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 4 - Going to Where People Are: Placing Experiential People at the Centre

My family and I had just sat down to dinner when the phone rang. “Megan’s been picked up by the police.” My heart sank at the sound of the words. The sun was slipping behind my deck and the following day would be my fiftieth birthday. I was having a huge party and had invited friends from the different circles of my life. I was especially pleased that the women from PEERS were going to come, but if Megan had been picked up by the police, she might not make it. It was important to me that Megan be there. We had worked so hard bringing PEERS from a dream to reality. My mind immediately flashed to Megan’s story of being forced by two policemen to provide sexual favours when she was a child working the street. They threatened to have her parents arrested if she didn’t do what they said, and, being a child, she believed they could. I knew she must be freaked-out by her arrest.

My family hated it when I answered the phone during meals. It was Gabriella, one of the five staff who had helped me create PEERS. I knew it was serious as soon as I heard her voice because she never phoned me at home. It got worse.

“Lorraine and I went over to see what we could do for Megan and Lorraine got into an argument with a guard. Now they’re holding her too,” Gabriella continued breathlessly. Gabriella was never breathless. Lorraine too. This was bad.

It wasn’t hard to imagine Lorraine getting into an argument with a guard. I loved Lorraine and probably spent more time with her than anyone at PEERS. She was the bookkeeper and I was the Board treasurer. She was rather strong willed and didn’t have the greatest sense of timing when it came to voicing her opinions—sometimes loudly. Maybe it was because Lorraine was less intimidated by men in authority than the others. She had never worked on the street. Most sex workers don’t. She had worked for doctors, lawyers and their friends. She had grown up in a middle class family and carried herself with an aura of entitlement.

The sad story continued to unfold. Apparently Megan had some outstanding charges from when she lived and worked on the street. I figured that when her case eventually came to court, we would have no trouble establishing that she had quit using drugs and was working at a reputable agency that engaged in important work.

It was selfish, but more than anything I was disappointed that Megan and Lorraine (and maybe Gabriella, too) wouldn’t be at my birthday party. They were four or five hours away and it was evening. As the sky darkened, so did my thoughts. None of them were going to be able to make it back in time. Gabriella was talking and I tried to pay attention. “If you give me your Mastercard number, maybe I can post bail. I don’t know if I can do it on the weekend but I’ll try. The offices aren’t open again until Monday.”

I grabbed my wallet, gave her the number and told her to call me back as soon as she knew anything. I sat down to dinner with my family and tried not to show how disappointed I was. I knew the other women in PEERS probably wouldn’t come by themselves and it felt like a big piece of my life would be missing at this symbolic celebration I had been planning for so long. I was so distracted by my own feelings that I didn’t even notice the smirk on my girlfriend’s face as she listened to my version of the telephone conversation.

I made an effort to bring myself back to my family. They were as excited as I was about the big event. I’d had lots of help from my teenage daughter making and decorating collages of the first fifty years of my life. The party was going to be held at our local lesbian clubhouse, a funky building our community had renovated with lots of love and very little money. It was beautiful. The upstairs room was to be decorated with pictures and mementoes of my life, and laden with food. The downstairs room would be candle-lit so that the stone wall and driftwood bar glowed. I invited people from all parts of my life. I expected a few men to come, probably even the police chief.

I spent the day busily preparing for the party. The evening was full of surprises. My friend Ann, a professional chef and caterer, provided an elaborate feast crowned with hundreds of chocolate covered strawberries. Friends arrived from all corners of my life. My face lit up as each new group arrived. It was still hard to shake my disappointment and ignore those who were absent. I wasn’t angry at Megan. I had been working with these women for years and all had had many unfortunate interactions with the law in the past. I had joined the Victoria Police Board, in part, to help change the way the police treated them.

By nine that evening, the room was crowded. We decided to head downstairs for the formalities, where people stood up and spoke about me. The crowd of women, decked out in their finest butch, femme and everything-in-between finery, slowly made their way down the narrow stair case. Chairs were set up around a small stage.

I stood and looked at all my friends. I was enjoying being the centre of attention when Megan, Lorraine, Gabriella, and the others strode into the room. They looked very pleased with themselves. They were all dressed-up and ready to party. The expression on my face made them burst into laughter. For a moment, I was confused. All sorts of questions ran through my mind. “How had they gotten here? How had they gotten out of jail? Had they been able to post bail on the weekend?” As soon as I asked my first question, I realized what was going on.

I had believed them. Not for one moment had it occurred to me that they had been teasing me. They thought it was a grand joke. They loved that I thought the authorities would let them out by using my credit card number to pay their bail. They still enjoy telling this story when they can find someone to listen.

A basic survival skill in the sex trade is suspicion of everyone, so I think they found it particularly charming that my first impulse is to trust people. They were especially appreciative that I trusted them individually and collectively. That was a rare experience for them. I’ve learned over the years to listen to my heart, to decide who to trust based on instinct. It was natural for me to trust these women.

Marginalization is created by poverty, class, race and other designators of difference. The change agent must work to remove the barriers that prevent connection with the larger community and break down isolation by encouraging meaningful exchange. The change agent understands that everyone has something to teach. Everyone is transformed through an exchange of learning and teaching embodied in O’Donnell and Karanja’s model of transformative community practice (78). This chapter explores why, and how, change agents need to begin by going to the experiential community. This involves building relationships, establishing trust, listening to, recognizing and supporting  the insider knowledge of the experiential community. As its members move from client to expert, and become involved in the decision-making processes, the change agent needs to know how to support the development of indigenous leadership. Our role is to support the experiential community members to gain the skills and abilities to do whatever is needed to participate in this transformation.

Going to the Experiential Community

My practice requires a variety of techniques to “find” the people with whom I work. For example, when addressing the problem of homelessness, I have spent time sitting on a bench in the town square where large numbers of alcoholic men and women spend their days. They were happy to engage in informal dialogue and tell me how they spent their time and what they thought they needed. Useful information emerged from those conversations, including a clear description of the programs and services they had access to in their community. They told me about the morning soup kitchen at a local church where hundreds of people congregated six days a week. One homeless woman I still see on the streets of Victoria told me indignantly that there was no place a homeless person could bathe. She said, in a voice, slurred and thick with alcohol, “Darlin’, showers may be fine for men but you and I both know that sometimes a woman needs a bath.”  I never forgot her comment. I made sure that when Sandy Merriman was being renovated, we kept the bathtubs.

If change agents want to engage the marginalized in the process of change, we have to go them. We can’t sit and wait for the experiential community to come to us; the door has been closed for too long and they have every reason to believe it is locked. This means that change agents must go where experiential people feel it is safe to meet and talk.

To carry on my work with homeless people, I volunteered at the soup kitchen and, when asked, introduced myself as employed by City Hall. Those who came to the soup kitchen were surprised and pleased that the City was interested in them. I asked them (all men) for advice on how to get people from their community to engage in a dialogue with me about their needs. They explained that people would participate if they were offered something immediate, that it was unrealistic to expect people who survive on a day-to-day basis to look to a long-term goal. This was a reminder that from the outset expectations must emerge from the community, not the change agent. They explained that free food is always an incentive for the homeless, since they must find meals wherever they can. They told me that, although breakfast and supper were often available at churches, there was nowhere to go all day. They suggested that if I was to offer food they otherwise had no access to, a good turnout was guaranteed. They suggested Chinese, which was both affordable (for me) and a treat they hadn’t had in years. Thus began a year of monthly lunch meetings.

Sometimes it is extremely difficult to get started because we don’t know where to go. Communities can be difficult for an outsider to find. After two years developing the VSCA, I decided to focus on homeless women. I looked around to see where I could find them and realized that there was no service or designated space for this group. I knew from Ministry of Social Services data that there were an equal number of men and women living in poverty in the downtown core, but the women were invisible. I asked for help from service providers who worked with women. Once or twice, a street nurse set up a telephone appointment with a homeless woman she thought might be interested in working with me. None of the women had phones so they would agree to call me, but usually did not. Eventually, after several months, a counsellor at the Sexual Assault Centre referred a woman to me, and I met another who was doing outreach for the local AIDS Agency. It took four months for me to meet four women. They, on the other hand, were able to bring together a group of thirty quite quickly by putting up notices at all-night restaurants, specific laundromats, a few community centres and a retail store that sold stilettoes. Once again, they had suggestions I would never have even considered.

Once PEERS was organized, the women were quick to point out that everyone who advertises as an escort reads the other ads each week; thus PEERS advertises for participants in its programs with considerable success on the escort  pages of a local weekly. Nobody knows better where the members of a community can be found than other members. Two-way communication is essential to the success of any initiative. As well, if a new service is to be developed, it must be located where members of the community deem it appropriate. This may be within certain geographical boundaries, or simply on a bus route.

Building Relationships and Establishing Trust

One of the initial steps in addressing marginalization has to be to build relationships and establish lines of communication. In order to work effectively, change agents must gain acceptance. As Paulo Freire points out, “without first establishing an atmosphere of trust, the effectiveness of change agents and their meaningful access to the experiential community will be negligible” (qtd. in Freire and Macedo 64). Once we begin to work with a community, we have begun a relationship with groups and individuals that must be understood to be a commitment.

Alinsky states that successful community organizing requires a personal sense of responsibility (65). Change agents are responsible for sustaining the process which we help to initiate. Part of that responsibility is a commitment to the group to be available until the group is ready to work on its own, or until resources are in place to hire a coordinator. The members must decide when the group is ready to take sole responsibility, or bring in outside help. For example, the VSCA never expected to take full responsibility for managing a government-funded organization without assistance. Neither did the Downtown Women’s Project. But last year when PEERS created an Executive Director position, everyone agreed at the time that it had to be filled by someone experiential. Lauren Casey, the woman hired as Executive Director, has a Master’s degree in Criminology and fifteen years experience as a cocaine-addicted prostitute. She came to PEERS after completing her degree with a remarkable combination of skills and insight that no amount of formal education alone could provide.

When working with marginalized groups, it is important to recognize that engaging members in the process does not follow a set path. The women who eventually created PEERS decided to start a Prostitutes Anonymous group. This is a good example of an internal self-help approach. I was happy to help them organize, while being aware that I could not, and should not, participate. They felt that since their experience in the sex trade had been very isolating, they needed to communicate directly with each other without outsiders present. Prostitutes Anonymous uses the model of other twelve step programs and requires that everyone present have personal experience. As they became uncomfortable with the built-in assumption that sex workers are addicted to sex, they moved away from this model. However, it is important to note that marginalized and labeled people need room to talk and support each other on their own and in private.

The transformation process supports people as individuals, recognizing that everyone is unique. Each person needs to know that she is seen, not simply as a member of a group. The change agent supports individuals as well as the community. This means being available at inconvenient times. In the process, different relationships will form with different people. Some will be deep and long-lasting bonds, while others will be situation-specific and short term. As I write this section, for example, I have been interrupted three times by the current Director at PEERS for advice, encouragement and support. She knows I am available to her and I know that my support is an important part of what makes her able to handle the leadership of PEERS.

One of the values change agents bring to a community is a commitment to recognize and bridge differences in the group, closing the gaps created by race, sexual preference, class, age, and abilities. If participation is limited to one portion of a community and excludes others, then no significant change can take place. It is important that change agents raise these issues rather than create a pretense of solidarity. As Hyde suggests, to do so furthers growth, whereas not to do so leads to divisiveness, anger, frustration, and disintegration (556).

In my experience with sex workers, a great deal of discussion has taken place about who should be included and excluded. These distinctions are based on class and race, but not in obvious ways. Within the sex trade, those who work “high track” tend to be white, better educated and far less likely to use drugs than the women who work on the “stroll.” Some work indoors, either in escort agencies or as independents. Some are pimped, some are not. Male sex workers often have their own concerns. Hierarchies exist between those who have intimate physical contact with clients and those who do not, such as dancers, phone-sex workers and some dominatrices. At PEERS, it has taken many years to reach a point where it is possible to include the full range of sex workers. Each group has had to be acknowledged as separate, offered space for private conversation concerning their needs, and be independently consulted. Slowly, a sense of shared purpose has emerged.

In my eight years working with those in the sex trade, many have suggested that I spend at least one night “ten toes to the corner,” in order to better understand their reality. I have resisted, but when the opportunity to be in a strip show at our local lesbian clubhouse came along, I took it. Two women I knew well, one working to set up PEERS and one still in the trade, spent a few hours teaching me how to strip. Their lessons included walking appropriately, “working the pole,” and teasing the audience. Although many of the women at PEERS chose not to come and watch, they never let me forget that one night I stripped in front of an audience. It doesn’t make me experiential, but it does mean I’m slightly less square.

Bridging differences may be a particularly slow process when working in a community that has little experience of trust, even among its own members. Most of the women I met through the Downtown Women’s Project and PEERS viewed other women as competition and not to be trusted. This point of view was fostered by men who benefited from women’s isolation and disconnection. It kept these women from communicating with each other and helped sustain their dependence on the men who exploited them. They lived in a misogynistic culture where “women are the enemy” and “you can’t trust another woman,” therefore participating in a women-only project was new and challenging. A residue of deeply embedded distrust makes the bridging of differences complicated. For many, however, it is now almost impossible to remember a time when they viewed all women as suspect.

In their ground-breaking article concerning working with women of colour, Gutierrez and Lewis offer suggestions for organizers who are not permanent members of a community, even if they share some attributes. Outsiders must recognize and understand historical conflicts and be prepared to work toward building alliances. Gutierrez and Lewis identify eight principles of practice for European-American feminists who work with women of colour. These principles could apply to any organizer who works with members of a community other than her own, and are therefore listed here.

1. Learn about, understand, and participate in the women’s ethnic community;

2. Recognize and build upon ways in which women of color have worked effectively within their own communities;

3. Involve women of color in leadership roles;

4. Serve as a facilitator and view the situation through the “lens” or “vision” of women of color;

5. Use the process of praxis to understand the historical, political, and social context of the organizing effort;

6. Begin with the formation of small groups;

7. Recognize and embrace the conflict that characterizes cross-cultural work; and

8. Understand and support the need that women of color may have for their own separate programs and organizations. (34/35)

A number of questions emerge. If the change agent is a member of the community, do these same principles apply? Are there additional, or alternative, principles for indigenous change agents? Having worked for many years with experiential community members who have, over time, taken on the role of change agent, leads me to conclude that there are many similarities for indigenous change agents. They will already know the concerns and recognize their peers’ leadership potential as well as their own, but they will still need to deal with conflict among the members of the group and between their group and others in the larger community.                                                        

To ensure that the process of transformative community practice is a respectful one, all persons must be treated as valued members of the team. When developing strategies, activities and initiatives that involve the experiential community, their involvement has to be realistic and fair; otherwise people can, inadvertently, be set up to fail. As members of the team, experiential people are part of the dialogue that establishes their role and identifies the supports needed to ensure that their involvement will be both a positive experience and an asset to the process.

Going where people live is an important first step, but once there different groups will require different motivators and incentives. Being paid for their time and expertise is an effective motivator for marginalized people. This may sound simplistic but the effect of providing an hourly wage, even when the hours worked are limited, goes far beyond what one might anticipate. It is a statement of respect and value, and an act of positive encouragement. It puts the change agent and the experiential community member on an equal footing, and creates a culture of co-workers. Perhaps most important, it seems to help people move beyond despair, out of all proportion to the dollar amount provided. This is not difficult to understand. North America is a wage-based culture from which the members of marginalized communities are excluded. To be included, even in a limited way, changes the dynamic substantially and provides an entry point for engagement.

Some change practitioners argue that the process is tainted when members of the experiential community are paid or provided with incentives. Those who are uncomfortable with the idea of paying experiential community members suggest it is a bribe, but paying people for their expertise is not the same as enticing them to participate when they would rather not. Certainly, there is an opportunity for some to “take the money and run,” but rarely is this incentive the only motivation for engagement. Rather, it reinforces the value of their involvement. People see their input is sought after and recognized as necessary, in part because they are paid. At this initial stage, the expertise sought is often basic. Examples of some of the questions a change agent might ask the experiential community at the outset include: How do I engage you as the experiential community? What will motivate you to become involved? I am often asked, “How do you engage the interest of an experiential community?” My answer is always the same, “Ask them. Hire a few to sit down with you, and pick their brains.”

For many experiential people, getting involved in a community process requires enormous courage. The change in their daily lives and the labour of acquiring new skills is greater for those outside the mainstream. Change agents have often sought education and learning experiences. Encouragement is personal and requires a different approach with each person. With some, it may mean demonstrating faith in their ability to take on a task without supervision, while others will want constant supervision and feedback.

Progress has to be on their terms. This includes the form the process takes. When people started hearing about the VSCA meetings, several service providers, and even some politicians, wanted to attend. I asked the group what they thought, knowing it would be good for some traditionally-minded bureaucrats to have the opportunity to hear the men speak. The men, however, were uncomfortable and afraid of being overwhelmed with guests. They knew they would not feel safe enough to speak out. After some discussion, they arrived at a solution. Only one outsider would be allowed to come to each meeting and that person would be asked to listen and not speak. This worked well. Over time a municipal councillor, the area manager for the Ministry of Human Resources, and a social worker from Drug and Alcohol Services attended, and were educated by the experience. They felt honoured to be present.

Change agents need to understand that we cannot control everything that happens. We have to accept that we can not anticipate the outcome of a process before it begins, even though it is difficult to explain this to funders who want measurable outcomes identified beforehand. Such a notion is a false one, and not fair to the participants. The process has to be entered with an open mind, allowing for flexibility and innovation; change involves moving beyond fixed assumptions and familiar ways. Attempting to control the outcome, or allowing outside funders to do so, is disrespectful to the experiential community.

When we received funding to conduct Sacred Lives, a consultation with Aboriginal sexually exploited youth across Canada, there was a budget for three staff—two to conduct the consultation process and one to work in the office communicating with agencies across the country, making travel arrangements, and organizing each focus group. Cherry was one of the staff hired and together we hired another young experiential Aboriginal woman to accompany her. I knew we needed a person with writing and organizational skills for the office position, to keep things on track and maintain up-to-date reports, since a written report was required at the end of the project. Before I had a chance to set up interviews, Cherry hired someone she knew from the street. Yes, she was experiential and Aboriginal, but she was straight from the trade with a completely different set of skills than those I had in mind. I wasn’t happy. I wondered immediately who would  do the necessary work. Cherry explained that she had already hired the young woman, and that working with us would save her life. Instead of arguing, I reminded myself that it was my job to be supportive, even when I didn’t agree. In the end, it all worked out. A graduate student was hired to help write the final report. The young Aboriginal woman from the street successfully exited the sex trade and is now in school and active in Native and non-Native student organizations.

Involving people in the process of addressing their own concerns does not mean expecting them to take responsibility before they are ready. If people are going to make a commitment to remain involved, then our expectations must be realistic and fair. Experiential people may know what they need long before they know how to make it happen. It is unfair to expect people to undertake difficult tasks before they are ready or able. It is unfair to expect them to know how to design, develop and implement social programs. It is unrealistic to expect that goals will be accomplished without the necessary skills. If new skills are required to sustain their involvement, then skill development has to be a priority. It has taken most of us years to learn how to manoeuver effectively in our own workplaces and institutions.

Rothman says that the work of building sustainable grassroots organizations depends on a long-term commitment by the change agent (Planning 50). My continuing involvement with PEERS reminds me what long-term commitment is. For seven years, I have had almost daily contact with one or more staff members. They know they can count on me to be available, if at all possible. I continue to maintain relationships with outside agencies, such as the police and the provincial government, and visit former PEERS staff members, especially those who were part of the early days. I watch with pride as staff, almost all experiential, move on to other employment in time. Most stay in social services as peer counsellors, outreach workers, and life skills support workers for AIDS organizations, needle exchanges, or youth and women’s services. PEERS staff members have moved on to employment at Medewiwin and Sandy Merriman House. Some are involved with the BC and National Coalitions of Experiential Women. Coalition gatherings give us all a chance to meet and catch-up. 

Our relationships go far beyond those of mere co-workers. Change agents cannot differentiate between work, activism and our personal lives; we must be prepared to become friends with the people with whom we work. This may mean that initially we make friends outside our comfort zone.

The level of commitment demonstrated by ongoing work for change helps to counterbalance the suspicion from community members about the fact that as change agent we are paid to do our work. Sometimes our commitment to their cause, and to them as individuals, is questioned when they know that developing a relationship with them is part of our job. Talking about it openly helps. It is important to acknowledge one’s privilege and accept that it will sometimes be difficult on members of the community. Fortunately, it does not take long for experiential community members to recognize genuine caring.  Striving to support full participation is not easy, even for the most progressive change agent. Often, we must move beyond the familiar, onto new ground (literally and psychologically) with people we have been taught to believe are incapable and untrustworthy. Going there can be uncomfortable, but it is essential that the experiential community are on safe ground if positive change is to take place.

Listening to the Experiential Community

A few broad generalizations can be made about health and social services. These institutions have been designed, developed and maintained by policy-makers and professionals acting in what they believe is the best interests of all. Although there are rare exceptions, the vast majority of traditional services that make up our complex and elaborate social safety net are, as McKnight points out, developed to meet the needs of the marginalized but without any input from them. McKnight argues that strategies to meet the needs of the marginalized are developed by those who believe that “[the marginalized] are inadequate to solve the problem” (Ideas 5).

Many change agents know from experience that programs and services developed by more traditional experts fail to meet the needs of the marginalized. Some of us despair, believing nothing will make a difference. Yet, more and more resources are dedicated to programs and services designed with a coercive element that translates as: “they don’t know what’s good for them.” Addressing marginalization means more than meeting the assumed needs of each individual. It means working to change crucial underlying structures that are deeply embedded in North American culture. It means using collective knowledge based on information, in large part supplied by the experiential community.

Listening to the community takes different forms, in different stages of the process. Change agents have to develop  mechanisms to encourage experiential people to speak out, and we have to not only listen but make clear we are listening. The process of shared personal dialogue called consciousness raising[11] has proved useful for me. Communicating and sharing experiences, whether identified as such or not, is a fundamental characteristic of feminist organizing (Gutierrez and Lewis 29/30). The common technique involves a small group, seated in a circle. Everyone in the group is offered an opportunity to speak in turn. This method of “rounds” encourages involvement and makes it easier for everyone to participate.

Offering this kind of opportunity to speak works well, whether members are homeless men, sexually exploited youth or others. It provides a safe environment and encourages people who would otherwise remain silent. Startling ideas and comments emerge from those who, in more traditional circumstances, might be unwilling to contribute. One such idea emerged at a VSCA meeting when a man with obvious and severe mental health issues (a recognizable character on the streets of Victoria) suggested  that it would be useful to organize a gathering of street people and service providers. He argued that in an environment of their own making they could speak collectively about existing services, whereas they would never feel safe speaking-up as individuals. From his comments StreetMeet grew, an annual conference of street people, service providers, policy makers and politicians, a unique gathering that continued for several years.

Everyone needs time to adjust to change. For many marginalized people, being asked to commit to involvement in a community practice initiative means a huge change. We need to understand that it takes time. Experiential community members may be skeptical and unwilling to commit until trust is established and until they understand that it is in their best interest to become part of the process. There should be no pressure to speak to the group, or to the change agent. The choice of whether or not to become part of the process has to be left to each member of the community.

The original core group of PEERS, for example, had all been prostitutes for many years. Some had been in the sex trade for fifteen years. They had collective experience of well over a century. Thus, they had sound knowledge of the issues related to the sex trade and a wide range of creative suggestions that addressed their concerns. I took my lead from them and listened carefully to their stories and ideas. At the time, some service providers and community practitioners argued with me, saying that it was impossible for a group of former sex workers to develop a service agency. They didn’t believe sex workers had the knowledge or capacity to address their issues constructively.

Using another example, people with a history of addictions need to play a central role in developing their treatment program. This way, a range of fair and realistic alternatives can emerge that will recognize that not everyone is able to take, or will want, the same route to healing. Members of the privileged class not only have access to drugs and alcohol, they also have access to many  treatment options that do not jeopardize their ability to function in responsible and often high-profile positions. Everyone should be able to decide whether to continue treatment, or to use supports that make their drug use healthy and safe, or to access treatment on an intermittent basis, when needed.

When people with a history of addictions play a major role in developing and implementing programs designed to support drug users, very different outcomes emerge. Such people are experts and are able to identify the feasibility of programs and supports that traditional policy makers and service providers consider unthinkable. For example, most of them consider employment and training for drug users a waste of time and money. However, people with a history of addictions regard this as just one step in a long process and argue it can offer an important framework for a range of options, including the possibility of choosing to quit using drugs and seek treatment. In order to develop such options, we must recognize that people addicted to drugs and alcohol are capable of making decisions and participating in activities.

When politicians and policy-makers decide how to prevent and address drug use, far too often the results are unrealistic and ineffective. Programs frequently require addicts be drug-free before they can enter, almost unattainable when entrenched in the drug sub-culture. The requirement of complete abstinence encourages lies and cover-ups of occasional slips, rather than requests for help and support. Many programs make addicts leave if they are even suspected of using. Many allow entry only once a year or even less frequently. Co-ed treatment facilities are often a source of unhealthy relationships. More than a few women told me about becoming even more entrenched in drug use because of a new relationship with a man they met there.

The position that abstinence is the goal pervades addictions programs in North America. Innovative alternatives, such as safe injection sites, heroin maintenance programs, and medical marijuana continue to battle strong opposition from policy makers and practitioners who view drug use simply as a social ill. The abstinence approach dominates decision-making in most programs and removes any possibility for many addicts to have access to services. This thinking belies the reality that most people with a history of addictions backslide on occasion. It often forces people to be dishonest in order to continue to have access to support. Working closely with addicts, one discovers that rarely are things as black and white as non-experiential people tend to paint them.

Entering into a transformative process is an implicit acknowledgement on the part of the change agent that she doesn’t always know what is best for the community. This can be difficult for long-time committed activists with the best of intentions; but it is part of behaving respectfully. When youth participants approached me after the first day of the Summit with their suggestions for reformatting the rest of the morning sessions, it was difficult not to be defensive. A great deal of thought and energy had gone into organizing that attempted to meet the needs of a complex group who spoke different languages, had different degrees of literacy, and who were meeting for the first time. Many had never been out of their own countries before.

In the mornings, the youth were to have met in five groups, randomly mixed from various countries, each with a facilitator. The purpose was to share stories, including ones they had heard in focus groups before coming to the Summit. The afternoons were to be spent translating the stories into various formats focussed on education and change. These sessions were designed to include five streams, all with the same purpose, each stream managed by a local organization. Staff from the Victoria Conservatory of Music facilitated a music workshop, students from the British Columbia School of Art Therapy facilitated a visual art workshop, representatives from the League of Canadian Poets facilitated a creative writing workshop, Puente Theatre facilitated a drama workshop, and Summit organizers facilitated a workshop to develop a Declaration and Agenda for Action. In this way, we hoped to accommodate the needs of all the participants.

Thus, when they suggested ways to make the morning sessions work better for them, it was not easy to hear. To begin with, they objected to having others—chaperones, UN observers, Summit organizers—speak at the morning sessions. They suggested two circles, with only those in the inner circle allowed to speak. The outer circle should just listen. Those in the inner circle would all have experience in the sex trade. Everyone else belonged in the outer circle. We agreed; they were right. We have used this format many times since, to create a safe space for experiential people to share their stories.

Their second argument was that they did not want to share stories through an interpreter. They wanted to speak their own language to describe painful experiences. They suggested separate groups be organized in English and Spanish. This didn’t address everyone’s needs, but almost. It meant the Brazilians, who speak Portugese, had to try to follow the Spanish. They did so with some difficulty. It also meant that the one Quebec delegate, who spoke only French, had to sit with an interpreter.

Another change emerged after that first morning, a request that we have a separate male group. The young men said this was a unique opportunity for a group of male sex workers to meet and talk about their experiences. This group was facilitated by a Canadian researcher I had worked with years ago when he was a boy. He was an academic who had, in his youth, spent many years in the sex trade.

A far-reaching recommendation that emerged from this process was a request that everyone present stop using the words teen or child prostitute and recognize through language that these are children being exploited. This seemed like a daunting task, but one which was taken to heart. In Canada, as well as in many international protocols and conventions, the language has changed to sexually exploited children and youth. As a direct result, individuals and governments around the world have begun to use this identification. This change in language demonstrates to the youth that people world-wide care about what they say, take note, and act.

Insider Knowledge: From Client to Expert

In order to relocate the locus of expertise to include the community, the change agent has to encourage experiential people to voice their own stories and join in the process of researching and writing about their lives. To do so requires support in the form of teachers and resources (that is, books, computers, art supplies, musical instruments and so on) to help them document their own stories. Documenting their lives is important and serves many functions; it is therapeutic and educational, and it helps inform those who develop public policy.

Experiential community members’ knowledge can point the way to new approaches to address marginalization. Vital information is missed through reliance on traditional formats, such as community questionnaires and focus groups. Answers may be obvious to an insider, but if the right questions are not asked, they will never be heard.

When the street women at Downtown Women’s Project meetings suggested the shelter should have space for dogs, it was a serious issue for them. They pointed out many of them had dogs and if their dogs could not come to the shelter, neither could they. They were not concerned about by-laws or what the neighbours might think. In the end, Sandy Merriman House did not include a dog shelter and, as a result, does not provide emergency shelter to those particular street women. However, as a result, other shelters, including a new youth detoxification facility, do take dogs.

In the province of British Columbia, in every consultation I have ever had with sexually exploited youth, access to safe housing has been at the top of their list. Over and over they have assured me that if such a facility was properly set up and managed, many young sex workers would use it. Instead, the government is developing a program designated secure, or safe, care, a locked facility where sexually exploited children and youth can be held against their will for thirty days “for their own good.” Such programs have been tried many times and have failed to solve the various problems they were designed to address. I know women who were put into secure facilities more than a dozen times during their adolescence, and each time, returned to the street. Safe and supportive housing is the stated reason for secure care, but, the youth feel they are under arrest when they are detained without their consent. No effort has been made to involve them in the creation of voluntary care facilities.

Nothing about this process is straight forward and simple. Sometimes youths need to be apprehended involuntarily, for example, when they are kept high on drugs and forced to work by pimps. Change agents have to create an atmosphere that encourages people to speak up without fear of being punished or silenced, to voice their ideas for service design and development. Their input must be seen to be taken seriously and to have an impact on what happens next.

None of the staff or the Board of the Downtown Women’s Project  had street experience. During the life of this two-year project, differences of opinion among members of the staff and Board made decision-making an unwieldy process and resulted in a far less successful project than initially seemed possible. The street women were not allowed to participate in any profound way. They had no real say in how the project was operated or how best to deal with difficult situations as they emerged.

During the implementation phase of the project, staff made decisions by consensus. Together we had developed a set of guidelines for participants. In order to be accepted as a participant, the women had to make a commitment not to use drugs or alcohol for a year, which was the length of time they would commit to the project. Applicants were told that if any sign of drug or alcohol use emerged, they would be asked to leave. A few women were asked to leave because of drug use when they first started their training, which included working with power tools. No one objected. It made sense.

After the seven-month training portion ended, twelve women remained in the program and were hired to work on the renovation site. They received regular pay cheques, many for the first time in their lives. Although there was a counsellor on staff, and funds in the budget for additional counselling, the women rightly concluded that it was not safe or prudent to admit to us that they were struggling with their addictions. They thought that if they did, they would be kicked out of the program and end up back on the street. So they didn’t tell us, and struggled alone, without support, attempting to meet what I have since learned was an unrealistic expectation. The tragic consequence was that Sandy Merriman, an extremely promising carpenter, died of a drug overdose one weekend half-way through the project.

She had confessed to a friend that she had gradually started using drugs again; temptation combined with disposable income became too much to resist. Sandy’s drug use escalated and she began turning tricks at night to supplement her wages from the project. It would have been dangerous to let her continue to use power tools; however, we could have created alternatives if we had pooled our knowledge with the project participants.

Although a success in many ways, the Downtown Women’s Project was a difficult experience for me. I continue to regret that participants were not allowed a role in decision-making. In this regard, no clear guidelines ever emerged and conflict continued to the final days of the project. A significant area of conflict among staff members concerned what was best for participants, who were excluded from this debate. Staff opinions and entrenched positions were based on personal preference rather than advice from the literature or documented experience. The Downtown Women’s Project provided more evidence that good intentions alone cannot create appropriate supports for marginalized people.

McKnight points out that we “ought never, ever to think because somebody has good intention, says they care, is doing something for a good motive, that is any indication at all that in fact what they do will be good for others, for themselves, or for society” (Ideas 5). Undoubtedly, the intentions of everyone involved in the Downtown Women’s Project were good, but this was not enough to build and sustain the environment the street women needed. The staff and Board were all feminists; yet, no time was spent developing principles that could be used to work cooperatively and make decisions for the common good. Because everyone had good intentions and was a feminist, it was simply assumed that decisions would be in the best interests of the street women. At the time, we did not recognize that, in thinking we understood the best interests of such women, we were being paternalistic.

We made decisions about training and the work site that began to undermine the participants self-esteem rather than build it, as was intended. Some staff felt it was in the best interests of the women to create a construction site that mimicked the “real” work world. Others, including myself, held that because, for most, this was their first paid work experience of any duration, we should be lavish with support and encouragement, unlike the real world. No consensus could be reached on many such issues, and we reverted to a traditional hierarchical decision-making structure, with the Board as the final arbiter. In this instance, the “real” world group prevailed. In the end, almost none of the women emerged from the project with enough confidence to tackle the male-dominated construction industry. Many returned to the street within a short time of the project’s completion.

Involving the Experiential Community in Decision-making

Whatever initiative is undertaken, for the process of community engagement to be genuinely respectful, experiential members must play a central role in decision-making concerning goals, objectives, activities and strategies. The process itself must also provide personal growth and increase personal power over one’s circumstances. No matter what the goal, the process must be a positive and respectful experience for even the most powerless. The experiential community must play a part in developing the process by which decisions will be made. They may not want to follow a standard practice of majority voting or traditional consensus. Each group must have the time and space to develop their own mechanism for decision-making. Under the best of conditions, community members will control decision-making, through open discussions that allow everyone to express their ideas. As well as ensuring that they have a significant role in formal decision-making,  informal decision-making and appeal mechanisms must include the experiential community.

 It is critical that a forum for expressing ideas is created during the early days of a project. This must allow for conflict, criticism and disagreement. Having been in too many situations where disagreement meant the dissolution of the group, I worked hard to prepare PEERS for inevitable conflict. Despite periods of intense disagreement that  threatened to destroy the group, the members of PEERS came to recognize the shifting nature of their alliances and the constantly changing configuration of who agrees with whom.

Even today, after seven years of existence, PEERS still experiences staff conflict and struggles with an appropriate way of making decisions, and balancing Board and staff input. It is in the nature of PEERS to bring new people into the group. Many arrive straight from the sex trade. Constant crises and conflict are expected but that does little to mediate the tension that arises. A few years ago, a weekly staff meeting was instituted to provide a forum for dialogue and open communication. This has helped. So has anticipating conflict. When relations get too strained, staff feel free to call on a Board member for advice or support. They frequently do, and as long as staff make the choice to involve non-experiential community supporters, they can be a valuable resource.

Addressing community health and social service issues can involve layers of complexity. Often experiential groups must affiliate with an existing organization in order to receive funding. When this happens, legally, the sponsoring organization has some decision-making authority over the group. This can displace participants from key roles over time, unless effort is spent preventing such an occurrence. Even when a group creates a new organization, laws of incorporation might well dictate structural requirements. For example, should the group decide to incorporate as a non-profit society there is a requirement, in all jurisdictions insofar as I am aware, that a Board of Directors be constituted. By law, that Board will have some decision-making power attached to their fiduciary responsibility. To reduce the distance between themselves and the Board,  participants can be included as Board members, but this brings its own complications. At PEERS, for example, when experiential persons come onto the Board they usually end up as staff. Although there is nothing to prevent ex-staff from coming onto the Board, they rarely choose to do so, preferring to move on once they no longer work at PEERS.

As they emerge with a sense of their own identity, the experiential community may make decisions that the change agent, or supporters, do not agree with. Guidance and advice are appropriate, but eventually the group must make its own decisions if it is to succeed. If the input of experiential people is to be meaningful, their engagement must profoundly influence outcomes. Inevitably, decisions will be made that will not satisfy all members of the experiential community; therefore, procedures need to be put in place that include the community when considering whether to change decisions and how.

There will be times when members of the experiential community will say things that are not comfortable or acceptable to change agents. Members may want to shift the focus to something they would prefer to address, or they might have a perspective difficult for a change agent to relate to. Members may need to discus perspectives or ideas we think are irrelevant and a waste of time. PEERS staff want to talk about how PEERS can become self-sufficient, rather than relying on government funding. Although a laudable goal and one I support, it has been extremely difficult to identify a realistic income- generating project. On occasion, staff have suggested that PEERS could, without compromising its mandate, fund its operation by running its own sex trade business. If well managed, such a business could provide a positive working environment. Staff suggest, accurately, that such a business could be seen as harm reduction but it would sever the possibility of receiving funding from other sources.[12]

Through discussions, the core group of men at the VSCA were able to identify actions that would address their immediate needs, such as increased housing. Although these men were incapable of implementing such an intervention on their own, they were nonetheless able to play a significant role in the planning and design. First, the group decided upon the nature of the housing they wanted. It was to be close to downtown, but not too close; permanent rather than emergency or short-term, although this would significantly limit the number of those who would benefit; a minimum of five units for women; all to be self-contained and regulated by the Landlord and Tenant Act so that those actively addicted or unwilling to take their medication could not be evicted for being non-compliant.

Once the transformation process is initiated, experiential people will be in  unfamiliar territory faced with decisions they would rather not make.They may be confronted with decisions that will affect them personally, such as who will become a paid staff member when such a position arises. In my experience, when a positive  relationship exists between the change agent and experiential community members, they will ask for assistance when they feel they need help. Often, it is the synergy between the experiential community and the change agents that results in successful outcomes.

Early in the first meeting of the BC Coalition of Experiential Women, it became clear that we had not done as good a job explaining who should attend as we had thought. Some community agencies sent women who were active drug addicts and therefore totally unable to participate in the development of a provincial advocacy and lobby organization. One of the younger women had brought her infant daughter. Day care was provided, but even so she was barely able to manage. At the conclusion of the three-day conference, I joined with others to discuss our concerns about this woman and her baby. In the hotel room of one of the participants, in the midst of her scattered clothes, food, make-up and hair products, we discussed what, if anything, should be done. Most of us had children. Our concern was greatest for the baby. Piecing together what we knew and what we suspected, we concluded that this young woman probably had her baby with her when she went downtown to score, when she smoked crack and turned tricks in the hotel room we had provided. None of these four former sex workers had ever faced this ethical dilemma. They had to make a difficult decision. Should they report her to Social Services or the police? Could they live with themselves if they did? Could they live with themselves if they didn’t? In the end, the consensus was that something had to be done. They could not ignore the risk to the baby. They wanted someone to phone the authorities, though none of them could actually do it. I made the call, with them in the room. That night our fears were confirmed. The hotel security system showed that the smoke alarm in her room had been disabled. A security guard was dispatched to check it out and found the air full of crack smoke. The baby was taken into care, and the next morning the mother had disappeared onto the streets of Vancouver.

Indigenous Leadership

When considering leadership, it is important to define titles and functions: a leader provides vision and direction and has decision-making authority; a facilitator supports dialogue and communication, and guides the group in creating a shared vision; a mentor  acts as a role model and support person; a teacher provides new skills and knowledge in formal and informal settings. At different points in the process, the change agent may act in all these capacities.

Rather than leadership shifting from the change agent to the community, too often the community is displaced by professionals. The battered women’s movement offers a clear example. Experiential community members envisioned, designed, developed and implemented a movement to address their concerns. Out of their vision and hard work a network of programs and services for battered women emerged throughout North America. However, the network is staffed by professional social workers and counsellors. Many transition houses, including one in Victoria, have a policy that women who have been battered cannot even volunteer until at least two years into their healing. Battered women’s services have been thoroughly professionalized and possible alternative approaches to their needs have been lost.

The same shift in control and decision-making can happen in community practice initiatives. In its initial phase, the Downtown Women’s Project was led by a six-person team: four street women, a writer to document the process and myself as change agent. Once the implementation phase began, the structure reverted to the traditional pattern and the project was managed by a staff of professionals who reported to a board of directors. Despite everyone on the team and on the Board being feminists, relationships with the street women was paternalistic, and this undermined the original intent of the project. As soon as the street women stopped having a role beyond that of participant, the Downtown Women’s Project lost its legitimacy as an alternative cultural solution, although it kept that veneer. Effectively transferring responsibility in order to sustain gains made requires a strong commitment to the development of community skills. An effective power base must develop its own leaders, build its own resources, and identify its own goals.

The importance of encouraging leadership and decision-making is highlighted in community organizing literature. A vital function of the change agent is facilitating leadership in the community, so that in time its members are able to take responsibility. Rudkin says the change agent needs to build on “a strengths model rather than a deficit model” (xiii). Yet, even with a focus on strengths rather than deficits, it is unfair to assume members of marginalized communities possess the necessary skills needed to take on all the tasks involved in a community practice initiative.

The change agent has to work inside the community and outside in the larger world. It may be easier for a member of the experiential community to engage in internal work because she shares the experience and perspective of her community and speaks their language. It may be more difficult for her to liaise with the greater community.

As a lesbian, I have undertaken a number of projects with people who, by and large, share my experiences and values. Even among lesbians there is a wide range of class and cultural backgrounds, and an effort must be made to bridge differences and be inclusive. I was involved in organizing Inqe[e]ry: The Lesbian, Bi, Trans and Two-Spirited Women’s Research Network of BC during the spring of 2002. Very few women of colour participated in the inaugural meeting. As a result, a conscious effort went into hosting a series of focus groups with Aboriginal women and Asian women to find out what they needed to feel included in Inqe[e]ry. Being a lesbian was not enough to automatically ensure inclusion or an adequate understanding of the needs and experiences of all lesbians.

At PEERS, I was the person with the most responsibility initially, in order to establish links with potential funders. Once funding was received and an organizational structure began to be developed, the five staff (all recently exited from the sex trade) asked me to be director. I agreed, as an interim measure, because they told me of the high anxiety the group felt about tackling the complexities of creating an agency. Everyone understood that my role as director was temporary.

By the end of the first year, one of the core staff members had emerged as a natural leader, a common occurrence in groups, and took over as group leader and decision-maker. I remained involved, but moved to the sidelines. After choosing a series of leaders, each one becoming overwhelmed or exhausted by the job, PEERS staff members told the Board they wanted to operate as a collective, sharing the leadership and the decision-making. The Board of sympathetic and supportive professional women were nervous about shifting total control to the staff.

Tension between staff and Board reached its highest point during this period, which as it happens included considerable growth in the organization. Staff asked Board members to withdraw from all decision-making. Board meetings took place off-site and added little to the running of the organization. More than once, no staff attended the monthly Board meeting to report on what was happening at PEERS. In fact, staff numbers had increased and collective decisions had become problematic. Some staff thought the disagreements resulted from a shift away from a commitment to hiring ex-prostitutes. Although the commitment remained in theory, in practice new staff either had less experience in the sex trade, worked only as strippers or worked hi-track rather than the street. Such distinctions might not seem important to an outsider, but in this group it resulted in significant and prolonged conflict. As a result the collective model of shared leadership and decision-making failed. As Rothschild-Whitt makes clear, collectivist organizational structure is best suited to homogenous groups of people who are ready for and capable of self-discipline (513). It is a difficult model to use with a group that has little decision-making experience.

PEERS went on to develop a compromise. Weekly staff meetings incorporate  experiential staff in day-to-day decision-making; an Executive Director acts as a supervisor and manager, without sole decision-making responsibility. The Board, composed of community supporters, some with a history of sex work, oversees the operation of PEERS and makes financial decisions. Currently, the Executive Director is not experiential. Intense and on-going conflict has developed whenever one experiential person supervises another. PEERS latest attempt to address this problem is to separate decision-making from management and supervision. Staff members continue to collaborate with the Board and have a central role in decision-making, but responsibility for management and supervision falls to the new Executive Director.

Building the Capacity of Experiential Community Members

Change agents have to ensure that experiential community members’ engagement in the transformation process is realistic, by providing necessary supports and matching expectations with group needs and abilities. Experiential community members must be supported in their desire to take on responsibility but the change agent must ensure that help is available when tasks become overwhelming. It is the change agent’s responsibility to pay close attention. When members of the group become overwhelmed with tasks that far exceed their skills, we must be ready to step in to relieve the group and help to resolve the problem collectively.

One of the key ways to support engagement in the change process is to build the capacity of experiential community members. This way they develop skills and abilities, individually and collectively, as the process continues. These might range from basic literacy to proposal writing and group facilitation. It is important to note that building such capacities is not simply developing a temporary set of situation-specific skills but increasing a person’s overall capacity to function. This is especially important when working with the marginalized whose focus has been, for good reason, solely on surviving day-to-day.

Rudkin suggests that “joining forces with members of disenfranchised communities to transform social relationships and redistribute social power” is one of the primary goals of social change work (281). One meaningful way to join forces with experiential people, wherever possible, is to train and hire them to work in the services and programs that result from their input. There are many reasons why it is vital to hire experiential people: having experiential staff creates a perceived climate of safety and acceptance for “service- resistant” clients; it provides a clear and public acknowledgement that they are valued; it offers a structure for training and mentorship; and it allows innovative new ideas to emerge from within the experiential community.

Once people become willing to engage, a commitment of time and effort is needed to build a team. This is especially true for people who have lived in environments dominated by mistrust and competition. Resources and respect are two more vital components of formal or informal team-building, in order that people remain engaged. Cherry Kingsley demonstrates that some experiential people are able to take on functions of the change agent from the outset, but are not able to handle all the responsibilities. Cherry has been able to build relationships with an impressive range of agencies and individuals. She has twice made presentations to the UN General Assembly; she is a friend to senators and generals; she is invited to Christmas parties at the Prime Minister’s Residence; and she has attended Royal functions in Sweden and Japan. Cherry, however, may never be comfortable with the extensive negotiations required for funding applications and written contracts with government agencies. She is wonderful at initial contact, but without someone to provide follow-up and support, Cherry becomes overwhelmed.

In 2002, Cherry decided she could handle everything on her own. Although we had worked together since 1996, I accepted that she no longer needed me in order to continue her work combatting the sexual exploitation of children and youth. Cherry has friends and supporters around the world. She decided to create a new organization, the International Centre to Combat the Exploitation of Children (ICCEC). At first, it looked as though she and her partner in the enterprise, an experiential young man, could manage on their own. They had contracts with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) providing insights for each of these institutions from the experiential perspective. ICCEC was incorporated and applied successfully for funding from several private foundations. But it was all too much. Managing the development of a new international organization, tracking incoming and outgoing expenditures, setting up appropriate financial systems, and obtaining ongoing funding while still engaged in the implementation of a number of projects was more than they could manage. It is more than most could manage. The young man left. Cherry became so stressed by her responsibilities that she was close to collapse. Then, she disappeared for a month. Finally, she called me and admitted something was wrong. She told me that, unable to face the daily onslaught of phone calls, voice mails, e-mails, and letters and all the follow-up each required, she moved out of her home office and into a hotel. She said she was afraid I would think she wasn’t capable if I knew how hard it was for her to manage by herself.

I went to Vancouver to help. We went through her apartment and gathered grocery bags full of scraps of paper, pages torn from notebooks, old lists and receipts that needed to be sorted and catalogued. She forwarded hundreds of e-mails to me. I tried to talk her into seeing a therapist, thinking it was inevitable she would bottom out again if she did not deal with the trauma of her past. She said, “No. You don’t know. I can’t go back there. I can’t and I won’t.”

She is right. I do not know. At eleven, she ran away from her violent home; I was sheltered and protected, enjoying Saturdays in the woods with friends I had had since kindergarten. At fifteen, she was being bought and sold by motorcycle gangs; I was in the school band and the debating society. I can not even begin to imagine what she has been through. I do know she is brilliant, that she has the ability to move people in ways they have never before experienced, and that she and I work well together. When she calls me her [tor]mentor,[13] I laugh.

I spent time trying to untangle the mess. At first, each time we arranged to talk, I waited for her call, trying to decide if I should be worried. When the phone rang and it wasn’t her, I wondered if she was alright. I kept checking my e-mail to see if she had responded to mine. When I finally heard her voice she nonchalantly said, “Hey, how are you?” I felt my body relax. I wondered if I would ever stop worrying about this motherless child who was now a mother herself. We talked about what was next for her, for me, for the centre we were creating. We both knew how much each needed the other to do this work. Together we planned to take on the world. In the spring, we developed a list of tasks and divided them up. As usual, she was full of good ideas, names of contacts, and possible projects to pursue.

The primary mandate of the International Centre to Combat the Exploitation of Children (ICCEC) is to facilitate experiential people in voicing their concerns regarding the sexual exploitation of children and youth. My responsibilities have included setting up a workable partnership and administrative relationship with an existing organization at the local university, communicating with various funders and potential funders, helping organize and facilitate meetings, re-establishing Cherry on a payroll, and completing a project we began years earlier, a post-secondary curriculum on sexual exploitation.

Cherry and I now talk regularly and together we establish what tasks she is good at and which ones are too overwhelming for her. She is a brilliant public speaker and has developed excellent writing and analytic skills; thus, she is able to be the public face of the Centre in a wide variety of forums. In time, we both hope that my role as Interim Executive Director will be filled by someone who is experiential. For now, we work together, each doing what we do best. Although his emphasis is international, Chambers reinforces my point when he argues that positive support has to be an aspect of capacity building. He states, “Having confidence that ‘they can do it,’ and transmitting that confidence, again and again enables local people to get started with activities...they see and learn through their presentation and analysis.” (134)

Visualizing Change: Motivation and Passion

 It is important that a change agent motivate and kindle the passion of experiential community members who need to fuel the project with their enthusiasm and dedication. In all likelihood, the change agent, too, is passionate, but the source may be a very different one. Community members may be focussed on moving off the street into safe housing; the change agent may simply be focussed on the creation of positive change. Thus, it is essential that each member of the experiential community be able to find her own personal motivation.

No one is better able to identify what will motivate a community than its members. Homeless men told me how to engage their peers in the project which became the Victoria Street Community Association and in the case of PEERS, it is clear enough. As B. Smith, one of the women who co-founded PEERS, said, “it’s because we’re all from the trade that there’s so much excitement and energy. That’s PEERS’ essence.” (Rabinovitch and Lewis 47).

One of the gifts the change agent brings to transformative community practice is her own vision of a community-led process. Once a degree of trust and sense of safety have been established and relationships formed, an opportunity exists for experiential community members to learn from the change agent. It is at this point that she begins to share her vision of a process where experiential community members play a central role in designing, developing and implementing their solutions, based on her belief in their abilities. Incorporating visualization in community practice as an aid to spiritual activism does not only offer a sense of possibility and hope. Visualization is a tool that can be used to share a concrete vision of a community-led process.

Such a vision must be developed along with all the other work required to implement a project or initiative, but I believe that positive visualization can help to overcome obstacles to change that seem insurmountable. Gloria Anzaldua and Starhawk are notable writers on spiritual, or magical, activism. Although they use different methods and define spiritual and magical activism differently, both suggest that radical social change requires that one tap into the interconnectedness of life on this planet. My own experience as a community practitioner working with marginalized people escalated profoundly when I created a ritual in which I “put myself in the service of the mother.” One aspect of support and skill-building provided by the change agent is the tool of visualization. The change agent will have a vision of the community taking responsibility for itself in a general way; the community will have a vision that is more concrete and specific. It may be a vision of a place of its own, as was true with the VSCA and the Downtown Women’s Project or it may be an organization as in the case of ICCEC. Working collectively to articulate and create a vision brings the reality of a project a step closer even though nothing concrete has taken place. Sometimes, the vison is shared by the larger community, although making the vision public might well mean that, when it is finally approved for implementation, there is an anticlimactic feeling since everyone already “knew” it was going to happen. It does help, though, to build a momentum that begins to feel unstoppable. It makes it possible for “impossible” things to happen.

In the early days of the Downtown Women’s Project, the street women who attended meetings pointed out that there were no emergency services for them in Victoria (there were numerous shelters for men). Everybody involved agreed this would be a good place to start. Existing shelters for women tended to be for families and had rules and expectations that were unrealistic for these women. In fact, almost all of them had been barred from battered women’s shelters because of inappropriate behaviour, such as returning after curfew or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The women knew they were not welcome in the existing services for women but they also knew that they weren’t safe in the few services they could use. Usually, shelters that are used to accommodating street people (many of whom regularly use alcohol and drugs) are designed exclusively or primarily for men. The women who used those shelters described a pattern of meeting and becoming involved with one inappropriate man after another, inevitably being abused.

Consequently, I took a map of the inner city to a meeting and asked where the shelter we were visualizing should be located. They began by suggesting a corner downtown where many of them worked and did drug deals. They insisted that if the shelter could not be right there on that corner, it had to be within walking distance. We had different definitions of walking distance (theirs was about two blocks, mine was a kilometre). However, I was willing to try. They said they wanted it downtown, in a house with a yard, not a warehouse or a converted office building. It sounded impossible. I didn’t think there were any houses left in downtown Victoria. Within a few short months, we not only found one, it was for sale and the owner agreed to wait several months until we had the funds to buy it.    


Historically, policy makers turn to service delivery senior managers, and occasionally academic researchers, when grappling with concerns of the marginalized. It is time to open the circle and allow others to be included, most significantly, the experiential community and those who work directly with its members.  A core responsibility of change agents is to ensure that among the “experts” are those who have lived an experience. But our responsibility goes much further. In the next chapter I will look closely at the reasons why the larger community becomes involved in supporting experiential community members in the change process.

Chapter 5 - Bringing Others Along: Engaging Community Support

“You have to do it,” Megan insisted. “it’s not every day that a lesbian feminist is invited to sit on her local Police Board.”

“Forget it. I’m not joining the Police Board.” I said, adding, “it’s volunteer. I can’t afford to.” Megan was sporting platinum dread locks, a startling change from her short spiky dark hair of the previous week. Megan was one of the original PEERS staff members. At six foot one and over two hundred pounds, she was noticeable no matter how she wore her hair.

“But you have to. We need to do something about the way the police are treating the women. It’s getting worse. Maybe if you’re on the Board it will help,” she insisted. The police were starting to harass PEERS outreach workers too. I knew they were pretty unsympathetic to the women’s point of view and often gave them tickets for weird things, such as not having their seatbelt on, or for loitering. Prostitution is not exactly illegal in Canada, but since talking about it is (called soliciting), the police treat the women as if they are criminals. Or they did back then, anyway, in 1997.

The language in the Criminal Code reveals the year laws were written. In Canada, it’s illegal to, among other things, “keep a common bawdy house.” Sounds like olde English to me. Still, the last thing I wanted to do was join the Police Board. Megan was right about one thing, though. It was amazing that I had been asked to join.

The rest of the women at PEERS joined the campaign and finally I agreed to try it for six months. Awhile later, I ran into Ron, a policeman who was the Downtown Business Liaison Officer, in the lounge on the ferry to Vancouver. I stopped to say hello wearing my new role somewhat awkwardly like a child whose dress clothes don’t quite fit. He and the police officer beside him wanted to talk about PEERS, so I sat down to listen.

Ron jumped right in, “What’s the point of PEERS anyway? Don’t you think you’re just enabling them with all this support nonsense? They’re just a bunch of drug addicts and criminals. You’re not going to convince us otherwise. We deal with them all the time.”

“People change,” I countered. “with appropriate supports and someone to talk to, they get a chance to make a choice, many for the first time in their lives. The average age of entry into the sex trade in Canada is 14 years. Seems to me we have an obligation as a society to support them.”

“Yeah, well don’t expect the police to change,” Ron went on. “As long as PEERS staff are out there making it easier for them, we’re going to do everything we can to get rid of you.” 

As I began attending meetings of the Police Board, I soon discovered that the Chief was retiring, and the Board was responsible for hiring a new one. At the end of an eight month process, we had hired a progressive police chief, Paul Battershill.

Paul suggested a meeting between the police and PEERS take place at Sandy Merriman House. He and I were joined by several PEERS staff members, as well as outreach workers from other agencies. We met in the living room of the newly renovated house. A few minutes later, two officers in plain clothes joined the group. The Chief had suggested that it would be more politic if there were no uniforms in evidence. The agenda for this ad hoc group was to collaboratively establish a new enforcement policy for the Victoria Police Department concerning prostitution. The Chief wanted to hear what those who worked directly with the women thought should be the focus. By the end of a series of meetings, the group agreed that enforcement priorities would focus on violent “tricks,” pimps, and men who buy sex from children and youth. Staff members from PEERS continue to meet with the police and keep the channels of communication open. The police now hand out PEERS cards to women on the street.

Transformative community practice brings the experiential community “to the table” rather than allowing them to remain the target of someone else’s agenda. Working inside one small corner of a community with one specific experiential group, can make some difference, but the impact will be limited. More significant change requires that the greater community recognize its shared responsibility and choose to engage in addressing these concerns. The process requires the engagement of all stakeholders—frontline service providers (including the police), public-sector managers, policy makers, politicians and business owners. This is not to minimize the importance of the work being done by groups like the VSCA and PEERS. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that, without the active support of the greater community, such grassroots groups will be short-lived and their impact fleeting.

The complex nature of marginalization cannot be addressed or resolved piecemeal. The marginalized exist because of the ideological and economic choices of the whole community, and thus have to be dealt with collectively. Phenomena such as poverty and violence function on multiple levels—individual, social groups, and the wider culture—and look different from the different perspectives of the individuals experiencing them. These include service providers who work with individuals, policy makers attempting to fix systems that are overburdened trying to deal with the consequences of such phenomena, and the citizenry who are witnesses. This chapter will look closely at ways to facilitate the engagement of all concerned, through partnerships, coalitions and collaborations.

Ensuring Cultural Sensitivity

Although the goal of transformative community practice may be, in time, to build bridges between marginalized parts of our community and the mainstream, it is important to distinguish the standpoint from which each sees the world. Standpoint theory was developed independently by a number of well-established feminist theorists, including Harding and Dorothy Smith. Although Smith originally constructed her work as a way of understanding women’s experience in a male-dominated culture, it provides a useful framework for analysis when the standpoint of a key group is excluded. For example, the exclusion of women’s everyday experience in a male-dominated society can be parallelled with the exclusion of marginalized people’s everyday experience in traditional North American health and social service delivery systems.

Once the standpoint difference between the marginalized and the mainstream is acknowledged, important knowledge can be gleaned from those outside the dominant culture. When addressing concerns affecting the marginalized, understanding their standpoint is critical to the process.

Cultural sensitivity involves respecting cultural difference and understanding the needs of a group and its members as individuals. People feel more comfortable when their cultural reality is acknowledged and a genuine effort is made to understand their culture. The change agent can only do this after getting to know the community well because its members are the only ones who can explain how to act in a culturally sensitive manner. Only the community can identify what actions and outcomes are culturally important, and the change agent must pay attention to that information in order to share it with the greater community. Cultural differences can be overt or more subtle.

When the VSCA received funding for a coordinator, we formed a hiring committee from staff members and volunteers. Most had never been involved in hiring anyone before, so setting criteria took some time. Bruce, one of the applicants, was out of town so we had to conduct his interview using a conference phone at City Hall. Walking through the Planning Department to the room with the phone we attracted quite a bit of attention. Bruce had visited the VSCA the previous summer and one of the men didn’t think he should be considered for the job because he was completely inappropriate. I thought perhaps it was because he had a Masters of Social Work, but when I asked, they said, “because he wears sandals.” Wearing sandals made him so deviant as to be outside the realm of consideration. I learned later that in their world no “real” man would ever wear sandals. Because they knew and trusted me, I convinced them to consider him anyway, and ultimately he was hired as coordinator.

Understanding cultural differences is particularly important in the development of multi-ethnic coalitions, or when the organizer is from a race, ethnicity, or class other than that of the majority. Internal disagreement is to be expected and factionalism anticipated, regardless of the group make-up. But cultural sensitivity consists of more than a respectful recognition of race or religious diversity. It includes communicating in the language of the experiential community and ensuring that cultural traditions are respected, whether those differences are a reflection of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, nation or a way of life that has its own cultural manifestations, such as sex work. Cultural sensitivity must include a willingness to begin the process of engagement by literally going to where people are located rather than expecting them to come to the process. It means making a commitment to address all barriers to engagement that can be identified. The experiential community will soon identify those barriers if consulted, and the change agent’s response should indicate that we are paying attention. If people need bus tickets to get to and from meetings, then bus tickets have to be made available. If we’re trying to engage people who normally sleep during the day, then we do not plan daytime meetings or events.

Safe and voluntary engagement requires that experiential community members identify what would make them feel safe. An effort should then be made to create those conditions. A sense of safety takes time to develop and it is important that change agents recognize and make allowances for that. It may mean restrictions are placed on outsiders who are invited to speak, invited observers, as well as where interactions take place.

During the early stages of a project, the change agent must also act as a cultural interpreter translating the community’s reality to outside sources (Ilfeld, Notes 1). Once the Downtown Women’s Project was approved, an inter-ministerial committee was created to aid communication between various government departments. The project was complex and involved several ministries, one for the purchase of the building, another to oversee the training and employment project, another for the shelter’s ongoing operating budget, and still another for its renovation and maintenance. This committee met regularly and spent many months developing internal decision-making, communication protocols and a mechanism to transfer funds from one to another. These meetings made no sense to the participants of the Downtown Women’s Project. Once the government had made a commitment to support the project, the women could not understand why they did not proceed more quickly.

Work with most communities requires confidentiality. Daily life on the margins is stigmatized by the mainstream and many may choose to engage in a community process only when they are confident their involvement is confidential. Some may be willing to have their involvement known but they want to control how much and what is shared about themselves. Although everything written about PEERS states that staff and Board are former sex workers or their supporters, the assumption that everyone who works at  PEERS has experience in the sex trade is wide-spread. It is important that those who are not experiential do not feel compelled to announce it. Some staff, although comfortable speaking inside PEERS, do not want outsiders, including their parents and/or children, to know of their sex trade experience. When someone is willing to tell her story publically, the impact is powerful. Many people support PEERS as a result of hearing that story. The media and the “square” community want to hear real-life stories, but care must be taken to allow each member of a community transformative process to participate on her own terms. Some will want to disclose details of their lives for awhile, and then need to stop.

Although sharing stories brings to life important details and personalizes problems and concerns for the mainstream community in a way that no amount of data or statistics can, sharing this information has to be voluntary. Not everyone feels comfortable talking about their experiences and that needs to be okay as well. There are many other important functions for experiential community members.

It is of critical importance to be aware of the effect disclosure has on the person who is disclosing, for example, immersion in a dialogue about the trade. This can take over as their primary identity, superceding other facets of their lives. B. Smith has this to say: “Talking about it all the time put those of us who were the founders of PEERS at risk because of the stress. It can be like trying to sober up and be in a bar every day.” For her, it was too much: “At the beginning, it was incredible, exciting, huge. I had an inflated sense of what I could do. Then I just crashed. Started using drugs and working. I relapsed for six months” (Rabinovitch and Lewis 24).  Megan also writes on the topic:

Many of us working in the “squared up” field were unemployed and in transition prior to employment at PEERS. We were poverty stricken and unsure of our futures. When we began to be paid, there was a feeling of abundance...This safety and security rested on our telling our stories over and over again. There was a direct causal link. Mostly it was an exhilarating experience. Speaking gave me a chance to separate from my story and understand it in an objective manner, almost like looking at someone else’s life and analyzing it. However, it also meant that I could objectively pick it apart for the juicy bits to feed the waiting public.

Sometimes it felt like I was being trotted out, the token hooker. We used to joke about it, but there was a truth to it. Fact is, you need someone who will tell their story and tell it well. Someone who can elicit emotion in the people who are listening and that someone has to have experience. After I’d speak, lots of people I never knew and were never a part of my life would come up to me and tell me how proud they were of me. What a good job they think I’m doing and how brave I am to speak. It was very weird. I didn’t like it...

Disclosing your history over and over does a couple of things:

1. Because your history is used as a story, it becomes almost a disassociative activity. You distance from your story and this, among other things, can lead to questioning the validity of it. Because you end up using small pieces of your story to illustrate things and to use as examples, you end up giving weight to parts of your history that would not otherwise be weighted. This also can make you feel fraudulent. It’s as if the story becomes so far away from your own perceptions of what your life was like that it doesn’t feel true. The above two things together have led several people into feeling like the telling of their story was fraudulent in some way or like they were ‘prostituting’ their stories. No gray area of what is a choice, what is not, what were the good parts, what was not so good. It all gets boiled down to the Cole’s Notes of my life.

2. The constant and regular talk/work/energy of one perspective or aspect of your life turns this into your primary identity. On the one hand, it allows one to deeply explore one’s sex trade history; on the other, it dismisses the variety and complexity of life. I think it does a disservice after a time. I also think that it needs reclaiming after one stops working on the one issue. Becoming so immersed in this identity allows one to explore thoroughly and exhaustively their sex trade history. There are constant revisions to our story being made as another layer of insight is revealed. Often this is coupled with much discussion among colleagues. Lots of questioning, clarifying, and comparing to other experiences and perspectives. All this adds up to a lot of thinking. Thinking about what we are saying, why and where it came from. Also how our story is seen by peers makes a difference. Eventually I needed to dig through my old life and find the pieces that got no attention for the five years I was with PEERS. I felt that I would become trapped in my “story” if I didn’t (Rabinovitch and Lewis pp 24-25).

One of the recent activities undertaken by PEERS, “Stories from the Margins,” offers an alternative way to engage members of the broader community. Because I have long been associated with PEERS, I am often asked what the sex trade is really like. Answering that question means telling someone else’s story, which is antithetical to everything I believe in. They are not my stories to tell. My role as change agent is to help others tell their own stories. A proposal for the Stories Project was approved by four funders—the city, the province, the federal government and a private foundation. Once again, in order to do what we wanted, I had to design a project that satisfied the funders. In this instance, to meet the requirements of Human Resources Development Canada, the primary funding agency, the project was presented as an employment training program for two ex-sex workers.

For the project, we hired a local artist and writer to facilitate a weekly three-hour workshop, offered people $20 to attend each week, and provided dinner. We made the group open to anyone with past or present experience in the trade. The response was overwhelming. Almost immediately we had more people than we could manage in one group, and had to start a second one. At first they came for the money but soon it became obvious that they loved participating in the exercises, having access to good art supplies, and being guided through their own personal process of discovery. They were surprisingly upbeat even as they wrote about horrendous experiences. People came consistently week after week; two even checked themselves out of the local psychiatric facility for those few hours just to attend. This group was unusual in many ways. It included a mix of current and former sex workers, aged from twenty to fifty, PEERS staff, volunteers, program participants, men, women, gay, straight, new faces and old friends. The participants would have happily continued for much longer than the four months funding provided. The local media covered the opening with interest.            

This project helped PEERS recognize the enormous creative capacity of the sex trade workers in our community, their willingness to try new activities, and the potential for growth inherent in the creative process. It may be difficult to assign measurable outcomes to such a project but we have learned that if it were up to the Victoria sex workers, they would ensure that everyone in the trade had access to art and writing workshops.

We hosted two events at a local gallery; the first was an opening for about fifty family and friends of the artists, and the second was a public gala reception with the Mayor, Police Chief, and a local television personality as speakers. The crowd for this reception overflowed onto the sidewalk into the warm late summer night. The art and writing produced during the project was added to the PEERS website. “Stories from the Margins: Writing by Sex Trade Workers, Past & Present,” edited by Dorothy Field and myself, is available from PEERS, and is distributed to politicians and policy makers.

Below is an excerpt from “Stories from the Margins”:

My experience in the sex trade gave me the survival skills to make it in your world, because I can go anywhere and know how to fit into your world. You couldn't survive my world because it's way too real for you. People always refer to the sex trade as the game.  What they don't get is that life is a game. Life is full of bullshit and politics and guessing games, proper terminology. It's not ok to tell people what I think about them, but it's ok for them to let me know what they think about me. Nobody sees the mother, or the daughter, or the sister; they see the prostitute. Society makes it hard to financially live in this world. You focus on us, and tell us we shouldn't do that, but you provide no options for us, no feasible options. You keep us marginalized. You took away my life, and you stripped me of my spirit and I got lost from who I was because with every trick I was somebody new. I spent eight hours with a very, very wealthy man who made me call him daddy and I had to resist his sexual advances and pretend he was my father. That's what you paid me for. That's who I became in that time. What you don't think about is, am I going to have a healthy relationship, am I ever going to be normal? Well you know what, I don't want to be normal. I don't want to be in your whitebread world. I’d rather live in the bush with the animals, because they know what's best. You hurt our children, you hurt our women, you take away everything that they are. I remember I worked for an escort agency and I came in with a handful of money and I said I'm going to go out and buy myself a new dress, and the woman there looked at me and said, whoa, easy come, easy go. And I looked at her and I said, no, it wasn't easy. It's mentally draining. All you want to do is to try and please me, when you're having sex with me. That's what little of a man you are. You think I like it, you think I enjoy it. I hate it. (Field and Rabinovitch 52).

Working Together: Partnerships, Coalitions and Collaborations

The relationship between experienced professionals and experiential participants has to be made explicit, since it is only through combining knowledge that we are able to create something new. Many professionals working in health and social services do not know how to engage experiential community members. Not surprisingly, experiential community members approach the traditional consultation process with distrust. All too often, such processes have the appearance of participation, without any real or substantive decision-making attached. An atmosphere that promotes and facilitates engagement requires a concentrated commitment to creating a culturally-sensitive climate, the assurance that participation is safe and voluntary, and supports that allow increasing involvement over time.

Building support often involves developing a network or coalition with other organizations. Coalition-building or community activity that brings together diverse groups to resolve problems usually takes place after relationships have been built and a strategy is underway. In some instances, however, the coalitions or partnerships requiring commitment and a collaborative spirit are an essential component of that strategy.

Part of the work of the change agent is like match-making, bringing together people who recognize a mutually beneficial situation. Even collaborations that do not produce the intended results can serve a purpose. The first proposal PEERS submitted was in partnership with well-established agencies (one worked with street youth and one with abused women). Even though the proposal was not successful, it helped make the organization credible to other agencies in the community and to the funders. Legitimacy came from establishing links and building relationships with such organizations, relationships that continued even though the joint project did not proceed.

A more successful example of match-making occurred when I introduced  the VSCA to a local developer. We had worked together in the past and he was pleased to be able to contribute to addressing homelessness. He made a number of suggestions unusual for someone in his business. One was to hire group members for his crew when his company was chosen to renovate the motel. This included George, a man with severe mental health issues who was able to work only one hour a day. Having paid employment was very important to George and something that had not been possible for a long time. The developer’s second contribution was to set up a trust for the profits from the renovation project. He said that when the group was ready, he would help the VSCA use the capital in that fund to start a business that would recycle construction materials. Several years later, he did exactly that. The third contribution that emerged from this unexpected partnership was organized through his service club; soon after the project opened, they organized a Christmas dinner for all the residents, and continued to do so for many years.

Sometimes, it is appropriate to develop steps or stages for outsiders, to determine whether they really want to engage with a particular community. In order to become a member of PEERS Board of Directors, people are required to attend three consecutive Board meetings. This way, their commitment to the group is tested. Some people are attracted to the idea of working with marginalized groups, but can be overwhelmed by the reality. Supporting an organization whose staff and clients have experience in the sex industry is often more stressful than people expect. Personality conflicts and power struggles abound. Simple tasks become complicated when participants are embroiled in fights and shifting allegiances. Few outsiders make it to three meetings and onto the Board. This may be in part because PEERS is always in a state of crisis. For a number of years, some Board members waited for the chaos to calm down and for PEERS to stabilize. This did not happen, and it is clear now that it never will. Staff turnover is high, as people move on to other employment or project funding comes to an end. New staff members come to PEERS with behaviours more suited to the street than an office, and require a transition period.

Working with Existing Institutions

In many circumstances, decisions that impact the lives of experiential community members are made by institutions. Mechanisms need to be developed that help influence decision-making, in hospitals, the Chamber of Commerce and so on. This can happen even with government funding sources. Ellen Ilfeld (Change Agent 2) suggests that experiential community members embed themselves in systems that affect them, creating separate watch-dog groups that monitor the powers-that-be, much as the BC Coalition of Experiential women hopes to do.

In order to support experiential community members in decision-making, all parties have to learn some new skills. When Cherry came to work for a national organization, she came with sophisticated verbal skills and a remarkable network of national and international connections. However, it soon became apparent that she did not operate well within the structure of a conventional organization. Rather than adapt in order to accommodate her, the organization, despite its youth participation rhetoric, warned her she had to change. When I asked how she might better function in that environment and accomplish her work, Cherry provided a number of concrete suggestions, such as help in completing her paperwork, filling out expense claim forms, checking her voice mail and returning her messages. She also requested a more flexible schedule as she found it nearly impossible to arrive in the office every morning at nine, especially since they expected her to travel frequently for her work. The organization did not agree with any of Cherry’s suggestions and, despite her accomplishments, concluded that she was “impossible to work with” and let her go.

Cherry’s experience is not unique. Many staff members at PEERS exhibit behaviour that demonstrates a need for significant change before they would be able to engage in initiatives with established expectations, and which were not designed with that specific experiential group in mind. PEERS gives people an opportunity to work in an organization while learning to modify behaviours learned in order to stay alive in the sex industry. The larger community is not always tolerant and continues to expect PEERS representatives to behave the same as those from other organizations. As a result, fence- mending is required on a fairly regular basis. It would be more useful for everyone concerned if there were willingness to accommodate slightly dysfunctional social behaviour in formal settings on the understanding that everyone from PEERS is learning to adjust to the “square” world, and attempting to build their capacity to function appropriately. Despite sometimes displaying anger and frustration publicly, PEERS staff members have much to offer to anyone who will listen.

We also have to be aware of language and literacy differences. Whether developing materials, talking to a community, soliciting information or participating in any kind of exchange, the change agent has to make the process accessible by using language that is universal. It is important to share information between communities, from the experiential to the academic. When communication is exclusive or laced with jargon, the experiential community feels shut out and is less willing to engage. When PEERS was considering applying for two different community grants programs, one sponsored by the federal government and the other by a private foundation, the women began by reading the information provided. In both instances, the language was so full of jargon it was incomprehensible. After they stopped laughing at the idea that these were supposed to be community grants programs, the women decided not to apply for either. 

When a process is ongoing, government and non-profit agencies are accustomed to the participation of a specific group and expect to encounter the same individuals at each point in the process. In many circumstances, community practitioners might also prefer this but it is more important to incorporate the voices and perspectives that make up the experiential community than to stick to rules and assumptions that impair the process. With flexibility comes a much better chance of sustaining  involvement, rather than insisting that if one person isn’t available then no one else should appear in their stead.

Creating New Initiatives

It is not fair to raise hopes and create dreams without making a significant commitment of time and energy to ensure that they come to pass. This work, which I describe as parallel tracks within transformative community practice, requires change agents be dedicated to building relationships outside of the experiential community as assiduously as inside. The parallel work begins virtually at the outset of the initiative and continues as long as the project does. In the early stages, time is spent researching who potential allies might be.

Initially, much of this activity requires skills and experience of the change agent herself rather than experiential community members. Such skills cover a wide range and include facilitating group visioning and planning sessions, developing grant proposals and lobbying for funding, and building support through networks and coalitions. In order to successfully create a new initiative, a wide range of knowledge is required and the change agent acts as a bridge, providing a crucial link between decision-makers, administrators, and the community with the identified need.

Once initial contacts have been made, it has often been my experience that  creativity is required to fit the goals of the experiential community into a format that would interest public and private funders. When the Downtown Women’s Project was underway, and the women had clearly identified the need for an emergency shelter, I discovered that there was no money available for such projects. Funds were available to build permanent housing and to operate emergency housing, but there appeared to be no available capital for a new shelter. There was, however, a growing commitment to training and employment programs and so, after some discussion with the women, we applied for that funding. The response to my first request was a form letter stating that the new employment and training program was in the early stages of development, and project funding would not be available for at least a year. I persisted until I found a sympathetic woman in that ministry who told me that if it was a demonstration model, money could be found for a project to train and employ street women. Eventually additional funding was found to buy a building for construction training. Everyone knew that, in the end, it would become an emergency shelter for women.

Creativity must be supported by thoroughly exploring every option for every project. This includes being willing to use existing contacts to help the experiential community move toward its goal. Positive visualization and a strong belief in the project also help. In the earliest stage of PEERS, when it was only a small band of ex-sex workers,  I introduced them to funders I knew through other work I had done. We convinced them to commit $2,000 each, a sum so small that it did not require a complex proposal or measurable outcomes. It did require a legal entity receive the money, so the next step was to help this small group of women incorporate as a non-profit society. I convinced a friend with skills in that area to help with incorporation documents and registering the group. She has recently joined the PEERS Board. The $8,000 we raised through this process meant that PEERS could have a phone, buy basic supplies, like paper, pens and stamps, and pay to be legally incorporated.

Time spent spreading the word in government circles and planting the seeds paid off later. In my experience, many civil servants are well-meaning and, when presented with the opportunity to, as one said, “do the right thing,” they will try. Most agreed that PEERS met an important need that had not been identified. Most felt helpless to do more than give verbal support, but they also began to give it thought.

My next step was to meet with the senior woman in the Ministry that had supported the construction and training project for the Downtown Women’s Project. When I left her office, I was not optimistic, although she supported, in principle, the idea of an organization for sex workers by sex workers. Soon after, her assistant called saying, “How quickly can you get something going? The Minister just announced that we are funding a training project for ex-prostitutes.” As a result of our behind-the-scenes work, when the Minister made his announcement, his staff came directly to us. Thus began months of negotiations with the Ministry, and discussions among the women about what to do with a one-year development grant. We were clear about a number of things from the start.

1. PEERS would be managed and staffed by ex-prostitutes, not social workers or professionals.

2. Expectations needed to be realistic about what could be accomplished in one year.

3. A significant portion of the budget had to be used to support staff members; they were, after all, also clients. The support would range from community college courses to sessions with a private therapist.

4. We would continue despite being told the funding was for one year only.

Work on the margins is an attempt to “create bridges that cross race and other classifications” (Anzaldua and Keating 5). In time, these bridges offer a way for people to cross back and forth between worlds, slowly getting to know each other and recognizing their shared culture, rather than remaining entrenched in their difference. In most communities, as in Victoria a decade ago, sex trade workers are so completely the “other” that serial killers see them as perfect victims because no one notices, or cares, when they disappear. It has begun to change in Victoria. It is no longer possible for people to pretend that sex workers are not the community’s daughters and sons. A bridge of respect and understanding has been built—doctors, police, teachers, business owners move back and forth freely. This is consistent with the feminist commitment to, in the words of Gutierrez and Lewis, “bridge differences between women... with the guiding principle that diversity is strength” (29/30).

Not every idea works. PEERS Place, a grand concept from the outset, was described in the local newspaper as “an innovative Victoria project [that] is aiming to redirect the people-skills of prostitutes into the tourist trade” (Lavoie). The plan was to purchase one of the welfare motels, offer housing to women and children in need, and incorporate training in a host of skills for the hospitality industry. It exemplified PEERS desire to build bridges between the sex trade community and the rest of Victoria. It was a vision that would have included training, employment and housing all in one package. The women argued, I thought quite convincingly, that they were already in the hospitality industry. However, the community wasn’t ready to support PEERS Place. Although close to $60,000 was available to develop a business plan, no capital could be found to support the project.

Community-University Research Partnerships       

In the early days, PEERS decided to conduct research with sex workers rather than entrust such work to outside academics. PEERS isn’t first to suggest this. Kari Lerum states that “one way of improving the treatment of sex workers in research is that more sex workers should become researchers, and more researchers should become sex workers” (34). Whether one agrees with the second part of Lerum’s suggestions or not, the idea of including sex workers as part of the research team was one that PEERS felt was key to the successful completion of any research project meant to shed light on their experience. Since the intention was to document the voices of sex workers, it seemed essential that they be responsible for the research process. As with all its other programs and services, PEERS maintained the stance that women with experience in the sex trade must be actively involved in this project. It was the consensus that, as Sandra Kirby and Kate McKenna suggest, research activities should “empower” those who are usually the mere objects for research (41).

Over a period of several years, PEERS and the local university took part in such a project. It culminated in the publication of a 116 page report. In many ways this community-university partnership was typical of collaborative research and holds a number of valuable lessons. Originally PEERS applied for funds under a community research grants program. PEERS wanted to validate the women’s position that they required their own programs and services. We wanted to show why women from the sex industry were not accessing existing services, and what was needed to encourage this service-resistant population to access programs and services. And, we thought, naively, that a program with the word “community” in its title would allow the women to conduct their own research independently. It did not occur to PEERS that it was necessary to bring in a social scientist.

After two failed attempts at receiving approval for the research project, we realized that a university partner was required if the research project was ever going to move forward. A sympathetic faculty member was recruited. Her personal area of interest was women and work, which shifted the emphasis of the research; she wanted, understandably, to connect this project with her own work. Everyone involved seemed to want to avoid a colonial relationship with the research participants. As the project developed, hours were spent collaboratively developing research instruments and procedures. Some of the questions were slanted in order to garner information about working conditions, while others concerned health and exiting the sex trade. PEERS staff members considered each question, decided whether it was acceptable and how it should be worded.

One of the areas in which PEERS brooked no compromise was the methodology. PEERS remained vigilant about the hazards of becoming involved in research projects. Research conducted through PEERS must be conducted with sex workers rather than on them or about them. All interviews were to be conducted by people who were, or had  been, in the trade. One of the immediate ways the research project could improve the lives of sex workers was to provide them with training and employment. Rather than conventionally employed graduate students, all the research assistants were current and former sex workers.

Most of those hired to conduct the interviews had worked indoors, in escort agencies or their homes As a result, PEERS provided the research team with access to hundreds of indoor workers, a very under-researched population. Having a team of assistants who were also members of the population being researched made perfect sense to PEERS, but was an unfamiliar experience to the academic acting as principal investigator. Staff members at PEERS knew that only they and other sex workers would receive honest responses and enjoy open communication.

Initially some of the women hired as interviewers were cautious. As one told the  principal investigator,

I think I was worried about how open-minded or accepting you would be with sex trade people; how much we might have to fight or something! [But] when you guys came to the meetings, I learned that this was PEERS project, this was our thing that we were doing for our community. We were getting support from the university and from the women who believe in doing research and helping women. My whole idea of the research project changed after that. (Benoit and Millar 5)

During both the data gathering phase and analysis of the research, PEERS and the experiential research team felt in control. We were pleased with how the community-university partnership was unfolding, and if anyone had asked us to write about it then, we would have done so in positive terms. Through to the creation of the final report, PEERS was included in key decisions, such as choosing the interview questions. The sex workers thought they were playing a central role. True, the final report reiterated what the women had been saying all along. The final recommendations could have been written by any of the women without spending two years and a few hundred thousand dollars. Predictably, the report recommended the public be educated further on the reality of the lives of sex workers, that a campaign was needed to make policy and legislation safer for sex workers, that there be better training for police and criminal justice personnel, that more sensitive and appropriate health and social services programs be designed to support exiting the sex trade, and that more housing, training and employment be offered.

The academics were not aware that there was an expectation that they would continue their commitment to PEERS after the research project ended. From PEERS perspective, such a commitment was assumed. The resulting sense of abandonment and exploitation was a sharp reminder of difference. When anybody from outside the experiential community becomes only briefly involved, it is common to interpret this as insincerity. It takes sustained commitment to develop trust.

The research project was completed in 2001 and its primary benefit has been to enhance the career of the academic who acted as the principal investigator. A few ex-sex workers received training and short-term employment. The principal investigator has gone on to receive a great deal of attention in the academic community and more grants. She is recognized as an international expert on the sex trade. She gives presentations at academic conferences on the sex trade; yet PEERS primary message is that only people with personal experience in the trade can be experts. Since one of the objectives of PEERS as an organization is to shift the locus of expertise from the academic to the experiential, when the outcome of its primary community university partnership reinforces traditional hierarchies it is not only bitterly ironic, it is infuriating.

We have been told by sex workers that many of the women who work as escorts feel ripped off by the research project. Those women took several hours out of their busy schedules to meet with the interviewers, not for the honorarium as some street workers did, but because they believed the research would improve their current lives. They were told this by the interviewers, but their lives did not change as a result of this research. No lobbying efforts emerged. No meetings were set up with police or criminal justice personnel to showcase the findings. No housing was made available. No changes were made to the training of health and social service providers. As far as the women could see, nothing happened at all and they blamed PEERS. The staff members and Board were left wondering whether the agency will ever participate in such a research project again.

At the completion of the research project new questions emerged. Whose responsibility was it, in Kirby and McKenna’s words, “to get the word out?” (64) Moving from research to action is complex. As Stoecker suggests, figuring out who is responsible for reporting the results is tricky, but too often, as was the case with PEERS, disseminating the research to those who might be able to implement the recommendations was left entirely to the researched community (108). Despite a consensus among many social scientists that community-based research must serve the community, it is not a requirement of university ethics review processes, or of most community research grants programs, that the academic researcher actually do anything with the research results. If PEERS experience of a university-community partnership is any indication, then even in collaboration there are major pitfalls that need to be anticipated and recognized. As Joan Acker states, “One of the privileges of the privileged, it has been observed, is not to see one’s privilege” (206).

On the surface, PEERS’ experience with community-university partnership met and sometimes exceeded the recommended values that guide community based research. The partnership had no difficulty receiving endorsement from the University’s supposedly rigorous ethical review procedure. Yet, when viewed through Stephen Fawcett’s relatively comprehensive set of values to guide behavioural research, a different story emerges. Fawcett identifies ten specific values in a framework of four areas:  collaborative relationships, research goals and methodology, intervention and dissemination, and advocacy and community change (629-630). These ten values, when conscientiously implemented, would result in research very different from most undertaken today:

1.  Researchers should form collaborative relationships with participants;

2.  Descriptive research should provide information about the variety of behavior-environment relationships of importance to communities;

3.  Experimental research should provide information about the effects of environmental events on behaviors and outcomes of importance;

4.  The chosen setting, participants, and research measures should be appropriate to the community problem under investigation;

5.  The measurement system must be replicable, and measures should capture the dynamic or transactional nature of behavior-environment relationships;

6.  Community interventions should be replicable and sustainable with local resources;

7.  Community action should occur at the level of change and timing likely to optimize beneficial outcomes;

8.  Researchers should develop a capacity to disseminate effective interventions and provide support for change agents;

9.  Results should be communicated to clients, decision makers, and the broaderpublic; and

10. Community research and action projects should contribute to fundamental    change as well as understanding (Fawcett 633).

 PEERS’ project with the University of Victoria exemplifies a collaboration that met enough of the above values to appear to be a success. Yet, from the point of view of the community, it fell far short. The community initiated the research, participated in the development of the questions, played a central role in conducting the research, and analysing the data. According to Steven Anderson, including diverse groups in the design and conduct of the research enriches the content and benefits the community (73). However, when the research yields no benefits to the community, then no matter how complete the community’s inclusion in the research, the collaboration was unsuccessful.

Too often researchers do whatever they want with the outcomes of “their” research. No doubt the academics involved in the PEERS research project would argue that they met all their commitments and behaved in an ethical manner. Yet, it is not  realistic to expect that the community is able to use research results without direction. If this were part of the everyday work of activists and organizers, it might be different, but rarely do change agents have the expertise to know what is best to be done with research results.

Many would argue that existing ethics review processes in universities are designed to protect the community from exploitation and abuse; yet I would suggest that these reviews do not go nearly far enough. If university ethics processes require certain actions and behaviours before the fact, why not after the final report is completed? As Rudkin states, the American Psychological Association code of ethics pays less attention to issues arising from work within complex communities than it does issues pertaining to personal autonomy (79). She goes on to say that, “Informed consent, active or passive, is only one consideration” (80). Fawcett, too, suggests that an emphasis on informed consent is intended to protect subjects from harm more than to maximize the participants’ benefits from the research (623).

Ethical issues arise at every stage in the research process. Key among these is Rudkin’s question, “What are our post-data collection obligations to the communities with which we work?” (80). Fawcett suggests that one possible way to address this is to require a contractual relationship between researchers and participants in which research goals are negotiated and expectations of how the research will benefit the community are specified (623). For example, in the case of PEERS, the contract could have specified that the research results would be presented by the researcher to the appropriate institutions in the health, justice and social service sectors. These presentations could have been done collaboratively using the authority and credibility of the university researcher to open doors and provide the community agency involved with access to decision-makers. At the same time, such a contract would specify behaviours and actions that were unacceptable, such as the researcher presenting herself as an expert on the issue being researched. Without a formalized contract, the researcher could have chosen to continue her relationship with the community, helping to develop a plan for using the research once the project was completed.

The PEERS experience provides a clear illustration of the ethical importance of continuing the community-university relationship beyond the data collection, analysis and reporting stage. I agree with Stoecker that it is only after the research is completed that “the most important part of the project” begins (108). In order that Alinsky’s words “‘academic’ is a synonym for irrelevant” do not become prophetic, academics must work with communities to make research relevant (ix).

The University of Victoria was recently granted $10,000,000 to develop a new Centre for Addictions Research of British Columbia. The University’s ability to develop and manage such a centre is based on many factors, to be sure, but does not include the involvement of addicts in the development, design or implementation of the Centre. In fact, such a notion is still outside the realm of possibility for many social scientists. This is ironic when throughout the literature on community practice, written by scholars considered experts in their field, the most commonly articulated value is that people have the right to direct their own development, that they know best what they need and how to provide it, and that they have the capacity to do so (Acker 201; Castelloe, Watson, and White 14; East 323; Fawcett 624; Gittell and Vidal 22; Gutierrez 207; Hyde 550).

Transforming a Community Requires Everyone

Transformational change requires that the whole community recognize its shared responsibility and engage in addressing its issues. It takes considerable effort and requires an ongoing commitment on the part of the change agent and the experiential community, but such an effort is essential if anything of substance is going to change for the better. Transformative community practice requires that a full range of community members be engaged along with the experiential community. Everyone in a community is affected by such issues as homelessness, addiction, mental illness, prostitution and the sexual exploitation of children. Although members of the experiential community must be at the centre of any solution or response that is developed, transforming a community requires the involvement of all who intersect with that community, including service providers and others in the mainstream. This means that people traditionally included in decision-making on health and social service concerns, such as policy makers and service agency managers, are involved, along with front-line service providers and a broad range of community members. Unquestionably, each one will approach the task of transformation from a distinct standpoint. Without everyone’s willingness to engage in the process, real change will be limited.

McKnight has suggested that a primary obstacle to addressing poverty and marginalization is the ever-increasing number of professional helpers who have a personal stake in maintaining the status quo (Society 98). In moments of frustration, we may think that professionals seem to be benefiting from the disempowerment of the people they work with. However, it is unfair to suggest that the tens of thousands of teachers, social workers, nurses, police officers, and others want anyone to remain poor, addicted, homeless and unhappy. Far too many professionals simply are unable to see how  progressive change can be accomplished. But any professional, regardless of their position or standpoint, can play a meaningful role.

 When addressing marginalization, involving the mainstream community raises new challenges. The business community may suggest that such issues have nothing to do with them. This is often belied by a look at the minutes of their meetings. Although homelessness and poverty may not appear on the Chamber of Commerce agenda, panhandling certainly will. Bringing together such disparate parts of the community is not a simple matter. For engagement to be possible, everyone has to feel she or he has a place—different histories and life experiences, varied levels of abilities and disabilities must all be included. This does not happen overnight and time needs to be dedicated to encouraging the engagement of the mainstream community.

When the VSCA was initially formed, one of the groups who regularly discussed what to do about the growing number of homeless people wandering the streets of Victoria was the Downtown Advisory Committee at City Hall. Although homelessness was a regular item on the agenda, no members of the street community were invited to participate in these conversations. As a representative of the City’s Social Planning Department I was invited, and began to bring men from the VSCA along. Before they were present, solutions revolved around either how to ensure the police arrest homeless people or how to keep the homeless out of the downtown. Once these men were present, and part of the conversation, the possibility of creating a place specifically for them to spend their days entered the conversation. They became people rather than just problems.

Few would have suggested that the sex trade was a sympathetic subject when PEERS was getting started. When PEERS first began, most of the doors in the community were closed. The first time PEERS approached the Chamber of Commerce with a request to give a presentation, the response was silence. People preferred to believe that beyond a few women who were visible on downtown street corners late at night, there was no sex trade in Victoria. When I first began my work with PEERS, I asked a few friends (feminist activists) how many sex workers they thought were in Victoria. The answer was around twenty-five. We know the total is closer to 3,000. As a result of years of educational work by PEERS, now most Victorians would not be surprised at that number. Eventually, though, with the help of some well-placed women, there has been a substantial shift in attitude. A group of wealthy women has created an informal service league, and each spring help organize a fund-raising event for PEERS and invite their well-heeled friends. The money raised goes toward a scholarship to help a PEERS staff member or client attend an educational program. In the fall of 2003, a local business man together with a television network created a video aimed at the business community. This was done to help PEERS raise funds for a public education program on sexual exploitation in Victoria. Developing and maintaining relationships with politicians and senior bureaucrats inside of government, regardless of which party is in power, continues to be a priority.

For any group, in the beginning, it is easier to focus on building relationships and engaging those in the community who are more likely to be in sympathy. I often begin with activist groups. In every instance (with the VSCA, the Downtown Women’s Project and PEERS), experiential members were surprised to discover a world of anti-poverty activists and other radicals who cared about them and their lives. When struggling to survive on a daily basis, or living in the harsh isolation fostered by the sex industry, discovering people dedicated to addressing such concerns seems remarkable. For the women of PEERS, the awareness of feminist causes such as “Take Back the Night” and International Women’s Day immediately provided a connection between them and the mainstream community. Women from PEERS were invited to speak at events and rallies and to join in activities organized by the local feminist group. They were invited to volunteer, share information and quickly felt included. In some communities, feminists have taken a moral stance in opposing the sex trade and configuring sex workers as either victims of male violence or collaborators in maintaining male privilege. PEERS has struggled successfully to educate local feminists and has taught them to allow sex workers to identify and name their own experiences.

Within a short time, PEERS was recognized for its contribution and expertise by local anti-poverty groups, youth outreach services, AIDS agencies, Sandy Merriman House, and other services for homeless and marginalized men and women. PEERS was taken seriously and included in community networks and forums along with service organizations that worked with the same population, albeit from a more professionalized service-delivery model. Sometimes this has worked better than at other times. PEERS believes strongly in the experiential voice and, when invited to participate in groups or initiatives that embrace a traditional hierarchical structure, members of PEERS can be vocal in their criticism. Once such criticism has been publicly voiced, it can take several years to rebuild relationships.

Nevertheless, PEERS has worked diligently to develop positive relationships with a range of community partners, encouraging members to engage in addressing marginalization from a variety of perspectives. For example, because most of the women who work at PEERS were recruited into the sex trade while they were still in school, they wanted to speak in schools. Some teachers immediately took PEERS up on their offer to speak to students in their classrooms, particularly students in alternative programs, but it took many years to obtain official endorsement from the Victoria School District. Once the School Board heard a PEERS presentation, members agreed that students should have an opportunity to listen to the stories of these women. Some schools still thought it necessary for the Parent Advisory Council to hear the presentation before allowing PEERS members access to its students.

PEERS staff have also been invited to speak to students at the University of Victoria. Although such presentations are on an intermittent basis, after students attend, many come to PEERS to do a practicuum. A number of university students who have joined PEERS as volunteers and staff are themselves experiential. PEERS also partnered with the local community college, when funding was available, to adapt an existing four week pre-employment program for sex workers. In an ideal world, such connections would remain ongoing; in reality they rarely do. It takes a significant amount of staff time and energy to develop and maintain each connection. Fortunately, PEERS has been able to establish a positive community profile and is therefore able to access contacts when needed.

Developing a positive profile has required working closely with the media over the years. Like many other activist organizations, PEERS has learned that it is important to build relationships with those in the media so they become allies, presenting a perspective aligned with PEERS philosophy and position. Media savvy does not necessarily come naturally to marginalized groups, who are more used to being invisible or the targets of enmity. In the beginning, PEERS reached out to two media outlets. The first was a monthly magazine written by, for and about local women; it immediately supported PEERS, despite risking some business relationships. This public coverage of PEERS and its activities made it easier to engage other community members in its work. The second was a free weekly newspaper that ran several pages of escort agency ads in each issue. Members of PEERS Board approached the publisher about running free ads for PEERS on the same pages. It took some negotiating but finally the publisher was able to see that this would be a sensible way to address some of the criticism they had received as a result of the escort ads. Every issue since has contained an ad for PEERS.               

One of the more complex relationships PEERS has developed is with local police departments. Initially, the police were very critical of PEERS and its work. They saw PEERS as an obstruction to their enforcement activities. They were uncomfortable with PEERS policy of supporting sex workers, whether in the trade or out. Some described PEERS night-time outreach work as enabling prostitution. Eventually, the police came to understand that PEERS provides needed support to a particularly vulnerable group of women and men. When PEERS staff positions began to be filled by women the police recognized from the street, they realized that PEERS was doing work they could endorse. Eventually, the police and PEERS began to have regular proactive meetings and developed a joint enforcement policy that makes violent tricks and pimps the top priority. The police now provide intelligence information to PEERS about where and when they will be doing a “sweep” and arresting “dates” and sex workers; this knowledge is used to warn women to move to a new area. The level of confidence between the Victoria Police Department and PEERS is such that, when a police officer treats a woman in a way she thinks inappropriate, she knows that a PEERS staff member can take her complaint to police senior management, and it will be taken seriously.

In working on the international issue of the sexual exploitation of children and youth, few sectors, beyond government, are currently engaged. Until the private sector becomes involved, little will change. Companies have to become accountable and take responsibility for their employees in areas where exploitation is taking place. In many locations, both domestic and international, exploiters work for public and private sector corporations which profit indirectly from the exploitation.


No amount of research or studies can capture the quality of lived experience. One need only extrapolate from the time when men were the experts on women’s experience to understand what is happening today to marginalized people. Nothing can be accomplished unless experiential people are part of the process of defining their concerns and deciding what they need and want to do to address them. For substantial positive movement to take place, all sectors of the community have to become part of the process of change. No one group can accomplish what needs to be done. It doesn’t work to address complex and multi-dimensional problems in simplistic and isolated ways. Collectively, North Americans have to recognize the role each sector can play in working to address issues of marginalization that, directly or indirectly, impact every one of us. In the following chapter, I will concentrate on an analysis of the process of transformative community practice, emphasizing the importance of taking the time necessary to carry out all the steps.

Chapter 6 - Taking the Time: Honouring the Process

There was a ramp and a staircase to get down to the beach, invisible from the road. The sky was sunny and a light breeze played with the nylon as we set up the large grey tent I had ordered using Club Z points at Zellers. None of the women from PEERS had been to this beach before or any other beach in this city surrounded by ocean and tides constantly pushing and pulling at its edges. We had been working together for less than a year and this day was the first just for staff. No phones, no office hours, no computers. Just open skies, fresh air, space to think, to breathe deeply, to share.

I brought my tent because none of them had ever been camping or in a tent, their days and nights spent in another world. They were used to hotel rooms, cash, street corners, restaurants—not family camping trips. No tents full of fresh air and early morning sunshine lingered as pleasant teenage memories for them.

The beach was decorated with driftwood. Every kind of furniture was available—benches, chairs, table tops—all washed white and smoothed soft by the waves. We sat together sharing stories and food. “Tell us something about your life,” Gabriella said to me, a hint of resentment in her voice. “We always have to tell you our stories.” And so I did. I wasn’t sure where to start or what to say. Too many of my stories radiate privilege, luck, opportunity. I decided, instead, to talk about my love life, such as it was. They had already met a few of the women I had dated. “Wow,” Ally said when I finished. “Squares can be just as bad at relationships as us. I never thought of that.” Yes, squares can, if that meant me. I was glad that my terrible track record with women had a purpose on that day at the beach, while the hot sun filled the air with the smell of toasting hair. On that particular day, we were all single and we spoke of relationships, lovers, hits and misses, the fear, the pain, the hope, the promise. My loose dress flapped around my body, while warm sand filled the space between my toes and hair blew into my mouth.

The wind grabbed our tent and tried to steal it. We ran after it as it rolled down the beach. The tent was our temporary home on this expanse of white sand on a quiet cove only blocks from my home, a short drive from downtown, so far from their lives.

I began to understand a bit more about our differences. They saw a glimpse of our sameness. We were all women, some mothers, all daughters, sharing a vison of PEERS—what it could be, what it might be, what it would become.

In previous chapters, I have discussed how change agents and practitioners can begin to transform their community. However, without an understanding of the importance of allowing enough time for change, transformation remains philosophical. With the addition of appropriate timing, transformative community practice becomes a practical and radical way of working in community. When all of the layers are understood and incorporated, effective community practice becomes, in large part, a commitment to the reallocation of time, money and resources. More traditional programming cycles that expect tangible outcomes within months have to be reworked to reflect this shift.

In today’s world, community practice rarely dedicates time to building relationships without the expectation of measurable outcomes. However, both government and private funders need to begin to understand the importance of building trust and developing engagement. Funders need to allow proposals that incorporate the phases outlined below. Although I have identified five time phases, these are not rigid, nor are they always separate and distinct. Projects and initiatives vary. The five internal phases—building relationships, visioning, strategic planning, capacity building and implementation—may seem to imply a timeline with a beginning, middle and end, the phases invariably overlap.

 Time has to be looked at from more than one perspective. Establishing the start and end point of a community practice initiative has been the topic of much discussion over the years in the literature. In Chapter 3 of Sarason’s The Creation of Settings, he addresses this topic specifically. The change agent’s time commitment may not necessarily coincide with all the phases of the project or initiative. The change agent may become involved before Phase I even begins and/or may continue after Phase V has been concluded. The change agent will also have more than one focus as this chapter outlines. In each phase, the parallel work of the change agent establishing support for the experiential community and building bridges between them and the larger community requires its own time commitment.

This chapter begins with a look at the importance of dedicating enough time to transformative community practice as I have adapted it. It then examines more closely the five phases of my version of transformative community practice, first focussing on work within the experiential community and then on the parallel work with others who are affected by the issues involved, or in a position to support the initiative.

Dedicating Enough Time

Significant change does not happen overnight. To be an effective change agent, one must make a long-term commitment to the process. Sarason, who dedicated a significant portion of his career to understanding the process of creating new settings, identifies a number of attributes he thinks are necessary for success. Among them is a realistic time perspective for creating the setting. Although some initiatives designed to address specific issues may be time limited, Castelloe, Watson and White point out that “Participatory change is built from long-term goals” (26). Having a realistic time frame is one of the contributions of the change agent.

Indeed, bridging the various perspectives on time is a necessary role for an experienced change agent working with a marginalized community. This is particularly true when the work includes seeking funding from bureaucratic institutions. It is crucial to dedicate enough time to the process to give it a realistic chance of success. At the same time, awareness of the day-to-day reality of members of the community and the human cost of delays and extensions is equally crucial.

The Downtown Women’s Project took two years from the outset of the development phase to the completion of the construction of Sandy Merriman House. Even though nothing was officially approved at the end of the year, with assurances that support would be forthcoming, we hired staff and developed a construction training program which lasted for seven months and was followed by a renovation of the building. After another year, the shelter was officially open for business once again, as with the VSCA, in time for Christmas. During the project, I met regularly with a cross-ministry committee of provincial government representatives. During the same period, I continued to host meetings of street women which had been on-going for close to a year. I discovered different perceptions of time. The women were shocked by how slow the process was and how long it was taking for anything to happen. They were in daily survival mode, many with no place to sleep at night, and for them two years was forever. Government personnel were accustomed to a very different time frame and could not believe how fast the project was moving. It took them six months to develop a mechanism that allowed them to officially communicate with one another. To them, a project that went from start to finish in two years was lightning speed; they found this extremely nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. For the government members of the committee who were paying for and overseeing the project, two years was almost too fast for them to manage. As change agent, my role included representing one group at the table as it met with the other, and interpreting for each the reality of the other—as if they lived on different planets. Sometimes it seemed as if they did.

Because most projects do not have a clearly delineated development phase, it is hard to identify exactly when they begin. PEERS is a good illustration. There are a number of possible points for the beginning of PEERS. Some choices follow:

  • during the first year of the Downtown Women’s Project when I met and talked with street women about what they needed and wanted;

  • the day that two women I had met through the Downtown Women’s Project approached me with the idea of starting something specifically for prostitutes and ex-prostitutes;

  • the first time we held a meeting of women who were, or had been, prostitutes to talk about what they needed and wanted;

  • during a meeting at my house when an informal group of ex-prostitutes decided they wanted to become a society with a proper name and legal identity, and came up with the name PEERS;

  • the day PEERS was incorporated under the Society’s Act;

  • the day PEERS set up an office of sorts in a back room in the home of a woman who was a member of PEERS; and/or

  • the day PEERS rented an office downtown, hired five ex-prostitutes as its staff and began to offer services.

Five Internal and External Phases of Transformative Community Practice

Although each project is unique and it is risky to generalize, five basic phases of community practice have emerged. Each phase possesses distinct characteristics, even when they overlap. If time is not dedicated to development, important issues may be bypassed, compromises made and conflict created within the group. During both the VSCA and the Downtown Women’s Project, an equal amount of time was dedicated to the start-up development of each project and the outcomes—approximately a year each.

The story of each has several parts and thus could be described as several projects. Each of the examples I use in this dissertation lasted a minimum of two years. The first two years of the VSCA, Downtown Women’s Project and PEERS follow the same pattern fairly closely and confirm that at least two years are needed to move through the five internal phases: Phase I: Building Relationships, Phase II: Creating the Vision, Phase III: Strategic Planning, Phase IV: Capacity Building, Phase V: Implementing the Initiative. In general, the first three phases require at least one year and the next two, another year. Phases IV and V can, and often do, continue well beyond two years. The five complementary external phases focus on parallel work in the larger community and are shown in the table below.

Table 2 - Internal & External Phases of Transformative Community Practice


Internal Work

External Work

Phase I

Building Relationships

Conducting Research

Phase II

Creating the Vision

Building Relationships

Phase III

Strategic Planning

Gathering Support

Phase IV

Capacity Building

Documenting and Reporting

Phase V

Implementing the Initiative

Ensuring Sustainability

Phase I . a) Internal Work—Building Relationships

In all five examples, the role of a facilitator or change agent is central to starting the project, although in the final project, ICCEC, the role of initiator is taken on by a member of the experiential community rather than an outside change agent. This phase is an opportunity for dialogue. It is crucial to include enough time for members of the experiential community to establish what they want. Without enough time at the outset to really share stories and express pent-up emotional responses, constructive action is unlikely at best and, often, impossible. Some communities will require assistance and support to open up to each other and to the change agent, while others will be more than ready to share their stories and experiences. This phase is primarily an opportunity for people to speak about their personal experience. It does not require them to move beyond a focus on themselves.

The first large meeting of the men who would form the VSCA provided an opportunity for everyone to speak. Most expressed anger at being forced to live at a subsistence level. They felt as if they were being unfairly punished for being unable to find, or sustain, ongoing employment. Many were struggling with serious mental health issues. They felt hurt and abandoned by a society that seemed not to care about their well-being. This first gathering was spent venting pent-up feelings of rage. If an outsider had been listening that day, she would not have guessed that anything constructive would emerge from this group. The men seemed completely negative and far too angry to be capable of envisioning a positive way to address their concerns.

Two years later, when the first gathering of street women was held, I anticipated a similar experience. Instead, as we went around the room, each woman told her personal story of childhood abuse and exploitation, troubled adolescence, addictions, and daily struggle to survive. Many felt that they were lucky to still be alive. Most wept as they spoke. As I listened, I was the one who felt rage. They were so consumed by their own sadness and pain that no one expressed anger at all.

In many ways, setting aside time for dialogue and building relationships distinguishes transformative community practice from other forms of community practice. Too often, professionals push groups quickly into plans and focussed action, but action that accurately reflects the group’s best interests takes much longer and requires a good deal more contact than an “outsider” could predict or, sometimes, even tolerate.

A safe environment is essential to working effectively in a community, and trust takes time to build. People must be allowed to express their feelings, air their problems, and exchange ideas. Sometimes communities decide they want to share their stories with more people before moving on to the next phase. Others will want to limit exposure to ensure confidentiality and privacy. There is no consistent emotional atmosphere to this phase; however, it is usually highly charged. Some will be remembering a time before—before they were homeless, before they were addicted, before they entered the sex trade, before they identified themselves as marginalized. In the five examples upon which this dissertation is based, emotions ranged from anger and outrage to grief and shame, and eventually included excitement, hope and a sense of possibility.

One of the primary outcomes of this phase is a sense of shared identification as a community. Sometimes this is the first experience of community people have had. In much of the community organizing literature, there is an assumption that a community exists, recognizes itself, and can be stimulated to act. This assumption does not hold true for people whose “community” has no history of community-building activities. Many of these people have not shared their story with anyone before, including those with a common experience. Often people bring historical conflicts with them into the group, and time and effort must be spent developing a way to deal with conflict. For many, it is their first time consciously identifying as a member of a community; it may even be the first time this physical location or body of people has been named a community.

Phase I. b) External Work—Conducting Research

During the early phases of an initiative, the change agent will focus primarily on reaching out and getting to know the experiential community. She will, however, spend some time researching potential sources of support that can be called upon when the community decides what needs to happen. She cannot be very specific at this point, but in order to be able to act when the community is ready for action, she must do some background work right from the start. She might begin with other service providers, or agencies that work with the same population, just to let them know what activity is being undertaken. She must be prepared for resistance to the idea that experiential communities can play a significant role in the design and development of their own solutions. In the early days of the project that created the VSCA, I went regularly to a weekly meeting of downtown service providers. When I described what I was doing, there was more than one who objected, arguing heatedly. Their main point was, “They don’t know what’s good for them.”  In time, as they watched the VSCA grow and develop, many of these same people began to make an effort to include their “clients” in steering the direction of programs.

Other sources of support the change agent may well include are people who can help to fund the initiative when the time comes, such as municipal and regional councils, provincial or state government, private foundations and private-sector allies. This phase might also include traditional research in the library and on the internet, as well as attending existing meetings and networks.

Phase II. a) Internal Work—Creating the Vision

Once people are comfortable together and able to think beyond their own personal circumstances, they begin to notice common experiences and shared perspectives. Beginning with knowledge acquired through personal experience, they have the confidence to make suggestions, and sometimes even demands. This phase provides an important opportunity for the group to identify their own concerns and ways they should, and could, be addressed. Often, what the larger community or sponsoring agency thinks is the problem is not what experiential people have identified as their concern. It is during this phase that members of the experiential community are encouraged to spend time imagining a wide range of possible next steps in the process and come up with a host of problem-solving strategies and plans for the future. Some may be wildly unrealistic while others can be innovative, yet fairly practical. At this point, it is important to allow enough time for people to let themselves consider new possibilities.

The group may decide to create a looser or more formalized structure for problem- solving during this phase, or they may decide to continue in the format developed during the dialogue phase. Again, it is important to anticipate conflict and not expect that the group will form a cohesive whole without disparate or rival positions. Time will be spent listening to each other and to various perspectives. Often, with enough discussion, groups are able to come to a consensus. Decisions are not necessarily required at this point so dissent can be encouraged without impacting significantly on final outcomes.

One memorable meeting of the Downtown Women’s Project took place in a church basement. The food was simple—cheese, cold meats, bread, crackers, fruit and raw vegetables. There were about twenty-five women present, most of whom had come to know each other. We had been meeting for quite a few months by this time, and we had decided that we should begin by building an emergency shelter just for women. That night we talked about the women the shelter would house. There was heated debate between those who wanted it to be for any woman who needed shelter and those who wanted only women who were no longer using drugs or alcohol. I listened, but kept asking for more input from the women who remained silent. For a while it seemed  the women who were in the drug-free camp might carry the day. I became nervous. I felt strongly that the shelter had to be inclusive, but I also believed that it was their shelter not mine. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I did not want to manipulate the outcome. I heaved a sigh of relief when a young woman shifted the focus: “What about us? Are we going to be allowed to bring our dogs? It won’t work if we can’t bring our dogs.”  By the end of the meeting we had decided to try to figure out a way to house dogs at the shelter. We also agreed that the shelter would be as inclusive as possible. It was to be for all women, those still using drugs or alcohol, those working as prostitutes, and those with mental illness and who refused to take their medication.

In this phase, it is important that the experiential community be sheltered to some extent from outsiders who might argue against creating false hopes. The change agent or facilitator has to tread carefully, be encouraging but realistic. Unexpected ideas will emerge, ideas that can undoubtably be implemented and, whenever possible, should be supported.

Phase II. b) External Work—Building Relationships

It is during this phase that the change agent’s parallel work must begin outside the experiential community. She will need to start building relationships with potential funding sources and allies inside existing institutions so that as the group moves into the next phase, action is possible. Depending on the fiscal climate and community attitudes, some of this parallel work may include educating those in decision-making positions.At this point she may ask members of the experiential community to join her in this task.

Much has been said about the importance of allowing enough time for dialogue and developing open communications inside the experiential community. Working with the external community also requires that personal relationships be developed. This is particularly important because the change agent will be looking for support for new processes and quite possibly for innovative outcomes. Time needs to be spent bringing funders onside, and that means funders must understand and support what the change agent and the experiential community are doing. Ideally, the change agent will be joined by members of the experiential community in this process, but sometimes they would rather leave building such relationships to the change agent.

I invited two of the women from the Downtown Women’s Project to join me in Vancouver to address a conference of health professionals. Each woman stood in the expensive hotel in front of a body of hundreds, mostly women, and spoke of being recruited into the sex trade as teenagers, of years spent using drugs, of struggling to stay alive, and of their hopes and dreams of change. They had a profound impact on their audience.

After the conference, the women talked about what it had been like to stand up in front of a room full of squares and tell their stories. They were aware of just how easy it was to scam such an innocent and sympathetic crowd. There had been a prize draw and without discussing it they had both figured out how to cheat so they could win. When their names were called, the conference organizers were delighted with the wonderful coincidence; the two women just looked at each other and laughed.

This second phase brings into focus the importance of bridging two worlds. In time, once people are accustomed to having a bridge, they may begin to feel comfortable crossing back and forth, but at the outset the change agent has to expect to be the primary link. During this phase it is important to become acquainted with many people, and ask for their help in exploring yet more sources of support. Once people become allies and are willing to advocate for the project, success is much more likely. Allies may not have direct access to funding sources themselves, but they can make a tremendous difference. A team of community supporters helps to build the vision of the experiential community, and bring it closer to fruition. Once people want a project to continue, they will work on its behalf even if all they do is tell their friends. When a vision is shared by more and more people, it moves closer and closer to being realized.

In an early project, not previously described in this dissertation, I was hired by the local transition house for battered women to raise the funds to build a new safe house. Our project was turned down for federal funding even though the provincial office of the funding agency had assured us we would be successful. Based on merit alone, our case was strong. Ours was one of the oldest transition houses in Canada. We were located in an inadequate rental facility with no space for childcare and with a dining room so small that people had to eat in shifts. We were disappointed and shocked at being turned down. We discovered that a church group had been granted the funding instead. We believed a mistake had been made by Ottawa bureaucrats, thousands of miles away. I made some phone calls starting with someone I knew in the federal government, in Ottawa. I eventually managed to track down the person responsible for allocating these funds. I called him and asked if there was any chance they would reconsider. At first he said all the funds were allocated, but eventually he admitted that in a year, when the first projects were completed, there might be some surplus. At that time, they would re-evaluate the applications. That was a vital point, and I acted. I organized a letter-writing campaign to our local Member of Parliament and sent copies to the Minister in charge of the funding agency. I also began to phone my new contact in Ottawa monthly and developed a working relationship with him. By the end of the year, he wanted to find us the money as much as we wanted him to. And he did. I never met him and I don’t even remember his name but I came to think of him as a friend.

Phase III. a) Internal Work—Strategic Planning

Once the group has articulated as many possibilities and next steps as they can imagine, they are ready to choose one or two priorities and begin to work toward a detailed plan of implementation. It is during this phase that the group will identify its goal(s), objectives and strategies. These may include a range of activities, such as how to change attitudes, prevent others from having the same experiences, create an organization or new setting, develop a service or program, build a facility, host an event, or create art. 

They will undoubtably have begun to establish control as a community by this point. Some groups may begin to test the change agent. They may decide to pursue goals not necessarily agreed upon, or make over-ambitious assumptions about what can happen for individual participants. This may be demonstrated while deciding who will take on what tasks. It can be extremely frustrating, as a change agent, to have people agree to take responsibility for things that are far outside of their abilities or agree to take on tasks and then not follow through. This frustration may be felt by other supporters as well:

As a board member [of PEERS] and retired school teacher, it was hard to come into the office and see people not doing anything and getting paid. The files were a mess. There didn’t seem to be any systems. The staff didn’t want any square person to come in and help set up the office. June. (Rabinovitch and Lewis 20)        

Over the years, PEERS held fairly regular strategic planning sessions that included both board and staff. When emotions ran high, it was important to have an outside facilitator. Even so, I remember one session that ended in tears and anger, with people storming out. At other times, what worked was to develop an agenda by consensus before the meeting and to choose one person among us to facilitate. These sessions were usually held outside PEERS offices and included food. Sometimes we incorporated games to help with team building. For example, one outside facilitator interspersed brief competitive games, with prizes, throughout the day. At one interval the person with the oldest living relative got a prize, at another the question was, who is the most famous person you have ever met? The group’s instant response to this question was, “Do dates count?” The group decided yes, and some interesting disclosures about a number of Hollywood movie stars were forthcoming.

Phase III. b) External Work—Gathering Support

It is important to enter into this phase with confidence. There are a lot of people, even inside large institutions and bureaucracies, who want to help. They simply need to be convinced that what is being suggested will really make a difference. Developing relationships, building trust and communicating the marginalized community’s goals are key factors in successfully implementing a vision. The positive impact of the transformative process is usually obvious, and many who work in funding institutions appreciate being able to see the consequences of their support. One government employee who played a major role in supporting the Downtown Women’s Project said to me, after providing a substantial amount of money to the project, “Thank you for giving my life meaning.”

Part of our responsibility as change agents is providing a passionately held vision of a community that works for everyone. When encountering closed doors, we have to keep knocking or go around. I am not advocating beating one’s head against a brick wall. It is important to recognize when something is impossible. Nevertheless, we can’t be too quick to assume that change cannot be accomplished.

In order to build a new transition house for battered women in the precise location we had chosen, we needed to purchase the site from the City. It was close to the ocean and an historical cemetery full of pleasant pathways. City Council said yes, if I could get it rezoned. I went to the Mayor to ask for her help, thinking that as a woman she would be supportive of a service for battered women. She was, but said the Council was quite conservative and that there was no chance they would support the rezoning. She suggested that I forget this site and look for another. The site was too perfect to give up easily, so I began to meet with those in the neighbourhood, knowing that if I gained their support, City Council would have no reason to oppose the re-zoning. The neighbours were sympathetic to the cause, but not in their back yard. I persisted, holding block meetings, going door-to-door and having the architect change the design to address some of their concerns. I also wrote a short report for Council each month, so they would know everything that was taking place. They began to feel as though they were part of the project. They could see we were doing our best to meet the needs of the neighbourhood. I knew from experience that the neighbours’ fears of angry men storming the streets was unfounded. When the vote came for the re-zoning, the Council voted unanimously in favour.

During this phase, the change agent will continue to work with the community, but more and more of her time will be spent seeking and finding support for the activities of the group. This phase may see the change agent writing initial grant proposals and attending meetings with potential funders. Whenever possible she will be accompanied by members of the experiential community, but they may soon lose interest. It takes time for community members to become comfortable with participating in such processes. All too often marginalized people are not welcome at the table.

Phase IV. a) Internal Work—Capacity Building

Although everyone involved in the process is learning, there is a point at which capacity building becomes a high priority. Once the implementation process is underway, experiential community members need a range of skills and abilities that they often lack. Some may choose to attend formal classes or training programs to increase their skills. Others will choose to “learn on the job.” Acquiring new skills and developing one’s capacity is not limited to community members. The community practitioner, too, is  learning as well as teaching. O’Donnell and Karanja (78) use the Kiswahili word mwalimu to describe this interaction and to describe the role of the community practitioner—it means teacher-learner.

It is hard to imagine the extent of new learning required by some marginalized communities. This can range from specific technical skills, such as using a computer, to basic life skills, such as getting out of bed during the day and being on time for appointments. If capacity building is not identified as a priority during this phase, it becomes difficult for the community to begin to take leadership. Regardless of innate intelligence, many people who live on the margins have spent years just struggling to survive on a daily basis. They have not had the opportunity to develop the range of skills required to live in the mainstream, let alone create an organization or complete a project.

Setting Up the Office

There were so many things that we didn’t know how to do. Sometimes we thought we did and did them wrong. Sometimes we knew we didn’t have a clue and tried to muck it together anyway. Record keeping was a good example of this. We didn’t keep any records. We didn’t think that it was important. Then we were told that we should really be keeping some records. I thought, “Okay. I’m game” and tried to keep them. Unfortunately, although we were told we should keep records, we were never taught how to create a records system, how to maintain it, how to make sure other people used it properly, and what we were keeping them for. What is important to keep and what isn’t? How do you file something so that you can find it again?

Although we had some guidance, there was so much that we didn’t know, we lost things that would have been useful to keep. The clippings file, old contracts, the original copies of pamphlets, posters, and packages were all lost. Phone numbers were lost, messages were lost, and calendars were lost...

But there is so much negotiation in doing small tasks that people aren’t even aware of. I will use my history as an example (as I have for the last six years). I never filed anything in my life until I started working for PEERS. In fact, I did almost no organizing of paper at all. I was never in school at a level that I had to organize any paper. People start learning to organize paper through doing little bits of it at school. They have five classes in high school and have to keep pieces of it separate, and in some kind of order. Not everyone does this, but many do. Then they get a job somewhere and move into their own apartment. They have bills and warranties that they have to keep safe. Eventually they have bank statements, tax returns, book club memberships, car payments, and chequing accounts. Maybe they go to post secondary school. They have papers and research to organize, classes to keep separate, handouts, labs, exercises, tests, and drafts to keep organized. Then, if they are thrust into a brand new agency, creating a simple filing system is not a trying chore. The basic understanding of what goes on is there...

The other problem to organize was time. In order to organize your time like the rest of the world, you have to know a couple of things. Here’s an example of some of the questions you have to think about if you have stuff to do and an appointment. a) What time is it now? b) How long is it going to take you to get there? c) What is the mode of transportation and do you have the means? d) Is it more important to be on time or to finish what you are doing and will the person you’re meeting care? e) How long will you be there?

...We didn’t know how to decide how much time you should spend on a task, what to do if you are having a problem starting, whether you should spend time staring at the computer screen or do you put it away and then start on something else. Other people just didn’t do it at all, or would lose track of what they were supposed to have done and it would disappear. There were some staff who were excellent at keeping things organized but for most of us it was a challenge. (Rabinovitch and Lewis 20-21)   

Some projects may be built around capacity building such as the Downtown Women’s Project’s construction training. It is important, once again, to be realistic. Not every member of a group has the capacity to take on all the tasks identified as necessary. During this phase the change agent will act as teacher and mentor. She may also play a role in the development of whatever outcomes the group has identified as priorities. This phase, in most instances, will continue as long as the project exists.

Phase IV. b) External Work—Documenting and Reporting

Documenting the change process serves more than one function, and can include meeting funding commitments, sharing the process with the rest of the community, and providing an opportunity for others to learn from experience. The latter might include other experiential communities, policy makers and academics concerned with the issues being addressed. Part of the change agent’s role is informing interested parties about what is happening within the initiative. During the Downtown Women’s Project, this occurred when the provincial ministries involved met monthly to track the progress of the project. All reporting should be done in conjunction with members of the experiential community, at least to the extent that they are aware of what is being reported and agree that it is appropriate information to be shared. Sometimes, the experiential community will decide to take a proactive role. Over the years, PEERS has always made good use of the media as a tool for reporting on the need for specialized services for sex workers, on the development of the organization itself, and on various projects.

Most funders require some kind of written documentation at the end of the project, or at the completion of a funding cycle. This usually takes the form of a written report, and that report is much stronger if it includes first-person accounts by members of the experiential community. Sometimes this can be incorporated into a document useful for the group’s annual report, newsletter, or other internal communication.

Sharing the process with the rest of the community may simply mean circulating reports already written to a wider audience. Sometimes the change agent, along with the experiential community, will decide to share their process with other members of the community through verbal or written presentations. This was the case with the Stories Project completed by PEERS in the autumn of 2003. The focus of the project was primarily internal, in that it involved a group of sex workers who met once a week for many months. Eventually, though, it offered an indirect way for sex workers to communicate with other members of the community through their art and writing.

Less frequently, change agents will document their community practice for academic publications. Unfortunately, the scholarly requirements of most publications make them inaccessible to experiential community members and often to change agents, as well. Documentation is important in order to understand what is happening in communities, including what works and what does not. Documentation needs to be a priority. The academic and policy making communities would be far richer in knowledge if more change agents took the trouble to document their work in a format that would ensure it was read by those who are consulted on a vast array of social issues, including marginalization. It is not unrealistic that experiential people write their own stories, and write about their experiences with transforming community. It is unrealistic to ask that they do so in academic formats.

Documenting the wide range of activity that takes place in communities and sharing that documentation is an important step in the process that is too often missed. This dissertation is one way of redressing the omission.

Phase V. a) Internal—Implementing the Initiative

Once a desired outcome has been identified and implemented by the group, the process will continue to its conclusion. This phase could be described as maintenance, but should not be confused with smooth sailing ahead. It is unlikely that any project that is built on the expertise of the experiential community and incorporates them in substantial roles will ever run smoothly. Some periods will be less problematic than others, but internal conflict, personal crises and complex community relationships are to be expected.

Each of the five examples in this dissertation continued to have difficulties internally and externally for years. There was an internal conflict that split the VSCA and I never really discovered what the problems were. Staff conflict and strained board/staff relations during the life of the Downtown Women’s Project carried over into the operating of Sandy Merriman House after the project ended. Eventually management of the house was taken over by a new society and, at present, the coordinator is a man. Although I am no longer an employee at PEERS, as a Board member, I am aware of the day-to-day dramas and try to address them. Even as I write this dissertation, I am confronted with ongoing personality conflicts and staff who feel unprepared for the tasks they are trying to undertake. A recent email to me exemplifies the climate at PEERS:

if i don't hear from her again it will be too soon - she must be using again and back working or something because she keeps phoning and going on about how much she hates peers etc. etc.

she set up a huge presentation for next week - so i left a message asking her if she could let us know what we need to do and if she was planning to do it or not - then came the phone messages about how fucked up we are - who do we think we are - blah blah blah - i can't stand working with such wounded, unrecovered people anymore - its insane..... blame blame blame constantly - it doesn't matter what we do..... they hate us, blame us, yell at us.....

she, in the mean time, is mad because we aren't chasing money for her to work and yet she has a storage room full of books and videos that she hasn't distributed, a mid and final report that never got done and meetings and presentations that she has set up and not only didn't tell us about but never bothers showing up for them... and we wonder why our reputation in the community is flaky?!

Although some experiential communities may eventually manage most of their projects, there will always be a role for community supporters and allies. In some circumstances, the group may need substantial and ongoing support that requires a permanent community practitioner as part of the organization. This was the case with the VSCA. In other situations, existing agencies or organizations may take responsibility for the operation of a project. Of course, this can be problematic when the community agency does not agree with the philosophy of relocating the locus of expertise, and insists on functioning within a traditional service model, as most health and social service agencies currently do. However, more than one model. For example, although PEERS staff maintain and manage the agency on their own, and are responsible for fundraising, program design, development and implementation, ICCEC staff are not. At ICCEC, a style of partnership is being developed that builds on a recognition of the wisdom and knowledge of experiential people, but does not require that they take on all of the tasks of the organization. It may be a function of the size of the two groups, or the specific individuals involved, but this difference emphasizes the need for both flexibility and a commitment to the long term.

Phase V. b) External Work—Ensuring Sustainability

At the completion of a project, often a new service or program will have been created. Part of the change agent’s responsibility is to ensure that the necessary supports are in place for that new initiative to be sustained. At this point, she may choose to remove herself from an active role, but not before she is confident that others are available to provide whatever support is needed by the experiential community. My own commitment is to ensure that operating funds are available to allow for the presence of a professional community practitioner (if that is what the experiential community decides is necessary) and to hire members of the experiential community. At the VSCA, I was replaced by a community practitioner who managed the organization for many years, and was himself replaced by another professional practitioner. All other staff came from the membership. The Downtown Women’s Project ended with the opening of Sandy Merriman House, now operated by a traditionally managed agency, but does have former residents and participants in the Downtown Women’s Project on staff. I remain on the Board of PEERS and continue to play an active role in supporting its operations and individual staff. The Summit was a time-limited project, but I continue to be involved in its outcomes, up to and including the development of ICCEC. It isn’t possible to remain involved forever in every project, but as change agents we are responsible for ensuring that such support is in place when we move on.


One can begin with a commitment to work with the most powerless; relocate the locus of expertise; and redesign the role of the change agent, but little can be accomplished if enough time is not dedicated to each phase. Timing is a key component of transformation. Ensuring that there is enough time for engagement, internally and externally, makes it effective. Without enough time the process becomes one more ineffective exercise based on good intentions.

Chapter 7 - Envisioning Transformation: Where To From Here?

 Transformative community practice is one piece of a much larger picture. Throughout this dissertation I have shared specific tools as well as a glimpse of a larger vision of change that I see emerging all around me. I’m not alone in believing that a transformation is underway. Globally people are beginning to envision a world where children are safe and treasured, where the interconnectedness of all things is recognized and where priority is given to the value of the earth and all its creatures.

This transformation can be hard to recognize, especially if one’s daily struggle is focussed on finding enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, getting money to purchase the next hit of drugs to which one is addicted or fighting against an oppressive government that is rolling back hard-won gains. It is difficult to see through the haze of one’s own obsessions and catch a glimpse of the larger picture.     

We expect change to be sudden and dramatic. Historically, dramatic change has often involved revolution, usually bloody ones. Hence, many are blinded to the slow change of transformation. Others are able to look beyond the smokescreen maintained by the status quo and see dramatic positive change.

The complexity of our times cannot be underestimated. Conditions are getting better and worse simultaneously. The dominant political and economic systems in North America are characterized by speed, greed, violence and fear. The notion that humans are primarily workers and consumers is widespread, and too often one’s worth is based on appearance and ownership. This has led to gross economic inequality, violence and the consolidation of power in the hands of a few.

But I believe that humans are capable of living very differently. I believe we have an innate capacity and yearning for peace, community, connection, creativity and generosity. The current dominant ideological structure gives priority to corporate values not human values. For the sake of the planet and all that inhabit it, transformation must take place.

The work of transforming our communities can be pursued from inside any institution and by all community practitioners working with, and for, experiential communities. I suggest that there is no choice but to pursue new methods, if the collective goal of people in the helping professions is to make a positive difference in the lives of the people with whom they work. Faced with less funding for health and social services, a  decreasing political will to support such services, and increasing numbers of people suffering the consequences, new and different ways are required. In this climate, there is both obligation and opportunity to do effective work that can make a noticeable difference. In my experience such work demonstrates that transformative community practice is both effective and economically sensible.

An essential pre-condition for successful transformative community practice is to have support and financial resources available. These are necessary to build the individual and collective capacity of the community so that it can help itself. As well, the change agent must  be respectful, culturally sensitive, and personally supportive. (See Appendix E for A Map of Qualities of the Change Agent in Transformative Community Practice.) Every outcome must emerge from a dialogue that asks “in whose interest?” When resources currently dedicated to addressing marginalization in Canada and the United States are made available to projects that incorporate transformative community practice as their methodology, effective and creative solutions will emerge to problems that seem unsolvable.

It is impossible to address the full range of issues that arise when we look closely at community practice and what needs to be transformed in one dissertation. Further work for scholars and practitioners includes a close look at particpatory methodologies with a spectrum of marginalized populations, reviewing what specific activities work well and which are problematic. Much work needs to be done to include experiential people in the development of the best ways to address social concerns in our communities. Research into how, and where, such processes are taking place will help us more clearly understand  how to incorporate aspects of transformative community practice into our daily work in  hospitals, schools, legal clinics, city halls or police departments.

In these pages I have described my own adaptation of transformative community practice in order to offer community practitioners an effective framework. There continues to be room for others to further develop the theory of transformative community practice. In time, and with experience, practitioners may choose to focus on how to support indigenous leadership; an entire volume is needed on that single topic. Other valuable areas for research and development include governance structures: what works and what doesn’t when experiential people are involved? Training and capacity building are other areas: what skills and training methods support experiential people to take on meaningful roles in the development and delivery of services? Another area of future work could focus on how we, as change agents, sustain ourselves and our energy, so that we can continue to engage in the important but exhausting work of positive community transformation.

Spiritual Activism

One of the ways I have been able to sustain my commitment for many years is by  consciously considering my activism as spiritual practice. It is impossible for me to separate my spirituality from my activism. Anzaldua describes her development of spiritual activism thus:

This work of spiritual activism and the contract of holistic alliances allows conflict to dissolve through reflective dialogue. It permits an expansive awareness that finds the best instead of the worst in the other, enabling you to think of la otra in a compassionate way. Accepting the other as an equal in a joint endeavor, you respect and are fully present for her. You form an intimate connection that fosters the empowerment of both (nos/ostras) to transform conflict into an opportunity to resolve an issue, to change negativities into strengths, and to heal traumas of racism and other systemic deconocimientos. You look beyond the illusion of separate interests to a shared interest—you’re in this together, no one’s an isolated unit. You dedicate yourself, not to surface solutions that benefit only one group, but to a more informed service to humanity (Anzaldua and Keating 572).

O’Donnell and Karanja state that the term transformation “best encapsulates the process by which people come to understand their internal spirit and strength in order to develop alternative visions of themselves and of their communities” (75). Sharing a belief in the possibility of change is both a spiritual act and an important aspect of the work of the change agent. Many of the historically oppressed people with whom change agents work have lost hope and a vision of possibility.

The change agent has to trust the process, believe that the community knows what they need, and as they begin to get their needs met, know everything and everyone will be different. As Keating says in This Bridge We Call Home, “spiritual activism begins with the personal yet moves outward, acknowledging our radical interconnectedness” (18). We must heed the wisdom of those among us who have the courage to speak out. In the words of Anzaldua, “For positive social change to occur we must imagine a reality that is different from what already exists...Activism is the courage to act consciously on our ideas...Empowerment comes from ideas—our revolution is fought with concepts, not with guns, and it is fuelled by vision” (5). I am sustained by the words of Arundati Roy:

The Corporate Revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling—their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability. Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing (16).

Signs of the Transformation 

Once one begins to look, signs of the transformation abound. Some are obvious: the shift in collective tolerance of child abuse (even within institutions as sacrosanct as the Roman Catholic Church), and the Vagina Monologues world tour including performances in China, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Other signs are more complex: a recognition that gender is not quite the simple binary it was once thought to be. In a poem I recently heard at a public performance, the author points out that for every act of war, religious outrage and environmental devastation, there are a thousand counterbalancing acts of staggering generosity, and of art and beauty taking place all over the world, right now.

Found Poem

Stop thinking this is all there is. Realize that for every ongoing war and religious outrage and environmental devastation and bogus Iraqi attack plan, there are a thousand counterbalancing acts of  staggering generosity and art and beauty happening all over the world, right now, from flower boxes to cathedrals.

Resist the urge toward nihilism.

Seek out nuance and counter argument and subtle irony and balance and perspective. Realize the divine is not quite what you think it might be, that old methods of imploring, say, a cantankerous bearded patriarchal figure to please please please let you win the lottery and help you have better orgasms and oh yes smite your enemies might be a bit antiquated. Realize that this is the perfect moment to change the energy of the world, to step right up and crank your personal volume right when it all seems dark and bitter and offensive and acrimonious and bilious, there's your opening.

Remember magic.

And finally, believe you are part of a groundswell, a resistance, a seemingly small but actually very, very large impending karmic overhaul, a great shift, the beginning of something important and unstoppable. The world needs your help. This is a time of war mongering and bitterness. You are being implored. You can do something. Now is your chance. (Mintz)

Other similar sentiments come into my computer mail regularly. I recently received a four page poem by Rob Brezsny that repeats the refrain, “We are waking up.” The lessons may be awful, the teachings painful, but maybe “we” are waking up. There is no question that the kind of transformation that I am talking about is complex and requires countless innovative and untried ways of addressing enormous problems world-wide. But humans are uniquely intelligent and capable of great ingenuity. Once we decide to commit our energy and collective resources to addressing the dangers that threaten the planet and our communities, we will be able to do it. Most of us have good intentions, but too often we do not know what to do. Our responsibility, as change agents, is to help make actions congruent with intentions.

A new award winning Canadian documentary film by Jennifer Abbot, Mark Achbar and Joel Bakan, The Corporation, offers a multitude of examples of human ingenuity both in the development of the current system of global capitalism and in the many victories around the world that make a sustainable future seem possible. In the film Ray Anderson, the chief executive officer of Interface, the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer, describes his environmental epiphany and the subsequent reorganization of his 1.4 billion dollar company.  In 1997, Ray described his vision for his company––then nearly a quarter-century old––this way:

If we’re successful, we’ll spend the rest of our days harvesting yester year’s carpets and other petrochemically derived products, and recycling them into new materials; and converting sunlight into energy; with zero scrap going to the landfill and zero emissions into the ecosystem. And we’ll be doing well …… very well …… by doing good. That’s the vision. (The Corporation website)

In the film, Vandana Shiva, ecologist and feminist, describes a victory over corporate patents when a community successfully sues for the rights to the herb Neem which they have been using for centuries. Oscar Olivera, an activist from the Coalition in Defence of Water and Life, describes his successful anti-water privatization work in Bolivia, where the collective will of the people defeated the interests of global capitalism.

Transformative community practice is an effective tool to address problems which seem impossible to solve with conventional methods. Such tools help us move society toward a critical juncture, a tipping point, for the balance of change to move toward positive transformation. This dissertation focuses on the marginalized because that is where I have put my energy. It is from my work with some of the most oppressed in my community that I have learned what is possible. It will take a dramatic shift in social values and the allocation of resources in order to embrace the practices described in these pages. The transformation that I believe is taking place is a process of change which will include everyone. It is slow and although it will ultimately result in a significant redistribution of resources, it does not have to be perceptible as it happens. North Americans will have no choice but to change our way of living. The planet cannot sustain the lifestyle of the privileged, nor can those billions who are forced to endure war, refugee camps, the destruction of their histories and communities, poverty and despair. Disease, hunger, and environmental devastation are not just sound bites on CNN. They are lived realities that cannot be sustained.

Living in a Time of Crisis and Opportunity

I will repeat myself: there is no choice and I am not alone in saying so. Moyer describes this time as one of “crisis and opportunity.” In the final chapter of Doing Democracy, he outlines his guidelines for social activism in the twenty-first century. He points out that “we have the opportunity to achieve a momentous leap forward to a new era and a new way of being human as part of our historical, evolutionary developmental process” (191). For the next hundred years, social activists are going to be central in moving into a new era of “human equality and environmental sustainability” (191).

Change is inevitable and desirable. The solutions that emerge from the process of transformation outlined here will cost less than ineffective conventional methods. Prison is the most expensive housing possible. Layers upon layers of bureaucracy and infrastructure do little to address the problems that beset communities, but are costly to maintain. By changing individually and collectively to a more constructive path and addressing underlying causes identified by the people who know, the people who live the experience, everyone’s work will change. It will become more meaningful, more exciting and more effective. Resources will be allocated sensibly, so that when funds are set aside to address homelessness or addictions, the day-to-day reality of homeless people and addicts will be positively impacted. Whole communities create seemingly insurmountable obstacles together, and they can be resolved together.

Throughout these pages, I have described the role of change agent as a metaphorical bridge between the marginalized and other parts of the community. In this work, I am the bridge between the marginalized and the academy.

Many wealthy people want to contribute to making the world a better place. They want to do so partly because they know it is the right thing to do, and partly because they do not like being surrounded by pain and grief. They do not like having armed guards protecting them when they walk down the street (as even the middle class must in some countries). They do not want to fear for their children whenever they leave the house. However, they want to know that the contribution they make is going to matter. They want to be able to see that they are not, as my mother would say, “throwing good money after bad.” They want to make a sound investment.

Transformative community practice offers a blueprint for action that works. With the help of trained change agents, the resources will be there to implement the strategies needed. The founder of the Three Guineas Fund in Britain, Catherine Muther, believes that the best way to attack social problems is in teams, drawing people together from different spheres, with different perspectives and expertise. She is right. As argued in these pages, to effectively address someone’s concerns, they have to play the central role. Teams need to be guided by experiential community members. People with no experience of homelessness or prison do not decide how to address these issues alone. What it does mean is that if one goal of the homeless is housing, then people with experience in developing and managing housing will join the team and offer their expertise on how to economically develop the housing. This will undoubtably be radically different from any housing they have developed. It will have to be. Otherwise nothing will change.

Transformative community practice is both a personal process and a collective one. As Keating suggests, now is a time for “taking risks and transforming walls into thresholds” (529). In her writing, Keating lays out her own process of moving from here—a world of “rigid boundaries between the self and other”—to there—“El Mundo Zurdo, a visionary place where people of diverse backgrounds with diverse needs and concerns co-exist and work together to bring about revolutionary change” (520).

This framework can be applied to any issue, in any circumstance. Work needs to be done everywhere. My examples come from my own experience, but I see potential for application wherever I look. If youth (those who do well and those who do not) in the current educational system played a significant role in its redesign, we would have schools that offered what they need. They might not choose to remain contained inside four walls all day. Many youth might prefer to have a role working in the community, rather than learn in traditional settings. This would require more guides and managers but our communities overflow with people who would enjoy working with youth. Using the educational system as an example, people who do not thrive within its existing constraints are experts on what it does not provide. Their voice is essential to the development of successful outcomes. Many of them would become “teachers” and mentors, not because of their scholarly expertise, but because they could connect with the students that our current system will lose to the dangers of the streets.

Whatever the passion or interest of the reader, the application of transformative community practice as described in these pages, overlaid with a commitment to the time to genuinely engage in the process of transformation will achieve positive results. A shift is taking place toward a commitment to community, and with it comes a collective sense of responsibility. Change agents must believe that a positive vision of change is realistic and they must share that vision with everyone.

A radical consciousness is not required to want to make one’s community safer for everyone. When I look at my own community, I see that there are resources enough to meet the needs of everyone. No one needs to be sleeping in dumpsters where they can be accidentally murdered by the cardboard compacter (as happened in Victoria in the fall of 2003). No one needs to continue using drugs when they want treatment. No one needs to turn tricks when they want to go to school. These things happen because the road map through our collectively created jungle is not clear enough to read. I offer my version of transformative community practice as a map through one corner of this quagmire. It takes a whole community, though, to sustain the gains made through transformative community practice. It requires a serious commitment to a new way of living and working together. I have experienced its effectiveness. I know it works.

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[1] Throughout this work, I will use the female pronoun to refer to the change agent and the experiential community member.

[2]The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted and proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly, Resolution 217 A (III), 10 December 1948. The full text is available on-line at in many other languages including English.

[3]The scope of this literature review is limited. It does not contain a history of community organizing. Such     a history can be found within many sources (Fisher and Romanofsky; Fisher and Shragge; Garvin and Cox; Kahn; Mizrahi; Rothman, Approaches; Weil).

[4]Jennifer Rudkin is a community psychologist and author of an important new text, Community Psychology: Guiding Principles and Orienting Concepts. She is also a member of my doctoral committee.

[5]For a sampling of materials that reflect the full spectrum of this argument see Acker 201; Castelloe, Watson, and White 14; East 323; Fawcett 624; Gittell and Vidal 22; Gutierrez 207; Hyde 550.

[6]See Acker 201; Castelloe, Watson and White 3; East 323; Gittell and Vidal 25; Grahame 385; Gutierrez and Lewis 40; Hyde 550; Joseph et al 3; McKnight Ideas 12 for a few examples.

[7]See Acker 201; Berkowitz 334; Castelloe, Watson, and White 3; East 311; Gittell and Vidal 53; Gutierrez 207; Hyde 550; Kahn 121; and Yeich 113 for a sampling of scholars who write about the importance of involvement.

[8] By “new setting,” Sarason means a new program or service.

[9] See Appendix B for PEERS’ philosophical stance as published in the journal, Violence Against Women.

[10]Unfortunately, the details of her dismissal cannot be discussed because of an on-going court case.

[11]  Consciousness raising is a process of shared personal dialogue which developed during the  North American women’s movement of the mid to late twentieth century.

[12]Even though I am not convinced that, in the long run, we need prostitution at all I don’t think it is my  place to suggest that women who want to keep working in the trade should not do so. Within that context, maybe a collectively owned and operated escort business is not a bad idea.

[13]See Chapter 3, page 84 for Cherry’s words.

[14]These limits are based on generalizations and stereotypes.  There are exceptional individuals in every field and their work is significant and not meant to be disregarded by this framework.   

[15]Out from the Shadows: International Summit of Sexually Exploited Youth was held in Victoria, Canada in March 1998. To view the full text of the Declaration and Agenda for Action go to

Glossary of Terms

Activism. The activity of working for social justice.

Bad Date. Violent or abusive trick.

Capacity Building. The process of developing skills, abilities and faculties, individually and collectively. It is not the development of a temporary set of situation specific skills but an increase in the overall capacity to function.

CBC. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a federally funded public radio and television network.

Change Agent. Also agent for change. A person dedicated to the progressive transformation of society personally and professionally (usually). A term chosen to identify the professional community change practitioner. Historically such a role was commonly called community organizer. In my lifetime, I have identified as a feminist activist, community activist or change facilitator. I have chosen change agent from the literature for the purposes of this paper because I find it both descriptive and powerful.

CMHC. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a federal government agency.

Critical Consciousness. A critical understanding of the broader social, cultural, political, and economic contexts in which one lives (Castelloe, Watson and White 10).

Community Theory. Literature that provides description and analysis of a wide range of community practice methodologies.

Community Practice. A conceptual umbrella for a range of practice approaches, orientations, and models that have emerged in the combined arena of community organizing and social work (Weil 6).

Community Organizing. A phrase used to denote working in a community for social justice and using a grassroots model. Commonly associated with the work of Saul Alinsky. Intentional activities begun by one person, or a small group, to bring people together in a structured fashion in order to take joint action to improve quality of life in a lasting manner for the people organized, and for the broader community (Berkowitz 333).

Consciousness Raising. A process of communicating and sharing experience identified with feminism. It is a common technique of meeting in small groups and speaking in rounds. The process results in increased awareness of individual and collective experiences of sexism and other forms of oppression.

Date. A trick, john or customer who is buying sex.

Declaration and Agenda for Action. A document developed by the youth who attended the Summit and which they presented to the UN General Assembly in the spring of 1998.

Dialogic Education. The idea that educators and students interact with one another in a way in which all are co-speakers, co-learners, and co-actors (Castelloe, Watson and White 10).

Downtown Women’s Project. A project designed to address the needs of homeless and street-entrenched women in Victoria, BC, Canada, that took place from January 1994 to December 1995.

Engagement. The use of the word engagement to describe involvement is less common, but implies a degree of agency and action not present in participation which can be, and often is, passive. The dictionary states that engagement includes the act of having one’s attention compelled by an activity or enterprise.

Empowerment. The state of having a sense of control over one’s life and the experience of having actual control over the circumstances and conditions that affect one’s life, combined with a positive sense of self and healthy self-esteem; the process by which people, organizations, and communities gain mastery (Rappaport Terms122). An intentional, ongoing process centered in the local community, involving mutual respect, critical reflection, caring, and group participation, through which people lacking an equal share of valued resources gain greater access to and control over those resources (Cornell Empowerment Group qtd. in Zimmerman 43).

Exiting. A term commonly used to mean leaving or quitting the sex trade.

Experiential Person. A person who has intimate, day-to-day lived experience of an issue, either currently or in the past. A short-hand way of saying “having personal experience of the concern being discussed.” For example, when working on addictions, people who are, or were, addicts are experiential.

Experiential Knowing. “Direct, face-to-face encounters with a person, place, or thing; it is knowing through empathy and resonance, that kind of in-depth knowing that is almost impossible to put into words. Presentational knowing grows out of experiential knowing and provides the first form of expression through story, drawing, sculpture, movement, and dance, drawing on aesthetic imagery. Propositional knowing draws on concepts and ideas, and practical knowing consummates the other forms of knowing in action in the world” (Minkler & Wallerstein 207).

Facilitator. Someone who helps a group by providing guidance and direction enabling the members of the group to engage in dialogue, in order to engage in a process or create a shared vision.

Feminism. A theoretical and social movement to promote the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes societies that have long privileged men as a group. Definitions of feminism vary. Today there are many feminisms, each with its own complicated history and point of view. Early feminist writing encompassed a broad mix of personal story, theory, fiction, poetry, passionate essay and blurred genres. Among the feminists who have most influenced my own thinking are: Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Dorothy Allison, Gloria Anzaldua, Joan Nestle, Judy Rebick, Marge Piercy, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Rosemary Brown, Sheri S. Tepper, Starhawk, Susan Griffin, and Ursula Le Guin.

Heterarchy. A form of organization based on collaborative decisions rather than hierarchical structures. A heterarchy is a network rather than a hierarchy.

High Track. Sex workers who ask some of the highest prices, and who tend to be the “best-kept” and best looking sex workers on the street. High track is almost always pimped. Can also refer to the location on the street where high track women work.

ICCEC. International Centre to Combat the Exploitation of Children, a centre created by Cherry Kingsley intended to act as a conduit between policy makers, researchers, practitioners and sexually exploited youth. See for more information on the Centre.

Ideology. The body of ideas reflecting the interests of a group of people. “Within U.S. culture, racist and sexist ideologies permeate the social structure to such a degree that they become hegemonic, namely, seen as natural, normal, and inevitable” (Hill Collins 5).

Indigenous Leadership. Leadership that emerges from within the community of focus, whether that community is based on geography, race, gender, class or shared experience.

Initiative. Any outcome of a community process including projects, programs, gatherings, movements, campaigns or new settings.

Inque[e]ry: Lesbian, Bi, Trans, and Two-Spirited Women’s Research Network of BC. The mission statement follows: Inque[e]ry is committed to the creation of an accessible, inclusive, and diverse network of people who identify as lesbian, dyke, bisexual, (FTM and MTF) transgendered, queer, homosexual and Two-Spirited women and who are doing research on issues related to that identification in British Columbia.

Inter-ministerial Committee. A committee made up of representatives from many ministries. In the case of the Downtown Women’s Project, the committee included representatives from the following provincial bodies: Ministry of Skills Training and Labour, Ministry of Social Services, Ministry of Employment & Investment, Ministry of Women’s Equality, BC Housing Management Corporation and the Provincial Rental Housing Corporation.

Intersectionality. These are particular forms of intersecting oppressions, for example, intersections of race and gender, or of sexuality and nation. “Intersectional paradigms remind us that oppressions work together in producing injustice. In contrast, the matrix of domination refers to how these intersecting oppressions are actually organized. Regardless of the particular intersections involved, structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal domains of power reappear across quite different forms of oppression” (Hill Collins 18).

International Women’s Day (IWD). In 1908, socialist women in the United States initiated the first Women's Day when large demonstrations took place calling for the vote and the political and economic rights of women. It is now celebrated around the world on March 8th.

Knowledge Network. British Columbia’s provincial public television network.

Margin. Socially and culturally speaking, an outer edge or a limit beyond which persons or things cease to exist, be possible or tolerable.

Marginalize. The act of causing people to live on the margins of society by excluding them from participation.

Medewiwin. Ojibway word for an ancient society that provided people with the means to protect themselves from hunger and disease; the name chosen for the VSCA housing project by its first residents.

Men at PEERS. A PEERS’ project designed to research the concerns of men and boys in the sex trade and to educate the public on the topic.

NDP. New Democratic Party, a social democratic political party in Canada.

Oppression. “Any unjust situation where, systematically and over a long period of time, one group denies another group access to the resources of society” (Hill Collins 4).

PACE. Prostitution Alternatives Counselling Education, an experiential organization in Vancouver.

Participative Worldview. A view that involves an extended epistemology, with a notion of reality as both subjective and objective, drawing on diverse forms of knowing as we encounter and act in our world (Minkler and Wallerstein 206).

PEERS. The Prostitutes’ Empowerment, Education and Resource Society, a service organization created and managed by, and for, current and former sex workers. The first PEERS organization was incorporated in 1995, in Victoria, BC, Canada. A second PEERS group has been incorporated in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Other communities across Canada are in the process of developing PEERS organizations as well. PEERS hone number is 250-388-5325 and the website address is

Popular Education. Associated with the work of Paulo Freire, popular education is based on two processes, learning from experience and dialogue (Castelloe, Watson and White 9).

Radical. A term widely used to mean a person who favours or effects fundamental or revolutionary changes in current practices, conditions, or institutions.

Regular. A trick or john who purchases sex from the same sex worker on a regular basis.

Sandy Merriman House. An emergency shelter for homeless and street women in Victoria, BC, Canada that resulted from the Downtown Women’s Project and opened in December 1996.

Sex Industry. A range of ventures that include prostitution, erotic and pornographic films, phone sex, stripping, and escort agencies.

Sexual Exploitation. Abusive or exploitative sexual activities involving coercion or undue pressure. A term that is commonly used to refer to any commercial sexual activities with someone under the age of 18.

Spiritual Activism. A phrase coined by Gloria Anzaldua to describe working for radical social change by looking “beyond the illusion of separate interests to shared interest” (Anzaldua and Keating 573).

Square. Slang for person who has never worked in the sex trade. More generally, the term refers to people who have never lived on the margins of society.

Standpoint Theory. This theory was developed independently by a number of established feminist scholars and thinkers including Sandra Harding and Dorothy E. Smith. As Smith states, “I proposed women’s standpoint as one situated outside textually mediated discourses in the actualities of our everyday lives. This is a standpoint designed in part by our exclusion from the making of cultural and intellectual discourse and strategies of resorting to our experience as the ground of a new knowledge, a new culture” (107).

Stroll. An area where street prostitution takes place. Also called the track.

Summit. Shorthand for Out from the Shadows: International Summit of Sexually  Exploited Youth held in Victoria, BC, March 1998.

Sweep. A slang term used to describe police activity when they arrest sex workers and their customers in order to clean up an area, often in response to complaints from property owners.

Ten toes to the corner. An expression that refers to standing on the street as opposed to working at an indoor venue like an escort agency. Somewhat similar to the surfer expression, “hang ten.”

Transformative Community Practice (TCP). A method of working in a community that includes its experiential members in the design, development and implementation of outcomes. TCP requires that the community in question plays a decision-making role at every stage in the process. “Transformative community practice seeks to change (1) how individual people in the community see themselves, developing deeper understanding of who they are and what they can accomplish; (2) how they see themselves in relationship with others in the community, building a collective identity and senses of common purpose and efficacy; and (3) how people outside the community view the community and its people” (O’Donnell & Karanja 75).

Visualization. According to Shakti Gawain, a technique of using your imagination to create what you want in your life. Gawain wrote “Creative Visualization” in the early 1980's. It is a term used by many to describe the conscious process of imagining a goal or outcome, and asking for spiritual help to achieve it.

VSCA. Victoria Street Community Association was a peer led organization of homeless people, primarily men incorporated in 1992.

Working. This is a widely used short hand for working in the sex trade or turning tricks.

Worldview. A way of looking at the world, a paradigm, a personal framework: “The emergent worldview has been described as systemic, holistic, relational, feminine, and experiential, but its defining characteristic is that it is participatory” (Minkler & Wallerstein 206).


Appendix A

 Traditional Scholarly Disciplines that Inform Transformative Community Practice

General Disciplines & Sub-fields


Limits/Liabilities [14]




-understands culture

-grass roots, community based

-develops listening skills

-community mapping tools

-history of learning to understand people’s reality

-non intervention

-no community action component

-belief in objective observer



Community Economic     Development (CED)

Economic Restructuring

-promotes self sufficiency

-incorporates training

-challenges economic status quo

-participatory livelihood

-unrealistic with extremely marginalized

-creates false expectations

-context problematic


Popular Education

Empowerment Education

-promotes awareness of underlying causes of inequality

-analysis of power difference

-leads to action


-learning from experience

-methodology not developed by group

-limited scope

-most useful once group in existence

-lacks action focus


Population Health

Health Promotion

Public Health

Community Health

-builds from the ground up

-goes where people are

-uses determinants of health

-includes participation &

action research

-community based

-scope limited


International Development

AID Development Work

International Philanthropy

Participatory Rural Action

-builds grassroots capacity

-local assessment, program planning

-useful set of already developed tools


-grassroots decision making the exception

-outcomes created by donours

-rarely questions root causes

Planning & Development

Community Organizing


-neighbourhood based

-social change orientation

-radical analysis of power

-effective outreach


-organizes groups

-facilitates community involvement

-analysis of power


-leadership from outside

-confrontational style

-traditionally male dominated

-focus on winning single issue

-short term

Political Science

Civil Society Discourse

Modern Democratic Theory

Citizenship & Public Policy

-emphasis on inclusivity

-theory based


-missing interpersonal one-on-one dynamic


Community Psychology

Creation of Settings

Behaviour Analysis

Community Research & Action

Empowerment Policy

-social change focus

-commitment to empowerment

-community based

-redistribution of social power

-coalition building

-values diversity

-pairing of research & action

-usually initiated from outside of community

-tension between community based activism & academia

Religious Studies

Spiritual Activism

“Good Works”

-understanding of interconnectedness of things

-positive vision

-not specific to community practice

Social Work

Community Development

Community Organizing

Community Practice

Feminist Organizing

-contextual analysis

-big picture


-community immersion


-action focus

-capacity building component important

-supports networks

-analysis of power

-individual focus

-clients and service provider mentality

-organizing not well documented


Social Movement Theory


-analysis of social change

-participatory democracy

-based on fundamental values

-theory based


-retrospective rather than active

Women’s Studies

Feminist Organizing


-incorporates analysis of race, class & gender


-radical activist tradition

-coalition building


-social change focus



-increasingly theory focussed

Appendix B

PEERS’ Philosophical Stance:

The organization has an ongoing and unwavering commitment to peer-led services, administration and policy development. It is dedicated to shaping the organization in response to the experiences of sex trade workers, whether that information is anecdotal  or derives from formal, collaborative research ventures. Finally, and significantly, PEERS has refused to align itself with either of the two dominant discourses on sex trade work: the pro-trade prostitutes’ rights position and the abolitionist, anti-prostitution position.

As befits an organization concerned with the complicated lives of those in the sex trade, PEERS has developed a complex analysis of the factors that interact to involve and keep women in the trade. Wahab (2002) notes in discussing the relationship between social work and sex trade workers that service providers rarely see sex trade workers as the “experts” of their own lives. All three of the explanatory analyses—that is, that it is a result of immorality, that it is borne of pathology rooted in traumatic childhood experiences, that it results from gender and/or economic oppression—that have shaped approaches to working with sex trade workers (redemption, therapeutic interventions or consciousness-raising) have been authored from outside the trade. From inside the trade, where PEERS is located, there is recognition that the search for explanatory variables is useful insofar as it contributes to, but does not constrain, the development of programs responsive to the needs of sex trade workers. In other words, interest in whether sex trade work is constructed as “work” and, therefore, is seen as a matter of choice, or constructed as evidence of oppression or of psychopathology, must never impede the provision of services. PEERS has always positioned sex trade workers as the experts, using their wisdom, knowledge and experience to inform service and program development. Sex trade workers participate in and value these programs because they see them as reflecting the realities of their lives (Rabinovitch and Strega 142).

Appendix C

Summary Introduction of the Declaration and Agenda for Action developed by participants at Out from the Shadows: International Summit of Sexually Exploited Youth, and presented to the United Nations General Assembly.


We the sexually exploited child and youth delegates gathered in Victoria Canada, for Out From the Shadows: International Summit for the Sexually Exploited Youth, declare the following:

We declare that the term child or youth prostitute can no longer be used.  These children and youth are sexually exploited and any language or reference to them must reflect this belief.

We declare that the commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth is a form of child abuse and slavery.

We declare that all children and youth have the right to be protected form all forms of abuse, exploitation and the threat of abuse, harm or exploitation.

We declare that the commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth must no longer be financially profitable.

We declare that all children and youth have the right to know their rights.

We declare that the issue of child and youth sexual exploitation must be a global priority and nations must not only hold their neighbors accountable but also themselves.

We declare that governments are obligated to create laws which reflect the principle of zero tolerance of all forms of abuse and exploitation of children and youth.



Our agenda contains actions that are based on our beliefs.  Our beliefs have come from what we have lived. To understand why these actions will work, you must understand our beliefs and the life experience that have led to these beliefs.

We believe that education is vital in our struggle against the sexual exploitation of children and youth.

We believe that the voices and experiences of sexually exploited children and youth must be heard and are central to the development and implementations of action. We must be empowered to help ourselves.

We believe that we have the right to resources that are directed towards sexually exploited children and youth and our very diverse needs.

We believe that our laws must protect us as sexually exploited children and youth and no longer punish us as criminals.

We believe that we are all responsible for our children and youth, yet the issue is not ours alone.

Governments, communities and society as a whole must be held accountable for the sexual exploitation of children and youth.

Appendix D 

Summary Analysis of Example Projects



Downtown Women’s Project





Two year community development (CD) project with homeless men

One year CD project plus one year training and employment project with homeless/street women

One year of CD and seven years of developing programs and services with and for sex trade workers

Six years of working with sexually exploited youth combatting sexual exploitation nationally and internationally

One year development stage of international experiential organization

Key players at the table

Homeless and very poor downtown men

Change agent

Women with a street/drug history on welfare

Change agent

Staff team

Board of society

Sex trade workers, past and present

Change agent

People who were sexually exploited youth

Change agent


Staff of national NGO

People who were sexually exploited youth Change agent Advisors/allies Staff of national NGO

Initiating factor

Change agent while at City, Social Planning

Change agent while at City, Social Planning

Sex trade workers

Cherry Kingsley, former sexually exploited youth

Cherry Kingsley, former sexually exploited youth


An organization of their own

A place to go Permanent housing

A women’s emergency shelter

Permanent housing

Training and employment

An organization of their own Programs and services to support sex trade workers exit and/or stay safe and healthy

Training and employment


A gathering so sexually exploited youth could be part of addressing issue and a national follow-up strategy and project

An organization to combat sexual

exploitation led by experiential youth and adults

Back-ground players behind the scenes

City Hall Downtown Working Group Prov. Gov’t, Other services

City Hall

Prov. Gov’t, Other services Business

Crew Neighbours

Community,  Prov. Govt,  Academic researchers  Politicians



Federal Gov’t  Media

University partner International  Foundations


Free food


Wages  for experiential staff


Professional coordinator

Free food


Staff team

Training and employment  project - shop

Renovation crew


Wages for experiential staff


Funding for Summit

Partnership with national NGO

Resources to  develop web-site Funding for staff  and projects


Creation of VSCA  and  Medewiwin Housing


Eventual closing of VSCA

Creation of construction training program

Renovation project

Sandy Merriman House



Stories project show and book

Eventual closing of PEERS Place

Stories - PEERS

Research reports

Training projects

Street outreach

Public education


Agenda and Declaration for Action

Into the Light

Sacred Lives


BC Coalition of


Women Curriculum National Coalition of Experiential Women

Issues and Obstacles

Ongoing  interpersonal conflict among participants

Limited capacity Ongoing need for outside help

Unrealistic  expectations on part of gov’t

Lack of funding, Lack of indigenous leadership 

Ideological differences among staff

Large distance between staff  and  participants

Street women didn’t have voice in second part of project

Staff conflict

Conflict between change agent and Board

Ongoing need for training

Lack of experiential people for Board

Atmosphere of constant crises Struggle for funding

Lack of funding and leadership for PEERS Place

Lack of tolerance for experiential involvement at NGO

Unrealistic expectations resulting in severe stress

Need for ongoing support

Constant travel

Ongoing need for non-experiential support Difficulty  in finding core operating funding for experiential organization Constant travel

Points of transform-

ation, successes, key moments

Homeless men  became part of the solution not just an item on everyone’s agenda  Participated in community

Sense of pride in having their own place

Street Meet offered an opportunity for bridging


Sandy’s death highlighted the need for a different way of deciding things

Collaborative process would have helped bring agreement on goals and principles

Need to continue group planning process even when women became participants in the project

Construction training project

Opening of Sandy Merriman House

PEERS respected position in community

Visible staff capacity building and success after they leave PEERS

Change in attitudes toward sex trade

Ongoing relationships Indigenous leadership

Tolerance for crises

Community support  Programs and services for STW’s that they design, develop, and implement

Summit that resulted in Agenda and Declaration for Action presented to UN

Summit planning flexible and responsive

Change in approach, language understanding of issue world wide

Recognition of need for partnership Impact on how province responds to issueSupport for development of national

organization of sex workers to address sexual exploitation and needs of sex workers

Appendix E

Qualities of Change Agent in Transformative Community Practice


Appendix F

Community Partners in Transformative Community Practice

Activist Groups

  • Advocacy Organizations

  • Anti-poverty groups

  • Feminist Organizations

  • Special event planning groups

  • Dec 6th (a day of remembrance and a day of action on violence against women in Canada)

  • International Women’s Day

  • Take Back the Night

  • Queer groups

  • Women’s Centres - community & university or college

Educational Institutions

  • Employment Training Agencies

  • Employment training

  • Life-Skills training

  • Pre-employment training programs

  • Primary & Secondary Schools

  • Individual classroom teachers

  • Parent Advisory Councils

  • School board

  • School principals & counsellors

  • Post-Secondary Institutions

  • Career & trades training

  • College pre-employment training courses

  • Community-University Research Partnership Projects

  • Practicuum students

  • Schools of Social Work, Nursing, Women’s Studies

  • Upgrading programs


  • Federal

  • National elected representatives

  • Policy & program staff

  • Municipal

  • City Manager’s Office

  • Community Development Division

  • Mayor and Council

  • Police Department

  • Chief, Deputy & Inspectors/Senior Management

  • Police Board or other civilian governance oversight group

  • Vice Squad

  • Social Planning Department

  • Provincial

  • Appropriate Ministries - policy and program staff

  • Members of provincial or state legislature

  • Regional

  • Committees

  • Regional Health Authority


  • Daily newspaper

  • Free community papers

  • Individual journalists

  • Local television stations

  • Radio - university, public and commercial

  • Women’s magazines

Private Sector Interests

  • Business Community

  • Chamber of Commerce

  • Local family businesses

  • Local financial institutions

  • Tourism Associations

  • Churches, mosques & synagogues

  • Philanthropists

  • Individuals

  • Local Foundations

  • Service Clubs


  • Health

  • Addictions treatment services

  • AIDS Agencies

  • De-tox

  • Emergency room personnel

  • Individual doctors

  • Mental Health Support Services

  • People with AIDS organizations

  • Public Health

  • Psychiatrists

  • Street nurses

  • Homeless

  • Drop-in programs

  • Shelters

  • Youth Services

  • Health clinics

  • Street outreach

  • Youth serving agencies