Categories
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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Categories
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.  


LiisBeth is a 100% womxn-led/owned media enterprise focused on bringing forward feminist perspectives on current issues and supporting the work of creators, entrepreneurs, innovators and community leaders who are feminist.   We are also 100% reader supported.  Please consider a donation to help us do more! [direct-stripe value=”ds1577108717283″]


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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Categories
Our Voices

Decolonizing Our Hearts

Decolonize Your Mind Exhibit. Photo: Krui.fm Radio 2016

When you hear the word “decolonization,” what comes to mind? Land acknowledgements, the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, or the Medicine Wheel? Learning Indigenous traditions and the history of colonization? The act of offering the lands that were taken from Indigenous people back to their rightful owners? (See further reading by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang below.)

Diem Marchand-Lafortune, who created an intensive two-day workshop called “Decolonizing the Heart,” describes decolonization as “a process” that guides us to look, with a critical eye, at the history of North America and its power structures, including economies and governments, which “have been formative in developing one’s own and one’s ancestors’ worldview.” It requires “working to dismantle and transform one’s way of seeing and being in the world,” and that means unlearning principles that we may take for granted. For instance, this could include analyzing our business practices and offering up products and services as gifts to people in need rather than expecting money for them.

Marchand-Lafortune, a Cree-Métis and Jewish woman who was adopted and raised by an Acadian/Mi’kmaq father and Scottish mother, says she synthesized and “indigenized” 40 years of knowledge, life experience, philosophy, psychoanalysis and practice in negotiations and law school within the two-days of teachings. The program is not a 101 on Indigenous issues. It includes complex ideas. Marchand-Lafortune warns that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who feel invested in exploring decolonization in more depth should be prepared for “hard work and self-examination.”

One goal of the workshop is “to understand oneself better so that one can interact with other people in a more healthy way,” she says. “I’ve put all these disparate things together that allow people to learn we can’t reconcile with other people till we reconcile with ourselves.”

I began to learn about decolonization when I was doing my Masters of Social Work at the University of Toronto through academic readings, experiential re-enactments of colonization, and cultural competency training. However, I felt my education on Indigenous issues was insufficient, especially following a poorly facilitated class discussion on the findings of “cultural genocide” from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (see further reading below). Students were upset and complained to the administration. Seeing the harm social workers have caused and continue to cause Indigenous people prompted me to take a class on building Jewish-Indigenous relationships at the Lishma Jewish Learning Project.

I heard about the Decolonizing the Heart workshop from a fellow student in my master’s program. Monica Henriques is a social worker of Dutch and Jamaican ancestry who took the workshop and became Marchand-Lafortune’s executive assistant.

The workshop was a lot for me to take in. I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the ideas floating around in my head while simultaneously trying to remember how to put the tools into action. Undoing nearly 35 years of colonial education, changing deep-rooted emotional reactions, and relating to others in new ways may take me more time and practice. However, the experience left me with a great deal to think about.

Decolonizing the Heart Workshop participants–photo by Carmelle Wolfson

About a dozen people attended day one of the workshop at the Toronto United Mennonite Church in Toronto’s east end, including educators, non-profit professionals, writers, social workers, and religious professionals. The workshop integrated seemingly disparate topics throughout, including traditional Indigenous teachings, anti-oppression practices, conflict resolution strategies, and object relations theory approach to human development. It involved lectures, group discussions, experiential activities, visual mapping of individual ancestry, personal reflective writing, role-playing exercises, and video re-enactments. A second day was added to allow more time to cover the expansive material and practice role-play exercises.

On the second day, we simulated a variety of scenarios in which we responded to racist remarks. In one role play that took place at a liquor store, a customer suggests to the cashier that she shouldn’t serve Indigenous people and uses an offensive racial slur. The workshop teaches tools to guide us in identifying what may have happened in our past to trigger our emotional reactions to the situation, and for bystanders to take a few moments before acknowledging the harmful comment so that we can “call in” with compassion for the person causing the harm, trying to empathize and understand that person’s motivation, rather than “call out” the harmful comment through shaming and blaming. As the type of person who tends to freeze up in conflict situations, I have a hard time finding the right words to speak up. In one role play, the bystander asks, “What did you mean by that?” The customer says that Indigenous people are prone to alcoholism and wants to protect them. The bystander then provides information found on their phone’s web browser on alcohol rates among Indigenous populations in Canada. When the discussion wraps up, the Indigenous customers jokingly suggest the customer making the racist comment might pick up the tab at a nearby cafe–in exchange for conversation and a reading list to deepen the learning.

The workshop led me to reflect on standard practices in health and mental health care that I learned during my master’s. For instance, the Medicine Wheel includes four sections that represent the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical realms of each person. Well-being is feeling balanced in these four areas. Within health care and mental health institutions, the spiritual component of healing is usually missing. Though it may sound simple, finding that sweet spot where mind, body, heart, and soul are aligned is anything but simple. In this way, traditional Indigenous teachings hold the knowledge that Western society is lacking.

The workshop also reminded me of how important relationships are to our continued survival. This includes our relationship to other people, the natural environment, and ourselves. Indigenous societies lived on the land, co-existing with plants, animals, and their natural environments long before Europeans colonized and settled North America. Living in Toronto, I rarely have the chance to connect with nature, and I do not need to think about how the food I buy in the store is cultivated. I was also raised to compete with others for limited resources and taught to be independent and self-sufficient, ideals upheld by capitalism. However, Marchand-Lafortune explains the importance of collaboration with others and building strong ongoing relationships with the people around us.

This is the fundamental question that arose for me after attending this two-day workshop: Do you want to participate in colonization and colonial practices or do you want true change? When decolonizing the heart, you may never feel like you’re getting it right, but if you are not grappling with difficult questions, then you’re probably getting it wrong.

Marchand-Lafortune offers this analogy: “It’s really hard to be a feminist if you start acting like entrepreneurs that are in the capitalist paradigm—competition, aggression, all that stuff.” Put yet another way: though people may crave sugar, we don’t need it so why not consider what is driving that craving for sugar? She suggests focusing on meeting needs rather than creating businesses that are feeding “false needs.”

The Heart in Practice

The workshop provoked months of contemplation on decolonizing the heart. What does this look like in practice? For me, that process looked something like this while writing this article:

1. Acknowledging my power and privilege as the writer crafting this story and asking critical questions. Why am I, as a white settler journalist, believed to be an expert on decolonization after attending one workshop? Whose voices are heard and whose are not? Who is given credit for this knowledge, who is benefiting from it and in what ways (financial gain, prestige)? Why are Indigenous writers reporting on Indigenous issues rarely published?

2. Engaging in ongoing conversations with the editor, publisher, and workshop facilitators while trying to understand the motivations and needs of each one. Prioritizing relationships, by allowing time for these conversations, rather than being rigid and guided by speed and productivity.

3. Identifying my emotions when they arise (anxiety, anger, frustration, sadness) and asking which unmet need each feeling is connected to. Taking the time I need to do something to dampen these emotions before re-engaging in discussions.

4. Showing up to retake the workshop a second time even though I felt exhausted and overwhelmed by the start and end of the day. Offering to help make coffee after arriving and staying after it ended to clean up.

5. Asking for advice from friends and doing additional reading on the topic. Then giving credit to those involved in my creative process at the end of this article.

6. Connecting with the spiritual traditions of my ancestors in a way that is meaningful to me.

7. Rewriting this entire article while incorporating what I learned in steps one through five.

With files from Diem Marchand-Lafortune, Monica Henriques, freygl gertsovski, and Emily Green.


Further Reading and Resources

KAIROS Blanket Exercise

Decolonization is not a metaphor by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012)

Canada grapples with a charge of ‘genocide.’ For indigenous people, there’s no debate by Alicia Elliott, Washington Post (June 2019)

Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (1961)

Women and the Gift Economy: A Radically Different World is Possible, Edited by Genevieve Vaughan (2007)

The Maternal Roots of the Gift Economy, Edited by Genevieve Vaughan (2018)


This article was made possible thanks to the generosity of Startuphere Toronto!

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Categories
Allied Arts & Media Feminist Practices

The Art of Change

Feminist Art Conference 2014, OCAD University, Toronto

The process for art-making can boil down to something like this: Make art, get feedback, make art better. Sounds easy, right? It wasn’t for Ilene Sova. In 2012, the Toronto artist-activist was painting portraits of women who had disappeared in Ontario for her Missing Women Project. She wanted to talk about the hard issues she was tackling in her art—patriarchy, misogyny, systemic racism, violence against women—but there wasn’t a group of fellow feminist artists to turn to, at least not a formally organized one.

Sova put out a call for submissions and volunteers and got a rush of responses, including from people in Kenya and Colombia. On International Women’s Day in March 2013, she launched the first Feminist Art Conference (FAC), a multidisciplinary event that brought together artists, activists, and academics of different gender identities, ages, nationalities, and feminisms so they could show their work and use it to spark discussions around important feminist issues.

The conference sold out in two days, attracting 120 participating artists and 150 attendees. “Clearly what I had been missing in my own social practice was something that others in our creative communities were also yearning for,” says Sova. FAC’s subsequent annual conferences have been equally as successful, especially the 2017 event that happened the day of the Women’s March.

‘Ashaba’; No human can look at her directly by Karen White explores unseen oppression. By covering her face while staring straight at the viewer, the artist makes us feel both complicit and engaged in the exploration of colonialism and imperialism.

 Art That Moves

Feminists have been long fed up with the fact that women’s art continues to be undervalued, underrepresented, and often completely ignored. The feminist activist group Guerrilla Girls have been calling out the gender and racial inequality in the arts since 1985 when they picketed the Museum of Modern Art in New York for featuring only 13 women out of 169 artists.

That inequality persists today. Female visual artists earn just 65 percent of the annual income of their male peers, according to a 2018 report by the Ontario Arts Council. Since 2013, women have only accounted for 36 percent of solo exhibitions at Canadian galleries; it’s dramatically less for non-white women. Gender disparity also exists in the performing arts space, which FAC attempts to redress in their events.

FAC has heard all the reasons why feminist work is often shut out of commercial spaces and public institutions. It’s not mainstream or universal (i.e., not male). It’s too angry and personal (i.e., too female) to be good. No one (i.e., men) will buy it. FAC’s response? Carve out spaces to showcase intersectional work that might be deemed taboo elsewhere, for instance, on topics such as rape culture, transphobia, racism, ableism, domestic violence, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, media representation, cultural appropriation, environmental degradation, and Islamophobia. Nothing is off limits. FAC featured a graphic novel about trauma and abuse, Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee, which contains such difficult subject matter that FAC added its first-ever content warning.

Girl in the Attic by Hyein Lee explores themes of trauma and abuse by drawing the viewer into the narrative.

According to Sova, people attending FAC events say they are really touched because the art reflects current social issues that affect them. “This creates a very impactful experience for those viewing art or experiencing a performance,” says Sova.

After hosting four conferences, FAC changed its name to the Feminist Art Collective to reflect its expanding mission. It now hosts artist residencies on the Toronto Islands. And its next event—the Feminist Art Festival, March 5 to 7, 2020, at OCAD University—will include a reception, conference, performances, film screening, makers’ market, and a two-week exhibition featuring the work of visual artists.

The Art of the Action

Since day one, FAC has operated as a grassroots organization run entirely by volunteers. Currently, the core team consists of 30 people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Carissa Ainslie, who took on the coordinator role after Ilene Sova became the Ada Slaight Chair of Contemporary Painting and Drawing at OCAD University, describes their current organizational structure as non-hierarchical. “We try to be intersectional in terms of who we’re including in the conversations that we’re having,” says Ainslie. “Ensuring that everyone has a voice at the table is really important regardless of what their experiences have been.”

FAC’s biggest challenge is finding the time and money to put on events, particularly without a physical office or paid staff. It didn’t help that the Ontario government slashed arts sector funding from $18.5 million to $6.5 million earlier this year but, before that, FAC did not have much success getting grants as their conferences are so unique they don’t “tick all the eligibility boxes.” Instead, they’re exploring other options such as sponsorships with companies that align with their values.

For now, FAC relies on in-kind donations for printing services, food and beverages for receptions, and space rentals (OCAD University is a signature partner and hosts the festivals as well as committee meetings). Ticket sales (with pay-what-you-can options) and their annual Made by Feminists market at the Gladstone Hotel also brings in funds.

Despite budget constraints, FAC continues to grow. Submissions for the 2020 festival were up to 187 from 130 in 2017, coming in from Australia, South America, Europe, United States, and Canada. Ainslie says the political landscape has changed since their last conference in 2017 with the #MeToo movement encouraging people to talk openly about sexual harassment and gender inequality.

A voting committee of 11 people (artists, curators, activists, community members and academics) will select the final artists to participate at the festival, through a selection process that considers social justice issues, intersectionality, the collective’s mission and, of course, the strength of the art itself rather than the artist’s professional record.

Not Missing, Not Murdered by Amanda Amour-Lynx features the shirt the artist wore the night she was sexually assaulted. Photo: Black Umbrella Photography, Rebecca Tisdelle-Macias

With FAC serving as a spring board, past participants have gone on to show or perform their work in other venues and countries, collaborated with artists they met at FAC events, and even started conferences (see Black Futures Now and M.I.X.E.D) as well as a literary magazine (Living Hyphen).

Says Ainslie: “The world is a bit ridiculous and I hope people can come together and have some good conversations. We try our best to support the artists the way we can. We can’t always do that with funds but we can by creating a space where artists can build their CV and present work that may not be welcome anywhere else. We just want the best for all the artists involved.”

The Feminist Art Festival runs from March 5 to 7, 2020 in Toronto. Get your tickets here


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Categories
Activism & Action Feminist Practices

Brewing Up A Revolution

 

Annabel Kalmar, Founder, Tea Rebellion,  Photo by PC Foo

Annabel Kalmar learned first-hand how hard it is for farmers to earn fair prices for their products. As a student of agriculture economics in the late 1990s, she harvested coffee in the fields of the Dominican Republic, interviewing farmers along the way. The experience sparked a passion for changemaking.

“I wanted to help farmers get access to a different way to market,” explains the German-born entrepreneur, who went on to work in microfinance with the World Bank, earn an MBA at the London School of Business, and work in the UK as a business strategist.

Recently, she pivoted to entrepreneurship as a means for changemaking. After moving to Toronto with her husband and three children in 2017, Kalmar launched Tea Rebellion. Her idea—two decades in the steeping—is to disrupt the way tea is traditionally marketed, traded, and consumed. By buying and selling single-source, direct-trade tea, her company creates economic opportunities for several female-led farms in developing countries, takes an active role in community building, and supports organic farming methods.

But Kalmar’s ambitions aren’t just altruistic. She grew up in Germany drinking loose-leaf black tea, but what she tasted of London tea culture failed to impress.

“I was always disappointed with what was in front of me,” says Kalmar, explaining that mass-produced teas are typically blended from multiple sources, then finely ground and packaged in bags. What ends up in the cup, she contends, is undrinkable without sugar and milk.

As a student of agriculture economics, Kalmar had seen how new trade models transformed chocolate, coffee, and wine. Educated consumers came to appreciate—and pay more for—flavours associated with particular regions, ensuring that growers of those premium products are fairly compensated.

“A lot of people learn about wine, but they know nothing about tea,” says Kalmar. “I wanted to bring that knowledge and appreciation of the origins to more tea drinkers.”

With Tea Rebellion, she intends to shake up the status quo. “I’m not just selling tea.”

Instead of participating in the commodity markets in tea-growing countries—many with roots in colonialism—Kalmar initially sought out fair-trade certified suppliers. Since her World Bank days, she knew the certification system could improve working conditions on farms by setting standards for fair pay and ethical treatment of producers. She reached out to Fair Trade Canada and began contacting farmers.

To her surprise, farmers were not saying, “Oh great, let’s do fair trade,” remembers Kalmar. “The farms I talked to said it’s too difficult. It creates additional costs. There is too much bureaucracy.”

Rather, the farmers—even some fair-trade certified producers—pointed to direct trade as a preferred alternative.

Both fair trade and direct trade have their places, according to Kalmar. They may create similar results in some cases, but they start with different goals.

Fair trade aims to improve the lives of farmers by setting ethical and environmental standards and creating transparency. Certification establishes minimum prices to ensure farmers are paid fairly. Incidentally, fair-trade standards may also improve the quality of the end product.

Tracey Mahr, tea lover and fellow traveler to Kanchanjangha, Dunbar Kumari, founding mother of the tea cooperative, and Annabel Kalmar, founder of Tea Rebellion /Photo by Nichsal Banskota

 

The goal of direct trade is to bring premium products to market. This model allows farmers to differentiate their products and charge prices that are typically higher than the minimums set in fair-trade systems. Higher prices will almost certainly improve the lives of farmers.

Kalmar dug into the research and discovered that many consumers are confused by a recent proliferation of certifications, which influenced her decision to change her strategy to direct trade.

Tea Rebellion now buys from six farms around the world: Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, Nepal, Kenya, and Malawi. That allows Tea Rebellion to work with smaller, socially minded farms—not just those that are scaled to afford a fair-trade certification process.

The direct relationship means there is no middleman; Kalmar can visit frequently to influence the end product and the social impact of the farm.

In Nepal, Kalmar helped raise CAD$10,000 to build a primary school for the children of workers living on the tea farm. The school will save some 30 children from walking several hours over rough terrain to attend school, which improves attendance and frees parents to work consistently.

In Malawi, Kalmar chose to buy from a farm that provides health care infrastructure for the community surrounding the farm. In Japan, where chemical farming methods have historically been the norm, Tea Rebellion works with a pioneer of organic farming.

In three of the six farms she buys from, Kalmar has formed close partnerships with women in leadership positions, strengthening their positions in what has been a male-dominated business. She didn’t initially set out to work with female-led farms, but she found that in developing countries where language or gender created barriers, she was able to form better relationships with farms where women led.

For example, in Taiwan, Kalmar works with Ai Fang, one of two daughters involved at Jhentea, a family-owned farming operation. Ai Fang has worked in the family business since the age of 18, learning the art and science of tea growing, processing, packaging, and brewing from her mother.

Kuei Fang and Annabel Kalmar, Yilan Country, Photo by Ai Fang

According to Jhentea’s website, the company was founded by a man in the early 19th century, but a marital split in the mid-20th century left a woman in charge. She was the first female tea master in the region, and ever since the farm has been passed down to female family members. Ai Fang’s daughter, Valencia, who is now learning about tea, represents the next generation.

In Shizuoka, Japan, the Kinezuka family operates NaturaliTea, a cooperative of farmers. Though the farm’s formal leaders are men, Kalmar formed a direct business relationship with one of male founder’s two daughters, including Tamiko Kinezuka, who manages the farm’s tea processing and is responsible for quality control. That relationship has been beneficial to her career.

“In Japan, the tea industry is still overwhelmingly controlled by older men at all levels, from the farms to the markets,” Kinzuka explains. “Some of this is changing as younger generations take over, but the shift is very slow. Working with someone like Annabel allows us to demonstrate the unique contributions that we can make, and prove our commitment to rejuvenating a stagnating industry.”

Kalmar loves to share the stories of growers she works with, shining a spotlight on tea producers through Tea Rebellion’s packaging, website, and social media. When tea drinkers know more about growers, growing methods, and the country of origin, they can learn to appreciate the difference between the chocolatey undertone of a black tea from the high mountains of Nepal, and the bright and floral flavour of a black tea grown in Taiwan. Says Kalmar, “I want to help people develop their palates.”

By telling the tale behind each tea, Tea Rebellion also shares power with farmers. They can then develop recognizable brands, creating a rationale for higher prices, which injects more money and investment into their communities.

Kalmar has a vision that would connect tea growers and tea drinkers, as well as put Tea Rebellion on the tips of tongues everywhere. She would like to rival a global brand like Twinings as the “go-to” for tea drinkers, and source tea in many more tea-growing countries.

For now, Kalmar is bootstrapping her business growth, investing her own funds, working from home, and depending on interns to lend a hand. Her website lists 24 types of tea (you can order direct) and she sells to some 25 retailers, most of them in Toronto. Prices are similar to other premium brands, though competing North American labels such as Tease and David’s Tea don’t promise single-sourced products.

Kalmar’s goals include hiring a team and marketing her brand at tea festivals and conferences around the world. That will require a significant investment, and she’s gearing up to present her idea to investors.

But the ultimate goal is to build prosperous tea farms. “If I can build a sustainable business with Tea Rebellion, I can support these farms for the next 10, 20, 30 years,” she says. “And that’s really what I want.”


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