved gender parity on the main Startupfest stage, though not on smaller stages including Scaleupfest, Cannabisfest and AI-fest.

But in an interview, Philippe said the festival would continue to strive for gender parity and had set strict targets to achieve gender parity in all aspects of the event.

I noticed plenty of women attending the conference and after parties, and I found the festival a great place to network with industry peers. But there is more to gender parity than numbers, leaving plenty of work yet to do as far as inclusion is concerned.

Inclusion Requires Communication

Take Exhibit A, the Scaleupfest stage. On my first day at the conference, I was eager to hear pitches so that’s where I headed. As the name suggests, entrepreneurs made pitches for why investors should put money into scaling up their startups. While many pitches were impressive, there was a noticeable lack of women presenting. According to Philippe, anyone applying to pitch in this event could do so. So why did so few women apply?

Perhaps women entrepreneurs attending did not have businesses that had reached scale-up stage. Perhaps they were intimidated facing a crowd of would-be investors.

It would appear that “no” is the proper answer to both assumptions. When the official program wrapped and the floor was opened to anyone in the audience who wanted a crack at pitching, a number of women came forward. Of those I spoke to, they said they were not aware of the opportunity to take part in the official part of the event.

Inclusion takes more than programming. It requires communication that targets under-represented groups and invites participation.

Onward and Forward for Startupfest 2019

As a young mother, I would have appreciated more thought given to the demands that placed on me as an attendee. For starters, I would have loved access to a nursing room – as I imagine many other women would too.

I am also a visible minority and appreciated seeing men of colour up on the stage. Still, I would love to see more women of colour represented, both in terms of hosting and sharing their expertise. In my experience, men of colour are used as a blanket group for all people of colour and that excludes a lot of people.

On the whole, I took away some great insights from experiences shared by folks at Startupfest, especially the more tactical talks. I am the Head of Marketing at GrowthGenius so I found the marketing chats most appealing, in particular the talk by Hana Abaza, where she highlighted how to scale marketing. I will definitely be back again next year for the talks and a chance to spend time with industry peers and friends alike.


Related Articles

https://www.liisbeth.com/2017/11/21/elevate-diversity-conferences-real/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2017/08/28/elevating-inclusion-diversity-toronto-tech-scene/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2018/05/10/five-feminist-event-practices-work/

 

Categories
Activism & Action Systems

Confronting Gender Inequity And Inclusion in The Innovation Space

Many people seem to believe that innovation capacity is any economy’s secret sauce. The more of it, the better. According to many experts, achieving top tier results in the innovation race is as simple as focusing on getting more business owners and entrepreneurs innovating. In other words, it’s a numbers game.

If this is truly the case, then surely solving Canada’s innovation under-performance is a cinch. Just offer relevant support for ambitious, talented women in the innovation space and the number of entrepreneurs and businesses innovating could increase by 30 per cent overnight. The economic impact would be seismic.

Yet the $200-million-per-year innovation strategy now being touted on the conference circuit by Minister Navdeep Bains, which highlights many ways to drive more innovation output, says nothing about gender parity, let alone mentioning it as a big opportunity. Additionally, the documents circulating online about the initiative also gives no indication that it is even a priority.

Improving on Canada’s glacial innovation advancement record is an important pursuit but so far, this new plan isn’t hot enough to unleash its benefits, especially if it continues to leave female innovators chilly, and potentially out in the cold.

Are Today’s Incubators and Accelerators the Solution?

The Bains mandate states “expanding effective support for incubators [and] accelerators” as a key solution. But how well do today’s incubators and accelerators serve women?

Let’s take a look at an example up close.

One of the most prestigious, well-resourced, young talent–seeking incubators in the country, The Next 36, proudly announced on June 15 a new venture capital fund led by BDC Capital in participation with Globalive Capital and private investors. While this may sound like good news for innovation, one must ask why more money is being spent to support a program run by a 92 per cent male leadership structure?

A closer look at the organization’s leadership (as advertised on its website) finds that men make up six out of seven of its founders, 13 of its 14 board members, 13 of its 14 faculty members, and 19 of its 22 mentors. And the number of female innovators selected annually to participate in this elite program ranges from five to 11 out of a total of 36 per session over the past four years. Go a level deeper and look at seven of the companies that the current board members of The Next 36 work for as their “day job” collectively. The boards and senior management of these companies have just five women in a total of 48 positions (that’s just 11 per cent).

It doesn’t seem to get any better when it comes to the leadership of the principal partners involved in this newly announced fund. Government-owned BDC Capital lists eight men and just one woman on its executive team. Globalive Capital and Alignvest, both self-described “world-class” investment management firms, are made up of 100 per cent men in their partner ranks.

Gender inequality at work in this incubator is more than skin deep. Sadly, The Next 36, an idea with exceptional potential, is starting to look more like The Past 36 at a time when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a self-declared feminist, managed to achieve gender parity in cabinet in one fell swoop.

Moreover, The Next 36 example is not an isolated one. Here in Ontario alone, many regional innovation centres themselves acknowledge and report sub-optimal performance in the gender equality department with participation level ranging from a low of four per cent to a high of 25 per cent.

The innovation eco-system has a long way to go to meet Kathleen Wynne’s and Justin Trudeau’s standards of gender parity.

Back to Canada’s Innovation Strategy

If we truly believe gender diversity has a business case when it comes to realizing enhanced performance, then we must also believe that gender diversity matters in innovation policy.

Solutions

LiisBeth has four ideas to offer:

  • First, government-funded incubators should be asked to pledge to achieve gender parity within management and mentor ranks by the end of 2017 and be given one year to get there.
  • Innovation policy should encourage and support the creation of autonomous, women-led, female founder–focused incubators and innovation programs. It’s nice to think a gender-blind approach is a pinnacle of form, but if we are honest we know it typically means a male-led and male-centred approach to a masculine culture environment that—by the way—also welcomes women. The research is clear. This works for some, but not many.
  • Unleash innovation at the margins by developing a complimentary demographic-based incubator strategy. Innovating something new and forgoing income to do it is scary enough, let alone trying to succeed in a space that doesn’t make you feel like you belong. Many talented innovators simply do not feel comfortable or motivated by being a part of a culturally or socially alien space, including Indigenous, trans, new Canadian, or age 50-plus entrepreneurs. It might be interesting to note that other nations seem to have figured this out. For example, Israel now has an ultra-orthodox tech incubator. If we want more business owners and entrepreneurs innovating in Canada, we cannot arrogantly insist that they all participate in an environment “we” think is best for them. A little support for demographically specific incubators would go a long way.
  • Finally, we should also require all private venture capital firms seeking government-matching funds to disclose their gender equity and diversity state, and submit plans for improving them within 18 months if they are below the water line. We all know this: equal access to capital is absolutely critical if we are to truly leverage our talented female and other marginalized innovators.

Optimism?

There is room for optimism. For example, the Bains Ministry’s recently published backgrounder states: “Only by mobilizing every sector of society to do its part will all Canadians have the opportunity to participate fully in an innovation economy.”

In addition, Bains’ mandate letter from the prime minister says expressly that the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development is expected to “help ensure gender parity.” As his mandate marching orders—and common sense—dictates, Bains must work to correct a no longer acceptable gender gap in the innovation space.

How much he has taken to heart in this arena is unclear. Bains’ recent eight-minute speech at Canada 2020 covered the usual: the importance of tech; being kinder to failure; his father’s $5 self-made entrepreneurial journey; the value of universities; and how to become a global innovation leader. But there was nothing said on the issue of gender parity in the innovation space.

If Minister Bains wants to succeed where others have failed, and if indeed, winning at innovation is a numbers game, then fostering gender equality and broader inclusion overall are two significant opportunities that should not be overlooked.


Want to write to Minister Navdeep Bains to voice your opinion on his innovation strategy? He is looking for input. Details on how to contribute to the discussion have not yet been announced, but in the meantime, you can email him at Navdeep.Bains@parl.gc.ca