During a recent flight, I found myself sleepily watching the 2021 remake of Gossip Girl — a long-time guilty pleasure. I don’t expect political analysis when I watch Gossip Girl (though shout out to the rare aughts display of resilient female friendships in the original). Nonetheless, I involuntarily cringe at the characters’ frequent verbal assertions of their feminism and the profound disconnect between their actions: viscously tearing each other down, strategically tagged Instagram posts for likes, and a well-placed political slogan on a designer label.
When I “discovered” feminism and its commitment to intersectional power analysis during my late teenage years — it was a revelation that instinctively made sense and helped me frame a life’s worth of questions. It brings me joy to see more and more people finding a home in the language of feminism and finding ways to incorporate the accompanying power analysis in their lives in loud and bold ways. However, returning to my gossip girl, I bring up this anecdote to raise some questions — what does it say about the approachability and commodification of social justice movements when a notoriously indulgent show uses feminist slogans, issues of racial justice, and LGBTQI rights as dialogue fillers and rating boosters? When businesses (and media) start making money off strategically placed nods to fundamental human rights, where does that leave us and the movement? In other words, is running a feminist business in our current economic system even possible? What does it look like to operationalize feminist values in a for-profit setting?
At Picture Impact, our approach to our work and the questions we ask are deeply rooted in feminist values, principles, and the thought leadership of feminist thinkers that have come before us. We think about the influence and impact of gender in the questions we ask and the projects we work on, even when the projects themselves are not explicitly calling for gender analysis. How do gendered social positionalities impact who is (and isn’t) participating in data validation workshops? How does the social enactment of gender roles influence what opportunities people take? How are our own lenses as white American women shaping what we can and cannot see and understand?
As feminists, we are committed to not just centering and understanding gender in our external work but also in the work of our lives and the company we are building. Feminism — and its critique of neoliberalism — has taught us that cultivating a mindset of abundance instead of scarcity shifts how and when we say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to opportunities, making space for projects aligned and reflective of our values. The operationalization of feminism in the development setting is rooted in recognizing how women and trans community members have been systematically excluded across a multitude of intersections. As a counter to these processes of invisibilization, feminism in the development context emphasizes the need for participation, co-creation, and dignity — core values that guide our internal and external work at Picture Impact and support our accountability to our partners and the communities they serve.
On a day-to-day level, we operationalize our feminism and its accompanying values in a few core ways:
1. End of project debriefs: we wrap up every client project with a reflection on what has worked, what has not, and where we can grow and change. When we talk about what ‘worked,’ we look beyond impact metrics and profit margins to document how we lived (or didn’t live) our organizational feminist values.
2. Evaluating business opportunities from an ecosystem lens: when we evaluate the opportunities we say yes to or apply for, we balance the fiscal needs of the company with the potential to do work that contributes to the construction of an ecosystem of change agents working to build a more equitable world. That’s one reason we are so passionate about user-centered design and curriculum development- by creating learning processes that support critical engagement with the material, we see abundant opportunities to support change processes for individuals, organizations, and movements.
3. Using our specific positionality to speak up: As an American company (even a small one) operating in the development space since 2014 — we have the space, stability, and privilege to speak up in public forums about structural inequity and the myriad of ways its institutionalized in the contracting and partnering process — from unrealistic timelines, budgets that fail to properly account for the real labor of the work, and a lack of transparency about scoping and contracting processes. We strive to use our positionality to ask questions and push for transparency mechanisms that make equitable partnerships in the development sector possible. In the process, we hope to contribute to supporting shifting power from global north development institutions to global south institutions rooted in the communities we all seek to serve.
4. Knowing our lane — and doing our best to stay in it: We know not all work is ours to take, even if we are technically competent to bid. We frequently turn down or do not apply for pieces of work that we find interesting but that we believe requires a lived experience and identity that we do not hold. By stepping back, we hope to make space for others to step forward and do what we can as a company and individuals to share, distribute, and connect people around us to opportunities that they are better positioned to lead.
The relationship between feminism and business is one we should necessarily continue to interrogate, question, and re-imagine. As corporate power grows unchecked, how can we navigate the realities of living in capitalism with the exploitation and unfettered power that so often accompanies it? We don’t have all the answers, but by building a company committed to being a space of engaged feminist practice, we are experimenting and learning from living our feminist values in our life and work every day.
Cassie Denbow is a student of languages, constantly paying attention to word choice, context, and the worlds we build through the words we choose. She used to work with Picture Impact as a Strategic Writer for Design and Evaluation.