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The Feminist Recovery Strategy

Dee Brooks, founder of Accelerate by Design and Pandemic Study participant
Dee Brooks , founder of Accelerated by Design, says "It is all one complex, interconnected mess.”

As Dee Brooks (she/her) prepared to launch a consulting business, she was understandably excited. She had worked more than a year to develop a market strategy for her company, Accelerated By Design. Aimed at corporate and not-for-profit clients, her firm would commercialize years of academic research into collaborative future-making through dialogue.

By February, 2020, Brooks had assembled a team of four, including herself, and expected to hire more staff. She had rented a space in Toronto’s downtown core, designing it as an immersive digital media experience for clients. She had sold tickets to a launch event. Revenue was trickling in. Future-making looked bright.

Then, the pandemic ruined everything.

“It was an utter catastrophe,” said Brooks. “We were in the middle of going to market with a new offering, something we thought was super innovative. That strategy was destroyed, the market changed, and we lost access to child care for six months.”

Brooks let her team go and refunded the ticket buyers. As she watched her big dream drip away, she grieved. “It was indescribably difficult. For me, this was my baby. It was the culmination of years of effort.

“Not all that work was lost, but a large portion of it was,” she said in a recent Zoom interview from her home office.

Brooks planned to offer a blended in-person and digital collaboration experience for her clients. But now, she has switched gears to go fully digital — which she had anticipated doing — but the pandemic fast-forwarded everything.

Digital-only delivery is a different ball game. Accelerated By Design will no longer be differentiated by its in-person experience. But the switch also means the   can serve a global audience, rather than a regional one.

Brook’s story is emblematic. A recent study — The Pandemic Effect: Exploring COVID-19’s Impact on Women/Womxn-led Digital Media Businesses in Ontario — chronicles the challenges Brooks and her contemporaries face through disruption and recovery.

The Pandemic Effect

The research collective,  Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab (CFC Media Lab), OCAD University and Nordicity, funded by Ontario Creates Business Improvement Program, surveyed 28 women/womxn-led digital businesses in Ontario over five months in 2020. They gathered quantitative data through a survey and qualitative insights through a series of interactive workshops. The study report was released today.

The Pandemic Effect drew participants primarily (though not exclusively) from existing networks established by the CFC Media Lab’s Fifth Wave Initiative, Canada’s first and only feminist accelerator program. These businesses value purpose as much as they do profit, according to Nataly De Monte (she/her), managing director of Fifth Wave.

“Women in this space had a feminist perspective at the start,” said De Monte. “They’re already thinking about business in a regenerative sense, rather than an extractive one. And we wanted to know how feminist business practices could be applied to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.” 

Below is a ranking of the top impacts from the time of the survey data and the respondent’s 3-year future projections if COVID-19 was to continue. Impacts coming down in priority might be a sign of others taking priority - or - may indicate that the companies expect to have already dealt sufficiently with it within the 3-year window.
Above is a ranking of the top impacts from the time of the survey data and the respondent’s three year future projections if COVID-19 was to continue. Impacts coming down in priority might be a sign of others taking priority - or - may indicate that the companies expect to have already dealt sufficiently with it within the three year window.

“That larger adaptation is the growing pain,” for digital media, De Monte explained. “It is not that they have to learn technology and become tech savvy. These businesses are already there. It is about how they adapt to the new and changing ways of the current context.”

The Hits and the Misses

One might assume digital media companies would be well positioned to respond to an increasingly tech-focused economy. In fact, the survey showed that only 21 per cent had seen sales or personnel grow during the first six months of pandemic. About 50 per cent reported being fine for now. Another 18 per cent said they would survive but may have to lay off people, and 11 percent indicated they were in dire straits and may go bankrupt.

The pandemic also affected productivity—about 21 per cent reported they were more productive than usual during shutdowns, 61 per cent were operating at a slower pace and seven per cent had stopped working entirely.

The survey and workshops used a strategic foresight model to examine the trends and drivers behind deep social change, asking respondents to evaluate the issues affecting them both now as well as three years into the future.

Increased stress and focus on mental health was the top concern among respondents, both now and in the future.

 
The purpose is to show the 22 drivers and trends the participants came up with
Pandemic Effect Study, Page 19. This is a snapshot of the trend/driver board created in Miro from the first workshop. These are the top 22 trends/drivers noted from the survey, as well as 8 new trends created by the workshop participants.

That is no surprise to Brooks, who said her mental-health challenges are far from over. As a new business, Accelerated By Design is not eligible for most government support programs, which are based on past revenue. She is still hoping to be eligible for rent subsidies.

Having her younger child back in daycare since September has freed up some hours for Brooks, who is working from home alongside her partner. But now she is a team of one at her company, strategizing her business recovery in isolation. Having paying clients is still in the future.

Little wonder that burnout emerged as a key theme in workshops. Suzanne Stein (she/her), director of OCAD’s Super Ordinary Lab, which helped execute the online events, said that participants “moved into an ideological realm” when discussing stress.

“We were starting to see participants questioning how the economy works. They were starting to say: ‘Wait. Why are we working in an industrial revolution model, which is distractive and harmful?’”

The Feminist Future

That feminist questioning can prove tactical. The study report describes specific strategies that digital media companies expect to use in the coming years. Among the ideas:

  • valuing emotional labour
  • developing healthy remote work cultures
  • using virtual reality to host events
  • being more flexible about where and when to work
  • encouraging local economies
  • baking intrapreneurship into business practices
  • creating more and different partnership models

The conversation among digital entrepreneurs kept coming back to partnerships, community and collaboration, said Stein. Companies that act like they are part of an ecosystem will survive the coming years. Entities that were once competitors  see themselves as potential partners.

Fifth Wave workshop for women in digital media on the feminist business model canvas, March, 2020.

Stein pointed out that it is hard for individual companies “to mobilize that kind of impact on their own. The next wave of innovation is not going to be about any individual or company, it is going to be about collaboration.”

Heeding that advice will help companies cope with future disruptions, Brooks suggested. “Maybe the pandemic is the first of a series of shocks… One thing that concerns me is that people are thinking: What are we going to do about the next pandemic? But climate change will present the next problem.”

The Pandemic Effect survey is repeatable, said Julie Whelan (she/her), associate director of Nordicity, a consultancy that designed and analyzed the survey. It could be used to gather information about other disruptions in other sectors and regions. It also includes a set of take-home worksheets participants can use as a thinking tool for planning for future disruptions.

“At the start of the pandemic, we were thinking the shocks or impacts of COVID would be intense but temporary,” said Whelan. “But, of course, what we have seen is that the experience is ongoing. So, there’s a chance to rethink how we operate and how we support businesses, maybe using some of the strategies identified (in the report) to build resilience for future shocks, which are undoubtedly around the corner.”

Despite that uncertainty, Brooks said she is optimistic about the future. While diversity and inclusion have always been a foundational concern for her and her team, she is finding that potential clients are now more interested in that conversation.

“We have this tendency to think that we can separate things out. But you have got to talk about it all at once. As horrible as it is, it is unclear that George Floyd would have been the catalyst that he was if it were not for the pandemic. And it pressured the pandemic. So, I am not so sure we can treat them separately. It is all one complex, interconnected mess.”

An intersectional feminist approach takes into account cultural complexity, which makes it a useful framework for pandemic recovery planning in any sector. But operational changes cannot be stopgap measures, Stein emphasized.

“In some ways with the survey, we were left with a bit of a cliffhanger. The implications of the pandemic are still running forward. What is important now is to keep moving,” she said. “We have to keep the momentum of some of the thinking. We have to keep the dedication to working together.”

To download the study, click here. 

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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Activism & Action Our Voices

Ilene Sova: A Woman of Action

 

ilene-sova-bio-pic3-448x600

 

Ilene Sova is a Toronto artist, artrepreneur, Tedx Woman speaker and founder of The Feminist Art Conference (FAC). Sova started drawing at age three, and while pursuing her bachelor of fine arts at Ottawa University, developed a keen interest in women’s psychology and feminism. She later combined these three passions and made a commitment to use her painting skills to catalyse discussion of women’s social issues. Her “Missing Women Project” was showcased at the 2013 National Forum on Feminism in Ottawa.

LiisBeth will be moderating a panel on Gender, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation at the upcoming FAC at OCAD University on Saturday, Jan. 21 2017. Panelists include Jack Jackson (AllJackedUp), Renish Kamal (Fidget Toys), Emily Rose Antflick (Shecosystem), and more!

LiisBeth recently sat down with Sova to talk about art, politics and the FAC.

LiisBeth: Why did you found FAC?

Ilene Sova: I founded FAC out of a project that I was working on called the Missing Women Project. I had been painting Missing Women from Ontario for four years in an impassioned attempt to bring about a discussion around violence against women in our local communities. As I was going through each case and doing the research for the portraits it was very clear that each woman had suffered violence due to patriarchal systems of oppression. While I processed this, I had all that feminist rage building up like a pressure cooker. I realized that I really needed to talk about these issues with feminist artists who could give me feedback and context. I came to a realization that I really wanted a supportive community to connect to.

My second realization was that that community didn’t really exist in any organized form in Toronto. So, when I launched the show, I decided that I would organize FAC to bring other feminist artists together to talk about the issues in our work and to meet one another under one roof, make connections, network and create relationships. I made a call for submissions and took the big leap and put it on social media. It had 45 shares by the end of the day. And by the end of that week, I had 20 volunteer committee members come forward! I was getting emails from all over the world (Kenya, Colombia, the U.S.) I was shocked by the reaction! The first FAC was quite magical, and afterwards, everyone was asking, “When is the next one?” I hadn’t thought about doing it again, but when myself and the committee saw the response, we decided in that moment to commit to yearly events and programming to continue with this wonderful energy!

LiisBeth: How many years has FAC been running? What has the response been like?

IS: FAC started in 2012 and our first conference had 60 participating artists and 150 attendees. It sold out in 48 hours. In 2014, we had 120 participating artists and 350 attendees and the conference was fully registered in 54 days. Last year we had 140 participants and 560 people registered! It’s growing beyond my imagination and we now have the addition of the two-week FAC Residency with Artscape Gibraltar Point every spring!

LiisBeth: We just have to ask: since Trump’s win, what are your thoughts about the role of feminism in the coming four years?

IS: My initial feeling about U.S. election news was a strong sense of ambivalence. Does it really matter who won? As a young anti-globalization activist, getting tear gassed pepper sprayed and beaten by police (for speaking out against economic trade agreements) I learned quite early that, to quote Bell Hooks, the “white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist system” will do what it will do. I also experienced how systems issues impact our everyday lives. In my view, the system today is on a fast track to eliminate the middle class, divide people, deregulate, reduce government, erase the social safety net and ultimately privatize services to make immense profits for billionaires. To do that successfully, it MUST create fear, marginalize, oppress, mass imprison, and destroy Indigenous rights. Donald Trump is simply part of a mechanism. And so was Hillary Clinton for that matter—which is why she didn’t win.

As someone who disagrees with how the system works today, and as a feminist activist, I wake up each day asking myself what will I actually do to change it? My answer? I decided to make the kind of art that fuels social change, and focus on helping to build and support my community. I research issues I’m passionate about; and take considered actions to create positive change in people’s everyday lives. It’s the reason I work tirelessly on initiatives like the Feminist Art Conference, getting art education back into our schools with the Blank Canvases project, working hard to provide affordable art spaces at Walnut Studios. These are my points of resistance; this is how I fight back. All the wonderful feminist community organizers in Toronto know it’s time now more than ever to focus on the work in our local areas. As a feminist, if you are feeling demoralized and helpless, give some thought to how you can RESIST in your own, unique way. Help build an active, positive community in spite of the election of a regressive regime in the U.S.. Stand up. Fight back. 

LiisBeth: That sounds like a terrific New’s Year’s resolution item! Thank you, Ilene!

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Some Additional FAC Facts

  • In 2013, FAC received over 70 submissions from all over North America, including Colombia and Kenya.
  • FAC 2015  expanded to one week of activities including three satellite exhibitions (one at The University of Toronto, one at York University and one at Artscape Youngplace). Participants came from as far away as Norway, South Korea, Australia, Hong Kong, Turkey and the U.S.

What to Expect at FAC 2017(running Jan. 10-21)

Another incredible lineup of speakers, artists and panels, including:

  • Liisbeth – Gender, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation (Jan 21)
  • Queering Feminist Art Class Panel Presented by Feminist Art Gallery / York University
  • Centre for Pluralism in the Arts Ontario – Women of Colour and Equity: Double Trouble
  • Black Futures Now – Organise This!: The Ethics, Politics, and Joys of Organising a Black Conference
  • Closing Keynote Presented by Native Women in the Arts: Sadie Buck Interviewed by Erika Iserhoff
  • Maker’s market!

For more information and the detailed schedule, go to https://factoronto.org/fac2017/.

To register, go to https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/feminist-art-conference-2017-embodied-resistance-tickets-29284113572.