COMM-ORG Papers 2005

Rabinovitch--Transforming Community Practice


Contents | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Notes & References | Appendices

Chapter 3 - Five Community Practice Examples

My first experience with transformative community practice occurred years before I heard of community practice of any kind. It was 1974 and I had been hired to manage a student summer employment program for the provincial government. The program included a provision to pay one hundred percent of student wages for those who were physically disabled and fifty percent for those who were not.

I spent some months promoting the program and helping employers apply for their subsidies. In most circumstances, employers received half of the student wages. I guess that was enough. No one seemed interested in hiring students with a disability. It seemed a shame to me not to take advantage of this opportunity. As project officer, I knew there was no limit to how many disabled youth one employer was allowed to hire. I approached a service club and asked them, as a non-profit society, to sponsor an application for a project. When they said they were willing to do so, I located a special school in the same geographic community as the service club at which all of the students were severely physically disabled. One boy was permanently bed ridden and had to attend school lying down. At the time, the students in this school had no expectation of ever earning a wage. I met with them and asked them to think of something they could do for the summer that would qualify as work so they would be paid for their efforts. I met with the senior class several times and together we developed a proposal to create and distribute a newsletter for disabled youth province-wide. The students received an hourly wage, which was a boost to their self-esteem and gave them a sense of possibility. Seeing these young people work on their newsletter gave me a sense of possibility as well.

In order to provide a cohesive chronological overview, this chapter includes a brief description of my experience of the last twelve years, 1992-2003, working with homeless men, street women, sex workers and sexually exploited youth. Examples and references are used to illustrate transformative community practice, to make it more meaningful and understandable.

My community practice work evolved out of a strong commitment to social action and my scholarly work builds on that commitment. This work has allowed me to know those communities, to talk with their members about the process of change in which we are collaboratively engaged, and to recognize the importance of transformative community practice. In my experience, the most productive course of action and the best decisions emerge through day-to-day relationships which allow trust to be developed over time. The opportunity to build such relationships exists in many different environments and practitioners in all of them are able to engage in transformative community practice.

Theory developed from experience in the field combined with qualitative analysis and investigation is reflected in this dissertation. Through a close examination of five projects, I have developed a theoretical model adapted from what O’Donnell and Karanja identify as transformative community practice.

Theoretical Framework

When embarking on a doctoral program in the social sciences, the usual practice is to develop a research question, construct a research project and engage in research in an appropriate context. When the field of research is that of marginalized populations and the focus of the work is the practice of effective community organizing, it would be antithetical to engage in traditional social science research methodology. Instead, I am using an analysis of my actual practice experience. This is a variation of what Patton calls “qualitative, utilization-focussed research,” which is intended for practitioners in a wide range of fields in order to facilitate discussion about effective practices. This places me in the tradition of “generating practical and useful knowledge for action” (78). Patton argues that those with more power have more access to constructing realities since views of reality are socially constructed and culturally embedded (100). Social constructions are presumed to serve someone’s interests, usually the interests of the powerful (101). Beginning from the viewpoint that different stakeholders have different experiences and perceptions, my work offers a theoretical framework for shifting the emphasis in the fields of health and social services from the perception of the professional to that of the experiential community member.

Although I do not wish to construct an artificial us/them consciousness, the examples that follow are necessarily described from the perspective of the change agent, (and it is other change agents, current and future, whom I particularly wish to address). I have not been able to describe this role without resorting to words that distinguish the change agent from the community. Thus, I use the words “us” and “them” at times. No disrespect is intended.

The blurring of “us” and “them” was best illustrated for me at a conference I helped to organize in 1998. Out from the Shadows: International Summit of Sexually Exploited Youth (Summit) included youth participants who were current or former sex workers from ten countries in the Americas, conference organizers, volunteers, many of whom I knew to be lesbian feminists, and a few observers from international non-governmental organizations including a number of United Nations agencies. As an opening exercise, we played a game common to conferences. A specific quality or trait was called out and everyone who shared it joined together. We began with safe topics. Everyone wearing a skirt collected in one corner, everyone wearing blue jeans in another, everyone wearing black trousers in another. Groups were encouraged to chat briefly and move on to the next. Then all parents were grouped together, all Spanish speakers and, eventually, people were grouped by sexual orientation. When one of the men in suits from a UN agency joined the gay and lesbian contingent, his relationship to the youth participants dramatically altered and remained permanently changed throughout the five-day conference. In a significant way, and despite his appearance and position, he was no longer one of “them.” To many of the youth he had become one of “us.”

I am not alone in struggling with a distinction between the change agent and the experiential community. Many experiential communities have a strong sense of insider/outsider that takes considerable time and effort to overcome. In fact, moving beyond such separation is a significant part of the change agent’s work. I am frequently made aware of difference by the women and men with whom I work. They identify those of us who have no experience in sex work as “squares” and themselves as “experiential.” For them, there is a clear and obvious difference between us. I know it is important to acknowledge their reality and my own privilege. I do not pretend that our experience is the same even though at a recent meeting of the National Coalition of Experiential Women I was designated an “honorary ho.” At the same time, I recognize that we work together and that, ultimately, there is no need to separate our work into an “us” and “them.”

Introduction to the Projects

I identify the following as stories rather than case studies because they provide description and analysis of experience. Stories are an important “way of knowing, an articulation of experience” (Christ in Aptheker 41/2) whereas case studies tend to highlight factors and variables. What does it mean to tell one’s story? For the many people I work with, it means speaking from the heart, sometimes describing the details of their lives, at other times reflecting on lessons learned from experience. It means knowing that someone is listening and that one’s words and ideas are being taken seriously. In this way, isolation is broken down.

The five community projects described below were initiated within a specific political context. Provincially, the party which formed the government during most of these years was the New Democratic Party (NDP), a social democratic party in Canada. Although not as progressive as some would like, including myself, the NDP did support many initiatives and provided pockets of funding that might not have been available with any other mainstream political party in Canada. Two of the five projects I will describe were developed with support from the federal government which was, and still is, dominated by the Liberal Party, a political party that varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction in Canada but has maintained a fairly small “l” liberal stance federally.

For each project, a summary is provided that includes information about the background and key players, goals, resources, outcomes, obstacles and learning points or points of transformation. The five projects that follow are described in chronological order although some intersect and others overlap. All but one describe the development and operation of a single new organization or service that emerged as a result of the project. The odd one out is the story of the Summit and the follow-up projects that emerged as a result, which were sponsored by more than one organization. Although all of these stories reference specific individuals, the last two, the Summit and the International Centre to Combat the Exploitation of Children (ICCEC), were initiated by one person with whom I continue to work, Cherry Kingsley. These two stories are, therefore, somewhat different in that the work of the change agent is shared between the author and an experiential community member from the outset. In this instance, the work of the non-experiential change agent shifts somewhat although it remains essential.

Four individuals mentioned in these stories—Lauren Casey, Cherry Kingsley, Megan Lewis, and B. Smith—wanted me to use their real names. All others are identified by pseudonyms and identifying information has been removed to protect their anonymity. Wherever possible I have supplemented my text with the words of participants taken from reports and publications.

Victoria Street Community Association (VSCA)                 

I’d never seen anything like it before. I had never seen people on the street have the opportunity to sit down and make suggestions, and have somebody listening—not necessarily providing them with the hope of getting their individual ideas going, but just the fact that somebody was listening is what attracted me. - Butch Baxter (Rabinovitch 27)

It became quite obvious that there was a strong corps of people willing to create change. I thought this is a new approach, a new focus, far more concerned with self-help than dependency, in terms of creating change. - Tim (Rabinovitch 51)

It was really moving for me. I had seen street people downtown. I had talked to them. But I had never been together with them, all in one place, and heard them talk about what their needs are. I was really moved by what I heard—and angered, as well, because it seemed to me that we didn’t treat these people with the respect they deserve...I felt some sense of shame.- Laura Acton, City Councillor (Rabinovitch 30)

In 1991, while employed by the City of Victoria, Social Planning Department, I was asked to “do something about deinstitutionalization,” a wide spread program to remove people with mental illness from large institutions. One of the unintended outcomes of this policy has been an increase in homelessness and those who are inadequately housed. Many stay in emergency shelters or live in tiny windowless basement rooms. Many spend their days seeking help from one service organization or another, or wander the downtown streets.

After a few months attending committee meetings and listening to what others had to say about the homeless, I decided to visit the homeless where they gathered and talk to them directly. Almost all were male. I asked them how to create a process that would attract other homeless people so that we could work together. I soon realized that to establish a relationship with a group of homeless men would take time and would need more funding than the City was able and willing to provide. Fortunately, the provincial Health Ministry allowed municipalities to apply for funding for a wide range of activities to improve community health, including a consultation process involving homeless men. By this time, I realized I was working almost exclusively with men, which was quite a change from my years as a feminist activist and my work at the women’s transition house. In order to get the resources needed to implement the men’s suggestions, I applied for two years of funding from the Healthy Communities Initiatives Fund. I was granted funds to conduct a consultation process with homeless men and to help with the implementation of their recommendations.

We developed a series of lunch consultations hosted by the city, which continued for almost a year. The first took place in one of the regular drop-in services used daily by members of the street community. More than 40 men showed up. Some were clean and well groomed, while others looked as if they had slept outside the night before, and probably had. Some were on medication. Many were unwilling to follow their doctors’ advice and were labelled non-compliant. Never before had anyone asked them what they needed, or what they wanted as a group. After lunch each was given the opportunity to speak. Even those who rarely spoke did so. At these lunches, over the next weeks and months, the men told their stories and began to suggest solutions, or at least a direction to take to address some of their concerns. Although different men often attended each meeting, eventually a core group emerged.

Many of these homeless men had been on their way to becoming, or had been established as, professionals (municipal planners, university students, social workers, psychiatric nurses, set designers) when they had a psychotic episode, or became severely depressed, or began a slide into alcoholism or other addiction. Over time, they had a number of excellent ideas about what to do to improve their quality of life. With their help, at the end of the first year, in September 1992, I wrote the “Downtown Community Development Project: Phase I Final Report” and presented it to City Council. The report outlined their ideas in thirty recommendations that encompassed housing, community facilities, recreation, health, employment, additional service initiatives and principles and policies to support the outlined initiatives.

During the two years we worked together I got to know many of these men and made a commitment to pay them for their time whenever they provided expertise. I brought some home to meet my children. For example, I met Butch when he was living in his car. He was about my age, slightly balding and with that weathered look that comes from hard drinking. He regaled me with stories from his past and I realized that even if only half were true, this was a man with many skills. I had just decided to have a tree house built for my children in the cherry tree in my back yard, so I asked him if that were something he could do. “No problem,” was his quick reply, followed by, “If you’ve got the tools.” He talked to my son and daughter about the tree house they imagined and created a wonderful one. For years, he called me regularly, to thank me for hiring him when he was homeless. He hasn’t called for a few years. Since he always called when he was drunk, I’m hoping that is a good sign.

I helped the men create their own organization, the Victoria Street Community Association (VSCA). I wrote the funding proposals, set up meetings with government, and invited men from the VSCA to speak at City Hall whenever concerns such as homelessness and deinstitutionalization were on the agenda. We rented an office, first one tiny room, in the only low-rent office building downtown. It was known by some as the “save the world building.” Eventually we rented a small building with space for a lounge area, a wood working shop, computers and offices with room to publish the Red Zone, a newspaper created by street people that they distributed themselves to make a bit of money and to share their stories. With some provincial funding and additional support from the City, some members of the core group of homeless men were hired as VSCA staff.

A major project undertaken by the VSCA in its early days was the development of long-term housing for people designated “hardest to house.” The men wanted to show that even those often accused of wanting to be homeless could be permanently housed on their own terms. We looked at empty lots and rundown motels. When we found a motel for sale that had units with bathrooms and tiny kitchens, they loved it. It seemed to them too good to be true. We convinced the provincial government to buy the motel, pay for some renovations and help the VSCA operate it. The first residents named it Medewiwin, an Ojibway word for an ancient society that provided people with the means to protect themselves from hunger and disease. With stable housing, the residents became healthier and better able to manage independently. At first, there was a need to have staff at Medewiwin to manage the building and support the residents. Over time, many of the residents were able to take over tasks originally done by the paid building manager. Of the eighteen apartments available, the group at the VSCA decided to set aside seven, five for women and two for youth.

We were able to obtain funding for a VSCA coordinator and it was time for me to move on. With the help of a professional coordinator, the VSCA provided a safe and welcoming place for many years. It eventually closed when funding criterion changed and it was clear that the members were never going to “form a permanent attachment to the labour force.” The VSCA continued to manage and operate Medewiwin until the VSCA lost its funding. At that point, arrangements were made for Medewiwin to be operated and managed by another housing resource group in the city, which specialized in social housing for families and seniors. Over half of the original residents of Medewiwin were still there in 2003. That summer, an extension with ten additional apartments was added, funded by the federal government, and providing additional housing for people without a home.

I learned much from the VSCA—the importance of listening to stories, of paying people for their time commitment with food and money, and of working together to implement ideas. The absence of the VSCA is noticeable on the streets of Victoria. With no place of their own, homeless men once again wander the streets trying to fill their time as they wait for soup kitchens and shelters to open. The men who created the VSCA knew they were never destined to “reintegrate” and did not attempt to do so. Their focus was on creating a place for themselves that offered them the opportunity to be integrated and respected, part of the Victoria community, not merely an item on everyone else’s agenda. Sadly, that is what they have become, once again.

Downtown Women’s Project (DWP)

“I feel very lucky and grateful to be a part of this project as it is a lot more than just banging nails and math...I liked getting up in the morning knowing that I had somewhere to go.” (Lasovich 11)

“This was the best year of my life...” (Rangan 19)

“I no longer want to kill myself...I’ve begun to deal with some issues that have hindered me for twenty five years...It has been very empowering to be working alongside, supported by so many incredible women from so many backgrounds...I always felt women were not to be trusted...Working with the crew helped my esteem and confidence because I usually lived in fear of people” (Rangan 20)

 “I stuck the project out - even when I totally wanted to run and sabotage, I didn’t do it permanently.” (Rangan 21) 

The Downtown Women’s Project began in 1994 with a focus on homeless women, more difficult to find because women are not as obviously homeless as men are. Slowly, over a four month period, I found and hired a core group of four women to help organize a series of meetings with other homeless and street women. Since many of the women we wanted to attract worked in the sex trade, on the advice of the core group, the meetings took place in the early evening, before the women started work on the street or in an escort agency. Each time we met it was in a different place. The women chose the next location and I arranged it. We met first at the Alano Club, a downtown drop-in centre operated by Alcoholics Anonymous. Many of the women had spent time there and were taken aback by the misogyny they experienced just walking through the Club to get to the meeting. Some female staff members from mixed shelters also attended and agreed that there was a need for a safe place for women.

It soon became clear that there were no programs or services specifically for street women and what they wanted most was a place where they felt both welcome and safe. We decided to focus on building an emergency shelter just for women. There were no funds for building emergency shelters, but there was a growing commitment to training and employment programs.   

One day Mike, a planner at City Hall, called and said he’d found the perfect house, an illegal bed and breakfast for sale very near to downtown. I arranged to see it, but my heart sank as I walked through. It was a dump. There were two filthy suites at the back, one stacked on top of the other, the bottom one half-buried in dirt. The upstairs was completely separate, little rooms full of dust and broken furniture. The outside was covered with blue asbestos shingles. It was hard to imagine anything uglier. I wanted the women to have someplace nice and I could see it was going to take a lot of money to transform this into anything livable. I had been meeting with Peter and Maurice from the Ministry of Human Resources and called them. They had the money. All I had to do was convince them this made sense. They walked through it with me, and they liked it. The big, old house was bought to provide the site for renovation training. The provincial government was willing to purchase it but wanted to maintain ownership. They requested the Downtown Women’s Project (DWP) find an existing organization to sponsor the project, rather than create a new organization as had been done with the VSCA. We asked a feminist group, the Women’s Shelter Society, to act as our sponsor.

After a year of meeting, talking and planning, funding was found for a training and employment program in construction for street women. Six staff were hired: myself as the project coordinator, a licensed carpenter as shop teacher and construction manager, a counsellor for group work and one-to-one support, a life skills coach whose Aboriginal heritage was a further asset, a mathematics teacher whose work supported the technical skills required for construction, and a writer to document the project.

Many of the women who wanted to participate needed help submitting their application form, so we arranged to have advocates available at the VSCA to assist and ensure that each applicant had a letter from her welfare worker supporting her application. A number of the women who were eventually accepted into the program later told me how they had struggled to get that letter of support. Their workers had told them not to bother to apply because their situations were hopeless and no program would accept them. Twenty street women, out of the more than fifty who applied, were chosen to be trained in construction skills in a space in which we created classrooms and a wood-working shop.

The street women spent seven months learning basic construction, math, English and life skills. Every step of the way was difficult. Only twelve women finished the training program. They became part of the almost all-women crew that turned the old house into an emergency shelter for women. Five of the initial twenty participants are Aboriginal, and thanks in part to the work of the life skills coach, all five were among the eleven that finished out the year. Once on site, the participants were paid an hourly wage. For several of them, the project offered their first experience of community in a positive sense. On hot days neighbours from the seniors’ condominium next door dropped by with juice and cookies. Construction materials were provided at cost from a major supplier. Two television documentaries,  To Live In My House, (60 minutes) shown on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and Building Futures, (30 minutes) shown on the province’s educational channel, the Knowledge Network, were made during the construction, attracting national attention.

At its completion, Sandy Merriman House was honoured as a national best practice model by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a federal government agency (Serge 1). A few of the women went on to employment in the building trades: some ended up back on the street and used the shelter as a place to spend the night; two became staff members.

As of September 2004, Sandy Merriman House continues to operate as an emergency shelter for homeless women. Its management has been taken over by a local organization that operates many of the city’s services for the homeless. Its operation is largely conventional, although experience on the street remains a criterion for hiring. However, neither the staff nor the clients have any formal say in decisions which affect the shelter. Daytime services (as opposed to overnight shelter) come and go. Although identified as a high priority among the women who use Sandy Merriman House, day services are difficult to fund and are therefore frequently unavailable.

Prostitutes’ Empowerment, Education and Resource Society (PEERS)[9]

The beginning at the office downtown was also about getting to know each other and forming relationships with each other. Often we would close the office down and go shopping together, or go for something to eat. This drove some people like June [from the Board] nuts! - Ally R. (Rabinovitch and Lewis 39)

In the beginning, any time I mentioned any ideas to you, you would say ‘do it’ and I did it, rather than you doing it for me. This was empowering. You stayed in the background as a support and were there when we needed you but you trusted us to do it ourselves. This was key. Often supporters take on a paternal role and end up taking over, losing the essence.  -   B. Smith in a note to Jannit  (Rabinovitch and Lewis 78)

My former boyfriend got invited to his high school re-union just at a time in my life when I was grieving missed potential. I think it shot our relationship to hell. Because, after all, who did I spend my formative years with? Pimps and johns, all of them. Who can I call if I want to reminisce about old times? John, Jack, Henry?  Who? I’m not even supposed to want to reminisce about my traumatic adolescence, but sometimes I do. After all, it’s the only one I’ll ever have. - Gwen (Field and Rabinovitch 15)

A sex worker friend of mine and I sat down one night and figured out how many tricks we’d had in our illustrious careers as street sex trade workers. We came up with about 10,000 each, so anyone who says there aren’t very many men out there buying sex are just wrong. - Megan Lewis (Rabinovitch and Lewis 7).

In the early days of the Downtown Women’s Project some of the women told me that, as ex-prostitutes, they had their own concerns to address. Not all were homeless, not all use drugs or alcohol, but all experienced the isolation of living in the sex trade underworld. They described ongoing battles with poverty, depression and the ever-present temptation to return to the only community and work they had ever known, despite its isolation and violence. I agreed to help them without any notion of where this support might lead.

The knowledge they had acquired from years of work in the sex trade was considered merely anecdotal by the government. The ex-prostitutes weren’t sure what services were needed to help others in their situation, but they were very clear about one thing—those services did not yet exist. Women who had left the sex trade described one of three experiences:

  1. They lived isolated most of the time, not wanting to associate with friends from their former lives, but not knowing how to connect with “squares.”
  2. They attended programs with a life skills component where everyone is encouraged to share their personal story and be open and honest. When the  group learned that they had worked as prostitutes for many years, they weretreated differently—in their words, like an alien. The men came on to them, the women avoided them. In each case, they quit the program soon after.
  3. They participated in programs and services and lied about their background so they could blend in. Usually this did not last long because it seemed pointless, or because they couldn’t keep track of all the lies they had told. One womantold me that when she realized she could not remember how many children she said she had, she just couldn’t go back to the group.

For a while, I became a bridge, an interpreter between sex workers and the “square” community. I helped them connect specifically with women in the various provincial government ministries. I hoped they would share my concern over the lack of appropriate programs and services. Most of these government contacts were concerned and sympathetic, although they did not understand why sex workers needed specific programs and services of their own. They suggested ex-prostitutes should use services designed for street people, addicts or the unemployed, even though these programs had proved unsuccessful. In fact, many of the women had become “service resistant,” a term coined by Ministry staff to describe people who refused to use existing services. The ex-prostitutes knew they needed something different. Furthermore, I could see that their need for a translator would be time limited. They were bright and capable and would soon learn to manoeuvre for themselves.

In only a few months the group had grown to include friends and acquaintances from the sex industry. They decided to form their own society. I remember the night we sat in my living room, six of us, and Jane said, “I know what it should be called—PEERS, the Prostitutes Empowerment, Education and Recovery Society.” I thought, “That’s brilliant.” The essence of PEERS is captured in that one anagram. We all instantly recognized “PEERS” as right. Jane, in her late twenties, was dressed for her new role as a secretary, her long dark hair softly curled. No one looking at her would guess she was living in a house for the homeless. Jane was in school and would leave the group soon after, but her legacy lives on. I didn’t find out until years later that she was one of the women who used pregnancy as her specific shtick, having five full-term pregnancies in as many years. She had a collection of regulars who chose to buy sex from someone who was pregnant.

The others who were present that night remained part of PEERS for a long time. Most became the staff nucleus when PEERS finally received funding. Originally the R in PEERS stood for “recovery,” but in time, members decided they wanted to support women (and men) who were still in the sex trade, as well as those in recovery. They decided that “recovery” was judgmental and changed the R to “resource.”

Clearly, PEERS could only have been created and made what it is today by people in the sex trade. I began to see my work with PEERS in the same way I saw my community development work with other groups. My work had two distinct but parallel tracks. One helped people find a voice, create a society, organize activities, and inform other agencies about PEERS. The other was to talk to potential funders so that when the group began to develop strategies that required funding, resources would be available.

Just before Christmas 1995, PEERS was incorporated, and all those associated were invited to participate in a luncheon consultation. We sat at a huge round table in a restaurant. Many had not eaten out since they quit sex work, so this was a treat. There was one man present. He was used to being the only man and comfortable in the company of women. I had wanted to celebrate PEERS existence but also to listen to their stories for a report I was writing on the impact of spending one’s adolescence in the sex trade. There were thirteen, aged 18 to 57, and all but one had started sex work as a teenager. Most were in their twenties or early thirties. I asked each to take a turn describing her/his experience in the trade, how s/he started, whether s/he had any support during that time, what her/his positive and negative experiences were. I took out my pen. Head bowed, I was glad I had a reason to avert my eyes, so they couldn’t see how hard it was for me to hear what each had been through.

I wrote it all down—stories of being raped by policemen, a psychiatrist who thought it would be too difficult to treat a prostitute, having a baby alone at age14, without support or counselling. Several described similar experiences—becoming a heavier drug user after meeting a new boyfriend in a drug and alcohol treatment program, making-up a past in order to participate in a community program, being beaten-up by a pimp after being harassed by the police. At first I was amazed they had survived. Then I marvelled at how intelligent and articulate they were.

I knew I had to do more. I had to convince my government contacts that this group deserved support, that it made sense to create something—I didn’t know what at that point— just for them because collectively, as a community, we held some responsibility for what they had endured. I was able to effectively liaise with potential funders, and in time PEERS received a one year development grant to advance from a volunteer non-profit society to a service agency.

From the beginning, PEERS made it clear that sex workers are the experts of their own experience. A lack of formal education and traditional work experience was never to be a bar: when funded, staff members would be former sex workers. The original core group of five women who became  PEERS first staff members had well over a half century of experience in prostitution. At their insistence, I agreed to act as Executive Director for the first year to help get the agency established. The goal of PEERS was two-fold: to support women and men who wanted to exit the trade, and to make it safer for those who were still working. They also wanted the “square” community to have a more realistic understanding of their experience.

PEERS is always in a state of change and growth. Since 1995, when the first grant was received, over 70 women and men have been employed by PEERS; most are experiential. They receive the same wages and benefits as staff at other service agencies. They write proposals, raise funds, work with the community, are taken seriously and treated with respect. It has taken years to develop a good relationship with the police, the school district, the regional health authority, the Chamber of Commerce, City Hall, and so on. Hundreds of young women and men come to PEERS to begin a healthier life. At times, depending on available resources, PEERS offers an outreach program at night, day programs, harm-reduction resources, counselling, writing workshops and a place to relax. Programs change depending on funding but usually focus on life skills, training, and employment. Maintaining funding is a constant struggle, especially for programs such as outreach, counselling and public education because they do not have immediate and measurable outcomes. In 2001, Megan Lewis and I wrote Impossible, eh? The Story of PEERS, a 94 page history of the development of PEERS. This text is available from PEERS and also in a downloadable PDF version at

PEERS is service delivery with a difference. PEERS is built on the belief that each woman has a right to make up her own mind about what she would like to do. PEERS supports sex workers wherever they are in their process, whether they are happy in the trade, want to exit or have already quit. As a result, PEERS programs are wide-ranging and include harm-reduction services for drug-users, as well as training and exiting support for those ready to move on. Currently, PEERS is coordinating a national fetal alcohol prevention program with sex workers and public health officials in five pilot sites in Canada and a “Men at PEERS” project for boys and men in the trade. Other projects have included housing, outreach to those in escort agencies, an Indigenous Response Team working with local Aboriginal bands, a law project involving the police, sex workers and lawyers, a school-based education program, and collaborative research with the University of Victoria. PEERS staff members are much sought after as presenters and speakers at conferences and workshops.

Most significantly, PEERS offers proof that not only is it possible for ex-prostitutes to manage and staff an organization, rather than social workers or professionals, it is essential when working with “service-resistant” populations. Although PEERS could only have been created by sex workers, they need support to see them through crises and chaos that come with the territory.

Another important lesson PEERS teaches is that expectations have to be realistic regarding what can be accomplished, and that a significant portion of the budget has to be spent on supporting staff members who are, after all, also ex-sex workers. Although expectations are higher for staff, it is always understood that they are also participants. Support ranges from community college courses to private sessions with a therapist. Unique to PEERS is the recognition of an ongoing need for institutional capacity building. Staff members change frequently and many come to PEERS directly from the trade, with no mainstream work experience.

Today, PEERS is once again having to shift its program focus to meet changes in government funding requirements. However, PEERS works best when staff can develop programs and services that meet the needs of the women and men who come to them for support. When it has appropriate supports and adequate resources, PEERS changes lives.

Out from the Shadows: International Summit of Sexually Exploited Youth

For too long we have been silent. We have never had the opportunity to speak, and be heard. Not until now. And now we have shared. We have worked. We have declared. We believe. Now, we expect. We expect that you will follow through on our declarations, our beliefs and recommendations. Be reminded we have now been involved. The memory of being respected, being heard and being involved is fresh. If you choose to read the Declaration and Agenda for Action, and not act, not accept responsibility, you must and will be held accountable—because, after our light has shone so bright, we refuse to be returned to the shadows. - Canadian male experiential delegate to policy makers forum on final day of Summit. (Bramly, Tubman et al 112)

I saw that you suffered when I told you my story. Thank you. Now I know that I have worth. - Bolivian female experiential delegate. (Bramly, Tubman et al 87)

In 1996, Cherry Kingsley came to a PEERS Board meeting and told her story: she had been in the trade from the age of fourteen until she exited at twenty-two. She had been addicted to drugs most of that time. Cherry is Aboriginal and attributes her healing largely to connecting with her Aboriginal heritage. When I met her, Cherry had recently attended the first World Congress Against the Sexual Exploitation of Children in Sweden as part of the Canadian delegation. She claimed she was planning to organize and host a world congress herself, although this time, instead of a room full of men in suits, she planned to invite youth with experience in the sex trade.

Cherry invited me to a planning meeting at a provincial government office. I went, in part to represent PEERS, and in part to satisfy my own curiosity. I wondered if this young woman was crazy or if she really was in a position to organize an international gathering. There was an impressive array of people in the room representing a number of provincial government departments and community groups. Within a few weeks, Cherry had a commitment of $10,000 from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was also a member of the Canadian delegation in Sweden, to begin the development of a youth summit.

Cherry and I became two of the project’s three paid staff members. We worked with the University of Victoria Conference Management office, which had been contracted to handle logistics. I worked closely with Cherry and ran interference between her and the university staff. They had taken on an unusually large amount of the fund-raising because they believed in the project, but found it difficult to understand why we were paying someone who did not come to work on time (or daily) and who did not seem to understand the basics about budgets and finances. I was able to see what Cherry did do well—bring together people with experience in the trade, get commitment for funding,  and ensure that influential people were present to listen to the youth.

In the end, the scope and cost of a world congress could not be achieved and we limited it to the Americas. Once fund-raising began and a realistic budget was developed, we calculated a price tag for bringing 55 kids from ten countries at $500,000. The youth delegates would have to speak for others as well, so in each country, focus groups were organized and delegates chosen. Cherry and a PEERS staff member, Megan Lewis, travelled across Canada meeting with youth and facilitating Canadian focus groups.

While talking with the photographer whose pictures would promote the event, a metaphor and a name emerged—“Out from the Shadows: International Summit of Sexually Exploited Youth.” The photo shoot took place in a narrow brick alley in an older part of Victoria. The photographer hung a sheer piece of fabric across the very narrow entrance to the alley and had four youths who had been sexually exploited stand behind the curtain, pushing against it. They appear unidentifiable, held captive in the shadows.

A program was developed for the five-day summit, designed to meet the needs of a group who spoke different languages, had different literacy levels, and were meeting for the first time, many having never travelled out of their countries before. The Summit took place in Victoria, British Columbia in March 1998.

The first three days involved only the 55 youth delegates. During the final two days, hundreds of policy-makers and government representatives came to listen and ask questions. They came from Canadian provincial and federal governments, Brazil, and the United Nations. Media from across Canada and as far away as Germany and Australia covered the event.

A document developed by the youth delegates, the Declaration and Agenda for Action, continues to be used worldwide as a starting point to inform policies and strategies for addressing the commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth. Cherry was invited to present the Declaration and Agenda for Action to the UN General Assembly (Appendix C).

After the Summit, the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs helped develop follow-up projects in the countries in South America, Central America and the Carribean that sent delegates to Victoria. It took considerably longer to find support for a national follow-up strategy and, when we did, it required having a national sponsor. Cherry and I formed a partnership with a Canadian national non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Vancouver, and Cherry was happy to move there. It was essential that Cherry have a regular pay cheque rather than work on contract. We negotiated $300,000 for three year funding from the federal National Crime Prevention Campaign and Cherry became an employee of the NGO. I continued working with her, on contract. We chose this particular national agency because they had a number of excellent publications to their credit that extolled the advantages of youth participation.

Within a year, the number of experiential staff members grew from one (Cherry) to ten. We developed a number of innovative projects. The most significant was Sacred Lives, a national consultation with Aboriginal youth conducted by Cherry and Melanie Mark. This resulted in a written report, “Sacred Lives: Canadian Aboriginal Children & Youth Speak Out About Sexual Exploitation.” After two years, the NGO decided they didn’t need my involvement. Unfortunately, despite their rhetoric supporting youth participation, the NGO couldn’t accommodate the complexities that come with staff members experienced in sex work. Their relationship with Cherry ended badly, which highlights the need to articulate the role of practitioners in supporting and facilitating the involvement of experiential people.[10]

International Centre to Combat the Exploitation of Children (ICCEC)

My [Tor]Mentors:

I met Jannit while I was working for the Government of British Columbia. She was helping women in and from the sex trade develop PEERS (Prostitutes Empowerment, Education and Resource Society). She also was very instrumental in making Out from the Shadows happen. We have worked very closely together since about 1996, the last seven years. She is a model of true capacity building, empowerment and community development. She has worked with the most marginalized of populations in Canada and in a way that should be taught around the world. The reason I think she is such a model is because women in the most difficult of circumstances working with her achieve genuine agency, and the vision is always theirs and she works to draw out that vision, help women to acquire the skills necessary to implement, acquire the supports and resources necessary, and to achieve visible leadership. She also approaches everything from both a feminist and spiritual place. Sometimes I think that she should be world famous and the fact that she is not is a true reflection of how successfully she empowers the women she works with to take leadership. She has taught me practicalities that sometimes can seem so daunting, even annoying but I know how important they are. These include: to follow through with commitments made; to be on time; to be organized; to be prepared; but also to be inviting and encouraging of others’ participation; and to be accountable. She has also taught me practical ways in which spirituality can reflect in daily work and life itself, indeed to even guide vision. To have this as a teaching allows for inspiration to be a part of everyday life and work, indeed work can be life (Kingsley).

In 2002, Cherry decided to create the International Centre to Combat the Exploitation of Children (ICCEC). After her relationship with the national NGO ended unpleasantly, she decided to work only with other experiential people. They legally incorporated their national society and applied for funding from private foundations that showed an interest. Creating an organization soon became too much for them to manage on their own. Cherry found herself working to build ICCEC on her own and within a few months she was so stressed she was near collapse. She asked me to work with her once more.

The Centre’s primary mandate is to facilitate and promote the voice of experiential people in addressing the issue of sexual exploitation of children and youth. After much discussion about what Cherry could manage realistically and what I could offer Cherry, I became the Interim Executive Director and Cherry, the Special Advisor. She remains the only full-time staff member receiving a regular pay cheque. We set up an administrative partnership with the International Institute for Child Rights and Development, situated in Global Studies at the University of Victoria. My role includes supervising a team of consultants hired to help with applications for funding, building a web-site, and completing a post-secondary curriculum on sexual exploitation.

One of our most significant initiatives has been the creation of a new organization in British Columbia, the BC Coalition of Experiential Women, a provincial advocacy and lobby group for sex workers. This group includes women province-wide, all of whom were in sex work between the ages of 9 and 29. Most of them now work for agencies involved with sex workers, such as PEERS Victoria, PEERS Vancouver, Prostitution Alternatives Counselling Education (PACE), or related such as drug and alcohol services, AIDS agencies, sexual assault centres, and street youth programs. A similar project to this provincial coalition has recently begun nationally. We see the work of ICCEC and the creation of other experiential coalitions as part of the development of an international movement of sex workers who want to address the needs of both women and children in the sex industry.   

Analysis of the Project Summaries

In analyzing the five projects described in this chapter, I examined each through a number of lenses: a detailed timeline (see Table 1 below), population identification, key players, initiating factor, goal, program, obstacles, outcomes, and key points of learning and transformation for each project. I considered what people went in with, what happened during the project, how they emerged, and what I learned. Appendix D is a summary of the narrative information offered in the preceding pages.

Working with experiential people is not a smooth or easy process. The preceding five examples are important for the insights they provide into what works and what blocks effective community practice. All five highlight the need for the participation of experiential community members, while reminding us of how complicated that involvement can be.

The recognition that people are experts of their own experience does not mean that they can do everything they need to help themselves. Their need for support may be ongoing. Even those who have the capacity for leadership need guidance, advice and support. A need for support does not mean one is not capable; in this case it is a consequence of having lived for years under the shadow of oppression.

For some, inclusion will increase their personal power but analyzing their experiences can be restimulating. Sharing the details of their lives can trigger painful and unpleasant memories, and for some, negative reactions may emerge. The change agent needs to anticipate such possibilities and provide support as needed. The work of a change agent with marginalized people is multilayered, profoundly rewarding but very complex. Barriers and obstacles litter the path.         

It would be impossible to describe the numerous instances when each of these projects appeared to reach an impasse and we were all tempted to give up. Frustration results from attempting social change in a climate that is not supportive. In order to be effective, transformative community practice requires financial support, difficult to acquire in the current climate of fiscal restraint. Some of the frustration is a result of the inherent difficulty of the task undertaken. Working together to change lives is not an easy or simple matter but if the work is done respectfully and on the advice of the people whose lives are being addressed, then it is possible.

Table 1

Chronology of
the Five Projects
1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003


This chapter provided a summary of five transformative community practice projects gleaned from twelve years of working with homeless men, street women, sex workers and sexually exploited youth. In the following pages I share some of what I have learned. It is my belief that transformative community practice crosses disciplines and requires a paradigm shift. The five examples offer an opportunity to study the process of transformative community practice over time. They illustrate stages that commonly occur in a largely consistent sequence, and offer some valuable conclusions. Each story provides detail and examples that allow sound practice be built into a coherent whole. The following three chapters provide an opportunity to better understand the theory of transformative community practice, to examine the process in more detail, and to study the role of the change agent in relation to both the experiential community and the larger community.