Borne from the desire to collaborate and work toward inclusivity, The Coven is the newest community workspace for women and non-binary folks.
By Grace Birnstengel and Joanna R. Demkiewicz
Images by Bethany Birnie of AquaFox Photography
Two years ago, four women working in advertising in Minneapolis came together under a common goal: to create space and time for women to connect. Erinn Farrell, Liz Giel, Bethany Iverson and Alex West Steinman first collaborated via MPLS MadWomen, an organization that was initially established to connect women in advertising but broadened to include women working in other creative industries. In 2016, they cofounded the North Leadership Council, which brings agency leaders from across the Twin Cities together to tackle issues of diversity and inclusion.
“A lot of agencies and organizations have their diversity group, or they have their women’s group or whatever it is, but we kept finding this overwhelming need for women to connect to others across agency lines,” West Steinman says. “It was kind of a revolutionary concept to say, ‘Let’s just get all these people in the same room together, and let’s start to build these relationships.’”
Then, the 2016 presidential election happened. Alongside the thousands who felt driven by Trump’s win to enact social changes—shout-out to all the women running for office, and to those who were elected in 2017—the election was a major springboard of action for these women to do more. Their ongoing practice of bringing women together to network and support one another in different spaces transformed into one physical community workspace, following a similar model of The Wing in New York and The Riveter in Seattle. Now, there is The Coven in Minneapolis.
“It’s having a container where all of the empowerment and growth that women see can live across all industries, all races, all socio-economics backgrounds under one roof,” Farrell says. “Truly creating a coven of women, because when women are together they create real magic.”
The Coven offers annual memberships to women and non-binary folks including access to a workspace, programming, classes, workshops and events. In February The Coven will have a soft launch for founding members, and the space will publically launch March 1.
We chatted with three out of the four Coven founders about their 5-for-1 scholarship model, going beyond an advertising focus and the witchery and Wiccan-consulting behind The Coven.
The Riveter: Women co-working spaces exist in other places in the country. How will The Coven be different from those spaces? Are you hoping to establish a national network with these spaces?
Farrell: We have been inspired by the other women-only co-working spaces. [One difference is that] The Riveter in Seattle allows men. It’s much more of a co-working space—you can rent offices and desks. There’s another space opening in the Twin Cities area called ModernWell that is a similar kind of model. They are very centered on yoga, wellness and creative writing, which is rad. The Wing in New York is a home base for working women. Ours is much more focused on creating a community and workspace. The Coven’s workspace itself is coffee shop style co-working. You don’t have your own office or permanent desk. You can get work done there all day long, but it’s not meant to be privatized.
In regard to a network, we just did a Skype call with Amy Nelson of The Riveter [in Seattle]. We wanted to get a sense of the lessons she had, and she was wonderful in her insights. She’s building a very different model. She’s building for scale. She wants to open 100 Riveters. She was very open with us and said someday she’d like [The Riveter] to be in Minneapolis, and that’s rad. We want there to be enough spaces for all of us. We have much more of a co-op mindset in how we want to grow. At some of these other spaces, it might be less about getting access to them and more about the women leading the spaces sharing their insights, candor and honesty with one another.
The Riveter: The Coven offers 5-for-1 scholarships meaning that 20 percent of your members in 2018 will receive a fully paid for membership. This is part of your commitment to bridging the inequities that make paying for a membership a challenge for some folks, and you’re prioritizing granting scholarships to those from historically marginalized backgrounds. Could you talk more about where that model came from, how you hope it grows and how communities will be able to access The Coven through that or through other programs?
Iverson: We’re in a moment where people are saying: How can we be profitable and still do something that has a positive impact on the world? We come from that same mindset. We talked about doing a sliding scale fee or a sponsorship model. The 5-for-1 model seemed the simplest—immediately people get it. We talk about it as a first step forward. We would be fooling ourselves if we said a 5-for-1 scholarship model was going to address the predominantly racial disparity we see in this city, but we said, “Let’s try that and see what happens.” We’ve talked about doing micro-grants, which we’ll be kicking off in March as well—a grant-making program. We’re super open to what it means to build a truly inclusive and intersectional space. In Minneapolis you hear a lot that there aren’t people of color [here]. We disagree. We see and know a lot of people of color in Minneapolis.
The Riveter: Tell us about the name The Coven and referring to women as “witches”—what that means to you and what it means in terms of creating a space.
West Steinman: Women create magic when they’re together in a space. Every aspect of our business has been built on meeting one woman and she introduces us to seven more women. It’s this growing and heart-beating coven of magical women who hold space together. The name was more about not just the four of us but our collective community. One of our mantras is “do the most good.” It comes from Wiccan culture. Witch has such a biting tone to it, and to some people it feels like a negative thing. We’re reclaiming what that means, reclaiming that word, which a lot of people are doing lately. The words “coven” and “witch” mean something really powerful to us.
Farrell: We did our research, and we had our conversations because we wanted to make sure we weren’t doing anything that was culturally insensitive or that we were appropriating a culture. Once we had those conversations and we met with interfaith groups and Wiccans and knew that we weren’t, we felt really good about that.
The Riveter: What were your conversations like with Wiccan communities?
Iverson: We talked with women who had been practicing for a long time. There was a curiosity like, “You’re not Wiccans, so talk about that.” The witches we spoke with were like, “Here’s the deal with being Wiccan. If you are on a mission to do the most good, then that is the blessing of real witches, that you go out into the world and do the most good.” There was very much a curiosity of, “What is your motivation?” When we talked about all the things we wanted to do, that’s when they were like, “Cool. Do it. Make it happen.” Does that mean all witches will feel good about the name? No, I don’t think so, and I think we’d be fooling ourselves if we were thinking no witch was going to have a problem with The Coven.
The Riveter: The Coven isn’t an advertising focused space, but you all met through advertising. How will you create programs, events, resources or committees to make sure that folks from other industries feel like they have programming that relates to their professional lives?
West Steinman: From the very beginning we were very intentional about not making this something about advertising. When we were interviewing hundreds of women over the summer and even today, we would reach out to five women in our network and ask them to bring a friend outside of our network. That could be somebody in finance or the medical field. That could be somebody who is creative in the arts or somebody in investment banking. Our story is unremarkable in advertising because every other industry has the same issues—the diversity initiatives that corporations are putting in place on the whole are not working. We are 100 percent open to new ideas, to learning and growing with our community. We don’t claim to know everything about diversity and inclusion. If someone is feeling like they’re not included in something, we want to know that and learn how to better serve them. It’s not necessarily their job to educate us on how to do that, but it’s our job to go seek that education.
The Riveter: Last question, which isn’t even a question: Brag about yourselves. [This question is inspired by the women running Clipped, a newsletter about women’s magazines.]
Farrell: Speaking as a group, with the four of us together, I am constantly reminded and taken aback by our bravery. There have been so many opportunities to step out. There have been so many opportunities to say, “We can create change in other ways.” We all live very full lives and have done amazing things in many places in our lives. We have kept each other on path and on track for this. It has come at the expense of a lot of hours and time and a lot that has been given up, but there is so much that we are creating. I don’t think any one of us could do it on our own.
Grace Birnstengel is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis and working in St. Paul. She’s the associate editor at PBS’ Next Avenue, a contributor at Stereogum and an editor at The Riveter where she writes the “New Radio” music column. Follow her on Twitter @grace__ and Instagram @gracebirnstengel.
Joanna R. Demkiewicz is a co-founder and the editorial director of The Riveter. She works as a book publicist for Milkweed Editions, an independent literary press in Minneapolis. She is a freelance editor for The Sager Group’s “Women in Journalism” anthology series. Follow her on Twitter @yanna_dem and Instagram @yannademkiewicz.