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Confronting non-profit co-optation through an anti-racist feminist practice

By Deborah Leslie and Norma M. Rantisi

The following piece is part of Progressive City's Planning for Community Economic Development series, which examines a range of initiatives, such as cooperatives, alternative forms of collective land ownership and stewardship, mutual aid networks and worker advocacy/training organizations. Read more about this series here.

Interpreter Services Toronto (IST)


Immigrant women confront numerous difficulties securing stable employment. In addition to lacking professional networks or recognized work experience, they confront multiple intersecting inequalities, including gender, racial and familial oppression. Some non-profit organizations have emerged to serve as intermediaries in the labour market, providing training and social supports that enhance their ability to secure livelihood. But many such organizations face the challenges of being reliant on neoliberal funders (state or philanthropic) and the associated top-down, patriarchal and Euro-centric cost-driven mandates, which curbs any tranformative potential. One non-profit organization in Toronto, Canada that seeks to address some of these challenges and enhance the inclusion of immigrant women is Interpreter Services Toronto (IST). IST is an Employment Social Enterprise (ESE), or what is commonly referred to in other parts of North America and Europe as a 'work integration social enterprise' (WISE). Interpreter Services Toronto was established in 1987 and designated as a social enterprise in 2009. This organization taps into the language skills that women possess when they immigrate to Canada, and provides participants with training as a language interpreter. IST is part of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, a non-profit legal clinic serving women experiencing domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. Once trained as an interpreter, participants translate for women who use the clinic’s services, aiding them in accessing legal, health and other forms of assistance. The programs provided by this non-profit social enterprise thus serve two, often overlapping sets of women: immigrants in need of training and work experience and those struggling with domestic and sexual violence. In this article, we explore how IST creates a space of care and resistance within (and beyond) its training program. More specifically, we look at how the organization strives to meet their hybrid economic-social mandate through a feminist and anti-racist praxis by raising awareness of systemic modes of exclusion, providing social supports, influencing regulatory frameworks, and developing networks among participants and the broader community. Through these efforts, the organization contributes to alternative practices of economic development, with the potential to not only reproduce, but also challenge market and social relations.

Non-profit labour market intermediaries: reproducing precarity or charting alternative economic pathways?

Work integration social enterprises (like Interpreter Services Toronto) are part of a non-profit industrial complex that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s to fill gaps that arose from state cutbacks to social services. WISEs are also part of the social economy, which has been defined as encompassing self-governing, relatively independent organizations guided by their social objectives. WISEs often originate in community activism, but raise funds through a number of avenues, including the sale of goods and services, foundation support, government grants, and charitable donations. Programs are targetted at communities facing significant barriers in the labour market, such as immigrants, women, youth, people of colour, the homeless and the disabled. WISEs provide training programs through a mix of in-class instruction, as well as practical work experience. They have a mandate to promote economic integration through the formation of both hard and soft skills while also fostering social inclusion. To this end, they offer a range of other supports, including language instruction, housing assistance, counselling and workshops on labour and civil rights. WISEs also aim to create a ‘safe space’, where participants can explore the multiple and interlocking oppressions they face and develop the skills and social networks needed to tackle these oppressions.

While charting new economic pathways for communities (such as immigrant women) and filling gaps left by cutbacks to state programs, many WISEs have, since the 1990s, been increasingly dependent on state funding, and as a result, subject to neoliberal state mandates. With the retrenchment of many government programs, responsibility for workforce development has been downloaded onto WISEs. With this, WISEs have been increasingly subject to cost-benefit and calculative neoliberal logics and accounting metrics, which are often at odds with the social objectives central to these organizations’ core mission. Emulating a ‘work-first’ ethos, WISEs face increasing pressure to get workers into the labour market as fast as possible. This erodes the substantive nature of many of their training programs and cuts into their social supports (which are not valued in a neoliberal framework). The pressure to push participants into ‘any job’ serves to reproduce labour market precarity. In this new calculus, some WISEs end up meeting or flanking the market, rather than radically altering or challenging it.

Not only are WISEs increasingly subject to neoliberal rationalities, but, like many other social economy and non-profit institutions, WISEs often lack diversity in their staff, pedagogical framework and curriculum. As research by Caroline Shenaz Hossein has shown, staff are often from white and middle class backgrounds, while participants are largely Black, Indigenous and people of colour. Likewise, Hossein highlights the Eurocentric theoretical approaches often drawn upon by WISEs.. WISEs also employ top-down forms of instruction that risk reproducing—rather than challenging—racist, colonial and patriarchal modes of ‘inclusion’, thereby crowding out collective forms of solidarity and empowerment . Like prevailing neoliberal mandates, these dynamics make it harder for WISEs to engage in more transformative practices.

IST: Cultivating a Space of Care and Collective Action

How then, within this broader landscape, can WISEs (and other non-profits) carve out a space of resistance; one that challenges the dominant order and fostes new subjectivities and relations of care? The case of Interpreter Services Toronto is instructive in that they seek to challenge economic precarity and social exclusion by incorporating a multi-pronged approach within their training program. Here, we focus on four elements of their anti-racist, feminist praxis.

The first element is their intersectional approach. The program centers the multiple and interlocking forms of inequality that different immigrant women confront. Participants attend an in-house anti-oppression program delivered by the organization’s front line staff, who are in many cases themselves immigrant women. Guest speakers are also brought in from the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic and other organizations to add further diversity in terms of gender identity, race, sexuality and other aspects of identity. This approach is responsive to the individual challenges women in the program confront, as well as the trauma associated with working as a language interpreter for victims of sexual violence. Recognizing that no one is exclusively advantaged or oppressed, the program foregrounds the complex ways that immigrant women are situated in different relations of power, encouraging participants to examine their own privileges and biases, and how these might impact their role as interpreters.

The second aspect of the program is its emphasis on consciousness-raising. Stemming from the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s, consciousness-raising is premised on the idea that in order to change the world, one first needs to transform the self. To accomplish this transformation, IST tries to build strength among participants, most of whom are new immigrants and lacking in self-confidence. Acquiring the skill of being a certified language interpreter enhances participants’ sense of agency and accomplishment. Interpreting for immigrant women facing domestic violence enhances their sense of contributing to meaningful change. To support this consciousness, participants are taught practices of self care (e.g., debriefing and exercises).

The third aspect of their approach is forging networks among participants and between participants and relevant social services. The sense of self that IST constructs is not only individual, but collective; established through the creation of shared bonds and spaces. It hosts potluck dinners and other events designed to give participants an opportunity to share their experiences with one another, build community and craft practices of ‘being in common’. IST not only connects participants with one another, but with supporting institutions, such as counselling services offered at the Barbara Schlifer Clinic, as well as other feminist, housing and immigrant organizations in Toronto. Participants also visit relevant organizations, such as courts and health care facilities, which connects theory to practice and enhances their understanding of domestic violence and language interpretation. Gaining first hand experience in a range of relevant institutions and spaces in the city, participants are oriented toward ‘action’, which can include, but also exceed, their work as language interpreters. The ties built in this training program develop a sense of shared struggle, which can be mobilized to tackle a range of issues in the community. To keep this focus in view, IST regularly seeks input from participants into the nature of its programs, gathering feedback which it incorporates into a process of ongoing renewal. In this way, participants are conceived not as passive recipients of social services and care, but rather, as active collaborators in the construction of the program and an ethics of care.

The final element of Interpreter Services Toronto’s approach is not only oriented toward training immigrant women and providing relevant connections and supports, but to transforming the broader regulatory terrain in which they operate. To engage in this larger project of ‘social change’ (rather than ‘social service’) work, IST works with a variety of other organizations confronting violence against women, racism, and precarity. One organization they work with is their umbrella organization, Barbra Schlifer, an organization well known for its work helping women (as well as for its advocacy work at the local, provincial, national and international scales). Interpreter Services’ ties to Barbra Schlifer enable it to expand beyond its training function to mobilize for broader policy changes. While IST is run separately, and raises its own funding, the sharing of resources, anti-oppression expertise and staff enhances the organization’s ability to realize its social mandate. Together with Barbra Schlifer, IST also forms partnerships with other community organizations such as the Ontario Association of Interval and Transitional Houses (OAITH), an organization committed to ending gender-based inequality and violence. Member organizations include sexual assault centers, shelters and other agencies engaging in research, teaching and advocacy. Together these organizations lobby government to address systemic violence against women.

In addition, the organization works with the Toronto Enterprise Fund (TEF) to exchange knowledge and resources with other social enterprises and to grow an alternative economic ecosystem. Building networks across a range of organizations helps expand possibilities for lobbying and scaling up political mobilization, which can be challenging when WISEs work independently. These connections are key to upholding the organization’s commitment to a feminist ethics of care; one that situates individualsas well as support organizationsas part of wider structural bodies. In this way, the fate of individuals is conditioned by wider socio-political institutions.


Many alternative economic development organizations and non-profit labour market intermediaries (such as WISEs) are constrained by their ties to an increasingly neoliberal state. They are also stymied by their top-down approach, which often reproduces relations of dependency, as well as histories of racism, colonialism and heteronormativity. Like all WISEs, Interpreter Services Toronto struggles with these limitations, especially with its ties to state imperatives and funding. However, the organization seeks to transcend the fate of many non-profits, which end up merely flanking the market and reproducing existing relations of gendered, racial, sexual and class inequality. Through its emphasis on a feminist and anti-racist praxis and its attempts to build ties both among participants and with a multitude of other organizations, IST attempts to forge a space and ethics of care (see also Heather Mclean’s article in this series), one that not only supports the well-being and social reproduction of the individual, but enhances their capacity to engage in broader practices of mutual aid and advocacy (see also Kern and Mclean’s work). It is in these broader networks and relations that the transformative potential of IST comes into view, and with it, the possibility of constructing alternative urban economic logics and policies.

Deborah Leslie is a Professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. Her work focusses on urban economic development, labour, cultural industries and commodity chains.

Norma M. Rantisi is a Professor in the Department of Geography, Planning & Environment at Concordia University, Montreal/Tio’tia:ke. Her work focuses on urban economic development/economic geography and she collaborates with Deborah in examining the neoliberalization of labour market intermediation. She is an editor of Progressive City: Radical Alternatives.

The views and interpretations offered in this article represent those of the authors alone, and do not reflect the views of those working for or participating in the programs associated with Interpreter Services Toronto.




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