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 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.