Margeaux Feldman: A teacher, writer, community-builder and safe-space producer

Margeaux Feldman is an educator, a PhD candidate, a writer, a queer woman, an event producer and a person who is helping the world become better allies. A powerful speaker, a body-love advocate and a community-builder, Margeaux is committed to doing more than fighting back and making things right. She’s here for the long-lasting impact, the eternal lessons, the resistance and the irreplaceable experiences, too.

We connected with Margeaux to learn more about her dreams of teaching the world to adopt allyship in more ways than identifying as such on a social media bio. We also chatted with her about an upcoming opportunity in Toronto for the city to gather and talk about unruly bodies.

Read our interview below for more details on what Margeaux has in store this summer.

  1. What inspired you to want to empower others?

The idea for the services I offer on my website came out of feeling frustrated and disillusioned with my life in academia. I’d spent so many years reading critical theory written by queer folks, POC, indigenous writers, women, disabled and mad folks, and had been working on this dissertation that I do really care about. But I couldn’t help but wonder: How is this research going to help those who actually need it?

In most cases, if my dissertation does become a book, it’ll be read by a community of academics who will [consume] it for their research, plunk in a quotation into whatever they’re working on and then forget about it. Being an academic is a privileged position. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all academics experience a whole lot of privilege. Don’t get me started on what the amazing folks at York University are doing to make it above the poverty line. But within the university, we have the time to read the works of critical thinkers who have the power to shape our thinking for the better. Not everyone has the time or energy to educate themselves like that, let alone navigate all of the jargon found in so many critical texts.

I wanted to take the knowledge and skills I obtained from my time in academia and translate that knowledge to serve a wider audience, so that those who are more marginalized than I am can receive better support from [people] who want to be allies, but don’t know where to start.

  1. In 2018 with so much political unrest, how would you describe an ally?

Oh this is such a great question. I was just at this amazing event called, “NO GOING BACK: A Town Hall Meeting,” and the question of allyship came up. I think it was Vivek Shraya[, a Toronto-based artist], who observed (and I’m paraphrasing) how all-white panels are never asked questions about allyship.

And yet, when the panel is made up of marginalized folks – and Indigenous, Black and People of Colour (IBPOC) in particular – someone always asks a question about how white people can be better allies. I’ve never quite understood why this question has always made me deeply uncomfortable. But I think that Vivek’s point helped me realize that my discomfort comes from the fact that marginalized folks are consistently asked to teach white people how to be better. This is a form of emotional labour that feels deeply unnecessary considering how much information is available on the Internet.

For me, an ally isn’t someone who needs to stand up and scream, “I’m an ally!” That’s performative allyship. An ally is someone who constantly thinks about their power and privilege and looks for ways to elevate the voices of those more marginalized. This might mean that you have to offer your seat to someone else (both literally and metaphorically). An ally is someone who does the work of educating themselves and figures out ways they can show up – whether that be by attending a rally or by choosing to only read and buy books written by IBPOC, queer, disabled and otherwise marginalized [groups]. You have to live your allyship, whatever form that might take.

The other thing I’d say is that being an ally is a process. You’re never done learning how to be an ally and so, if you feel like you’ve reached peak allyship, you may want to get curious about that.

  1. CBC recently published a video with host Jessi Cruickshank talking to children about Pride and sexual diversity. She encourages the children in the video to become allies themselves. There have been many positive reactions to this video, as well as numerous disapproving remarks. Why is having open conversation with kids about sexual diversity so important?

OMG, where do I even start here? Because it’s a part of being a human in the world? Because we should celebrate diversity? But for real, from such a young age kids already know there’s something messed up about the gender binary and heteronormativity. I think of how many children assigned male at birth and socialized as boys want to wear dresses and don’t see anything wrong with that. Or in my case, I knew that I was attracted to all genders by the time I was 10 or 11. It really sucks when I see cis adult men in my life express a desire to wear nail polish or makeup, but feel like they can only do that in private. Makeup is so much fun! Nail polish looks great! Why do these things need to be limited to women and labelled as feminine? And why can’t folks just take whatever pieces they want from femininity and masculinity and anything in between and do it without fear or shame or other bad feelings?

An old high school friend recently posted a photo of her young son wearing a dress and he was so happy and it made me feel like crying. The idea that there are kids growing up today who feel like they can be whomever they want gives me so much hope for the world.

  1. What are some of the educational tactics you use to teach people to become better allies?

I always start my teaching – whether it’s in the classroom at the university or a workshop for an organization – by talking about my commitment to non-mastery. We’ve grown up in a patriarchal, colonial mindset focused on mastery: you must know everything and if you don’t know something, just fake it ‘till you make it because god forbid you admit that you’re still learning and that we’re all still learning. To me, the most growth and learning comes when we can all admit that we don’t “get it” yet.

One of the biggest barriers I see happening in terms of allyship is that there’s so much fragility and fear around messing up that people either won’t even try to figure out what step to take to be a better ally or they get super defensive when they try and mess up and someone calls them on it.

Instead of getting frustrated about the limits of our knowledge, I want us to get curious. If someone has shared something about their experience that doesn’t make sense to you, ask questions, (while of course also checking in to see if they have the capacity to have this conversation with you). Instead of saying, “I don’t get why X makes you feel that way,” say, “Oh, I’ve never thought about it like that. Can I ask you to say more about…?” Or, “I’m going to go home and do some reading about that.”

  1. When are you hosting your next workshop? What is its topic and who do you hope will attend?

The next workshop I have lined up is with the National Youth Poetry Slam volunteer team, which I’m so, so excited about. I’ll be giving a workshop on conflict resolution, so that volunteers can understand strategies for responding to and de-escalating conflict without calling the police.

In terms of my next workshop that’ll be open to the public, I’m in the process of developing a zine-making workshop at Likely General [in Toronto’s west end] for July. The topic will be all about your relationship to your body, particularly for those dealing with chronic illnesses or other forms of disability. It feels weird to say that I hope this workshop will resonate in the community, because I wish that none of us had to navigate the world in chronically ill bodies. But I hope that it will open up a space where folks can work through some of the narratives of internalized ableism and create a more empowering vision of their body.

  1. What method have you found to be most effective when advertising your business?

To be honest, I haven’t been hustling super hard to promote my business at this point. But when I have been promoting the workshops and events I run, Instagram is where I have the biggest following and it is definitely the space where I’ve been able to connect with folks interested in the things that I’m offering.

  1. As a writer, how do you hope your work resonates with others?

I’m a literature student because I believe that books can expose us to new worlds and can create spaces that help us feel recognized and less alone. I’m a writer because I feel like I haven’t really found stories that describe my own experience growing up in the world – and I don’t think that’s because I’ve had a totally singular experience. I hope that my writing has the capacity to open up new worlds for those who haven’t lived through what I have and that it provides a space for others to see themselves, even if our experience isn’t identical.

  1. A few years ago, you read a piece at the Unresolved Feelings event hosted by With/out Pretend in Toronto’s west end. You openly shared a story about a travel-love-affair and the room was full of empathy, humility and relatability. What was this experience like for you?

That was truly one of the most healing experiences for me. When Erin [Klassen, Founder of With/out Pretend], asked me to share a story about unresolved feelings, that experience was very fresh and I knew immediately that it would be the story I’d share. The fallout of that romance had left me feeling super crappy and brought up a lot of old trauma stories about how I must have deserved to have been treated so poorly by that person. Getting up on stage in a room full of humans who just want to hear about your feelings? Well that enabled me to transform my narrative of that experience into something where I could feel empowered. I want to take a minute to say that I’m so grateful to Erin for creating those spaces.

  1. What is the creative process like for you? How were the highs and lows when preparing for the With/out Pretend event mentioned above?

I’ve been really grappling with some negative self-talk about my creative process lately. The reality is that I’ll often have a moment where I feel inspired by an idea or an image and I’ll sit down, start writing and in a few hours, I’ll produce a lot. But I don’t feel that every day and so, I’ve been trying to figure out how to create more structure in my writing process, so I’m also pushing myself to write on days where that spark isn’t present.

In terms of writing the piece for Unresolved Feelings: it was hard. I’d had this epic experience that was just waiting to be written, but the way things ended brought up a lot of trauma from my past. I didn’t want to delve too much into the trauma it brought up – in part because I only had a short period of time in which to tell the story. So, I kind of bracketed that part, knowing that if I felt the need to write about it later, I could.

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Margeaux Feldman. Photo by: Angela Lewis.
  1. On Instagram, you’re transparent about your journey with mental health. Why have you chosen to share your experiences online? What have you learned from being honest with followers and friends?

Sharing my experiences with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety and, more recently, my chronic pain, has been so, so supportive and…the word I keep coming back to is healing? I feel a bit conflicted about that word, as we often think of healing as a process that’s complete, rather than ongoing.

A lot of my research focuses on the history of hysteria and the ways that illness is kept out of the public eye, locked up in hospitals or bedrooms. This isolation enables the ableist belief that the only body of value is the healthy body – and, moreover, if you’re not healthy, then it’s your fault. I want to challenge those narratives. What I’ve learnt through being so vocal on social media is that there is such a huge community of humans who want to love you and support you – and I can’t overstate how powerful that is.

  1. How have your experiences with mental health impacted your roles as both leader and creator?

This is such an interesting question because I guess I’m not sure how to interpret the use of “impacted” and whether I should take it as being a positive impact or a negative one. 

Here’s one answer: I’ve dealt with anxiety since I was a kid and so in that way, I have a hard time thinking about my mental health as some force outside of myself that has had an impact on how I operate. I’m very wary of the ways that many writers and readers romanticize the “tortured writer” and claim being mentally unstable is what has fueled their creativity. But, I also don’t know if I’d be a writer if I didn’t have mental health struggles. The memoir that I’m working on is all about trauma, illness and caregiving, so this book literally wouldn’t exist if I were, “mentally well.”

Another way to answer this question would be that my mental health has made me a more empathetic teacher. I’ve heard so many students talk about professors who make them feel bad for having accessibility needs and that just makes me so unbelievably angry. One way I try to combat the shame my students experience is to talk openly about my mental and physical health. Some would say that talking about such personal things with your students isn’t professional, to which I would obviously disagree. But, I mean, they can also Google me and find my writing online, where I talk very openly about my mental health, so why not be open with them about it to begin with?

  1. How would you describe Toronto’s creative communities and industries? Are there any gaps that you immediately think of?

As someone who grew up in the suburbs outside of Toronto, I feel like Toronto’s creative community is so vibrant! There are always readings and performances to go to, so much so that I often have to miss a lot of them because I can’t do them all. That being said, one gap I noticed recently is that there isn’t a single reading series or open mic event that explicitly centres the voices of women, trans and non-binary folks. If there is one, please let me know! I want to attend!

It’s really hard for me to sit back when I see a gap that could be filled and know that I have the time, energy and capacity to do so. So, I’ve teamed up with a friend of mine to create a reading series that does just that, and we’re super stoked that the first event will be happening in September 2018 at Glad Day Bookstore. We’re hoping we can build a little collective, so we can share the labour of curating readers for each event, but also because I love any and all opportunities to collaborate.

  1. What are some of your personal or professional aspirations for the summer?

This is the first summer where I decided to not apply for teaching, which feels pretty wild. This past year has been a real punch in the gut: my dad died in October 2017, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in March and I recently found out that I’m being evicted. Because my rent is absurdly low, I have the privilege of taking some time to rest and replenish from the past year. The other motivation for not taking on teaching was that I want to focus on writing my memoir. Beyond that, I’d love to get more writing published, to develop more workshop offerings and be reading my writing in public more.

  1. When reaching for these goals, who or what will motivate you to keep pushing forward and to keep making things happen?

Definitely my community. I’m still grappling with a lot of imposter syndrome around calling myself a writer and will often reach out to friends or to my partner to reassure me that I am, well, a writer. But I’m also motivated by the community outside of my own bubble. I want to be contributing things to the world that make a difference in other people’s lives. I can’t destroy the colonial, neoliberal, hetero-patriarchy (as much as I want to). But I can write and create spaces that can hopefully help people feel held, supported, and cared for.

  1. On Sun. July 8, you’re producing an event called Unruly Bodies, working closely with With/out Pretend. What about this event is so significant?

One of the most vulnerable and generous things you can do – for me, anyways – is get up on a stage in front of a room full of strangers and share something personal. I’ve gotten so much from events that I’ve participated in or been to. With this event, I really wanted to create a space to talk about the body. I’ve been chronically ill for over two years now. During this process, I have searched for books that talked about autoimmune diseases and other forms of chronic illness and finding stories allowed me to feel like I wasn’t alone. So I thought: why not create a night of stories where folks who share the experience of having an unruly body can meet each other?

Partnering with Erin felt like a no-brainer. She has so much experience in organizing events and having her do so much of the behind the scenes stuff meant that I could commit myself to curating an amazing roster of speakers.

  1. What can audiences expect to see and experience at Unruly Bodies?

Get ready to have a lot of feelings! I’m so excited about each and every one of the speakers, some of whom I know personally, others whom I only know from the Internet and some that I’ll be getting to know for the first time. I think it’s going to be really cool to see how each speaker engages with the topic and to see so many different genres of writing and storytelling – everything from poetry and spoken word to non-fiction.

  1. Event management is a job in itself. What are some of the strategies you use to juggle all of the projects you’re working on?

I just had a LOL moment there because here’s where I get super nerdy: DAY PLANNER, DAY PLANNER, DAY PLANNER! I live and die by my paper day planner. I’ll look at all of my deadlines and figure out what needs to happen by the end of the week and then sit down and look at things day by day. One thing I’ve learnt is that having manageable, tangible goals goes a long way. So instead of writing, “work on Unruly Bodies event,” I’d put, “email Erin about poster.”

I’ve also been using system called, “productivity journaling with limitations,” created by Esmé Weijun Wang that has been SUPER helpful. One other strategy I use is flexibility. Sometimes I’ll wake up, jot down my to-do list for the day and then realize that my brain is foggy or I’m feeling sad or maybe I’m feeling more inspired to work on a different thing. I give myself permission to change up my tasks so that I can feel good about what I’m working on.

  1. Do you have any advice for any aspiring creators?

Don’t be afraid to reach out to those you admire and ask for help. I couldn’t have achieved any of the things I’ve done without community. If you don’t feel like you know a lot of people who are creators, start looking into meetups and different events. Obviously networking can be a terrifying thing, but if you’re going to the right events, you’ll find that you’re not alone in feeling that way.

I recently led a zine-making workshop for Syzygy and couldn’t recommend their events enough.

  1. Where can our readers go to learn more about you and sign up for one of your upcoming Workshops?

The easiest place would be my website: margeauxfeldman.com. I’m also super active on Instagram and post information for readings I’m giving, talks I’m doing and workshops I’m facilitating on my stories and in my posts.

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Margeaux Feldman. Photo by: Jessica Laforet.

Thank you, Margeaux, for crafting such open and detailed responses to our questions. We can’t wait to see how the Unruly Bodies event goes on Sun. July 8.

Readers, get your tickets in advance for $12. Pro tip: With/out Pretend events usually sell out quickly.

The feature photo is by Jessica Laforet.

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