By Justice Rivera
One of the key tenants of social justice movements and organizations is meaningful community involvement. From civil rights protests to ACT UP to the domestic violence movement, people most impacted by issues they are experiencing have historically been at the forefront of their own liberation. Today, the nonprofitization of social justice has complicated our potential for change, as well as who leads it. “Nothing about us without us” has become both a demand and a plea as movements and organizations seek to define and institute positions like “peer worker,” and “survivor leader.”
Who We are Or what We do
What I’ve seen in over a decade of sex worker, drug user, and queer anti-violence organizing is that meaningful community involvement focuses mostly on identity and activity. The bar for participation requires outing oneself as a sex worker, drug user, queer/ trans person, or survivor. This focus then lends itself to hierarchies such as what type of sex work someone is doing, what type of drug use they engage in, or how passable they are.
On one hand, these distinctions are important because these identities and experiences are not a monolith. People engaging in criminalized sex work are most vulnerable to brutal violence and police contact as are people who inject drugs and trans people. Understanding someone’s experience can be balanced with others in the group to try and serve the widest amount of people or understand your niche.
On the other hand, these hierarchies often become a sticking point that can stall forward momentum because people focus on their differences rather than their similarities. Some leave or get outcast from groups and others are set up to fail. We are left with the questions:
How can movements seek to be both inclusive and led by people most impacted?
What will create movement and a sense of belonging?
Shifting Focus to Care
One way we can foster meaningful community involvement is by expanding focus beyond who folks are or what they do to how we treat each other as we navigate those identities and experiences. We could be asking not only do you do drugs but, “are you everyone’s favorite person to buy drugs from?” Not only were you a sex worker but, “were you everyone’s favorite person to do duos with?” Not only are you queer but, “how are you contributing to the movement for LGBTQ liberation?”
This shift in focus towards care can not only texturize identity politics that break up movements but help us to foster organizing spaces rooted in principles of healing justice. Everyone’s experience matters so how can we incorporate everyone’s skills while elevating and supporting folks who have the most to gain from our pursuits?
Another way to foster meaningful community involvement is by defining and sharing space. The drug and sex trades are vast as are conglomerate identities such as queer and BIPOC. It is nearly impossible for one group or organization to represent the interests of all sex workers, drug users, or survivors. That’s why multiple groups representing subsections of these populations working together are powerful agents for change. Find your people and then find others like you working towards the same goal.
The Role of Organizations
Meaningful community involvement means we all have a responsibility to help resource and lift up people with lived experience, especially those most impacted by current sociopolitical conditions. One way that organizations do this is by hiring peer workers. A peer position can be a great way for someone with lived experience to enter the field, gain experience, and give back to their communities…when the environment is right. There are many things to consider to ensure your organization is setting a peer worker up to succeed, including:
· The job description: is it succinct, realistic, and appropriate?
I’ve seen job posts for survivor leaders that ask the applicant to be available 24/7 and complete what could be three people’s roles. This was a clear indication the organization wasn’t ready to help someone transform their poison into medicine. Instead, be clear in what you are asking this person to do and make it realistic for the time asked and money offered.
· The work culture: do you have benefits and accommodations, mental health days, non-punitive policies, and a culture of consent?
Hiring peers often means working with people who are on community supervision, have felonies, and have health needs including transgender or maternity healthcare. It means asking someone who has overcome trauma to work with other people’s active trauma. Be prepared to support people in navigating their circumstances and the requirements of the job so they can sustainability be there best and whole selves. Furthermore, foster an environment that asks all workers where their comfort levels are and what they need.
· Support: re there multiple people inside and outside the organization assigned to help this person succeed?
This can include supervisors, other staff who share similar identities and experiences, or similar positions within allied organizations. Model self-care and create an open and honest feedback loop.
Whether you are organizing along with your peers or working as a peer leader amongst allies, it is important to define what meaningful community involvement means to you, your organization, and movements you’re apart of. What meaningful community involvement looks like can include a focus on care and culture. This shift decentralizes responsibility, allowing us all to take an active part in the movement mechanisms we rely on for change. Then, “nothing about us without us” can remain as an affirmation.
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This article by Justice Rivera was originally published in Tits and Sass in 2016 but the frightening parallels between the wars on drugs and sex trafficking sadly hold true today.
This fact sheet, co-produced with NASTAD, outlines five competency areas in which drug user health programs can focus to provide baseline sex worker health and harm reduction services.
The way you think about and interact with “drugs” — substances like marijuana*, heroin, mushrooms, or cocaine and also caffeine, sugar, and alcohol — is a result of norms, expectations, and propaganda that are grounded in colonialist and imperialist ideologies.
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