From 2015 to early October 2017, I was involved in an online community by the writer and self proclaimed feminist marketing consultant Kelly Diels - first called “How to Sell to Women Without Selling Them Out,” and later changed to “We are the Culture Makers.” Kelly built a large and vibrant community of social and cultural changemakers who look critically at manipulative practices in the online business world, through the lens of an analysis of the “Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand,” a phenomenon Kelly named.
In October 2017, Kelly shut down her community after several women of color came out publicly in protest of racist and exploitative behavior on her part.
Since then, the community -- uprooted from its home in “We are the Culture Makers” -- has been putting together the pieces of what happened, as more people come forward with their stories. Rumors of intellectual property theft and other predatory practices are spreading in addition to the stories of racism; but until all of the facts are in and stories are told, the rumors only serve to fuel an attack, and not to provide context and understanding.
I have my own story to tell, in this spirit of context and understanding. People need information, and we all need to learn from what has happened and move forward more knowledgeable about how predatory business practices work.
Telling this story marks a break with my long-held commitment never to engage in a public attack against another woman. But as Staci Jordan Shelton has come to help me understand, information and accountability are not the same thing as attack and annihilation. Abusive behavior must be interrupted, and stories told, for healing to occur.
I hope that this letter will, along with the others that have been written and are being written alongside mine, serve as a “calling in” for Kelly. She has a big opportunity before her: to listen, feel and learn, and to acknowledge her behavior and change. It would be a long process, and mostly one that would not happen in the public eye. I truly wish the best for Kelly, and I wish the best for every one of us, as we seek to end the ethos of exploitation that pervades our culture.
Kelly Diels stole my work: at first an appropriation, and then a blatant theft. It damaged my business and compromised my brand. It has happened to others too, and their stories will be told. Here is mine.
“WE ARE THE CULTURE MAKERS:” a history.
My background as an artist includes the institutional art world of galleries, museums and academia, and also of community art and participatory arts communities - brave spaces where artists and cultural workers are engaged in leveraging creative processes and human imagination to make change in their communities.
In that world, there resides a shared understanding that culture -- as the sum total of private, public, individual and collective action by a given group of people -- is created and recreated by the people, every day. It is a given that all people are world makers, culture builders...culture makers.
The languages, rituals, traditions, slang, body movements, foods, emotional expressions, musical expressions, methods of play and debate and communication, object making, image making, religious expressions, fashion, decoration, ornamentation, storytelling, dreaming, visions, forms of labor, and modes of resistance and defiance by any person or groups of people are significant, precious, unique, and VITALLY CRITICAL contributions that are to be protected and defended like any ecosystem.
These inherent cultural forms, with their indwelling histories and heritages and evolutions, can be consciously nurtured and released into the world as the liberating forces that they are. The cultural ground of our beings, as individuals and collectives, are a massive force for change when we recognize them as such.
This perspective stands in polar opposition to the settler mindset, the colonial agenda, and its culture of mass consumption. We are not here to consume the endless stream of toxic misinformation that is designed to crush our self-determination: we are the creators of our world. This perspective makes us dangerous, makes us effective, makes us unstoppable and makes us free.
The idea that we are all culture makers is not an idea that is branded or trademarked by anyone - it is collectively held perspective that gains nuance and meaning with every action taken by those of us tending the disciplines, theories, and legacies of community based and social justice arts in the US - and not just there. This is a perspective held in indigenous ways of knowing and countless other communities and peoples marginalized by or exploited by the “dominant” cultures the world over. Art and culture making have always been deeply central to human thriving.
I came to the world of online entrepreneurship gently holding this perspective in my hands. Not as something I owned, but simply a point of view to share. Arriving here, it was immediately obvious to me that building a brand new business was another act of influencing, affecting, and sometimes even creating new culture; and that many in these spaces hadn’t thought about it that way.
As changemakers who are building businesses in a time of advanced capitalism, we are in the tricky place of having to learn to survive within the current economic system while living into our visions for its replacement - and in navigating those contradictions, we can, and do, co-create our business culture every single day. We are creating communities that anticipate and prepare for the world to come. This is important for us to claim and acknowledge.
To see ourselves as creators of our culture is a stance that calls us into responsibility, accountability, creativity, and vision.
When I met Kelly and joined her Facebook group which was then called “How to Sell to Women Without Selling Them Out,” I was relieved to find someone who seemed to be challenging the more frustrating and mystifying aspects of small business culture and practices. I hired her for a session, and we started to get friendly, sharing ideas and appreciating each other’s work. We began to speak of collaborating and finding ways to merge our work, her as a writer, me as a visual artist. I joined her mastermind group.
She was particularly inspired and fascinated by my perspective on culture making.
After several months of sharing ideas, she disappeared, not responding to my calls or chat messages for a while.
A couple of months later, she changed the name of her group to “We Are The Culture Makers”...and as time passed, that became her key marketing message, her web site rallying cry, the center of her brand.
Unable to see clearly what was happening, I doubted myself. Well, she IS a culture maker, by my definition, isn’t she? I don't OWN this idea, so why am I feeling competitive? What’s with this “scarcity mentality,” I am experiencing -- isn’t there enough room for all of us here? I have no right to own a phrase like that!
The rules of the entrepreneurship game are decidedly different than the shared culture making ethos of the community art world I came from; and the economics of collaboration are different - hence one facet of the dissonance I was feeling. Another: everyone around me seems to love and trust her. What’s my problem?
It took some time for me to realize that what she had done was impacting my business. She turned the attention away from a body of teachings I was carefully stewarding, and turned it towards the spectacle of her brand declaration. Only after culture makers got appropriated and edified into her brand did I feel how important the proper stewarding of this particular cultural offering was to my very heart and soul.
And now I was being recast by her, with her bigger platform and rapid-fire prolific writing, as someone who was inspired by her perspective, rather than the opposite. And people began relating to me that way.
It's easy to describe all this now and see it for what it was; but at the time, I was just confused, and as I am inclined to do, I wrote much of it off as my own issues I need to work on.
And then she stole more of my work, so blatantly that I could not longer avoid it.
FEMINIST MARKETING SCHOOL MONTH 7: A History.
Over the long period of many months that the above story was unfolding, I hired Kelly for four sessions, to help me write copy for my web site.
Kelly helped me write a clear marketing message which defined the scope of the problems I address in my business and their solutions. We mapped out the narrative together, taking my long-form writings and filtering them through Kelly’s pithy and powerful copywriting techniques. By the end of session three, the story was fully developed, and the plan for the final session was to flesh out some of the other pages for my web site.
Our final session never happened. Once again, Kelly disappeared, and once again, I decided it must be because she had “so much going on” in her life. I had heard rumors about a big new project in development called Feminist Marketing School (FMS). I was excited to hear about it, and to discuss the collaborations we had long planned -- because surely sucha school would include teachings on images.
So I let her off the hook for Session 4. Part of that was because she was so hard to track down (she was ghosting me, I see now) -- and part of it was that I needed time to sit with this creeping feeling that somehow, over the course of our sessions, my work - its heart, it's voice, its spirit - was becoming hers. When I read the copy, I was reading Kelly’s voice, not mine. My work is about SO VERY MUCH MORE than the Female Lifestyle Empowerment brand, and my methodologies go well beyond the type of critical pattern-spotting and formulaic solutions that Kelly uses in her own work - but my new copy felt limited to her way of thinking, and were losing the depth of my background and thinking.
Then a dear friend called. “Kelly just launched Feminist Marketing School. Have you seen Module 7? You might find it familiar.”
And there it was. In logic, structure and content: the key marketing messages we worked out in my sessions with her, which I had not yet published for myself, were copied, almost verbatim. The work we had done for my brand had became it the basis for an entire month of FMS offerings, without any communication with me whatsoever. In essence, I paid Kelly to develop and then steal my work.
The mirage vanished and suddenly I could see the manipulative marketer behind the curtain, pulling the strings. I had been groomed, in a highly transactional relationship that created the appearance of a friendship (but only barely) - for this moment of theft. My relative inexperience with online digital marketing, my fears about doing it right, my commitment to collaboration and idea sharing, and my fear of calling out someone with a much larger platform and on whom I felt dependant - were all manipulated, while she harvested what she wanted from her insider’s view of my business, only to publish it as her own.
Turns out she messed with the wrong culture maker.
I wrote to her, telling her I could see what she did, and to remove my work immediately from her sales page. She responded with the assertion that she is “allowed to talk about images,” but she valued our relationship so she would be happy to let me go through the sales page with her and make adjustments so it would feel better.
My response, in my second email: This is not yours to adjust. It is not yours to invite collaboration on. Remove all evidence of my work from your work immediately. No negotiation, collaboration or compromise.
So by the deadline I gave her, she rewrote Module 7, scaling it all the way back to what her own work prepares her to do regarding images (which is not much).
She knew what she had done: otherwise she would not have taken it down. She wouldn’t have offered to hire a mediator so we could work out our feelings. And she wouldn’t have asked me not to talk about it publicly.
She never acknowledged the theft. Never apologized. Only defense, justification, and and attempt to cover up.
For a long time, I didn’t tell. Partially, because I felt alone. I wasn't sure who would believe me, and she has - had - much more power in these spaces than I did.
But then I didn't share because I found out about more people with the same issue -- I was considering joining in a lawsuit against her, and needed to remain confidential for that to be valid.
As it became clear that Feminist Marketing School was constructed on a weak skeleton of appropriated work and exploited labor, a handful of us began strategizing about an intervention and a calling out. And just as we were about to do that...
White supremacy was once again aimed at women of color in Kelly’s community, and she dropped the ball, justified, defended. And thanks to the brave work of Alexis Morgan and many others, the whole house of cards began to tumble down. It turns out, there were far more stories to tell, and ones that were far more damaging to people than mine.
Thank you for listening to my story.
May we all claim our confidence as culture makers.
May we all figure out what that really means, together.
May we all learn to survive and thrive in this world, while living into the world we wish to create.
May we keep creating communities that anticipate and model the world to come.
May we face the hardest things we need to face in order to stop perpetuating the violence installed in us.
May we have courage.
May we find healing and redemption on ourselves and our communities, including those among us who have been harmed, and those among us who are lost in ways that cause harm.
May we all protect, defend, and cherish the cultural treasures and legacies that we each carry.
May we be confident and encouraged to create new culture together in life-giving collaborations that do not exploit.
May we create.