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Activism & Action Featured

What We Heard Report: Closing the Gap – Intersectional Perspectives for Realizing Economic Justice in Canada

illustration of fist raised against grey sky holding barbed wire that turns into a 4 colour rainbow
Photo: Composite Image featuring Lightspring Studios and Callum Shaw

On November 3, 2022, the Equal Futures Network in partnership with the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce (CanWCC), hosted an interactive incubator discussion examining the key challenges facing women, gender-diverse, Indigenous and racialized communities when it comes to advancing economic justice. This was the first Equal Futures Network incubator session dedicated to examining the intersection of economic equity and gender equality in Canada. A total of 35 participants attended the session and engaged in the Q&A session. Participants heard insights from the CanWCC, Moms at Work, Canadian Women of Colour Leadership Network, the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association (NACCA) and the National Collective of Women in Business (NCWIB) who shared their perspectives and insights about the issues, challenges and obstacles that create barriers towards achieving economic justice from their lived and professional experiences. 

Following this in-depth discussion, participants were encouraged to share their thoughts and experiences. This open dialogue was also an opportunity for participants to develop ideas into partnerships. Advancing economic equity will require a substantive shift from the status quo by addressing systemic and structural challenges with women, two-spirit, gender-diverse, LGBTQ+ and IBPOC communities leading the way and in solidarity with each other.

Here is what we heard:

Why Economic Equity Matters

Around the world, women, in all of their diversity, perform the most underappreciated work, earn less than cis-gender men and do more unpaid and care work. As a result, they are bearing the brunt of the widening wealth gap. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented economic crisis which has hit the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalized communities the hardest.

Economic equity matters because women, racialized (Indigenous, Black and people of colour (IBPOC)) and 2SLGBTQ+ communities are the most at risk to experiencing the effects of a global recession and these communities are already at a place of disadvantage due to existing systemic barriers to equitable participation in the global economy. At a systemic level, social, political and institutional norms have created structures that support unequal policies, legislation and economic tactics that at best are exclusionary, and at their worst, purposefully perpetuating harm and create barriers for equity deserving and marginalized groups. 

Barriers to Achieving Economic Equity

Youth voices are missing from economic decision-making spaces

Youth are almost entirely left out of the conversation around economic equity. As a result, youth do not see a role for them reflected in the in the work being undertaken to advance economic equity. This work can be inaccessible for youth as it is discussed in technical language that is disconnected from individual lived experiences which further isolates and disengages youth from the process. In order to engage youth, they need to be talked to in accessible and relatable language that is grounded in shared experiences. This will build youth capacity to express their needs and shift the power dynamics so that their voices are heard and involved in decision-making. To see substantive change, we need to create an empowered generation of youth who are aware and understand how economic inequities impact individuals and their communities. 

Individual Economic Empowerment

In the push for advancing economic equity, the role of the individual is too often left out of the conversation as the focus is placed on the systemic level. We need to shift focus to the economic education and empowerment of individuals. Current systems underestimate the decision-making power that is held in the hands of the average person – for context in 2021, small businesses made up 98.1% of all employer business in Canada – this is where change is going to come from. Widespread access to economic education and advocacy is the path towards equitable solutions that shift the narrative, change minds and equalize the balance of power. 

Gatekeeping and industry siloes in the economic ecosystem continue to not only hold back individuals, but also our collective advancements for economic equity. For example, in advocacy spaces economic discussions are inaccessible. Economic equity is talked about in overly technical language, this creates an exclusionary environment that gatekeeps people with different lived experiences and backgrounds from accessing these spaces.   

Indigenous, Black and Racialized Erasure 

Indigenous, Black and other marginalized communities experience significant erasure, silence and barriers within the economic ecosystem. For example, there is a hundred billion dollar Indigenous economy that is being underserved by mainstream financial institutions because they are considered too high risk for investment. These economic policies further reflect ongoing colonial legacies in Canada and demonstrate the multitude of systemic barriers that IBPOC communities face when it comes to advancing their own economic capabilities.

Supporting economic development within Indigenous communities across Canada is a core part of NACCA’s mandate. Over the course of the pandemic. NACCA was able to provide over 1000 business loans of over 100 million dollars in total value and created 3800 full time jobs. This investment in Indigenous communities not only contributes to Canada’s overall GDP but creates a deep and meaningful social impact that drives community wellbeing and closes the dignity gap that many Indigenous and underserved groups face across Canada. 

Steps for advancing economic equity in Canada (and around the world)

Collaboration and Partnerships

Equity work must be done across the board and apply an intersectional lens by focusing on empowering individuals, building partnerships and inclusive spaces. When applying an intersectional lens, we must ask ourselves how to incorporate reconciliation and decolonization into our work. Progress is prevented by division, which is very prevalent in the not-for-profit sector as the system is set up to be inherently adversarial, especially when it comes to acquiring limited funding and resources. For example, a lack of sustainable and long term funding, strict eligibility criteria within the grant model (i.e. needing charitable status to have access to certain grants) and competition for minimal funding dollars pits organizations against one another and breeds a system of insecurity. 

Additionally, the constraints of grants around certain advocacy pieces means that you may not have the ability or freedom to speak/be an advocate for change as your financial security is bound within the constraints laid out in your funding agreement. All of this hinders progress and creates a system of competition that at the end of the day takes away from the work of the movement. We need to work as a collective to figure out ways to operate outside of these systems, to decolonize the spaces where we operate and create partnerships that are supportive and allow for collaboration as we will only see progress through collaboration and coordination. Coming together as an economic equity movement to build understanding and consensus on the issues that are impacting our communities will facilitate change at the individual, organizational and systemic levels and empower grassroots communities and movements. 

Pay equity

Pay equity is a powerful symbol of economic equity and a tangible step forward to rally around. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to close the wage gap.  Women’s labour continues to be undervalued. Additionally, globally, legislation and policies are still being created that are directly biased towards men and create situations where women, on average, are always going to be poorer than men. The wage gap is even larger when you consider intersecting identities like race, ability and sexuality and they are at a heightened risk of experiencing the negative effects of a global recession. Achieving pay equity would be a major step forward towards overall economic equity. 

Post-pandemic recovery and progress 

COVID-19 further exacerbated the economic challenges faced by women, racialized and gender-diverse people in Canada. Over the last two years, there has been a lot of discussion about what is needed in Canada’s post-pandemic recovery. Inequities were brought to the forefront of these discussions and showed us just how much work still needs to be done in order to achieve gender equality in Canada and around the world. Now is the time to think outside of the box and find innovative solutions while amplifying the voices of equity-deserving groups. There is a willingness from decision-makers for community engagement and community driven solutions to economic inequities Through partnerships and collaboration, we can create collective understanding and consensus by bringing people with different perspectives and lived experiences together to address key issues and advance them at all levels.

Publishers Note: We are grateful for CanWaCH permission to republish this article which originally appeared on their blog for LiisBeth readers. If you are unfamiliar with their Equal Futures Network initiative (now 500+ strong), you can learn more here.  To learn more about CanWCC’s coalition-building mega project, click here and sign up to receive updates

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Secondhand Culture – How Canopy Kids Help Parents Beat Inflation

Image of mother with her baby
Nyla Obaid, Founder of Canopy Kids, mother of three, with her six month old, Idris. Photo: Zurry Donevan.

It’s the day of the nationwide Rogers outage. There’s a feeling of abject fear and desperation in the air. Most storefronts have these hastily drawn ‘CASH ONLY’ signs. Worse, emergency 911 services are unavailable to many. It’s lights out for the economy –  at least for a while.

Despite the chaos, Nyla Obaid (she/her), founder of Canopy Kids, an online, second-hand clothing shop, warmly greets me on ZOOM from her backyard on the traditional lands of the Mississauga’s of the First Credit, Mississauga, Huron-Wendat and Anishnabeg nations (under Toronto Purchase Treaty 13) and immediately lets me know she’s on her neighbour’s Wi-Fi as she’s without Internet. Nyla is calm, self-assured. She’s got an energy about her that’s instantly resonant. 

We get talking. She tells me more about launching her new second-hand clothing business for kids.

For many reasons, the timing for such a business could not be better.

Consumer inflation rates continue to rise and exceeded 8% year over year as of June. People are paying more for everything -cars, services, gas, and housing – putting financial pressure on everyone.

Embracing secondhand culture is one way to stay ahead of these unprecedented increases in inflation and make those proverbial ends meet in style – especially for parents like myself needing to stretch a dollar during the back-to-school shopping season. It’s also good for the planet.

Furthermore, the second-hand clothing market is booming. According to an extensive 2021 industry report released by ThredUP, a leading US-based online retailer, the North American secondhand apparel market will grow 8x faster than the overall apparel market by 2026. The market is expected to grow 24% in 2022 alone. Projections indicate that 50% of all second-hand sales will be generated online.

Reclaiming Secondhand Culture

For Obaid (she/her), a tight family budget and secondhand culture are core elements of her lived experience. Born to Bangladeshi immigrants, Obaid is a first-generation Canadian who cites this culture as the inspiration behind her startup dream.

 “I grew up in secondhand culture. When I was growing up, my mom would go to some church basement and all the aunties from the area would show up with their kids’ stuff and swap and sell and buy. Everything was already thrifted. So when my kids came around it was very natural to me to dress them in second-hand clothes and [I bought] second-hand toys [for them]”.

While ‘thrifting’ today is increasingly about foraging for stylish bargains, for Obaid’s family, thrifting was done out of sheer necessity. She remembers how her mother would thrift by default and not by choice.

Getting Into Recommerce

In May 2020, Obaid was growing increasingly frustrated with purchasing items for her children on Facebook Marketplace. She then had an idea to recreate the swap, sell and buy experiences from her childhood and add an online element to it with community building being the thread that ties it all together. Obaid called it the Lode Store and much to her surprise – in her words – “It was immediately successful.” This, despite an atypical startup approach. 

Entrepreneurial training rooted in the male-dominated entrepreneurial industrial complex typically focuses on engineering and executing an extensive customer research plan as a path to knowing exactly what the ideal customer wants and how to serve them.

Instead, Obaid’s approach is much more relatable. She is her customer. Her startup actions trusted that insight. 

Store offerings are chosen by Obaid herself for functionality, appeal and use. She tests toys out on her kids – if they like them, it goes in the store for sale. Obaid trusts her choices and her kids’ reactions when it comes to curating content of her store. Her clients save 60-80% off retail. 

Obaid also didn’t have time for a business plan, development of a minimally viable product, pitch decks to potential investors and a go-to-market strategy. Obaid simply collected some items together and started selling them online. She sourced more items and sold those too. Lather, rinse, repeat. Sales grew.

Even though Obaid’s post-secondary education ascended into the upper echelons of business academia, she felt that it wasn’t a path she wanted to pursue. “I do not like theoretical business, marketing and strategy background… I’m very uncomfortable with a lot of that. I’m uncomfortable with capitalism as a concept. So then when I started my business, [I asked myself] how can I still run a shop and not feed into all of that stuff?”

Building what worked and what her community (customers) wants, Lode Store rebranded as Canopy Kids. Today it offers thoughtful curation of clothes and goods for newborns up to age 14, plus an innovative time-saving, cost-saving subscription service and free delivery across Toronto. The company also offers kids’ room organizing, birthday parties and curated capsule shopping. The enterprise also leads mutual aid initiatives plus donates 15% of its proceeds to organizations working to end oppression.

With her partner’s second income as a safety net, Obaid started her business with just $500 of her own money and didn’t draw out any income for six months in order to get the business off the ground. 

A ‘real’ business

Obaid sometimes wonders if she’s running a ‘real’ business. She actively rejects anything related to ‘girl boss’ culture and hustle culture. “It does feel like this can’t be a real business because it doesn’t meet all of these business-y qualifications,” shared Obaid. “… [This] can’t be a real business unless [it’s] scaling. [It] can’t be a real business unless [it’s] giving the people what they want and giving it an end and making it bigger and bigger. It is, [however] me living out my values and making a living at it so I think I’m okay.”

She recalls how her recent experience in one business incubator made her question her business structure. Did she have a growth plan that equates to 3% annually? Did she have an exit strategy? She was recently advised to cut back on donating 15% of monthly sales to charity because it took too much from the bottom line.

Why do businesses (especially female/non-binary-led) have to conform to widely accepted definitions of what it’s supposed to be or look like? Who does it serve to have us conform to these definitions? Is there only one way to run a business? As our conversation progresses, I’m beginning to think the global answer to these questions is a definitive no. 

Secondhand culture and community 

Even though Obaid ran into some resistance to her business model, she knew exactly what she wanted to achieve with Canopy Kids. The community she’s created – especially during a time when contact with other humans was severely limited due to the ongoing pandemic – is a necessary one.

 “I didn’t even realize it was possible to participate in capitalism in this way…this business feels good.”

Obaid’s next milestone is to work fewer hours to spend more time with her growing family while still supporting the enterprise’s growing community.

The Future?

I believe secondhand culture is not only here to stay; it’s the new normal. 

As a progressively minded parent, making the choice to shop at Canopy Kids is a no-brainer.

I’m supporting a business run by a feminist woman of the global majority who’s chosen to run her business in alignment with her community and her values. Canopy Kids is intentional about providing for others in a sustainable and just manner.

Take that inflation! Pow! Extractive capitalism.

We need to rethink how businesses are created and run especially under a feminist lens. We need to accept the fact that there’s really no set way to run a feminist business.

What if we instead, as feminists, created spaces for founders like Obaid to envision businesses that align with their values, meet their needs, work to end oppression and create communities that genuinely support each other through acts of commerce? Creating said space, heck, an entire economy like this, would be a much-needed radical act.

Publishers Note: Canopy Kids participated in the Fifth Wave  Initiative, 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 and commerce sector in southern Ontario. All enterprise founders in the Fifth Wave community are selected for both their potential and commitment toward weaving intersectional feminist ideals of equity and fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to a minimum of 50% participation per cohort by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth ally sponsor at the Lighthouse levelApplications for Cohort 5 are open August 25. Apply here

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