Popaganda: The Best Things in Life Are Freelance

Almost half of millennials do freelance work—that is, they work as contract laborers, often in fields like writing, design, and computer programming—and the majority of those workers are women. The idea of ditching the office, the 9 to 5, and the butthead coworkers can be so tempting, but is this life all it’s cracked up to be? How do you find community when you don’t have to go anywhere to do your job? And what are your rights as a freelance worker?

First, we talk to Danielle Corcione, a freelance journalist who recently looked into how #MeToo intersects with the lack of labor protections for freelancers. Then, we speak with Emma Denny, a lawyer who specializes in workplace harassment litigation, on what the options are for folks who want to fight back against sexist workplaces, both physical and digital. And finally, we go to The Coven, a coworking space for women and nonbinary folks in Minneapolis, MN, and talk to the founders about how they took the work of building a safe and equitable space into their own hands.

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TRANSCRIPT

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Hi. You’re listening to Popaganda, a podcast by Bitch Media. Soleil Ho here, and I’ll be talking to you from my glamorous closet/home office about freelancing!  

I’m guessing that the majority of the people listening to my voice right now have had your lives touched in some way by freelance workers: folks who work in the cultural economy on a contract basis. That’s writers, programmers, illustrators, audio producers, designers, and translators. A lot of the pieces in Bitch, both online and in the magazine, have been written by freelancers. The idea of ditching the office, the 9 to 5, and the butthead coworkers can be so tempting, but is this life all it’s cracked up to be? How do you find community when you don’t have to go anywhere to do your job? 

Stay tuned to hear me and my guests talk through these issues and way more on this episode of Popaganda! 

We’re also soliciting reader ideas for topics we could cover on future shows. So, please email your ideas for topics or even people you’d like to hear on the show if you’ve got ‘em! 

[theme music] 

I used to dream about freelancing full-time, back when I was busting my ass in the restaurant world and doing my best to fit in writing jobs in the few hours I had between waking up and biking to work. When facing off against the heat of the kitchen stove and the occasional grossness of my fellow cooks, I’d fantasize about lounging around in PJs, unburnt and unbothered. 

Of course, I’m not the only one who’s jumped into the freelance world. According to a demographic survey conducted by Upwork and the Freelancer’s Union, around half of my generation freelance in some capacity, and that number is expected to grow. The research suggests that, by 2027, the majority of American workers will be pursuing work on a contract basis. According to the survey, folks in this industry do it because of the increased freedom, independence, and flexibility that come with choosing your own clients and hours, often through online means. The lingo reflects that, too: some folks with a more romantic perspective prefer to call themselves “digital nomads” instead of “remote workers” or “freelancers.” 

Here’s one take on the lifestyle, via the Bucket List Bombshells, a company that caters to women looking to go remote. 

[chill music, waves on the beach in the background of a recorded clip] 

WOMAN: I would say that the #1 question everyone is always asking us is, as 25 year-olds, how can we possibly afford to travel the world full-time? Four years ago, after we graduated from university, we started our 9-5 perfect jobs, and we were just going through our days, completely on auto-pilot. So, we did the only thing that made sense at the time time, and we actually quite our 9-5 jobs and ended up booking one-way tickets to Mexico! 

In a nutshell, we self-taught ourselves online skills and started a graphic design studio and a virtual assistant company. We now have the freedom to be our own boss, the freedom to wake up whenever we want, the freedom to travel wherever we want, and the freedom to work from anywhere in the world…. 

SOLEIL: Their targeting is right on, too, since the majority of freelancers are women. And with all of the attention workplace harassment has gotten lately, that ratio will probably tilt even further. It makes sense. At home, none of your peers or bosses can comment on the clothes you’re wearing, or get you drunk, or touch you inappropriately. You can take care of your family and run errands while maintaining a more-or-less steady income. Or you can use your remote income to live like a queen in Bali. With freelancing, maybe you can have it all: freedom, money, and safety. 

[low-key music] 

You see where I’m going with this, right? The Freelancers’ Union, Upwork, the Bucket List Bombshells all have a stake in getting you to romanticize the lifestyle. But the truth is, just because you’re your own boss doesn’t mean white supremacist patriarchy’s gonna stop knockin’ at your window! [laughs] And that’s what today’s show is all about. 

First, I’ll talk to freelance journalist Danielle Corcione about the particular challenges of reporting sexual harassment as a freelancer. Then I’ll speak with Emma Denny, a lawyer who specializes in workplace harassment litigation, on what the options are for folks who wanna fight back against sexist workplaces, both physical and digital. And finally, I seek refuge: I go to The Coven, a coworking space for women and nonbinary folks in Minneapolis and talk to the founders about how they took the work of building a safe and equitable space into their own hands. I hope you enjoy the show! 

[Drew Parks’ cover of Rihanna’s Work] 

♪ Work, work, work, work, work, work 

She put in that work, work, work, work, work, work 

You know I do my dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt 

So I put in that work, work, work, work, work, work 

Yeah, yeah, work, work, work, work, work, work 

She put in that work, work, work, work, work, work 

See, when you gonna learn, learn, learn, learn, learn, learn 

Before the tables turn, turn, turn, turn, turn, turn 

Yeah 

Yeah, I’m coming home from a long-ass work day 

All I want is you to turn it to a twerk day 

Bring it back, do it to me bare like it’s my birthday 

Gettin’ so lit like how we get here in the first place 

I’m tryna tell ya, my first kiss was in the 1st grade 

I was like, whoa, lord have mercy 

That was way, way, way back, way before chivalry 

Start getting’ caught though being thirst day 

I’m just sayin’ 

Oh yeah, I know it’s gettin’ rowdy…. ♪ 

SOLEIL: A while back, Danielle Corcione approached me (via email, of course) to discuss their upcoming article on the Shitty Media Men List, the crowdsourced Google spreadsheet that documented episodes of sexual harassment and assault in the New York media scene. It was full of stories about creepy remarks, unwelcome touching, and more, and the men named were editors, staff writers, and publishers: people with a lot of influence in the media. Danielle’s paper is called, The Shitty Media Men List Is the #MeToo of Toxic Newsrooms: a Failure to Protect Non-male Freelance Writers. It takes a really interesting angle to the issue of workplace harassment that isn’t talked about much. 

DANIELLE: Yeah. So, you know, a lot of it is like when you’re in an office space sharing this physical space with someone, you can kind of see it in action. But sexual violence, sexual harassment, those things aren’t exclusive to physical places because digital communication’s still communication. An editor could totally text you a dick pic. [chuckles] It could still happen. I hope it never does, but I’m sure that it’s happened before, unfortunately. 

But yeah, and because there are so few protections against sexual harassment and violence, we see this place out all the time in workplaces. The survivors never get justice, and even though they’ve been working alongside this person, and we see policies fail to give justice to them, these policies aren’t even available for freelancers. There’s nothing in our contracts that says we’re protected. 

SOLEIL: It was honestly something I’d never thought of. And to be frank, I didn’t know what I would do if that happened to me. My first impulse, I think, would be to screenshot everything and just post it on Twitter with a bunch of eyes emojis, but that doesn’t quite address the very real possibility that a person with power over my career could easily make my life a lot harder in retaliation. 

So, what does justice look like to you? ‘Cause you mentioned that even at workplaces that have these policies, they often don’t actually result in anything substantial for people who are physically present. So, what [in] an ideal situation, what would happen in response to sexual harassment? 

DANIELLE: So, in an ideal situation, harassment wouldn’t happen. 

SOLEIL: Right. 

DANIELLE: Power would be a lot different. The way in which we work would be a lot different. However, there’s still ways that you can support people in the shorter term to kind of have protocol in prevention in place. Because a lot of these things can be prevented, and you can build a culture that’s a little different. Because workplace is influenced by patriarchy, white supremacy, all these things that trainings might not be able to completely solve. But there is an opportunity to have discussions, the opportunity to learn new things, which can definitely help in the short term and can improve, especially people who are marginalized, give them a little bit of support by educating people who don’t come from those marginalized backgrounds. 

So, justice would be having a protocol for reporting to HR for freelancers. Justice would have increased communication with HR and accounting in general because freelancers already have difficult time getting paid for the work, getting compensated for their work. And it’s not unusual for someone to go through a few months to get paid after a piece has been published, right? 

SOLEIL: How did we get to this sort of position where I think there’s so many people doing freelance work at publications and media outlets. And there seems to be a lot fewer staff positions. It seems parallel to the adjunct situation in academia where there’s a lot of contract work and not so much stable work. Can you sort of go into, I guess, who is being served by having this class of unprotected workers? 

DANIELLE: Yeah. So, the kind of trend we’re seeing, as you mentioned, in academia, we see people who aren’t on staff, instead work as freelance contractors. We see this in the gig economy with Uber, Lyft, food couriers, and yeah, freelancing in all different types of creative fields and even administrative positions. So, we see it all around. And being on staff, yes, you have to be there when your boss wants you to, usually from 9:00 to 5:00, maybe not. But when you’re a freelancer, it’s definitely glamorized in the sense you can be self-employed, you can create your own schedule, but you definitely don’t have as many benefits. Yeah, you don’t get bonuses; you don’t get paid time off. So, freelancing and contract work really benefits an employer who doesn’t want to give their employees benefits and not really be responsible for those. 

SOLEIL: Mmhmm. Yeah, it’s a bit like being a mercenary, right? [chuckles] 

DANIELLE: Mmhmm. Yeah. 

SOLEIL: Yeah. I guess how could we get employers who benefit a lot—you know, corporations benefit a lot from having contract workers over staff workers—so how do you get them on board with extending those protections to freelancers? 

DANIELLE: Yeah. [sighs] I don’t know. But something that I want to hope for is that if freelancers talk to each other and support each other and try to get our differences sorted out. And a lot of these things already exist: we have communities, things like the Shitty Media Men list, Who Pays Writers, writers sharing what they’re paid by publications with those who are more marginalized than them. These are things that strengthen us. These are things that make us a collective. And you know, even if there are more freelancers, if that comes to be, where freelance becomes the new normal, and there’s more freelancers working as staff, it’s us against the few people who are owning these business. So, I find and hope that there are so many of us, and we can definitely, I would like to think, work together and try to build a workers’ movement of freelancers. But I don’t really, [chuckles] yeah, that’s the best I got. 

[bright marimba music] 

SOLEIL: To dig deeper into the reality of workplace protections—and what freelancers can do to keep themselves safe, I asked Emma Denny, an attorney based in Minneapolis, to break it down for me. 

EMMA: I guess I can take you all the way back. [laughs] In 1964, United States Congress passed a law banning discrimination in employment on the basis of sex. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the US Supreme Court interpreted that to also ban sexual harassment in the workplace. And you’re probably familiar with Anita Hill and that whole controversy in the ‘90s, and that was what really brought sexual harassment out into the public consciousness. Minnesota also has a state statute that prohibits sexual harassment called the Minnesota Human Rights Act. So, a lot of my work involves those two statutes. I sue companies under those two statutes for sexual harassment. 

One of the requirements that you have to prove if you’re a plaintiff in an employment case—which I represent only plaintiffs, so only women who’ve been sexual harassed—is that in order to prove their case, they have to show that the standard was “severe or pervasive.” And so, that’s a standard that post-#MeToo is very much in dispute right now: what does that mean? Because courts have interpreted that very, very narrowly to only cover really extreme circumstances of sexual harassment and to say, basically, anything less than essentially rape, out and out violent rape, is not sexual harassment. And so, now, we’re seeing a pushback in the other direction, I think, as a result of #MeToo, the #MeToo Movement. 

One of the things I’ve noticed in my own personal work is a real uptick recently in the amount of women contacting me to maybe pursue sexual assault claims or sexual harassment claims too. And I think that they’ve felt emboldened to come forward because of the #MeToo Movement. 

SOLEIL: So, the sort of thrust of this episode of the podcast is about there are Title IX protections for people who are employees of workplaces, but those don’t really apply to freelancers. And there’s a huge proportion of people in the workforce now who are freelancers who aren’t protected. What options do they have if they experience sexual harassment? 

EMMA: So, luckily, if they live in Minnesota, there’s some good protections for people who— The Minnesota Human Rights Act not only bans discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex in employment. It also bans that on the basis of contracting with someone. 

SOLEIL: Mm. 

EMMA: So, if you’re in a contractual relationship with someone, they also cannot sexually harass you or discriminated against you on the basis of your sex. 

SOLEIL: Oh, so, it’s state to state, though? 

EMMA: Yes. And Minnesota, fortunately, has a lot better protections for people than most states. 

SOLEIL: Oh, OK. So, it really matters where you live and not actually where the contractor is. 

EMMA: Yep. 

SOLEIL: OK. Got it. So, I mean, if people live in states where that’s not the case, are they screwed? 

EMMA: They might be. There’s always, of course, civil courses you can bring. Let’s say you were sexually assaulted by someone. You might have criminal remedies against them if the prosecutor decides to press charges, or you could bring a civil lawsuit against them for assault and battery as well. But if it doesn’t really rise to the level of an actual assault, they might be without a lot of remedies. ‘Cause harassment per se is not banned in most places if it’s not an employment relationship. 

SOLEIL: So, let’s talk about the remedies, because I think that is a really interesting part of this whole rape culture and the whole conversation about whether to prosecute or not. A lot of people don’t report because of how difficult the legal process is, emotionally and also financially. And it’s just, it’s so much to take on. So, is that actually the case, is that a myth, or has it gotten better? 

EMMA: It’s funny that you ask that because I was on the phone with a client today who’s bringing a sex assault claim. And we’re still in the very early stages of that, but she’s already starting to feel a lot of pressure and anxiety regarding coming forward with this: pushback from her family members around notions of well, did you ask for this, essentially. Things like that. And it’s really, and I’m like…. I want to help her, and I want her to go forward with her story, but I’m like, am I contributing to her emotional distress by kind of encouraging her to come forward with this? And I think the answer to that is no. Because I think that either you deal with it now— Her assault happened relatively recently, and so, I think if she doesn’t deal with it emotionally now, she’ll still be dealing with it emotionally down the road anyways, regardless of whether she comes forward. But it is a process. 

However, what you can get out of that process, at least on the civil side, which is what I do, is money. [laughs] 

SOLEIL: Right. 

EMMA: So, I always tell my clients, “Look. I can’t turn back the hands of time and undo what happened to you. All I can get you is money. And hopefully, while that’s not going to erase what happened, hopefully that can help you move on to the next phase of your life and kind of move past this as best as you can. You know, it can still help you pay for therapy or other things that might be out of reach for a lot of people. So, yeah, in a civil case, there are remedies like that available. 

SOLEIL: Let’s go back to what Emma said earlier about the “severe and pervasive” standard for what constitutes sexual harassment. Because that standard is upheld by the US Supreme Court, most workers in the country are held by it unless their state says otherwise. Emma’s client is able to prove that what she experienced was harassment because it qualified as such under those terms. The nature of remote work, on the other hand, makes this standard almost impossible to meet. 

EMMA: How the Supreme Court kind of came about to this conclusion is, prior to defining sexual harassment as something that was prohibited under Title VII, one of the things that plaintiffs had to prove was that there had been an “adverse employment action” taken against them by the company. And so, typically what that means is something like you were terminated because of a protected characteristic like your religion or your gender or something. So, the Supreme Court, in order to—but a lot of times in sex harassment cases, somebody hasn’t been fired; they’ve just been sexually harassed—and so, the Supreme Court essentially said, well, if the harassment is severe or pervasive, then that counts as the adverse employment action. So, it was sort of a substitute for the adverse employment action. 

So, that was about in the ‘80s at some point that they defined this. And so, since then, courts have been grappling with well, what does severe or pervasive mean? And they’ve all come to the conclusion that well, it’s not a mathematically precise test. 

SOLEIL: [chuckles] 

EMMA: There is no mathematically precise test for this. 

SOLEIL: Right, like harassed this many times, this many weeks. 

EMMA: Right. 

SOLEIL: Yeah. 

EMMA: Although sometimes judges try to make it that way. 

SOLEIL: Oh god. 

EMMA: And it leads to absurd results. There’s one case out there where well, so this guy took out his junk and waved his genitals around at this woman for three minutes. And they were like, “Well, three minutes wasn’t really—” 

BOTH: [laugh] 

EMMA: “—long enough to meet the severe and pervasive test.” And so, I’m like, oh my god. Really? 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

EMMA: And there’s just like all these cases that you can read where it’s just really ridiculous, outrageous behavior that doesn’t get punished or doesn’t meet that severe or pervasive line. Typically what it’s gonna take is it’s gonna have to be some kind of touching in order to cross that line, and probably not just one occasion. It’s gonna need to be—unless it’s a very severe thing such as a sexual assault, and courts define that, obviously, a little bit differently—but it’s gonna need to be repeated, unwanted touching in order to rise to that level. Which, as we all know, sexual harassment can take many more forms than just touching. 

SOLEIL: Mmhmm. 

EMMA: But basically, if it’s not touching, you’re not meeting the severe and pervasive standard under current law. 

SOLEIL: Oof. 

EMMA: Yeah. 

SOLEIL: Wow. 

But here’s piece of good news for folks who work in Minnesota: a bipartisan group of state legislators is working on a bill to change the way the state treats sexual harassment cases. If the bill passes, plaintiffs won’t have to prove that their harassment has been severe and pervasive in order for their cases to be supported by the law. It would make the prosecution of sexual harassment way, way easier. 

As I listened to Emma talk about her work, I was left with one lingering question: how do we end workplace harassment? 

EMMA: Mm. [sighs] I wish I knew. [chuckles] I was hoping, I think in my head, that after #MeToo, people would stop doing these things as much. But like I said, I’ve gotten lots and lots of calls from people since that time, where this stuff is still going on by men in power taking advantage of people who don’t have as much power as them and not seeming to fear the consequences. And so, I’m hoping that if they see that these consequences are going to occur, things will change. And you know, what I do and the way I kinda justify to myself what I do is money talks. And so, if these companies are really gonna deter stuff ‘cause they don’t wanna have to pay out huge settlement amounts. 

[low-key marimba music] 

SOLEIL: My search for more possible answers to that question took me to The Coven, a coworking space for women and nonbinary people in downtown Minneapolis. Perched on the 3rd and 4th floors of a building just a couple of blocks from the Mississippi River, The Coven has the air of a secret clubhouse. There are organic snacks provided by the local food coop, massage oils and spare hair ties in the locker room, a lactation room for parents. People are all around, writing on laptops or talking with each other. It just feels nice. 

Coven cofounders Bethany Iverson and Alex West Steinman sat down with me to talk about their mission and why they felt the need to create a space like this. Here’s Alex. 

ALEX: Yeah, so, The Coven is a community and workspace, in its most simplest form, for women and nonbinary people. We offer many other things outside of working, but that includes programming and events that are meant to inspire and empower women and nonbinary folks from all different backgrounds. Yeah, that’s kind of at our most simple form. 

SOLEIL: And here’s Bethany. 

BETHANY: There’s lots of different kinds of people who are a part of our community, and it’s actually been really fun to see when we were putting this idea together a year ago, who we thought would maybe be members here and then who actually are showing up in our space. And then socio-economically, ‘cause I think we talk a lot about that and how important that is as well. 

The Coven is not, and was never intended to be, a space for the lucky few who could afford a private membership. So, we have obviously, a lot of members who pay, and then we also have community-funded memberships that we give out. So, for every five memberships that are purchased, we’re able to give one away. So, we’ve given away what, like 45 of those, I think, and we’re getting ready to do our next batch. Those community-funded memberships are really important because they help ensure that there are different folks from lots of different kinds of backgrounds represented in our space. And it is a joy to see all of these different amazing women and nonbinary folks kind of interacting in a way that a year ago, we could have only hoped to see. 

SOLEIL: The nitty-gritty of that—of actually planning out a workspace with the goal of affirming women and nonbinary people—is so fascinating. How do you do that? For one thing, the space is full of artwork. A photo collage that features Beyoncé multiple times commands your attention. Affirmations like, “Do the most good” and “God is a Black Woman” are everywhere.  

ALEX: I think everything from the art to just how thoughtful everything was into building this space, we started with a handful of women from a community that we knew and asked them to bring in people into our fold. So, it just sort of exponentially grew and grew our network of folks from all different backgrounds that Bethany had mentioned. And I think one of the things that makes this place so special is it’s truly community-built. And so, that in itself is extremely empowering and inspiring to people. Everything from the art—I’m looking at it right now; though I’m in a podcast, so you can’t see me—but everything from the art to the food to the bathroom smell-goods and things like that, we’re really thoughtful and all brought to us by the members in the community who was interested in a space like this. We asked them directly, what would you want out of a space where you could come in community together? And again, everything from our chair sizes to the types of workspaces. Now we have desk monitors for additional screen space. It’s really been community built, and I think that’s one of the most inspiring pieces of the space. 

And then just being able to see a real representative community, to walk in and see people that look like you and that don’t look like you is kind of amazing and really not seen in a lot of spaces in the Twin Cities in particular. 

SOLEIL: OK. 

BETHANY: I wanna add on to what all of the brilliant things that Alex just said. I think there is also a factor that we didn’t necessarily predict but that we’re hearing a lot of, which is the way that women and nonbinary folks feel when they leave The Coven. 

ALEX: Mm. 

BETHANY: And it’s a different, I’ve described it as like, if you had to explain a color that you’ve never seen before, how would you tell someone what that’s like? 

SOLEIL: [chuckles] 

BETHANY: And you kind of have to experience it firsthand. But there’s this reorienting that I think happens when you’re in a space that was designed for you, with your wants and needs in mind, that says, we’re gonna cut out anything that doesn’t feel good in the regular world. You won’t find those things replicated here in The Coven. When you leave our space, you take that back into the world, and it kind of reminds you of your power. And I think it reminds you that you should come first. 

ALEX: Yeah. 

BETHANY: And that you’re not crazy for wanting certain things or wanting to feel safe and protected or to feel like you’re in charge, to feel like you’re the boss without any judgment attached to that. And I think that’s been one of the most inspiring things about The Coven that, like I said, we kind of didn’t anticipate it, but it’s been really delightful to watch unfold. 

ALEX: Yeah, to that point, folks come here with armor and baggage and feelings and things that they get to unload or bring in with them. We don’t ask anybody to, we don’t police women’s feelings or emotions. And so, we think that whatever you have to bring into the space today is what we’re gonna work with. And whether you just need a time to read a book, or you need focused workspace or to get away from your children or whatever that looks like— 

SOLEIL: [chuckles] 

ALEX: —that you can find some refuge here. And people have really called it like a retreat space or a refuge or a space to relax even when they’re in focused work. So, it’s amazing to watch the weight kind of come off of folks as they’re leaving the space and walk back into the world feeling really inspired and empowered. 

SOLEIL: Though most coworking spaces, like WeWork, I’m sure you’re familiar with—are open to all genders, The Coven isn’t alone in seeking to make theirs exclusive to women and nonbinary people. There’s The Wing in New York, We Heart Mondays in London, and The Ruby in San Francisco. And online, women and nonbinary creative workers have flocked to private networks of networking groups, like Binders. One can posit that these groups are a reaction to a white supremacist patriarchal reality. Something big and deep has been building. 

BETHANY: I don’t know if Hillary Clinton had been elected, that this place would exist. I don’t know that people would be as fired up in spaces. And not that anything’s been, anything would be dramatically different then. There would be a lot of dramatically different things then. But I think we’d be living in a totally different world then, in terms of mindset and political culture and all of those things. So, I don’t know that this place would exist without that. And so, that certainly was a catalyst, if not a catapult, for a lot of people to want to seek community and to be together. And so, I mean I think part of it made this space possible. 

But there’s been a lot of factors over the last year even with #MeToo and #TimesUp and #TimesUp advertising and all of the things that have kind of spun out of that, and the Women’s March. I mean there’s been a lot of movements towards more spaces for women and nonbinary people to gather, build community, build coalitions, and take action together. And this space has become kind of that container for that energy that folks have when they’re together and able to mobilize. And we’re excited to be able to provide that. 

ALEX: And then I think there’s this new thing that makes The Coven really possible in 2018, and that’s the way that the gig economy is growing. The way that we’re seeing folks leave corporations, leave the 9-5 job in part because they don’t feel seen or heard or appreciated or valued. And so, I think that economic element makes an idea like this especially relevant. I think it would be culturally relevant on its own, and I think now it’s also just like it makes really good business sense. And so, for some folks, wanting to feel like you’re part of something bigger is enough, and for others, that practical part of I can go somewhere and work in a safe place where all of my needs have been considered is also a really compelling part of our offering. 

[mellow marimba music]  

SOLEIL: Could the design and philosophy of The Coven—and places like it—signify that there might be a multitude of ways to interrupt white supremacist patriarchy in an office space? One thing that has frustrated women and nonbinary people in all-gender coworking spaces is the persistence of crappy office dynamics that they thought they’d left behind. Most spaces don’t have a sexual harassment policy in place, for example. And unlike an office, the people working in those spaces don’t count as employees, so they’re not subject to the same regulations that govern behavior in the workplace. And a lot of places cost a lot of money to get into, which is one thing The Coven’s founders have thought about. 

BETHANY: I think there is a lot of danger around trying to build different models and different worlds and not doing so in an intersectional way. And so, for us, we know that there are some really unique challenges to Minneapolis, not that different from what the rest of the country faces, but in Minneapolis, there are severe inequities. And a lot of those inequities are around race and ethnicity. And so, I think for us, it is a business imperative to solve for some of that because the issue is so glaring here in the Twin Cities. 

And then, I think about the way that the world is evolving, and it’s like the world is only becoming more diverse in all of those ways. And so, wouldn’t it be foolish to create yet another structure that’s trying to replicate a world that time has since past? Yeah, and I guess to me, it just feels like what else would we do? Why would we continue to replicate systems of power that leave people out? I don’t think we need more of that. 

ALEX: Yeah. I mean, there’s the term, like diversity and inclusion is something that all industries are trying to figure out right now. And it’s difficult for them, and understandably difficult because the systems there were built around them don’t fit diversity and inclusion. It’s not about getting the most diverse mindset in there; it’s about making the most profit. And I think that’s a backwards way of looking at things. And we’re now starting to unravel some of those. With us right now, it’s like our business model was built on the idea of diversity and inclusion first: creating a space where we could have the most diverse people and make them feel as included as possible, and then how do we fund that? And so, that’s why with our 5-for-1 model, we give away stuff for free. We had to figure out how to fund that. And I think a lot of corporations and industries and the business world in general is trying to figure out how to fund it now, after not funding things like that for a very long time. And so, we looked at it the other way, and we had, I would say, the convenience of starting fresh, a fresh new business. There were no systems around us. I mean, we’ve dealt with all of them. But we’ve gotten to look at it from a different perspective and really build the thing we want to build. 

So, I think there’s a way out for every industry. There’s a way out for every business. But I think for us, it’s like we wanted to fund the most important thing first and then figure out how to get art in the space, get furniture in the space. All of that stuff kind of came afterwards. But we really had to put significant investment into making sure our space was truly socio-economically diverse in all the ways. 

BETHANY: And I think the big takeaway from that is it’s not actually hard to do. 

ALEX: Right! 

BETHANY: So, I think there’s just, I feel like there is this myth that creating diverse representational spaces, it’s just hard. And in Minneapolis, like, oh, it’s just hard. 

ALEX: It’s just difficult. 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

BETHANY: It’s just hard. 

ALEX: There are no people who are interested in this. 

BETHANY: Yeah, there’s not people. Yeah, there’s just not enough people of color in the Twin Cities to show up. And I mean, that’s so offensive for very, very, very many reasons. But I do think a part of what we’re out to do is to prove all of those things wrong. 

ALEX: You can do it. 

BETHANY: And to show you can do it, and it can work, and it can also be really joyful. It can be a wonderful space where people embrace not only our differences, but where people call each other in to conversations, and those might be challenging conversations to have. And where we can all kind of learn new things and learn them together. And it’s not always like a Utopia, right? People disagree; people hurt each other’s feelings. But I do think that it can be done, and it’s truly like it’s not that challenging if you think that it’s important, and you prioritize it. 

[mellow marimba music] 

SOLEIL: Here’s one last thing from Bethany and Alex. 

ALEX: So, for people who are living in the Twin Cities or who are moving here, you should come see us. You should join us as a member. We have some different memberships, depending on what your need is and what your financial capacity is. If you are interested in a community-funded membership, hit us up. You can reach us at hello@thecovenmpls.com, and you can check us out online at thecovenmpls.com. We would love to see you! 

BETHANY: I’ll give you a tour! 

ALEX: And a hug! 

BETHANY: [laughs] 

ALEX: If you’re into that! 

ALL: [laugh] 

[theme music] 

SOLEIL: Thanks to Danielle Corcione, Emma Denny, Bethany Iverson, and Alex West Steinman for talking with me for this episode of Popaganda. 

And thanks to you for listening. This episode was produced by Alex Ward. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Thanks to Drew Parks for his cover of Work by Rihanna. Additional music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions. If you have thoughts or feelings or feedback on the show, please feel encouraged to send me an email to soleil@b-word.org. Or, as always, you can review us on iTunes. 

You can help make Popaganda possible. Become a Pollinator. Pollinators receive a special mug, a subscription to Bitch magazine in print and digital, and other great benefits. Become a Pollinator today at bitchmedia.org/pollinators. 

Soleil Ho
by Soleil Ho
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Soleil cooks for a living and writes sometimes. When she was in kindergarten, she reviewed a book for Reading Rainbow that she didn’t actually read. She cohosts Racist Sandwich, a podcast on food, race, class, and gender.

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