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“Causing Good Trouble”: The Anti-Racist Feminist Leaders Redefining Social Enterprise in Toronto

How social enterprises founded on ethical and politicized action benefit communities and fight racism in the capitalist economy.

© Vesta Catering, which operates as part of the nonprofit Warden Woods Community Centre in Toronto, one of the social enterprises profiled by Dr. Caroline Shenaz Hossein in her research.

Post Growth Fellow, Dr. Caroline Shenaz Hossein, is Associate Professor of Global Development and Political Science at the University of Toronto Scarborough and founder of the Diverse Solidarity Economies Collective. In a recent research paper, Racialized People, Women, and Social Enterprises: Politicized Economic Solidarity in Toronto, Caroline explores how three feminist community leaders are shifting definitions of social enterprise and subverting the economic status quo to serve marginalized groups. We sat down with her to find out more.

What are the key limitations to definitions of social enterprise and innovation? How do they exclude racialized people?

The main point of my paper was to rethink what we mean by social enterprise, because it could mean something that really upsets the norm of how people do business, or it can simply be an extension to capitalist, commercialized forms of business. I wanted to insert an understanding that there are feminists, particularly anti-racist feminists, who have been embedded in community development work and doing businesses with a double or triple bottom line for a long time, before really even understanding that what they were doing could be defined as social enterprise. They were using community-based, collective forms of entrepreneurship in novel and innovative ways, to tackle access issues and discrimination that would otherwise create barriers to people based on identities. This pushes the boundaries of how we define social enterprise as something that is actually trying to reassert a collective or more cooperative understanding, rather than being a trojan horse for capitalism.

How do the anti-racist feminist leaders featured in your study use business as a tool to politicize what they do for social good in a way that can counter inequity?

So much of the social enterprise sector has been co-opted by people who believe in market logic. They’re more in the business of reforming the current system, whereas I believe that these anti-racist feminist leaders — who have been doing community development work for decades — are actually trying to upset and transform systems. They’re not interested in reforming the corrupt status quo economic system, which is based on the logic of rational choice or the ways that rational maximizing actors are supposed to behave; rather, they’re interested in causing good trouble.

The three anti-racist, feminist leaders that I showcase are, in their own ways, using people’s livelihoods to ensure that the benefits go back into the community. They are politicizing their activism, co-opting economic goods that matter to people who tend to be bypassed for that kind of competition. We have women of color in a Canadian location — often feeling overlooked, particularly by young folks who may not have the deep community expertise that they do — and they are reaching out to members of the community who have businesses in catering or hairdressing or import-export, and so on. These women support and engage with a whole host of activities to make sure that the businesses also address social gaps — whether they hire disproportionately unemployed, black Canadians or indigenous Canadians, or they’re working with a stigmatized group based on disability or sexualities or some other identity.

For example, the Elspeth Heyworth Centre for Women (EHCW), of which Sunder Singh is the executive director, was founded years ago, before social enterprise was even used to describe this way of doing business or thinking about community development. The organization created a language translation service called RivInt, a nonprofit working with unemployed newcomers, women from various parts of the Global South, who find themselves in Canadian society and may be having a tough time with their families or experiencing domestic quarrels or abuse. The employment helps them create a sustainable livelihood while providing vital translation services in courtrooms and hospitals, and for family services. In the absence of local professional translation companies for certain diaspora languages, the business became so successful that the social enterprise became embedded into the nonprofit work of the EHCW, with the surplus profits funding the organization’s various needs, while also providing a steady income and career skills to the very women who’ve recently migrated.

How does the diverse economies (DE) literature play into this, and what does your study add to that body of knowledge?

The paper draws on the ethical aptitudes of diverse community economies, which is a theory by two feminists, Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham, who go by the name of Gibson-Graham. Their ideas have led to the creation of the Community Economies Research Network, which has hundreds of members, both practitioners and scholars. Together they’ve created a huge body of work on alternative economies that go beyond the usual binaries, such as capitalism versus socialism. There are people who are creating livelihood- and community-focused economics that reach people at the grassroots level. What I wanted to do was to show how, in the Canadian context, feminists are co-opting mainstream economic goods to ensure we address structural issues that create barriers for people of color. This fills the gap within the literature in that it highlights the ways we can think about race and social inequities, even within diverse economies.

When it comes to the solidarity and social economy, what are the blind spots when we think about how goods are shared, even within the third sector? When there are these kinds of discrepancies or tiering based on various identities, how do anti-racist feminists get involved and politicize resources in such a way that they make sure that those goods are getting into the hands of marginalized local people? The DE literature has not spent time thinking about race and racism, discrimination and sexism, and how intersectionality is bound up within the community economies theory, particularly in certain locations, where we find people of varied backgrounds and where this act of bestowing goods can become very biased in its allocations.

So I think that this work is contributing in a number of ways. One, it brings the concept of community economies or diverse economies into a Canadian immigrant location, to move forward the work of feminists in political economy. It also pushes against diverse economies theory that is very ‘white/ened’ in its understanding of the allocation of goods, to think through what happens when there is identity bias, and how feminists who work in the third sector can acknowledge these intersectional and interlocking oppressions when allocating goods to varied constituents.

Three things you can do right now:

  1. Find out more by reading Caroline’s research paper in full.
  2. Help promote this article by sharing these posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Sign up here for email alerts when articles like this are shared on social media.
  3. Dive deeper into surrounding topics in Caroline’s book: Politicized Microfinance: Money, Power, and Violence in the Black Americas.

Post Growth Fellow, Dr. Caroline Shenaz Hossein, is Associate Professor of Global Development and Political Science at the University of Toronto Scarborough, founder of the Diverse Solidarity Economies Collective.

In March 2021 she delivered the Big Thinking Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences lecture, “Canada’s hidden cooperative system: The legacy of the Black Banker Ladies”. Dr. Hossein is a board member of the International Association of Feminist Economics, on the editorial board of the UN Task Force for the Social and Solidarity Economy and board chair of the Miami Institute. An author of numerous books and articles, her co-edited book Community Economies in the Global South will be out in 2022.

Find out more about the Post Growth Institute on our website.

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Writing by team-members, guest contributors, and Fellows of the Post Growth Institute (PGI).

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