COMM-ORG Papers 2005



Transforming Community Practice:
[Re]Moving the Margins

Jannit Rabinovitch

 Union Institute and University

copyright Jannit Rabinovitch, 2004


About the Author

Chapter 1 - Setting the Stage
     Introduction to my Process
     Social Change through Community Practice
     Transformative Community Practice
     [Re]Moving the Margins
     Need for Change Agents

Chapter 2 - A Review of Literature Related to Transformative Community Practice
     Focus on Practice not Research
     Intersection of Community Practice and Feminism
     Shifting Power by Changing Attitudes
     Role of the Change Agent
     Listening to the Community's Insider Knowledge
     Capacity Building
     From the Academy to the Community

Chapter 3 - Five Community Practice Examples
     Theoretical Framework
     Introduction to the Projects
     Victoria Street Community Association
     Downtown Women's Project
     Prostitutes' Empowerment, Education and Resource Society
     Out from the Shadows: International Summit of Sexually Exploited Youth
     International Centre to Combat the Exploitation of Children
     Analysis of the Projects

Chapter 4 - Going to Where People Are: Placing Experiential People at the Centre
     Going to the Experiential Community
     Building Relationships and Establishing Trust
     Listening to the Experiential Community
     Insider Knowledge: From Client to Expert
     Involving the Experiential Community in Decision-making
     Indigenous Leadership
     Building the Capacity of Experiential Community Members
     Visualizing Change: Motivation and Passion

Chapter 5 - Bringing Others Along: Engaging Community Support
     Ensuring Cultural Sensitivity
     Working Together: Partnerships, Coalitions and Collaborations
     Working with Existing Institutions
     Creating New Initiatives
     Community-University Research Partnerships
     Transforming a Community Requires Everyone

Chapter 6 - Taking the Time: Honouring the Process
     Dedicating Enough Time
     Five Internal and External Phases of Transformative Community Practice
          Phase I .  a) Internal Work-Building Relationships
                         b) External Work-Conducting Research
          Phase II.  a) Internal Work-Creating the Vision
                         b) External Work-Building Relationships
          Phase III. a) Internal Work-Strategic Planning
                          b) External Work-Gathering Support
          Phase IV. a) Internal Work-Capacity Building
                          b) External Work-Documenting & Reporting
          Phase V.  a) Internal Work-Implementing the Initiative
                          b) External Work-Ensuring Sustainability

Chapter 7 - Envisioning Transformation: Where To >From Here?
     Spiritual Activism
     Signs of the Transformation
     Living in a Time of Crisis and Opportunity

Works Cited
Works Consulted
     A - Traditional Scholarly Disciplines that Inform Transformative Community Practice
     B - PEERS' Philosophical Stance
     C - Declaration and Agenda for Action
     D - Summary Analysis of Case Stories
     E - Qualities of Change Agent Lens in Transformative Community Practice
     F - Community Partners in Transformative Community Practice


I dedicate this work to Sandy Merriman who died in 1996 during the Downtown Women’s Project. Many of the realizations that underlie this work emerged as a result of her death.


This dissertation was submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Studies with an emphasis in Community Studies, October 2004, The Graduate College, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, Union Institute and University, Judith Arcana, Ph.D., Faculty Advisor.

I would like to thank some of the remarkable women I have had the privilege to work with over the years—Ally, Barb, Cher, Cherry, Chuck, Grace, Gwen, Karen, Lauren, Megan—and many others. I am honoured to be the “square” in the circle.

Many people have helped me with this work. My Doctoral Committee: Judith Arcana, Audrey Faulkner, Mark Rosenman, Jennifer Rudkin, Joanne Mulcahy, Simone Yehuda, and Kathleen Adams have been an invaluable source of direction and encouragement. Ellen Ilfeld has provided guidance and support, and taught me what it means to undertake data analysis within an unconventional framework.

Most especially, I thank my partner, Lyn Davis, who lived with me and my complaints during the months which I constantly undertook new tasks. Without her support and belief in me I would not have begun let alone achieved this goal.

Last, but certainly not least, I thank the members of my chosen family: my daughter, Hannah Rabinovitch, my son, Mischa Snopkowski, the other mothers, Patrice Snopkowski, Nancy Issenman, Lyn Davis and Pam Hartling and Doug McGhee, whose role as yet in our culture, has no name. I thank you for your unwavering confidence in me, your company, and for being in my life before, throughout and after this process.

About the Author

Dr. Jannit Rabinovitch is the BC Coordinator of a national program entitled Health, Enforcement and Education in Partnership (HEP). In BC HEP is managed by the Centre for Addictions Research of BC located at the University of Victoria. As well, Jannit spent almost seven years as a member of the Victoria Police Board. She has her doctorate in Community Studies and many years experience working with marginalised and socially excluded populations. Her current work focuses on partnership, collaboration and the necessity of ensuring that those most affected by an issue are meaningfully included in addressing it.


This dissertation explores transformative community practice as an effective method of working in the community, using five narratives incorporating twelve years of community practice work with marginalized communities in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Work with one community’s homeless men, street women, sex workers and sexually exploited youth provides examples, lessons, recommendations, and insights. Transformative community practice is built on the realization that despite their insider knowledge the true experts, those with lived experience, are not usually included in discussions of how to address their needs. Existing scholarly literature on community practice demonstrates a broad consensus on the importance of the inclusion of those most marginalized but without comprehensive guidelines on how to engage them in substantive ways.

The central argument of this study is that to develop effective responses to marginalization, the most oppressed must play a central role in the development, design and delivery of programs and services designed to address their needs. Further, that to do so requires  skilled change agents to facilitate and support the engagement of marginalized people in identifying and addressing problems. This study describes one such experience in effective community practice from the point of view of a change agent working with marginalized community members.

Transformative community practice seeks to change social policy and community practice in four key areas: the redefinition of expertise to include the experiential community thus ensuring  they play a decision-making role in the design, development and implementation of all solutions; a new understanding of, and support for, the role of the change agent; the engagement of all stakeholders affected by the situation being addressed; and a commitment that sufficient time and resources will be dedicated to the process of community practice.

Chapter 1 - Setting the Stage

If you are trying to transform a brutalized society into one where people can live in dignity and hope, you begin with the empowering of the most powerless. You build from the ground up.

 Adrienne Rich,  “Going There and Being Here,”  Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985

At one time not so long ago, on the west coast of Canada, to be gay or lesbian meant to live on the margins, either hiding one’s true identity or living in isolation among others who shared one’s secret. Now, here in Victoria, being a lesbian no longer requires one to hide or be isolated. I am able to live in the centre of my community and be public about my sexual orientation. I have a wide range of choices as to how I want to live my life. I have work, a partner, children and a mortgage, much like my neighbours who treat me as they do each other. I am friends with many who are not gay or lesbian; a few are public figures in my community. My sexual orientation may affect my choices and decisions but such choices are not limited by a cultural construction of lesbians as beings who are outside the acceptable limits of behaviour and therefore marginalized.

Before I attempt to map out my family configuration and identify all the roles within it (some of which don’t even have a name), I’d like to say something about my children. They are 17 and 18 and both left home in the summer of 2003 to go to college on academic scholarships. Their friends’ parents are fine knowing that my kids come from an unusual family. Each child is extremely accomplished in her/his chosen and (fairly) gender-traditional interest areas—he in sports, she in the arts. Their teachers, coaches, employers, co-workers and families of origin appreciate them and enjoy having them around.

When it was time to plan a celebratory dinner for their many accomplishments as they left high school and moved on, at the table were the two “real” moms (one biological and one non-biological); each one’s live-in current partner; Nancy, who became our daughter’s “other” mother when Hannah was age two, with whom she has spent one night a week for fourteen years; Doug, a gay physician who gradually joined the family seven years ago and who is now the proud donour-dad of a girl and a boy in two separate lesbian households; and Colleen, the woman with whom my ex became involved after we split up. Missing was Andre, the kids’ donour, who has become a sometime presence since our daughter decided she wanted to know him three years ago. Since the kids had the same donour, that meant that our son was going to meet his dad as well. Andre comes for a visit each summer with his two sons, half-brothers to our kids. Our family may not look like anyone else’s but we don’t feel marginalized.

I often think that the biggest obstacle to transformation and positive social change at the beginning of the twenty-first century is not the unequal distribution of resources but the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair that pervades North American culture. In the pages that follow, I offer a model for substantial positive change that has emerged from twelve years of working on five projects in my community. I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in order to expand the ways in which my activism can make a difference in the world, by adding teaching, scholarly research and writing to my commitment to community practice. I see myself as a bridge between the academy and the community, bringing years of work with marginalized groups to a dialogue already underway in scholarly literature. For the purposes of this work, community is not bound by geographic or political boundaries.

I bring to my work a specific set of skills and life experiences that emerge from my identity as a feminist, lesbian and lifelong activist. I am white, Jewish, a mother and middle class. As someone who has had access to higher education and the opportunity to work professionally as a change agent[1] for most of my adult life,  I acknowledge my membership among the privileged. I have been honoured for my work by my community and have received national recognition for my projects. I bear witness to a method of community practice that is transforming.

It is a privilege to be an agent of change. I am aware of how fortunate I am to be paid to follow my passion. Audre Lorde articulates the energy I get from my work when she writes about her own experience:

My fullest concentration of energy is available to me when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of externally imposed definition. Only then can I bring myself and my energies as a whole to the service of those struggles which I embrace as part of my living (120).       

As activists and change agents, we must offer both hope and a clearly delineated route to progressive transformation, locally and globally. People need to recognize that everyone has a choice—either to give in to hopelessness and despair and allow conditions to worsen, or become part of an effort to build hope and possibility. Many have become convinced that, collectively, North American society can do nothing; that poverty, violence, destruction of the environment, and extinction of habitats and species are all inevitable.

This dissertation is written for those who care about what is happening in communities across North America, those who are interested in community and social change. My work is inter-disciplinary and touches on a number of fields. In Appendix A, I review the scholarly disciplines—Anthropology, Economics, Education, Health, International Development, Planning and Development, Political Science, Community Psychology, Religious Studies, Social Work, Sociology, and Women’s Studies—that intersect with my analysis. I hope this text will be of use to scholars who are change agents and scholars of community practice. I have been working in the community for a long time and offer my own experience as a means of connecting theory and practice in an effort to rend the false split between the two.

This chapter provides an introduction to the process involved in writing this dissertation, the field of community studies, and the theoretical model on which my dissertation is based—transformative community practice. I will discuss what it means to move and remove margins and the need for a change agent (or professional practitioner) who facilitates and supports progressive community change.

Introduction to My Process

When I first began my doctorate, I intended to focus on lessons learned while engaged in community practice and to write a guide book on how to work more effectively with marginalized communities. After reading through a number of related how-to books, I began to wonder what I could add to the existing literature. I thought it might be more interesting and valuable to write a story rather than develop a set of recommendations. I began work on a memoir of my community organizing activity. That seemed to leave out too much. The end result is a combination: an analysis of community practice based on my story.

 As a life-long feminist, I am acutely aware of how important it is that women tell their stories. For thirty years, feminist scholars have written on the importance of personal voice. In the following pages, I describe my experience as a change agent. Some of the stories of the men and women with whom I have worked intersect with my story. Thus, it has been difficult to decide how much of my own and others’ experience is appropriate for me to share. I have had to balance the ethics of how much I can include in much the same way Judith Tannenbaum does in Disguised as a Poem, in which she writes about her experience of teaching poetry in prison. For the last twelve years I have worked with homeless men, street women, sex workers, and sexually exploited youth. They have remarkable and important stories; yet, that is not what you will find in the following pages. Their stories are their own to tell, not mine.

Throughout this dissertation, I use the word “experiential” to mean somebody who has day-to-day lived experience, currently or in the past. I choose this word, rather than “client” or “consumer,” in part because the experiential women with whom I work like it and use it themselves. Unlike the word “client,” “experiential” does not identify a person by her relationship to a program, service or professional or the word “consumer” which suggests someone who purchases or uses goods or services. “Experiential” is merely descriptive, saying, in essence, “I have been there.”

Social Change Through Community Practice

I find a considerable amount of the literature on community practice, within a number of academic disciplines, to have a substantial degree of consensus on how best to work in the community. I do not intend any disrespect when I say that much of the historical literature on community practice seems self-evident today. It can surely be considered a tribute to Saul Alinsky, often described as the father of community organizing, Jack Rothman, and Seymour Sarason, leaders in community psychology, and other writers that their contributions have been so well integrated into the field of community practice.

Because there is such a strong consensus, for example, that participation (or engagement) is a good thing, I would expect to see more evidence of it within the social service policy and delivery system in Canada and the U.S.A. However, I know from experience that engagement is not taking place in my own community. I also know that Victoria is a very progressive community in British Columbia which is one of the most progressive provinces in Canada, considered a progressive country. Yet, even in Victoria, the number of visible homeless is increasing, there is an increasing number of children and families living in poverty, the sex industry is thriving, and there are inadequate services and supports for people struggling with addictions and mental health problems. I know that the local police (on whose Board I sit as a government appointee) spend 80% of their patrol time dealing with addiction and mental health issues. I wonder, since there is  a clear consensus in the community practice literature on participation, why there is little evidence that it is being implemented.

Even people who endorse participation as an essential ingredient in a new way of doing business do not seem to know how. In order to be constructive change agents, professionals need to be trained not only in how to develop programs and services but in how to support experiential people to do the same. From the outset, the relationship between professionals and the experiential participants has to be made explicit since it is only through the synergy of their combined knowledge that they will be able to create something new and better. No amount of research can replace first hand experience and no amount of first hand experience can make-up for lack of support and funding.

 In this dissertation, I will demonstrate how experiential people can address their own problems by building on their lived experience rather than be marginalized and excluded from the process. We need to recognize and acknowledge the expertise of everyone—those who are drug addicts, HIV positive, and in the sex trade. It is critical to ask what they want, listen to them, trust their expertise and support and facilitate the implementation of their solutions.

I am writing this for others who, like myself, want their work to matter, but instead are increasingly frustrated. Large amounts of money are dedicated to addressing poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and addictions; yet, so much money is used ineffectively. Community research grants are consistently inaccessible to community groups; programs and services are designed and developed by policy makers and managers, and then delivered by professional service providers. In the current fiscal climate of cutbacks and restraint, and as measurable changes fail to emerge, government’s willingness to continue to commit resources to help marginalized people is decreasing. Governments and the private sector have argued for decades that the cost of addressing social issues and the causes of marginalization is too high. I would argue that it would be far cheaper in the long term to develop programs and services designed by people to meet their needs than to support the status quo. Solutions may vary greatly from one jurisdiction to another (and even from one neighbourhood to another) but solutions developed by people to meet their own needs could replace expensive bureaucracy and infrastructure with practical, functional scaled-down solutions. A fraction of the billions being spent can be redirected  at the community level, and the efficacy and efficiency of this new model will be clearly seen. Good intentions are not enough. Conditions must actually improve, and the people whose lives are targeted must be allowed to judge whether that improvement is real.

Many health and social service practitioners, among others, believe that it is unrealistic for everyone to play a meaningful role in addressing their own problems and situations. However, years of working with those who have a history of addictions, homelessness, sex work and mental illness clearly demonstrate that an enormous amount of information is missed because of such convictions. It may be difficult for such workers to accept that someone who is high on drugs and appears incoherent has something useful to offer regarding her treatment. Yet that is precisely what I suggest. She may not be able to participate when she is high, but, in my experience, addicts possess a great deal of knowledge about how and why they began using, what would have prevented it and how to assist them in becoming fully functioning members of society.

Transformative Community Practice

Transformative community practice (TCP), as developed by Sandra O’Donnell and Sokoni Karanja, includes the experiential community in the design, development and implementation of outcomes. TCP requires that the community in question plays a decision-making role at every stage by breaking down barriers and building alliances. It offers an approach to community practice that engages the experiential community and thus has a transformational effect on all those involved—the participants, the change agents and the larger community.

This practice is built on the work of many who have gone before—community organizers, community psychologists, feminists, and social workers—and utilizes their vision as a blueprint for action. This approach is derived from my own work and others, work that encourages people to address their own problems, work like that of the Center for Participatory Change in North Carolina as described by Paul Castelloe, Thomas Watson and Craig White (7) and O’Donnell and Karanja in their work with extremely low income African-American communities for which they coined the term transformative community practice (67), a term I began to use before discovering their work.

O’Donnell and Karanja describe transformative community practice as a model built on indigenous involvement:

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 sense of common purpose and efficacy; and (3) how people outside the community view the community and its people (75).

To O’Donnell and Karanja, and to me, transformative community practice is a way to develop new relationships between the experiential community and social and health services, policy makers, banks and businesses, elected officials, civic groups and funders. This is a process that transforms expert’s views of and relationships to marginalized communities, encouraging such people to see assets as well as needs, and be guided by the experiential community’s own vision for its renewal.          

Effective community practice cannot be accomplished by recipe or learned from a text book; nevertheless, transformative community practice offers some useful basic principles by shifting the locus of expertise in regard to vulnerable populations to the experiential community. Community members need to become recognized as experts of their own experience and thus qualified to design, develop and implement solutions. The work of the change agent then becomes critical in facilitating and supporting the voices of experiential people so that they play a meaningful role in the transformation process. To date, far too much policy and practice designed to address poverty, isolation and marginalization has been developed by people who do not understand what it is to live outside the dominant culture.

I believe that transformative community practice can be used effectively by people who work inside institutions and bureaucracies; it is not the private preserve of community organizers or those who identify themselves as activists. Transformative community practice, as defined by O’Donnell and Karanja and adapted in these pages, provides an effective way of working no matter what constraints surround one’s circumstances. For example, Dr. Doug McGhee, who works with the youth clinic in downtown Victoria, recently decided to begin to address the problem of crystal meth use. Instead of using a traditional medical or research model, he went directly to the youth, in essence, using transformative community practice. Together, they made a video, Reduce Speed, about crystal meth use in Victoria (available from the Vancouver Island Health Authority The video is widely acclaimed for its insider knowledge and frank dialogue and is now being used throughout the province.

My adaptation of transformative community practice requires a commitment from all stakeholders—those with personal experience, those with professional training, and members of the larger community. It is a form of community practice that requires a degree of collaboration and partnership which may feel risky to those who are used to making decisions themselves. To engage in a process of transformation requires letting go of expectations and allowing the process to dictate the outcome. Time must be committed to allow participants to vent, for trust to be established, and relationships built before any measurable outcomes can be expected or even anticipated. When the first gathering of homeless took place that eventually resulted in the creation of the Victoria Street Community Association, the men used the opportunity to express long-held anger about their conditions. It took many months before enough trust was developed to move to constructive suggestions. Outcomes, when they begin to occur, must emerge from those who are experiential rather than from government or others. The outcome of such a process may be unknown at the beginning, but with the involvement of the experiential community, a positive solution will evolve, as I myself have witnessed more than once.

The process may involve creating new institutions, organizations, and services, or refashioning existing ones to be more responsive and useful. Change agents must be flexible. Currently, it is rare that developing programs and services includes recipients in identifying their needs or ways to address them. Including recipients will make the process less orderly, but their involvement will benefit everyone. It must be understood that a commitment to transformative community practice requires the change agent to work blindly, creating recipes for food she’s never tasted and using ingredients she can’t always identify. Sometimes it will taste strange, but at other times it can be marvellous beyond her wildest dreams. In essence, I would suggest that transformative community practice is radical theory in action.

Before going any further, it is important to differentiate between change and transformation. In community practice, the goal is to facilitate positive change that improves the lives of the community members involved. Traditionally, the focus has been on change and has meant a commitment to meeting the needs of the marginalized. Many programs and services have been created with a focus on rehabilitation, training and employment so that everyone can become functioning members of the community. A shift from change to transformation requires  rethinking that goal. It is not up to us, the professionals, to address the needs of the marginalized. The work of the change agent is to move the margins so that everyone can play a role in addressing their own needs. We need to work with community members to ensure that they set the goals for any services or programs developed for them. Such outcomes may include harm reduction far more than rehabilitation. A commitment to transformation rather than change recognizes that, as a result of working in community, everyone is transformed—the participants, the change agents and the larger community. Nobody emerges from the process as they went in. Transformative community practice requires a complete reorganization of the way a community functions. What I am suggesting is complicated and can be chaotic. It is, however, far more effective than what is currently being done. In the business world, technology is forcing a change from traditional hierarchy to a new decision-making organization, heterarchy, that resembles a network. So, too, must the health and social services sector change so that those who are viewed as passive recipients become integral to the design, development and implementation of services.

[Re]Moving the Margins

Transformative community practice, I believe, provides a methodology that begins the process of [re]moving the margins. The term [re]moving the margins implies both moving and removing the margins. A necessary first step (but only an interim one) is to move the margins closer to the mainstream, although the ultimate goal is to remove the margins altogether. In order to begin that process, groups currently labeled marginalized need to become a recognized and accepted part of the community and thus part of the change effort. Part of [re]moving the margins is moving beyond the dichotomy of us/them thinking.

For years, feminists have been providing a radical analysis of oppression. Lorraine Gutierrez and Edith Lewis point out that it is important to recognize the contribution of women of colour to feminist causes and analyses (36). Women of colour bring a lived experience of oppression that no amount of study can duplicate. In addition, scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins bring insights based on their own experience (Hill Collins is an African-American) into the larger picture of oppression, insights which can be usefully applied to other populations and other circumstances.

Like other academics and activists, I often refer to marginalization in my writing.  According to Sandra Harding, marginalization is a concept that emerges from a dominant subjectivity or standpoint (43). However, people’s own daily lives are central to them, not marginal. Harding suggests that the dominant ideology creates margins as inevitable aspects of everyday life, through what Hill Collins describes as entrenched ideologies, such as racism, sexism, poverty and other forms of social injustice.

Those in the existing power structure have internalized a number of beliefs that maintain marginalization and act in ways that make it seem inevitable. For example, the most common response to the suggestion that sex workers have a right to be accepted members of a community is that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, and therefore nothing can change. This is an unsound argument, based on an unsound premise. Many “professions” must have pre-dated prostitution: building shelters, finding food, planting seeds, helping in childbirth, raising children, teaching skills, healing. Even religious ritual, politics and creative art probably came before prostitution. However, the myth certainly works well for those who want to maintain the status quo.

The over-riding goal of community practice must be to remove barriers that marginalize people. History demonstrates that in Canada and the United States many groups that were once marginalized and disenfranchised have become decision-makers in the mainstream. There was a time when women did not have the right to own property or vote. I do not suggest that all women now have equal status, rather that women are not relegated to second class citizenship in as many areas or as thoroughly as in the past. A similar claim can be made for other groups whose status has significantly improved, namely African-Americans, Japanese in Canada and the U.S.A., Chinese-Canadians, and Aboriginal peoples. Each has fought hard to be included in mainstream dialogues that concern their future, and each has made significant gains.

Some communities are becoming more inclusive and less elitist. In many countries, gays and lesbians are winning the right to marry and live as respected members of society. Gay marriage is sanctioned in Latvia, joining much of Northern Europe, Canada, and Australia in accepting a community that has a long history of marginalization. The ultimate goal of effective community practice is to change perceptions so that members of a community are able to live in different ways.

Increasing the power of the least powerful is consistent with the feminist goal of transforming to a world without oppression, where everyone is safe and valued. This includes access to all the rights in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[2] Feminist scholars emphasize the importance of viewing and understanding the structure of current North American society in its continuing subordination, of the weaker by dominant groups in the power structure, both individually and collectively. An essential component of transformative community practice, I would suggest, is to address personal problems while making political change.

Need for Change Agents

In my own experience, as a change agent I have found significant resistance to the belief that the oppressed and marginalized are capable of leadership and of acting in their own best interests. I have found instead dichotomous thinking which argues on the one hand that people are oppressed and need to be helped and therefore cannot help themselves, and on the other hand that although they are oppressed, these same people have the capacity to help themselves and therefore should be left alone to do so. As with so many dichotomies, reality rests in between. The circumstances of many marginalized people arise from a combination of personal and social conditions. In North America, it would be absurd to deny the very real impact of race, class, gender and sexuality and other experiences of personal oppression on marginalization and isolation. Many negative conditions begin in childhood (sexual abuse, violence, lack of education) and intersect with other oppressive situations.

John McKnight is one of the best known advocates for the position that oppressed and marginalized people should be given the opportunity to take care of themselves, their conditions and situations, without the involvement of professionals. He argues that social services are unnecessary and, in fact, often make matters worse by manufacturing need. McKnight states that there is nothing that can be done to change the way health and social services are structured to make them anything but “useless, controlling, exploitative or harmful” (Community 25). In McKnight’s vision of community, all resources currently dedicated to supporting the infrastructure and bureaucracy of health and social services, as well as the systems of service delivery, should be handed over to the community of  “exiled and labeled individuals” (Community 169).

McKnight posits three possibilities for addressing the needs of people currently identified as marginalized. The first is a therapeutic vison, much like the current service delivery system, with a professional to meet every need. Some services may be less available in the current climate of cut-backs and fiscal restraint, but lack of access does not change the goal or the expectation that needs must be addressed by trained professionals. The second is an advocacy vision which “foresees a world in which labeled people will be in an environment protected by advocates and advocacy groups ... a defensive wall of helpers to protect an individual against an alien community” (Community 168).  His third variant understands the community as the basic context for enabling people to contribute their gifts...where those who were once labeled, exiled, treated, counselled, advised, and protected are, instead, incorporated into community, where their contributions, capacities, gifts, and fallibilities will allow a network of relationships involving work, recreation, friendship, support, and the political power of being a citizen. (Community 169).

Most people would agree with McKnight that the status quo practice is not improving conditions for people who live outside the mainstream. At the same time, it is naive to suggest that everything would be better by dismantling all the supports and services currently provided by the complex health and social service system and replacing them with a combination of community associations and fee-for-service professionals. Without assistance, many would remain in negative situations even if, as McKnight suggests, they were given cash to change those conditions. As the women at PEERS have told me, it would take very little time indeed for a lump sum to make its way into the pockets of a few unscrupulous individuals, with drug dealers at the top of the list.

Meeting the needs of marginalized and oppressed groups requires something not included in McKnight’s three options. To be effective, a change agent must act to both increase the power of the powerless and relocate the locus of expertise. It is not fair or necessary to act on behalf of experiential community members or, on the other hand, to say, in effect, “Here are the resources. Do it yourself.” The work of the community practitioner lies in the space between these two worlds. The change agent must work with the community, not do for them, and she must make a sustained commitment. Moving from the traditional model of service delivery to one in which the role of the experiential community is central is paramount. This includes working together in identifying problems, designing strategies, developing initiatives, and (this is key) implementing decisions and outcomes. It may be that, at some future time, after a significant transformation, McKnight’s vision of a world without services will come to pass.

Almost everyone who writes about community practice suggests key qualities for the role so that her work endures. To create a new initiative requires skills that complement the experiential community and make the creation of something as daunting as a new program, service or shelter seem possible. Much of the work requires skills and experience initially found among professional change agents rather than experiential community members. Such skills cover a wide range and may include organizing and facilitating group visioning and planning sessions, developing grant proposals and lobbying for funding, and building support through community networks and coalitions. In order to successfully create a new program or service, a great deal of knowledge is required. In this context, the change agent acts as a bridge between the community with the identified need and those decision makers and administrators who can support the solution.


My work is a bridge leading the academy to the community. I offer my interpretation of transformative community practice as a support for effective social action. Transformative community practice, defined previously (page 16) and enlarged upon in the  following pages, provides a method of moving towards a positive future. In the chapters that follow, I include a review of literature related to transformative community practice, a summary of five projects that makeup the framework of this dissertation, and a close look at the role of the change agent working with marginalized people and involving the mainstream community in order to support the marginalized. At the centre of my analysis are the people who experience oppression; these are members of a community who live in the conditions which the privileged define as marginalization. This dissertation looks at changes that emerge when, rather than being marginalized, the experiential community is placed at the centre and supported by a change agent.

Chapter 2 - A Review of Literature Related to Transformative Community Practice

Activism that achieves social justice through community practice and community organizing is informed by a wide range of approaches and disciplines. Community psychology, feminist organizing, health promotion and population health, international development, popular education and social work each have their own proponents and sets of guiding principles. When examining these approaches, their similarities far outweigh their differences, which stem from historical roots and separation in different fields rather than any substantial differences in ideology or practice today. Within a context of general agreement, each offers its own insights. My work builds on theirs, incorporating direct application as well as theoretical argument.        

Focus on Practice not Research

There is a close link between community practice and community research. In their new and ground breaking text, Community-Based Participatory Research for Health, Meredith Minkler and Nina Wallerstein describe community research as participatory and cooperative, engaging community members and researchers in a joint process. I would describe community practice in much the same terms. Minkler and Wallerstein suggest that to be effective, research must include action as an essential component (5). My work provides parallels as well as an in-depth analysis of community-based research.

There are, however, differences between research and practice. According to Michael Patton, the primary purpose of traditional research is “to generate or test theory and contribute to knowledge for the sake of knowledge” (10). He goes on to say, “Such knowledge ... may subsequently inform action and evaluation, but action is not the primary purpose of fundamental research.” Minkler & Wallerstein suggest that when reviewing new approaches to research, including participatory action, mutual inquiry, and feminist, one of the fundamental characteristics is that they all achieve a balance between research and action (5). The intent of research is to gather and make sense of information however embedded it may be in the community (Kirby & McKenna 35). Practice, on the other hand, is focussed on action.

Since my experience situates me first as a practitioner and second as a scholar, my intention is to translate theory of community practice into usable knowledge for practitioners. To do this requires an examination of what has been written about community practice and its historical roots in community organizing.[3] Many of the scholars and theorists whose work is discussed in the following pages share aspects of my vision of community practice, although few emphasize, as I do, the role the change agent plays in facilitating the voice of experiential community members. It bears repeating that my work builds on theirs, positioning transformative community practice at its centre.

The practice of community organizing emerges from a commitment to improving the lives of individuals (Rudkin[4] xiii), an activity Si Kahn describes as intrinsically radical (113). Organizing is about building community and engaging in a wider struggle for social and economic justice (Fisher and Shragge 6). Community organizing practice provides an ideal forum for carrying out the oft touted principle, “Think globally, act locally.” In fact, a number of scholars suggest that grassroots organizations are fundamental to social change (Castelloe, Watson and White 28; Fisher and Shragge 6). Beyond simply helping individuals, community organizing practice is about building communities and engaging in a wider agenda for social change.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, in a climate of cutbacks and fiscal restraint widespread across North America, many communities have focussed on dealing with immediate social ills such as crime and homelessness rather than a longer term transformation of society. Yet scholars in the field of community practice believe that a redistribution of resources has to be at the top of the agenda (Fisher and Shragge 13; Prilleltensky, Assumptions 522). Community organizing relies on cooperation to redress the historical imbalance between the powerless and the powerful. Such organizing is an implicit demand for a fuller democratization and a redistribution of resources (Kahn 113).

In an exceptionally useful and salient article entitled “Participatory Change: An Integrative Approach to Community Practice,” Castelloe, Watson and White outline a practice methodology developed at their Center for Participatory Change in Asheville, North Carolina. That center emerged in the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina to integrate community organizing, popular education, and international participatory development. The steps that lead to change, core values and attitudes, and behaviours identified confirm lessons learned in my own practice experience. There are, however, some differences between their work and mine. Although their populations experience severe marginalization as a result of poverty and rural isolation, they do not experience the stigma attached to sex workers and drug addicts, who are judged negatively by the general public and media.

In the community practice literature, some consistencies emerge: the need to change public attitudes, engage the participation of community members, support individual and group development, empowerment, and the role of the change agent. In the following section, I will discuss each of these variables, as well as examine some of the language widespread in the field.

Intersection of Community Practice and Feminism

Underlying my analysis is a personal commitment to activism, feminism and progressive social change. By feminism, I mean an ideology that emerges from the view point of women and supports a progressive transformation of society away from violence, greed, competition and economic disparity toward a society based on tolerance, equality, collaboration, justice and peace. Feminism provides a vision of a society in which the oppressive means of power and privilege are eliminated (Hyde qtd. in Rothman, Approaches 49). One does not have to be a woman to be a feminist; however, inherent in my definition of feminism is a belief that women must play a leadership role in society if progressive social change is to occur.

My background as a feminist activist situates my work as practical or applied feminism at a time when feminism in the academy tends to be theoretical. There are some exceptions. Hill Collins is a scholar who offers a number of insights on oppression and marginalization that emerge from her experience and her analysis of the lives of African-American women. Her work Black Feminist Thought identifies methods of addressing the marginalization of African-American women and provides a feminist perspective that can be transferred to other marginalized groups. Hill Collins describes oppression as any unjust situation where one group denies another group access to the resources of society, systematically and over a long period of time (4).

In North America, oppressive ideologies permeate the social structure to such a degree that they are experienced as natural, normal, and inevitable. “Taken together, the supposedly seamless web of economy, polity, and ideology function as a highly effective system of social control” designed to keep African-American women and other marginalized and disenfranchised groups in an assigned, subordinate place (Hill Collins 5). The production of intellectual work by black women artists and activists is not usually recognized. In elite institutions of higher education especially such women are typically viewed as objects of study, which creates a false dichotomy between scholarship and activism, between thinking and doing. In contrast, examining the ideas and actions of these excluded groups as subjects reveals a world in which behaviour is a statement of philosophy and thus a vibrant scholar/activist tradition remains intact (Hill Collins 17).

Susan Stall and Randy Stoecker assert that feminism has made significant contributions to community organizing practice by recognizing the diverse experiences of community members (733) . Stall and Stoecker state that, although community organizing has always been committed to democratic goals and supportive of humane ends, “since the feminist movement, community organizing has been transformed so that issues that were private have become public, transforming the agendas, constituents and strategies of traditional organizing” (749).

The most fundamental values in feminism and community organizing practice underlie this dissertation; namely, the belief that people have the right to direct their own development, that individually and collectively they know what they need and how to provide it, and that they have the capacity to do so.[5] There is no single set of strategies for effective feminist organizing, which is complex and holistic, and addresses a variety of dimensions simultaneously (Hyde 549; Gutierrez and Lewis 29/30). Fawcett points out multilevel strategies feminist organizing also employs (627). Hill Collins asserts that since “power as domination is organized and operates via intersecting oppressions ... resistance in whatever form must show comparable complexity” (203). The work of feminist organizers embodies this complexity. There are, of course, shared values and beliefs within feminist activities, just as there are basic guidelines for engaging in effective community practice. I believe that transformative community practice offers an opportunity for the application of feminist theory. It is, essentially, applied feminism and offers a way to move beyond divisions between theory and practice.

Shifting Power by Changing Attitudes

Transformative community practice as formulated here, and as first conceived by O’Donnell and Karanja, is designed to facilitate and support working with the marginalized —people with the least power in North America. Before the process of working with the powerless begins, entrenched values and attitudes have to be identified and, in some cases, changed. Community practice scholars agree that it is desirable to pay attention to diverse voices and disenfranchised groups “by putting the last first” (Castelloe, Watson and White 25). Rudkin suggests that services and programs should prioritize “the hopes and needs of the poor, marginalized, exploited, and vulnerable” (xiii). Haywoode points out that “to achieve this will require the elimination of systemic barriers that currently obstruct the participation of experiential people” (131).

Shifting to a model that includes the points of view of those traditionally excluded requires that assumptions must be reconsidered about who the marginalized actually are, what they are capable of, and what they have a right to expect. Thinking inclusively means putting those who have been excluded from decision-making at the centre (Andersen and Hill Collins 450). Decision- making equals power and, as Linda Thurston suggests (65), the powerful have a good deal at stake in maintaining their version of reality and suppressing or denying the reality of others. Rita Arditti agrees with Thurston and adds that mistrusting those in power is a necessary first step for the powerless and requires a refusal to accept the dominant, official version of reality (86).

Within community practice ideology, the language of social Darwinism (the idea that social failure is due to the inherent inferiority of the individual) is no longer acceptable and yet, as Charles Garvin and Fred Cox point out, “a hierarchy of worthy and unworthy poor still exists” (64). This attitude continues to dominate. As Thurston states, “Far too often the (mostly male) powerful still make decisions for the powerless: the well for the sick, the middle-aged for the aging, the ‘sane’ for the ‘mad,’ the educated for the illiterate, the influential for the marginalized” (64).

Part of the work of the change agent is to ensure that attitudes change so that actions as they unfold do so from a place of respect, a belief in the people involved and a recognition that they know best what they need. Terry Haywoode states that “people have a right to shape the decisions and forces that affect their lives, families and communities and this is accomplished, in part, by acknowledging and utilizing the community’s expert understanding of their own needs and strengths” (131). To achieve this requires flexibility and openness to change, not often present in social service delivery systems in North America today.

To impact the way decisions are made and interventions developed requires a shift in power. Throughout the literature, power is identified as central to meaningful involvement. Castelloe, Watson and White state that participatory change “aims to build the power—individual, group, and regional power—needed for grassroots groups to shape the decisions that affect their lives” (25). According to Margaret Andersen and Hill Collins, “the reconstruction of existing ways of thinking to become more inclusive still requires many transformations” (xiii). 

It is more than simply power over the lives in the community in question to which many scholars refer. Michelle Smith and Joyce Hancock suggest that community practice must challenge “the inequities in power and privilege that exist because of sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, racism and all other forms of exclusion” (14). Robert Fisher and Eric Shragge state that the redistribution of power and resources is central to the entire enterprise of effective social change, including community practice, since “social problems cannot be modified without some basic redistribution” (13). To act effectively as a change agent, one must develop an awareness of privilege at multiple levels: age, racial/ethnic group membership, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, disability status, and gender. Issac Prilleltensky states that ultimately the goal is “distributive justice, a fair and equitable allocation of resources and bargaining power in society” (Assumptions 522). Almost everyone writing on the subject agrees that in North America power is in the hands of a privileged elite and that it is the function of effective community organizing practice to change this. As Bill Moyer contends, “the goal of social change is to promote a paradigm shift to an open system dominated by democratic principles and human values, that is, a system that is organized by citizens themselves, without being controlled by elite powerholders in the closed system of an oppressive hierarchy” (25). A redistribution of wealth is not necessarily on every experiential population’s agenda, even though economic inequality may underlie their identified issues. It is incumbent upon the change agent to focus on the needs identified by the community, while recognizing that her work is part of a larger movement toward a more equitable distribution of resources.

Without a positive vision of the future, obstacles appear insurmountable and people are immobilized (Freire and Macedo 270). To successfully engage in the process of progressive social change, the individual and the group must possess a sense of optimism and possibility (Freire and Macedo 270; Kahn 123) and a belief in positive solutions (Moyer et al 25). The work of both scholars and practitioners in the realm of community practice requires a belief that this work can transform society (Kahn 113; Moyer et al 26).

Role of the Change Agent

Examination of the role of the professional change agent is relatively new in the field of social service delivery. In the 1800s and early 1900s, in North America, social services were delivered through charitable organizations operated by churches or settlement houses (Garvin and Cox 72). During the last century, a professional response to social issues emerged. Underlying this new delivery system was the belief that social service professionals knew what was best for people, even without talking to them. Such an attitude persists today (Freire qtd. in Freire and Macedo 247).

As McKnight suggests, it is possible that the creation of what is now seen as the traditional service approach was well intentioned but it “reinforces an institutional need to control people and to establish external definitions of deficiency and need” (Ideas 3). Regardless of the initial intent, once this social service delivery system was institutionalized, decision-making moved out of the community whose problems needed to be addressed (Fairweather 306; McKnight, Society 48; Sarason 122).

This is the historical context of today’s community practice. Despite the acknowledgement that it is paternalistic to treat community members as less capable than professionals (Freire and Macedo 12), their exclusion remains an issue (Chambers 102; Minkler and Wallerstein 4; McKnight, Ideas 18). As a result, supporting and facilitating in-depth as well as comprehensive inclusion has become central to the work of the professional change agent.

The process addressed in this dissertation implicitly requires the change agent to engage in a meaningful way with members of the community. Barbara Joseph et al describe this relationship as a transactive one, in which each party “brings to the effort different/complementary competencies, ideas, experiences and visions” (4). They suggest that, although the change agent may come from outside the community members’ experience, she is not outside the process. The change agent and those she works with and organizes must be closely linked (Stall and Stoecker 744). Time must be dedicated to that connection before moving on to action. Cheryl Hyde suggests that a supportive environment “addresses fears and equals trust, respect, equality and validation of an individual’s experiences” (554). The action which ultimately emerges from a community change process is built on the foundation of relationships developed at the outset, among community members and between the change agent and the community. Together they engage in the process of community building.

  Unlike the “professional” model of conventional social work training, Gutierrez describes the necessary interaction between a change agent and an experiential community member as one characterized by “genuineness, mutual respect, open communication and informality (207). Hyde notes that attention to emotional and personal needs improves the overall organizing effort (554) and Chambers that rapport is key to facilitating full participation (133). Although the process necessarily begins somewhat differently in each instance, and is motivated by a generalized commitment to positive social change, once personal relationships begin to develop between the change agent and the community, personal ties become a motivation in working for change. Hyde suggests that caring about each other becomes important as a context for mobilizing and working for change (554).

Although there is a distinction between professional/work functions and personal relationships (Joseph et al 4), the role of change agent cannot be separated from other aspects of the life and work of an activist. As Hyde (551) states, the successful change agent is a wholistic organizer, deeply invested in her efforts. She finds fulfilment through organizing. Community organizing practice is not nine to five work, nor is it possible to do such work effectively without developing  personal relationships with community members. Such relationships take time and require sustained attention in the long term. Castelloe, Watson and White identify building friendships as a key behaviour. The authors state that “participatory change is built on relationships, friendships, trust, and a sincere interest in the lives and concerns of grassroots leaders. Chatting, laughing, hanging out, and telling stories are the foundation upon which social change is built” (27).

Successful community practice is built on personal relationships that grow and evolve (Alinsky 79). Such relationships must be sustained to be meaningful. The role of change agent can be personally satisfying, but it must be understood to be more than a job (Alinsky 65). Castelloe, Watson and White point out that it is important for the change agent to build confidence through constant encouragement, the highlighting of strengths, and the recognition of accomplishments (27). Moyer, too, describes the importance of the activist employing positive emotions, and personal transformation in order to achieve a vision of a healthy society (39/40). One cannot be engaged in a process of personal transformation during regular and traditional work hours.

As part of the process of building support, the change agent needs to span boundaries in order to help create relationships with outside sources, that is, people who are in a position to support positive outcomes or, in Rothman’s words, to act as “a broker for the initiative” (Planning 39). Ronald Havelock suggests a similar function when he states that the change agent’s role includes “linking the community to much needed resources” (9).

I agree with Rothman when he suggests that the influence of the change agent in community interventions can be considerable (Planning 71). It is naive to suggest otherwise. He notes that the attitude of the group leader (the professional change agent) toward community members strongly influences the types of solutions reached (Planning 54). At the beginning of a community change initiative, the change agent is often identified as the project leader (Kar 1438; Rothman, Planning 54; Sarason 72) and is viewed as both leader and role model (Joseph et al 4). Part of her function over time is to act as a mentor and develop group-centered or indigenous leadership (Stall and Stoecker 744). During the change process, the function of the change agent will shift, for example, from active participant to advocate and observer (Rothman, Planning 39). Eventually, one of the tasks of the change agent will be to help move the group from a dependence on her presence (Alinsky 92) to minimize the group’s dependency on the organizer (Joseph et al 4). However, as Paulo Freire reminds us, “not even the best intentioned can bestow independence as a gift. Only transformation with the oppressed rather than for them is valid” (qtd. in Freire and Macedo 65). 

Listening to the Community’s Insider Knowledge  

In their article on participatory change, Castlelloe, Watson and White state:

At its core, participatory change is a community practice methodology that is based on the belief that marginalized people best understand the challenges they face and how to address them. The work of the community practitioner is to draw forth the vision and plans of people living in low-wealth and marginalized communities, and support them as they create participatory and democratic grassroots structures that give them the resources and power to do what they already know needs to be done. (27)

Chambers states, “change agents can learn from local people, gaining insight from their local knowledge” (156). Generally speaking, there is a consensus among scholars and activists that local input is critical (Gittell and Vidal 25), but by many methods and degrees. For some, simply hosting one community meeting or distributing a questionnaire would constitute soliciting community input. This could be seen as one variety of participation, albeit a limited one. Commonly, when input is sought by senior managers, academic researchers and policy makers, it is from front-line service providers, bypassing experiential community members altogether.

Really listening to the community requires a degree of inclusion that is complex and multilayered. Jennifer Rudkin states that “recognition of diversity, the dimensions of difference, must be comprehensive and include all minority racial and ethnic groups, age, sex, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, and ability status” (124). She argues that an

emphasis on diversity goes beyond a concern with discrimination and reflects an interest in learning from and appreciating different cultures and different life experiences more generally, shifting from a focus on the psychological toll of oppression to the possible contributions of various cultures. It suggests a positive regard for human differences. (124)

Throughout the literature, scholars of community practice highlight the importance of diversity and inclusivity. Prilleltensky states that by “appreciating diverse social identities we promote respect and enhance collaboration and democratic participation” (Assumptions 522). The goal, according to McKnight, is the “recommunalization” of exiled and labeled people (Society 169).

Hill Collins’ analysis of black feminist thought and her depictions of the circumstances of women of colour provides an important framework for looking at other oppressed groups. As she says, “like African-American women, many others who occupy societally denigrated categories have been similarly silenced” (vi). Moving beyond silence into an active role of speaking out and participating is an essential component of transformative community practice. Black feminist thought provides social theory that questions who has the legitimate right to speak for another, and reflects women’s efforts to come to understand their lived experience as historically unexamined (Galvan 607; Hill Collins 9). Life stories and first person narratives, written by those who have previously been studied by others, are changing scholarship in a range of disciplines from anthropology (Behar 27) to film studies (Ruby Rich 6). The primary responsibility for defining a person’s reality must lie with that person (Hill Collins 35).

As Harding states, the experiences of women and the marginalized have a crucial role to play in the production of knowledge. She argues, as do I, that when knowledge incorporates experiential components, it is more accurate (43). Castelloe, Watson and White state that people in poor communities should not be the target of community development projects (as is the case in almost every community in North America today) but the ones who determine, drive, and control the entire process (10).

In the literature concerning community organizing practice, there is a strong consensus that the participation of community members, whether described as participants, clients or consumers, is critical for success (Alinsky 123; Garvin and Cox 97; Haywoode 124; Rothman, Approaches 41; Sarason 118). Marc Zimmerman suggests that replacing the word “client” with “expert” is a good beginning (44). Many authors argue that the involvement of experiential people should be central to the entire enterprise and be maintained throughout the project[6].

The understanding that those less privileged must teach those more privileged is an ideal much touted in the field of international development, although, rarely achieved. As Robert Chambers, an innovative practitioner in the field, states “Practitioners must learn from local people, directly, on the site and face-to-face, gaining insight from their local physical, technical and social knowledge” (156). Chambers identifies a set of principles that underlie effective participatory development. He asserts that to be effective, community initiatives must incorporate decentralization, democracy, diversity and dynamism. He goes on to say that when projects start from these concepts, they “enhance participation, mobilize local knowledge, use local resources and energy, result in actions that are better adapted and more sustainable” (199). Such projects “adapt fast and fit changes in local conditions, reduce costs, reduce central administration and resolve political problems and conflicts locally” (199). Although Chambers’ opinion may be the exception rather than the rule in international development work, it is based on extensive experience in the field and offers valuable lessons for community practice in North America.

Bud Hall questions the current way in which knowledge and understanding, that is, expertise, is constructed in the North American context. He asks:

“How is it that the most intimate sphere of knowledge—the knowledge of our own culture, families, lives, and bodies—can have been colonized so fully by the portrayal of others: researchers, epidemiologists, medical sociologists, and even health promotion experts?” (xiii)

For those who view the world through the lens of privilege, this is one of the key lessons of transformative community practice—that experiential knowledge must be understood to be at the centre of expertise. In the words of Minkler and Wallerstein, “all women and men have the capacity to create knowledge about their own lives” (qtd. in Hall xiii). Jean East asserts that one of the primary components of a feminist perspective (and I would add any effective community practice) is that the voices and experiences of women (and men) must be central to the process and be the basis for changes in policy and practice (326).


Julian Rappaport defines empowerment as the process by which people, organizations, and communities gain mastery over their lives (Terms122). According to Rothman, empowerment increases an individual’s sense of control over her own life and feeling of self-worth (Introduction 23). The Cornell Empowerment Group defined empowerment as “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” (qtd. in Zimmerman 43). Some definitions of empowerment include a commitment to increase the problem-solving capacity of community members, so that they develop the skills necessary to become independent decision-makers (Zimmerman 46).

Rappaport states that empowerment “suggests both individual determination over one’s own life and democratic participation in the life of one’s community. Empowerment is a multilevel construct applicable to individual citizens as well as to organizations and neighbourhoods” (Terms 121). In her work with women who receive public assistance, East notes that the women report “feeling able to take control and [work] for change made them feel powerful” and having “a place of support and community were important factors in their becoming empowered” (317-18). Rappaport suggests that professionals must “help foster social policies and programs that make it more rather than less likely that others not now handling their own problems in living or shut out from current solutions, gain control over their lives” (Paradox 155). Empowerment ideology implies that new competencies are possible and can be learned. Empowerment theory sees disenfranchised groups simultaneously as both marginalized and lacking in social power, and as strong, capable agents of social transformation (Trickett qtd. in Rudkin 305).

Although there is much talk about empowerment, rarely are interventions and policies designed in ways consistent with increasing power. Prilleltensky points out that,

“Empowering interventions and policies are designed to enhance the degree of control that vulnerable individuals exercise over their lives, a concept central to feminist and community psychology. The overarching goal is to increase the personal and collective power of people who are powerless and, in so doing, to reduce domination” (Assumptions 525).

Haywoode (131) and Joseph et al (2) state that to be successful community change initiatives must improve the conditions of people while empowering them.

Many intervention efforts aimed at empowerment enhance self-esteem and thus increase a sense of power but do little to affect real power over resources or policies. It is also useful to distinguish between what Starhawk describes as “power over” and “power within.” Power over implies domination whereas the kind of power implied in empowerment is power that comes from within each person (Starhawk 3/4). Although it may be the goal of successful community practice to increase control over access to resources, this is not an attempt to gain power in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a desire to share power and resources more equitably.

Empowerment is sometimes equated with participation, as if changing procedures will automatically lead to changes in the context or the distribution of resources (Fisher and Shragge 13; Riger 282). Stephanie Riger, among others, is cautious about identifying empowerment alone as an effective methodology for progressive change. She suggests that the experience of power or powerlessness may be unrelated to a person’s actual ability to influence and that confusing an ability to control resources with a sense of empowerment depoliticizes the latter (282). Education and capacity building must go further than providing an analysis of oppression if transformation of lives is going to result, along with a transformative group experience. Castelloe, Watson and White describe the process of capacity building as “strengthening what groups of people are capable of collectively doing and being” (25). In this way, people develop much needed skills, gain strength and confidence and share a vital role in developing a vision for change.

Engagement in community initiatives can result in an increased sense of power for experiential community members. In time and with appropriate supports, they will identify as members of a community, engage in useful dialogue addressing community concerns in a variety of formats and play a role in the development of solutions and their implementation.

Being part of a process that recognizes personal experience as valuable and necessary in the pursuit of equality and inclusion (Smith and Hancock 14) is in itself empowering, but effective community practice must go further. It must enable people to contribute to the process of change. This includes not only playing a role in designing solutions but implementing them as well. Thus, experiential community members become meaningful players at every stage of the process and recognize that they are capable of playing a role in sustaining change. It is essential that the community takes responsibility for its chosen initiatives and commits to being an ongoing agent of change.

Some argue that to formally integrate a philosophy of transformative community practice into existing institutions requires a widespread shift in power beforehand. On the other hand, some know from personal experience that flexibility exists in institutions. It is the responsibility of those inside institutions to begin to push the boundaries. A privileged elite maintain many public institutions using public resources that could be put to better use. Whenever possible, practitioners in hospitals, police departments, schools, universities, and at all levels of government need to ponder ways in which they can begin to work with the most powerless, relocate the locus of expertise and support marginalized community members.Many of us experienced in the field can describe instances of flexibility and creativity which have resulted in outcomes that could not have been achieved by using traditional methods. I have witnessed remarkable successes when people in institutions and government use their positions to accommodate the needs of those they are trying to help. Three examples, from projects described in detail in Chapter 3, follow:

  1. A Ministry of Social Services area manager committed operating funds for an emergency shelter for women, Sandy Merriman House, long before capital (or a name) was found for the project. He did so knowing that it would be much easier to find the funds to build the project with a commitment of operating funds.

  2. A government policy official suggested reconfiguring an innovative idea as a pilot project which became the Downtown Women’s Project in order to access funds from a government program that was still in the planning stages and therefore not yet available to the community.

  3. Federal government staff allowed sex workers to remain anonymous rather than be publicly identified, and therefore they were able to become participants in a federally funded pre-employment training program run by PEERS. Usually such programs eliminated sex workers by requiring a name and social insurance number.


It is important to understand the difference between participation and engagement. Participation implies that a process or initiative is already underway and that members of the experiential community are invited to join. The word “participate” is not generally used to describe initiating or planning an entire process. The community is invited, even encouraged, to participate in an existing activity. Engagement suggests a degree of personal choice, commitment, and willingness that is not necessarily present in participation. Engagement implies an interweaving of responsibility and action and a degree of control not included in participation.

Participation and engagement produce different impacts. With participation, it is far too common for the impact to be minimal. Participation does not necessarily change the process, engagement does. It is the difference between voting on something and being part of the dialogue that decides what is being voted on. In a classroom, it is the difference between participating in a class discussion and being involved in the process of deciding what will be studied and how. Change agents must commit to create and facilitate conditions that support genuine engagement to take place, allowing for new and innovative outcomes that would not be able to emerge otherwise.

Throughout the literature, a key to change is identified as the involvement of the people whose lives and experience are in question[7]. Prilleltensky says that participation and inclusion enhance connectedness and contribute to a sense of community, as well as providing an important methodology for addressing issues since “people have a right to self-determination and a right to direct their own lives” (Assumptions 522).

Engagement, however, can take many forms and mean quite different things to different practitioners. Articulating a commitment and genuine engagement do not always coincide. Central to the engagement of experiential people in a project is understanding their role in that project. It is important to break engagement down into its component parts, otherwise it remains an abstract concept and therefore impossible to implement. In the literature, there are a great many possibilities for engagement, ranging from participants identifying the problem (Fairweather 308; Fawcett 624), to the implementation of strategies or solutions that address the problem (Castelloe, Watson and White 21; Prilleltensky, Assumptions 524).

Few writers differentiate between degrees of engagement. Some refer to activities which take place only once, such as focus groups (Rothman, Approaches 41), or occasionally, such as membership on advisory bodies (Alinsky 107; Joseph et al 3), or on an ongoing basis such as project planning and implementation (Castelloe, Watson and White 21). For others, the long-term goal of community initiatives is that the experiential community members take complete responsibility (Castelloe, Watson and White 15; East 323; Gittel and Vidal 25; Grahame 385; Rothman, Planning 178).

Engagement may mean something quite different to the experiential community member than to the community practitioner. Part of the work of transformation is to accept that even the process of engagement takes place on the community’s terms and not within specific predetermined parameters set up by professionals. Edison Trickett cautions that token involvement may actually reinforce the status quo, for example, when a community advisory group is established but has no decision-making power (qtd. in Rudkin 305). Such groups can be used to legitimize activities not developed or created by the community. Many community practitioners try to differentiate between token and authentic involvement. Castelloe, Watson and White say involvement is meaningful when “people can shape decisions and forces that affect their lives, families and communities” (17). In this experience of engagement, community practice becomes transformative for experiential community members and for change agents.

Although there has been considerable consensus in the literature on the importance of involvement, in the 1970s some scholars and activists advocated involvement but then set up limits for community organizing activities, thereby constraining the scope of activities before involvement even began. In 1971, Alinsky stated that the first activity the organizer should engage in is conflict, “rubbing raw the resentments of the people of the community” by searching out controversy (116). This was intended to push the community into a specific type of action rather than allowing them to choose. In 1972, in his book on the creation of new settings[8], community psychologist Sarason included a full chapter on decision-making and leadership, making it clear that the leader is not a community member but from the outside (53). Again, the assumption of leadership capacity is made before community members become involved and precludes their participation in that decision. In 1974, Rothman stated that participation “is not the method of choice in all situations” (Planning 8). Instead, he suggested that sometimes the change agent should make all the decisions. In the above examples, community change is dictated by the change agent, not the experiential community members; all these male activists and scholars have had considerable influence on the direction community practice has taken.

Although the above examples are from the early 1970s, they are not unique in contradicting the importance of community involvement. Even in 2004, scholars appear to override engagement by leaving significant decision-making to professional change agents. It appears that, although the idea of involvement is highly valued, the reality is little understood and therefore frequently undermined. For example, when considering some of the methods used to build community practice initiatives, Haywoode suggests the objective should be “building and creating holistic neighbourhood environments, rather than emphasizing particular goals such as housing or education” (131). By precluding a focus on what the members of the community might well identify as their goal, the change agent minimizes opportunities for genuine engagement. Castelloe, Watson and White state that a vital reason for building grassroots power is so that people can shape the decisions that affect their lives (25). This is a sound argument for community responsibility for setting goals, rather than the change agent. Professionals should not seek to anticipate or limit the change process.

Supporting and facilitating the engagement of the experiential community is the work of the effective change agent. Castelloe, Watson and White argue that the involvement of experiential community members will result in significant and positive change for the entire community (25). The importance of engagement is supported by work in a number of fields beyond community organizing practice. In Canada, the degree of control over one’s circumstances is recognized as a determinant of health (Canada, Health 2/4), and Articles 12 and 13 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are designed to promote self-reliance and facilitate the child’s active engagement in her community (Canada, Human Rights 11). Prilleltensky states that when citizens have input into decisions that affect their lives, “it enhances connectedness and contributes to a sense of community” (Assumptions 522).

Capacity Building

A commitment to the individual members of a community must go beyond encouraging their engagement in the grassroots process and include positive change through capacity building and skill development. This commitment is inherent in community practice methodology. According to Gutierrez, “empowering practice presumes that the worker or practitioner does not hold the answers to the client’s problems but rather that, in the context of collaboration, the client will develop the insights, skills, and capacity to resolve the situation” (207).

In community practice literature, participation is closely linked with empowerment and with the development of skills. Sometimes capacity-building and empowerment are described as outcomes of engagement (Prilleltensky, Assumptions 525). Both engagement and capacity-building are required to deeply embed community change initiatives. Without significant engagement in decision-making, planning and implementation of  solutions, capacity-building becomes mere training. Without the development of the necessary skills to sustain change, engagement becomes hollow and, at times, cruel because it provides people with a sense of what could be but without the support and skills to make it so.

The experiential community and the change agent have complementary roles. The relationship ensures mutual learning. Practitioners learn as much from the community as the community learns from practitioners (Castelloe, Watson and White 27). The more the change agent learns about the lived experience of the population the more she will delegate and support (Hyde 551). Over time, community members may be able to take over all of the functions of the professionals and successfully manage the process independently. Sometimes, the professional change agent will play an ongoing role, as both a supporter and facilitator in circumstances and situations as they arise. This is especially true when the professional change agent has a function beyond specifically facilitating community projects, for example, when she is a bridge to other community resources. What may well change is the degree to which all members of the community play a role in establishing how services are provided.

Ultimately, newly created advocacy and service organizations should be structured so that experiential community members, who once informally provided services, are hired as staff (Haywoode 131). It is critical that skill development and capacity-building become an integral part of the community change process (McKnight, Society 169). At the same time, it is important to recognize that the priority for experiential community members is to have their immediate needs met, and this may be true for some time (Joseph et al 3; Kahn 117).

The concept of helping people develop their full potential is not new. Settlement houses placed great emphasis on education as a useful tool (Garvin and Cox 73). It is rather unusual, however, to suggest that experiential community members can and should develop the skills necessary to take on a full range of responsibilities, including as paid staff in new programs and services.

In this regard, engagement gives people a sense of possibility. So do skills, but neither alone is enough. Yet the literature seems to separate engagement and skill-development and therefore weaken this relationship. In the interests of creating collective possibilities, community members need to develop both a personal sense of their roles in the change process and the ability to participate in the process. Further, they must understand they are part of the collective process of change. Believing in change, as well as engaging in it, is a pre-requisite for its continuance.

The on-line Community Organizing Toolbox reinforces the idea that experiential people must develop the capacity to participate significantly in addressing their needs effectively. In the Toolbox, Nina Wallerstein is quoted as saying,

The empowerment process at the heart of community organizing promotes participation of people, organizations and communities toward the goal of increased individual and community control, political efficacy, improved quality of life, and social justice. (qtd. in Neighbourhood Funders Group 3)

Capacity building is an essential component of effective community practice when working with marginalized populations. Any effective community initiative must incorporate participatory tools and techniques and build the capacity of the group to move toward independence.

The change agent must be committed to the process of capacity building, sharing her skills and making the personal development and growth of community members a priority (East 319). One of the purposes of community intervention activities is to build the capacity of grassroots citizens’ groups to solve community problems (Rothman, Introduction 5). A change agent must be a personal mentor to experiential community leaders and encourage them to acquire new skills. They need to take on tasks as soon as they can, and see themselves as capable, contributing team members. When establishing rules or conditions intended to include experiential community members, the change agent needs to ensure that conditions are fair and realistic. This means that the experiential community must play a role in establishing those conditions.

Building the capacity of experiential community members and of the change agent can be a central factor in creating positive outcomes. What experiential community members learn is often the most substantial impact of a community practice initiative (East 326). It  is key that the change agent participates in the training and education of the community (Mizrahi and Rosenthal 3). In order to enhance the experience of gaining control, learning must take place in a respectful environment (Kahn 110). Kahn suggests using creative methods, such as writing, role playing, theatre, drawing, singing, and song writing (111). Experiential community members may need to focus on more traditional educational topics, such as computer skills, literacy, public speaking, and managing finances. Capacity building can also include personal supports such as counselling and life skills workshops (Rabinovitch and Lewis 27).

Skill development may take place within traditional educational institutions; however, it is important to acknowledge that these institutions can reinforce marginalization. People need to be active participants in their learning whatever form it takes. Educational institutions often require and reinforce passivity with a rigid curriculum. This can marginalize individuals further.

Skills are developed through the process of assuming responsibility for change and gaining power (Gutierrez 206). Members develop a more positive self-image and confidence (Stall and Stoecker 741) and learn that everyone has the capacity to do good work (McKnight, Society 172). Participants learn team building, strategic planning and organizational development (Rabinovitch and Lewis 27). They also develop leadership abilities (Kar, Pascual and Chickering 1438).

To understand capacity building, it is important to look at it within the context of popular education, long identified as an important social change activity. Popular education is associated with the work of Paulo Freire and has been carried forward in contemporary practice by Myles Horton of the Highlander Research and Education Center, New Market, Tennessee, The Centre for Popular Education at the University of Technology Sydney,  Australia, and The Catalyst Centre, Toronto, Canada. Popular education involves learning from experience and dialogue. Learning from experience means that, through coming together and reflecting on everyday experiences, people can learn about the larger social, political, and economic world which impacts their lives. Dialogic education refers to educators and students interacting in a way in which both are co-speakers, co-learners and co-actors. These two processes are designed to develop a critical consciousness that, again, involves understanding the wider social, cultural, political, and economic world. Popular education is intended to develop group self-confidence and collective action (Castelloe, Watson and White 10). Although, according to Castelloe, Watson and White, popular education may not always result in action, its methods provide excellent tools for drawing forth ideas and for helping grassroots groups develop their own framework for critiquing the causes of community and societal problems (13).

From the Academy to the Community

The idea that the locus of expertise must be moved from the academy to include the community should be considered as both figurative and literal. This dissertation emphasizes the insider knowledge that experiential people possess. Such knowledge is essential and must be integrated into the design, development and implementation of  new and existing health and social services. Expert knowledge can no longer be seen to reside exclusively among scholars.

Some communities want to move beyond a problem-solving approach to defining the problem and preventing it. Otherwise, collectively, we are trapped in an ever-increasing spiral of need. A logical extension of community practice is to move into the realm of research, a primary mechanism for developing prevention strategies. Most community practitioners know they need to better understand the issues they want to address. Community-university partnerships have emerged in response to people who are tired of being “the researched.” Such partnerships are intended to shift the traditional colonial relationship between academic researchers and the researched community and put the least advantaged first (O’Neill 330). They are supposed to offer communities access to support and knowledge that would make a measurable difference in the lives of members of the community and, at the same time, provide important opportunities for learning and skill development for students and faculty.

Many claim to have a critical consciousness which incorporates, as Ellen McWhirter suggests, “an ongoing commitment on the part of the helper to better understand the causes, dynamics, and consequences of oppression” (323). This requires professionals pay close attention to the subtle ways that status differences are reinforced and move away from a “social problems approach,” which tends to portray people as victims when viewed by the privileged (Andersen and Hill Collins xii). Genuine involvement in research means involvement in every stage of the process—identification of the research question, conducting the research, data analysis and disseminating the research outcomes. All research methodologies used to learn more about the lives and experiences of marginalized communities must include those members as part of the research team.

Anthropologists have been accused of a “tendency to depersonalize one’s connection to the field” (Behar 25). The same could be said for other social scientists and policy makers, even the best intentioned. Research conducted by academics, which situates them as experts on a range of issues they have no personal knowledge of, must be reconfigured so that people cease to be passive subjects of someone else’s study and become an active part of the team. As Louise Kidder and Michelle Fine have noted, “unless ‘victims’ own analysis of injustice is explored, social science research on situations and circumstances of injustice will continue to be a tool for obscuring social inequity” (60).


Because the goal of the change agent is to work with others to support them in addressing their own needs, there must be an understanding of how to do so. Real engagement requires the change agent to work innovatively for positive outcomes. A substantial shift must take place regarding who has input into the agenda for change and who shapes, implements and evaluates that agenda. Experiential people must be acknowledged not simply as stakeholders but as central to the process. In the following chapter are five examples from my own practice, through which I further develop the theory of transformative community practice.

Chapter 3 - Five Community Practice Examples

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

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

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

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

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

Theoretical Framework

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

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

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

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

Introduction to the Projects

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

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

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

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

Victoria Street Community Association (VSCA)                 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downtown Women’s Project (DWP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out from the Shadows: International Summit of Sexually Exploited Youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International Centre to Combat the Exploitation of Children (ICCEC)

My [Tor]Mentors:

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

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

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

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

Analysis of the Project Summaries

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

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

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

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

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

Table 1

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


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

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