Categories
Feminist Practices

A More Accessible Future

A mature indigenous woman with blond hair smiles over her shoulder. She is wearing large hoop earrings and a lavender blouse
Brooke Wobodistch, president of Closed Caption Services. Photo provided.

Imagine this: It’s May 2020. You are in the middle of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders caused by the novel coronavirus. There is no vaccine yet, and much of your life is online — especially on Zoom. 

In one such Zoom meeting, you start seeing what speakers are saying appear at the bottom of the screen. They’re being typed by one of the participants in the call in real-time.

The text you are seeing is called a closed caption. Closed captions aren’t always typed out by volunteers. Sometimes it’s automatically generated and sometimes it’s done by artificial intelligence (AI), but the accuracy of such services vary. For real-time transcription, ideally these captions are created by employees of companies that provide closed captioning — companies like Closed Caption Services (CCS). 

CCS is a Canadian family-owned business whose mission, according to its president Brooke Woboditsch, is “to build better accessibility in media.”  

This mission has gained momentum over the past year and a half as around the world, organizations and communications have moved online during the global pandemic.

Says Woboditsch: “By the time fall 2020 came around, I would say we must’ve had over 30 new clients in those last six months … There was a massive rush for people to put their businesses online — especially a lot of businesses where there’s multimedia content [like] film festivals, educational institutions, artists’ presentations and talks, museum exhibits.”

Strengthening the Family Business

Woboditsch’s father Larry Gavin was a broadcaster, and Woboditsch grew up helping her dad in his work. 

In 1994, Gavin started Closed Caption Services (CCS), providing fast and reliable services in closed captioning, offline captioning, live captioning, web captioning and audio-described video.

CCS started by providing captioning services to the now-defunct Canadian media company CHUM Television’s new CityTv stations and network of ‘A Channels.’ CCS then began working with Rogers, CTV (now Bell), NewCap, S-Vox, Cogeco Television), Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Pattison Group, TVO and more.

Woboditsch, who is Indigenous and was adopted at birth, also dabbled in television production in her late teens and early twenties. Working at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), she learned more about her Indigenous culture and history. 

She said it was “always the plan” to take over the company from her father one day. 

“We didn’t discuss transition or the future of the company. It was just that I was ‘the future’ and the company would go to me someday.” 

That day came in 2016. With the decline of her father’s health and after 10 years as the general manager, Woboditsch took over as president of CSS. 

Come 2020 Woboditsch would be called on once again to lead a company. Only this time, it would be in the middle of a pandemic while the world — still not accessible — was moving online.

The Business Case for Closed Captioning

Disabilities occur when people who have impairments confront inaccessible environments, prejudiced attitudes, or other situations where their needs for participation are not met. 

According to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), different types of disabilities include but are not limited to mobility, vision, and hearing impairments, visible and invisible disabilities, episodic disabilities, intellectual and learning disabilities, neurodivergence, chronic illnesses, mental illnesses, and limb and facial differences.

According to a 2018 article by the Web Accessibility Initiative, at least one billion people, or 15 per cent of the world’s population, have a recognized disability. 

In Canada, a 2017 estimate by Statistics Canada found that 6.2 million Canadians have one or more disability, with disabilities related to pain, flexibility, mobility, and mental health being the most common disability types.

Captions play an important role in improving digital accessibility for people with disabilities and those who do not speak English as their first language or are not comfortable doing so. 

Captions refer to text on a television, video screen, or other visual display that transcribe oral speech or dialogue as well as capture background audio. Captioning increases the accessibility of media for a variety of people — including people with disabilities and people who speak different first languages — by communicating all audio sounds that may otherwise be missed by some viewers, including sound effects and other non-speech elements.

Along with helping businesses interact with existing customers who may be people with disabilities, Woboditsch says closed captioning in particular also helps businesses expand their audiences by capturing new customers. 

Disabled Canadians are estimated to control $6.9 trillion in annual disposable income and more than seven million Canadians report their mother tongue is neither English nor French. 

CCS believes that high-quality accessibility services help to increase the reach of your content to at least 10 per cent of your audience. 

An article from UK-based Zen Elements from earlier this year says that three in four disabled people and their families have walked away from a UK business citing poor accessibility and/or poor customer service. 

In a similar vein, a 2019 survey by Scope, a UK-based charity trying to improve digital accessibility, found that half of the people surveyed who experienced problems buying goods or services through a website, app, or in-store machine did not purchase the product. Another 48 per cent found a different provider and purchased their products elsewhere.

Captioning also helps businesses meet compliance standards like those put forth by the Canadian Radio‑television and Telecommunications Commission, which require that 100 per cent broadcast content must be captioned and that Primetime shows be audio described, and Bill C-81, which is an act to ensure a barrier-free Canada. 

The bottom line, Woboditsch says, is to normalize accessibility as an essential part of providing high-quality and equitable services to all audiences. 

”We want people to think of accessibility when they’re putting any content out there. If I’m going to have a meeting, if I’m going to sell a product — whatever my business is [doing] online.”

The team at Closed Caption Services (CCS). Screenshot via CCS's website.

Finding Community and Improving Services for Underserved Communities

“Entrepreneurship can be a lonely place; you’re alone in your world when you’re at the top and it’s hard to ask advice from the people who are working for you,” says Woboditsch. “It’s hard to be vulnerable or show doubt, even though I do … to be able to have some people who have a variety of experiences in different areas of business, whether it be financial management or feminist business models, things like that.”

But the Fifth Wave accelerator program was different from the other entrepreneurship programs she’s been a part of in that it gave her the opportunity to take a second look at her business and figure out “where it is in the world today.” 

“I really asked myself, what do you want in life? And then I worked backwards to how I [was] going to get there with my business.”

For Woboditsch, the need for increased accessibility is clear: her company gained over 30 new clients in the first six months of the pandemic, 99 per cent of whom have become returning clients. 

The support she has received from the accelerator program has ultimately helped her move towards a future where high-quality accessibility services are provided to underserved communities. 

“I want people to remember that there’s a wide variety of people out there who use various forms of accessibility services, more than just the ones that I’ve been talking about today. American Sign Language (ASL) is one of them, and multiple languages as well,” Woboditsch says. 

“I want accessibility not to be driven just by compliance or doing it because we have to. I would like to see a world where people are choosing to provide high-quality services that improve accessibility.”


Publishers Note: Closed Caption Services is a part of the Fifth Wave, 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 fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth ally sponsor at the Lighthouse level. Applications for Cohort 4 open Nov. 22nd! Apply here

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Feminist Practices Transformative Ideas

When Life Hands You Lemons, Make Lemon Aid

Rachel Kelly, founder of Make Lemonade, 2019. Photo provided.

Like the many enterprises that relied on in-person interaction, Make Lemonade, a Toronto-based, women-centric co-working space for entrepreneurs was suddenly squeezed dry by the pandemic and closed its doors in August 2020. It was the third closure in three years of a well-loved physical co-working space focusing on women — the others were Shecosystem and Women on the Move. LiisBeth talked to Rachel Kelly, the 30-year-old founder and sole owner of Make Lemonade to learn about the journey and where they are now–given the pandemic. 

LiisBeth: Let’s rewind to get the full story. Why did you start Make Lemonade?

RK: It was 2015 and I had been freelancing for a couple years, bouncing from coffee shop to coffee shop and working from home — way before it was cool. One day while travelling on a streetcar to yet another café, I realized I couldn’t keep lying to myself. I was trying to convince myself that this way of working, like a nomad, alone, was great and that the indie freelancing life was sustainable for me. It occurred to me in that moment the key thing lacking in my work life was a day-to-day community of colleagues.

Around this time, I signed a salaried contract with a company I was freelancing for and let go of all my freelance gigs. And even bought a couch! But shortly thereafter, they called to say the contract was cancelled. They never told me why but I suspect it had to do with their budget.

I reminded myself, I am only 26 years old. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.

The old dream I had of starting a co-working space for independent freelancers like me resurfaced. And I have to thank my parents for inspiration. They were also entrepreneurs and taught me to dream big and worry about the details later. Which is exactly what I did.

I started by creating an Instagram account called Make Lemonade to gauge interest about the idea and guess what … it generated traction! In fact some people already thought the space existed and actually emailed me saying “you might like this space” not realizing I was the one posting about it. Ha! With this validation, I got to work. I put together a business plan. Landlords required me to submit the plan along with an offer to lease the space because we were a startup. I looked for places that offered bright, natural light and a canvas that made shared work possible. Finding a space with a good landlord was also important. The commercial rental market was hot at the time. I found a beautiful 3,000 square foot space at 326 Adelaide Street West in the heart of downtown Toronto and quickly signed a five-year lease.

LiisBeth:  Tell us about the Make Lemonade Community? Who showed up?

RK: At first, I thought the space would attract mostly 25 to 35-year-olds but we ended up with members from of all ages — all the way into their sixties. Members paid $500/month for a three-month plan with a fixed desk; $300/month for Monday to Friday access; $30/month for community membership. Make Lemonade offered a communal kitchen, phone booths, printing and mailboxes. About 80 per cent of the members — or our “lemons” as we affectionally referred to each other — were full-time self-employed creative types, writing or producing professionals and other artists. Other members included graduate students working on their thesis, a few salaried folks looking for an inspiring focus zone and people with full time jobs who needed space to work on their side-hustles.  

One of our members, Breeyn McCarney, is wedding dressmaker who designed non-traditional wedding gowns. She lived in Hamilton but most of her clients were in Toronto so she regularly booked our meeting rooms for client fittings. When her customers came for their final fitting, she would host a champagne celebration in our “virtual” patio room, an indoor room that was decked out to look like an outdoor patio.

Breeyn hosted beading workshops for aspiring artists — they worked with their hoops and beads and used Make Lemonade as a production space. At its peak, we had over 200 members.

Many of our members have seriously grown their enterprises since joining the Make Lemonade community. For example, when newcomer to Canada Katy Prince joined, she could only afford to come on Mondays (half price days) at first she didn’t have many friends or a network. Katy significantly expanded her network while at Make Lemonade. Today, Katy works for herself as a full-time coach and has a handful of staff members. Katy’s experience is testament to the benefits that co-working spaces have to offer and we are proud to have helped play a role in their success.      

LiisBeth:  Did you ever participate in startup program or receive any startup or government grants to help finance or start your business?

RK: No. Truth be told I never applied! I didn’t really know what was available.

Liisbeth: What happened when the pandemic hit?

RK: In early March 2020, we started to hear all about the coronavirus I remember going to sleep one Sunday night knowing the next day I would have to close our doors. At first, we thought it would only be for a short time, but it soon became clear the closure would last for a while. When we made our announcement (a year and a half after our temporary closure) in August 2020 that the doors were closing, we received close to 300 comments on just one Instagram post. I still haven’t read through them all because it’s emotionally overwhelming. What’s important to note — and also bittersweet — is that our busiest time were the months leading up to the announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rachel Kelly’s announcement on the closing of Make Lemonade’s physical coworking space in Toronto. Screenshot via Instagram.
 

When the pandemic hit, we were not sure what to do but quitting was not an option. Our mantra was (and still is): when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. We had to try something new.

My staff member, Ashley Fulton, Director of Good Vibes, and I began brainstorming about how we could bring and keep the community together online. We started with free virtual co-working meet ups. Then added free daily support calls. Next, we added a short newsletter called “Your Daily Dose of Sunshine”. We later added online co-working sessions and work sprints and didn’t charge for any of it.

Once we were confident we had something worthwhile to offer, we invited people to start paying us for the services. And a good number of them did.

Over time, we added more features such as accountability calls and introduced The 4-Week Challenge that involved working on goals for four weeks in community. People loved it and paid to participate! We noticed multiple repeat participants for the program and eventually turned it into a new service called the Get Sh*t Done Club. 

As time went on, we learned that while the physical space with tables and internet access was great, our real strength was supporting entrepreneurs through all the highs and the lows of business ownership. Lemonade became more like lemon aid.

Today, the Get Sh*t Done Club is still running strong as a 12-month online business foundations community that supports entrepreneurs to hustle less, grow more and have more fun. We do virtual kick-off brunches, offer workshops on goal setting, host work sprints, brainstorms and facilitate small  groups within the program. We have an event called the Lemon Mixer—an open conversation where members ask for what they need and are able to give back by offering services or expertise. Members also get full access to our Business 101 online course. And of course, we have fun! We celebrate successes with an honour roll and give shoutouts and cheers when progress happens for someone.

LiisBeth: As a player in the women’s entrepreneurship ecosystem space, what would you like to see change or happen in the coming years to further strengthen the women’s enterprise space?

RK: It almost seems ridiculous with the kind of company that I created that I didn’t get a “Hey, welcome to the women’s entrepreneurship support world.” Or a “Did you know, these are the resources that are available?”

We build community for others, but where is OUR community support?

LiisBeth: What’s Next for Make Lemonade? You?

RK: Looking to the future, we have some new ideas percolating, including meeting up with our “lemons” in real life again.

Things have been tough, but the pandemic was the catalyst for creating something bigger than the physical space. It led us to creating an online community and a new way of providing members with the support they need. The pandemic was also a wake up call. Which means it’s time to start making lemonade again … whatever that looks like. Funny how things are kind of coming full circle.

Also, when I think about what’s next, I’m reminded of how my parents started out and where they are now. They founded an automotive manufacturing company. But like so many businesses, that’s not how the enterprise started. Believe it or not, their original business was selling fruitcakes. So whenever I worry about not knowing what the future holds, I remind myself, I’m still in my fruitcake, or perhaps lemon cake, phase. I’m experimenting with different ingredients, making up recipes to see what works best.

LiisBeth:  Thank you for sharing your incredible and inspiring story

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Feminist Practices

When the Obstacle Becomes the Way

Hermine Mbondo, founder of B4brand, a bilingual branding and marketing agency in Toronto. Photo provided.

Storytelling transformed Hermine Mbondo’s life and continues to shape her work to this day. 

Born in Cameroon into the Bassa tribe and raised in France, Mbondo now lives in Toronto. She fondly remembers her childhood and all the stories she heard when she visited her grandmother’s village. Back then, every night Mbondo would gather with all of the other kids in the family to listen to stories told by her grandmother and her aunts. 

But these stories were not ordinary fairy tales.

“When you are a child, you don’t realise [right away]. But then slowly, you realise the stories were not just fairy tales,” Mbondo says. “It was really about either warning us about things or teaching us about something.” 

One of the stories Mbondo remembers vividly is a different interpretation of the story of the tortoise and the hare.

In Mbondo’s version, the hare tells the tortoise that both of them should kill their mothers because there was a poor harvest and everyone in the village is going hungry. The hare says they can use their mothers for a feast. The tortoise is tricked by the hare and kills its mother, but the hare does not. 

Mbondo says the moral of this story is to choose your friends wisely and be careful about who you trust. She says the stories she heard as a child, while sometimes scary, were always meaningful and were meant to teach life lessons.

Flash forward many years and Mbondo is now sharing her own meaningful stories through B4brand — a branding and marketing agency she founded in Toronto in 2017. 

An Accidental Marketing Agency 

Like many women entrepreneurs, Mbondo didn’t start out thinking she wanted to be a business owner someday. Within a few months of job hunting after moving to Canada in 2016, she realized that as a newcomer, landing a job and pay cheque that matched her level of experience was going to be impossible. 

“I was still able to do a lot of things but it wasn’t at the level of what I was doing — or earning — in France. I was the head of marketing there,” she says. “[Work I was hired for in Canada] wasn’t challenging enough. There was nothing to justify [staying] — plus I didn’t have the same kind of salary. After a year, I was starting to think, ‘What can I do next?’” 

Around the same time, a company that Mbondo had worked for back in France asked if she would be interested in moving back to lead their marketing department.

But Mbondo didn’t want to move back to France. She knew the job being offered to her would return her to the same position of working for someone else, on their terms, with no room for growth. By this time, she knew she wanted to call the shots and work “with” the company instead of “for” it. Pitching the idea of being an independent contractor led to her landing her first client as a solepreneur. They worked out an arrangement that allowed Mbondo to have more autonomy in her work, and in late 2017, she officially launched B4brand, which now operates as an incorporated marketing agency. 

Marketing with Purpose 

In a competitive industry like brand management, B4brand stands out in three distinct ways: 1) it focuses on people-driven branding, 2) it has the capacity to work seamlessly in both of Canada’s official languages, and 3) it makes innovative use of Bassa storytelling culture. 

Mbondo says that while all three aspects of her enterprise are important, the emphasis on people-driven stories is the foundation that grounds her and her business. Engaging with clients whose values align with her own has led her to work with brands that focus on the needs of people rather than the features or benefits of a given product. 

“I’ve seen different things in marketing — I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Marketing can be used to trick consumers into purchasing products or services. I wanted to do things differently,” she says. 

Mbondo wants consumers to connect with brands that align with their own ethics and principles so that ideally, they make purchasing decisions based on shared values. 

“I talk with the business owners, get to know them, and try to understand not just what they’re doing, but why they are doing it,” she says, “because for me, it’s very important to understand the ‘why.’” The conversations are litmus tests that help her choose brands that, in her words, truly “have a greater purpose.” 

For example, when an opportunity came her way to work with an entrepreneur who was looking to launch a new line of spices from Western Cameroon, Mbondo first researched to find out if they operated in an ethical manner. She sealed the deal after learning the company was paying their employees fair wages and creating a safe working environment for women in western Cameroon.

Through her work, Mbondo wants to challenge the idea that industries like brand marketing can only be made more inclusive by hiring diverse employees. While this is important, she says it limits the possibilities of human resources. What she wants to see instead is an emphasis on the diversity of products and services as well as the diversity of people. The international spices are an example of this because they bring “diversity to the shelves” of mainstream grocery stores. While the spices have not yet been launched officially, another client of Mbondo recently launched. 

“I think for me, the way I see diversity and inclusion is in the everyday things, and food is part of that [when] we go grocery shopping.” 

Passion Projects Helping Build Community

Another passion project of Mbondo’s is the Global Impact Hub — a one-stop learning hub for social entrepreneurs to connect, educate and amplify diverse voices.

Mbondo has partnered with several organizations over the past few years to provide bilingual entrepreneurship training to fellow entrepreneurs and small business owners. During the COVID-19 global pandemic, she found that many such organizations didn’t have the tools, resources, or knowledge to transition online. 

Mbondo explains, “[Entrepreneurs and small business owners] usually wear many hats and they are overwhelmed. Sometimes, all they need is the little push, especially since the road to running a successful business while making a difference can feel difficult and lonely. So, I decided to support them by offering a place to develop supportive relationships with fellow game-changers as well as access marketing tools and resources.”

The Global Impact Hub aims to combat this overwhelm by creating space for entrepreneurs to work it out together. 

“Through this membership-based online platform, social entrepreneurs will be able to sharpen up their marketing skills from anywhere and at any time through valuable content [like] marketing resources, tools, workshops and meaningful ways of connecting.”

B4Brand's Global Impact Hub.
B4Brand's Global Impact Hub.

Finding Community Through Shared Experiences 

As a newcomer and female entrepreneur, Mbondo’s participation in startup business development and accelerator programs played an important role in helping her build B4Brand. 

After starting the enterprise on her own, she learned valuable resource management skills in a program for newcomers to Canada called the Newcomers Entrepreneurship Hub alongside others who were also starting their own businesses. The Fifth Wave feminist accelerator program for women in digital media, operated by the Canadian Film Centre’s MediaLab, showed her how to hire and manage independent contractors whose values aligned with her own on a per project basis. Today, she has the structures in place to contract like-minded freelance graphic designers and copywriters to create campaigns that everyone feels good about. 

Three years into running her own business, Mbondo says that financing growth continues to be a struggle. Growth accelerator programs however, have helped her to connect with other business owners and funders who make her feel less alone and boost her confidence, helping her to keep going even when things are difficult.

“Everybody’s going through the same struggle — on different levels, obviously, but we’re going through the same things so it gives some reassurance to be like, ‘Okay, I’m not the only one,’” Mbondo says. 

Marketing at its core is a form of storytelling. What motivates Mbondo to show up for work every day is the opportunity to combine her love of people-driven stories rooted in culture, history and tradition with the personal values she shares with her clients.  

“I still love stories. I also learned that as an independent business founder, you can be choosy about the clients you work with and I’m supporting causes with my work,” Mbondo says. “I somehow managed to do well by doing what I love and wanted to do as a child.”

Last year, Mbondo was listed as one of Canada’s Top 100 Black Women to Watch in Canada. 

This year? B4brand is a finalist for the 2021 Toronto Star Readers’ Choice Awards in the Best Advertising/Marketing Agency category. Voting continues until Sept. 19, 2021.


Publishers Note: B4brand is a part of the Fifth Wave, 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 fairness into sustainable and scalable business growth strategies. Fifth Wave Initiative is committed to 30% participation by members of underrepresented groups. The Fifth Wave is a LiisBeth Media partner and ally. Applications are OPEN! Apply here

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Feminist Practices

Projecting the Light

Every night, a vibrant sun rises on the façade of a 200-year-old temple in Queretaro, Mexico, followed by a mountain and dessert flowers springing from the ground, giant guitars and fruit baskets, a toro’s head draped in a garland of flowers. The fiesta of light is the brainchild of Mexican-Canadian entrepreneur Emma López, the Creative Director and Co-Founder of AVA Animation and Visual Arts Inc.

In 2016, she was hired by the local tourism board to do what the Temple of Santa Rosa de Viterbo, with its baroque architecture and artistic masterpieces, could not: Keep tourists in the bustling city centre after dusk. She created a jaw-dropping lightshow that illuminates the front of the temple with animation celebrating the natural heritage and culture of the region.

The installation went viral on social media, and soon tourists and locals who avoided the area after sundown were flocking to see the whimsical display, filling up hotels and restaurants. Street vendors churned out profits selling themed merchandise.

One could say, art saved the day, or rather the city’s nightlife and re-activated the local economy.

López saw the transformative power of public art, to build connections and communities. “Some people might see it as an empty form of entertainment, but I see it as an opportunity for positive socialization and community engagement and something that could trigger important changes in our behaviors and our overall moods.”

But to realize her own dream, the pioneer in the field of light projection mapping had to leave her native Mexico – three times.

Learning on the Global Stage

Born in Villahermosa, Mexico, López studied Graphic Design at Universidad de las Américas, where she met her husband, Pedro Narvaez. After graduating, they moved to Toronto to build their reel as freelance graphic designers, working together on animation projects with such companies as MuchMusic and CBC.

They moved back to Mexico to start their company, AVA Animation, but struggled building a network of clients. The couple looked overseas to bolster their reputation and credentials. A client in Yerevan, Armenia hired them to do a light show for the Armenian Opera House. A 3D mapping house in Beirut flew them in to teach them the pioneering techniques of animation mapping.

Says López: “Ten years ago, there were no examples online, no references, so it was an amazing process of discovery, trial and error, see what works, learning, and trying to translate all of the knowledge of animation and design that we already have into these new mediums.”

They soon landed opportunities at festivals across Europe, winning awards in Amsterdam, Moscow and Japan and realizing the potential of what their work could achieve. Those credits helped them win their first project on their return to Mexico— the initiative in Queretaro, which garnered national attention.

For the next 10 years, AVA Animation thrived, building installations and light shows for companies all over Mexico, but that growth came with its own set of challenges. Many clients did not care to deal with a woman entrepreneur. “It’s annoying,” says López of Mexico’s ‘machismo’ culture. “We had some clients who couldn’t even look me in the eyes, but they do see my husband!”

Narvaez became the public face of the company, dealing with clients who didn’t want to work with a woman. That blatant sexism rankled López who built the company to reflect her core feminist values, for instance, rejecting projects that involved objectifying women. When a sport-marketing client asked AVA to project cheerleaders in a way that was demeaning to women, they turned down the project—against the advice of their business advisors.

“We won’t do anything that we don’t feel comfortable with,” says López. “We don’t work on anything we won’t show our daughters, for example. So, there could be money in football and shows but that’s not the thing that we do.”

López appreciates having a business and life partner who deeply supports her values and believes in what she can do. She has a 51% ownership in the company, mostly to make a statement that AVA is a proud feminist enterprise, but they share the work 50/50. López focuses on the creative and client management, while her husband handles the technical side of projects such as the lens calculations, projector placements and software. She describes it as “a process of building on top of what your partner is building, and then you see the reflective work of a team.”

Building a Feminist Future

Her husband supported her decision to leave Mexico a third time, this time to escape the misogyny in business and the wider culture. She was concerned about safety, for herself and her daughters–government statistics show a sharp increase in femicides, 137 percent over the last five years.

“The way I was raised in Mexico,” says López, “there was always an anxiety of being a woman and having to be aware of everything—and the mental baggage was really hard.” She says people are starting to protest now, citing the March 2020 march that saw tens of thousands of people hit the streets across the country to demand government action on the high rate of violence against women. “It’s something that’s been there for a long time. So, I wanted to spare [my children].”

But the move back to Canada was not easy. A legal mistake in their immigration application meant López had to return to school in order for her and her family to continue living in Canada. For two years, she juggled work and care of two toddlers while attending Seneca College for animation.

“[My husband and I] basically felt like we were hitting rock bottom,” she says. “But we realized that going to school allowed us to start building connections, because teachers at the school realized we were doing things differently, that we were doing things with an intention and we already had so much knowledge.” She went onto pursue a Master’s of Art and Animation at OCAD University and participated in the Canadian Film Centre’s Fifth Wave.

Mark Jones, the Chair of Creative Arts and Animation at Seneca College, helped AVA Animation get their first gig in Toronto — their class graduation ceremony, for which they did a large-scale projection of classmates’ work on stage at the Steam Whistle Brewery. This opened doors for several more projects commissioned by international tourism associations, ad agencies, theme parks, light festivals and private events. Their installations can cost anywhere from $10,000 upwards to a million and their permanent staff of four to six can swell with independent contractors, depending on the scope of a project.

Taking Art to the Streets

Since COVID-19, López has seen an increase in city commissions, as cities look to create safe artistic experiences by animating streets with public art. For BigArtTO, a city-led initiative, AVA worked with local artists to project their work onto the sides of buildings and landmarks across Toronto. Working with other artists was a first. “We learned to make spaces like a canvas for other artists, and help them show their work and transform the city with light and experiences to allow communities to feel connected, but in a safe way.”

The company just signed on to another large-scale project with the film and music video producer Director X and museums across the city of Toronto to share untold stories about historic locations in Toronto. Part of this series features a short film on the first abolitionist meeting at St. Lawrence Market, which AVA Animation will project on the walls of the historic market.

“We transform spaces with light and transport people to places they’ve never seen before,” says López, “It’s the wow factor. When it comes to life, it’s like there’s a new skin on the structure.”

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Activism & Action Transformative Ideas

Why Experimental Cities Fail

Athelstan Spilhaus Comic Strip, Illustrator: Gene Fawcett

 

On a hot summer July evening last summer, a few members of the LiisBeth team (Lana, Geraldine, Champagne) and I went to see a screening of The Experimental City, a 2017 documentary about the Minnesota Experimental City (MXC) project.

The MXC was a 1960s technology-led city-building project that sought to solve urban problems of the day (excessive waste, pollution, automobile congestion, lack of parks) by building a full-size Jetsons city on appropriated land from scratch, using the latest technology sourced from around the world.

Its lead visionary—engineer, futurist, comic strip author, and dean of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology Athelstan Spilhaus—imagined a city with underground garbage recycling, lots of open parks, wilderness and farms, automatic highways, moving sidewalks, and waterless toilets. Fuelled by enthusiasm for the possibilities, a cadre of like-minded engineers, designers including geodesic dome inventor Buckminster Fuller, a newspaper publisher, futurists, politicians, and corporate leaders all decided take the techtopian idea from comic to concrete.

Despite years and significant spending on designs, plans, and site scouting, in the end the project never put a single shovel—or tree—in the ground.

We were interested in learning about the MXC because we are in the midst of planning our September 29 Feminist City Walk and Talk, an event dedicated to examining feminist approaches to city building.

Turns out watching the film was time well spent on several levels. The MXC story is not only a cautionary tale about techtopian projects in general. It is also a story about the limitations of patriarchal leadership styles.

When Product Trumps Process

The MXC plan was envisioned as an innovation experiment. Its unproven ideas girded by emerging technologies required a 60,000-square-foot sandbox and 250,000 real people living its experience in order to try things out, iterate, and try again until market-ready scale-up versions could be implemented elsewhere—for a handsome sum.

MXC was, essentially, a minimum viable product. Its citizens (in this case) were early-stage adopters. The play? To create new jobs and wealth for Minnesota by selling the experiment’s spinoff products and intellectual property (IP) that would arise out of the project. Partners and advocates included federal and state governments, the University of Minnesota, and the 3M corporation. The project’s all-male leaders were able to raise $250,000 from the US federal government and $670,000 (equivalent to $8.4 million today) from businesses to invest in the project plan.

It all sounded exciting and promising. There was just one problem: where to put it.

Eventually the group found a site—an unincorporated township in rural Minnesota with fewer than 2,500 residents (back-to-landers and rural folk). The assumption was that these residents would be pushovers and would be thrilled to see 60,000 acres of their pristine natural environment turned into a city of the future for a quarter of a million dollars. The pitch? Think of the jobs! Think of the economic development! Think of what we could learn! Think of the economic potential! Think of the profits!

A meeting of the Minnesota Experimental City Authority (Minnesota Historical Society

 

By now, this top-down sell story should start to sound familiar, especially if you have been following Toronto’s Sidewalk Labs‘ (this time the study cost $50 million) city-building project spearheaded by Alphabet (Google’s parent company) over the last two years.

As you know, Minnesota’s Experimental City was never built. They didn’t even get close. Why? As the documentary so clearly points out, its leaders and advocates prioritized product over process. They assumed a “trust us, we got this” and “father knows best” stance that was off-putting. Most importantly, they overlooked Mary Parker Follet’s 1920s feminist management wisdom by adopting a “power over” (exert authority) approach versus “power to” (develop agency and capacity to act in others) combined with “power with” (acting as expert heroes instead of initiators and sustainers of a collective process).

They also forgot Margaret Mead’s timeless lesson: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” This applies not just to those with power and influence, but also to those with little else but just cause, a point of view, and determination.

Rural residents protest the proposed Minnesota Experimental City, 1973, Anoka, MN. (Minnesota Historical Society)

 

And what if, as feminist management scholar CV Harquail suggests, we shifted the eye of these stormy projects from a focus on economic development to a focus on citizen care?

Today, 80 percent of North Americans and 55 percent of humanity worldwide live in cities. We need to embrace both product and process innovations to make cities livable, sustainable, and safe. However, a patriarchal, top-down, corporate sales–oriented process that puts technology and corporate interests first is unlikely to succeed.

Projects like these, which involve a complex and large set of inter-independent stakeholders, require a deep understanding of the role of power, agency, co-creation processes, and fair and equitable distribution of benefits. It also requires the ability to inspire and take the time to create shared vision through the process of reflecting, learning and unlearning because every community is different. A colonial approach to selling this project might have worked in New York, but it would never fly in a place where citizens increasingly refer to where they live as Tkaronto as well as Toronto.  These are all things feminist movement leaders are attuned to and know a thing or two about.

Lana, Geraldine, Champagne and I stayed for the panel session that followed which featured accomplished tech entrepreneur and out spoken Sidewalk Labs critic Saadia Muzaffar, and Sidewalk Labs supporter, Ken Greenberg, the former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City Toronto, author of Toronto Reborn, and adviser to Sidewalk Labs Toronto.

Trying to keep an open mind, and putting aside the fireworks examples of mansplaining that occurred, the panel discussion only served to confirm our views.

Patriarchal leadership styles which, by the way, know no gender, is like kryptonite when it comes to advancing complex, multi-stakeholder projects.

If the Alphabet (parent company of Google and several former Google subsidiaries) want to see projects like this succeed in the future, it may want to consider hiring fewer “father knows best” techno-determinists to lead these initiatives, and hire the real superstars at leading a collective process–a diverse team of feminist leaders–instead.

Publisher’s Note: This article was original published in August 2019 in LiisBeth’s newsletter.  


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Related Readings

https://www.liisbeth.com/2019/09/24/feminist-in-the-city/

https://www.liisbeth.com/2018/11/27/creating-a-feminist-city-we-rise-by-lifting-others/

Categories
Activism & Action

Time to Power Up

Arezoo Najibzadeh, Co-founder, Young Women’s Leadership Network. Photo by Natalie Dolan

Arezoo Najibzadeh was only 23 when she was asked to share her insights before a Status of Women Committee investigating why women continue to be under-represented at all levels of government, despite increased participation. Even at that young age, the co-founder of the Young Women’s Leadership Network (YWLN) had been involved in politics for nearly a decade, and she kept hearing the same question, “Why aren’t women getting involved in politics?” But during that meeting, she realized the question should be, “Why aren’t women staying in politics?”

The committee’s final report offered a few answers: bullying, harassment, discrimination, biased media treatment, and lower rates of campaign funding.

“I’ve always been one to stand up and ask a question that makes everybody gasp,” says Najibzadeh, who says she experienced everything from sexist comments to sexual assault while working with various political parties. Now 24, she says YWLN offers the kind of help she wished she had then. “It would’ve made a huge impact on my life if I had it when I was 18 or 19, what I’m now providing for other people.”

The non-profit helps women and non-binary folks learn how to effectively engage as civic leaders in their communities and develop the political skills and support they need to compete—as well as reverse these grim statistics: The 2019 Canadian federal election saw more women elected to Parliament than ever before (98 in total), yet women still make up only 29 percent of federal members of Parliament. There are no women premiers in Canada and only one-fifth of Canadian mayors are women.

Ultimately, YWLN tries to help find answers to this question: what does it really take for us to put our names forward on a ballot or lead within our community? Its approach to doing so is anti-oppressive, intersectional, trans-inclusive, and feminist. Programs are free and open to everyone, while facilitators and speakers are paid for their time.

Young Women Leadership Network (YWLN) group photo by Ricky Pang

YWLN’s programming includes Framing Our Future workshops and events, which have included high-profile speakers such as former MPs Olivia Chow and Celina Caesar-Chavannes; and Chai Chats, which are more intimate conversations designed to provide community care for Black, Indigenous, and racialized women, and non-binary leaders.

In one Chai Chat session, climate-justice activist and community organizer Diana Yoon, who is Korean, queer, and a renter in Toronto, addressed questions like this: What does it look like when folks have to make difficult choices like quitting your job or taking unpaid leave to run for office when you don’t have a financial safety net? How do these different aspects of identity influence how you are treated when you become a candidate?

Riham Abu Affan discovered YWLN when she wanted to learn about policy-making and the Canadian political system but in a community group she could relate to. After seeing photos of YWLN’s events and reading the mission statement, Abu Affan says it felt like a space for her. In other professional and social settings, she says she unconsciously “dilutes” aspects of her identity—she is Sudanese and Moroccan, grew up in the United Arab Emirates before immigrating to Canada—but YWLN workshops and events became places she could go “as I am and still be able to follow a mission and work toward the cause.”

The first event Abu Affan attended didn’t have an immediately obvious connection to the political system—digital security—but it’s a pressing concern for women in leadership. Former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne faced virulent sexist and homophobic online comments while former Alberta premier Rachel Notley was the target of insulting tweets and even death threats. Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen said in the Status of Women Report, “Any woman who has political aspirations that spends 10 minutes on Twitter following their female mentors may be simply afraid to run.”

YWLN wanted to address that fear by arming participants with the tools they need to protect themselves online. At the Digital Security 101 workshop, Digital Justice Lab director, Nasma Ahmed, taught Abu Affan how to protect her IP address while using a proxy server, how to turn off location settings, and how to keep passwords secure. “It’s nice to have an organization that caters to the things that we’re shy of saying we need,” says Abu Affan who, a year after joining, at the age of 22, found herself leading marketing and social media for a digital health startup in Toronto. She says YWLN played a significant role in helping her develop the confidence and leadership skills to take on that role.

To support intersectional women and non-binary individuals, YWLN developed an advisory council comprised of 11 active members who bring insight from diverse identities, experiences, and communities that YWLN is trying to engage in its work. Najibzadeh says it also enables different communities to “share ownership of the organization.”

At YWLN events, Abu Affan says she meets and hears perspectives from people of different backgrounds and gender orientations, a degree of diversity she hasn’t experienced in her other professional and academic spaces. “When we see the impact we [young women leaders] can make when we show up as we are, a ‘default mode’ I guess, you feel unstoppable,” says Abu Affan.

Through this group, Najibzadeh discovered the importance of developing relationships and trust with existing community leaders. “It’s a lot of learning and unlearning as we move forward,” she says.

Research is also a critical component of YWLN’s work. One study in 2018—“It’s Time: Addressing Sexual Violence in Civic Institutions”—surveyed 60 women politicians in Ontario and found that 80 percent of them either decreased their involvement or left politics altogether because of sexual violence they experienced.

YWLN provides a “direct line” survivors can call to speak to someone who understands the political spaces individuals need to navigate, whether as a campaign volunteer, staffer, or politician. To date, YWLN has offered around 120 survivors more than 250 hours of active listening and support. Najibzadeh says when she speaks to these women, sometimes their situation is so familiar that she’s able to complete their sentences.

It’s the importance of that work that keeps Najibzadeh going. She co-founded YWLN in 2017 (with Yasmin Rajabi who has since left the organization) and, after leaving Ryerson University in 2018, moved in with her parents so she could work on it full-time without pay. “It’s hard,” she says, but, “This is my livelihood, it’s something that is crucial.”

Initially, YWLN was funded by a two-year grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and, in 2018, received additional support from the Laidlaw Foundation, as well as in-kind resources from other organizations. With that funding now ending, YWLN, which is based out of Toronto’s Make Lemonade women’s co-working space, is looking for funding to support current programming as well as new programming with a greater focus on promoting community and supporting BIPOC leaders through Chai Chats in Toronto and Ottawa as well as addressing other under-reported barriers to political inclusion. Figuring out how to make the organization financially sustainable is key. “It’s hard to find people that want to put their money behind missions or movements that are challenging the status quo in a very big and very daring way,” says Abu Affan.

But Najibzadeh says it’s that work that makes them press on. “When you know you’re in the right, and you know you’re asking the right questions, there is no doubt that you should continue doing the work,” she says. “No one can stop you.”


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