WISH Talks – International Women’s Day

WISH Talks – International Women’s Day  

On March 11th, we held our first-ever WISH Talks virtual event in honour of International Women’s Day. WISH Talks is intended to be an ongoing series through which we hope to collaboratively create impact through conversations.  

In the upcoming months and years, we hope to explore the themes and issues that affect the women WISH supports. Through the series, we will strive to center the voices, experiences and realities of street-based sex workers. We want to have the challenging, and sometimes difficult, conversations needed to create impactful and meaningful change.  

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day was “Choose to Challenge.” On March 11th, we hosted a panel discussion where current and former street-based sex workers challenged perspectives on violence, reconciliation, trans inclusivity, family separation and stigma.  

All panelists chose what they wanted to bring forward during the discussion, as well as what questions they wanted to be askedFour of the five panelists decided to remain anonymous and use a pseudonym.  

*Content warning* 

The event was meant to provide an open space for the critical, honest sharing of experiences; many of which are painful and difficult experiences. Some language used may be viewed as offensive and/or traumatizing. You may also hear some words or phrases that sex workers readily use amongst themselves but are not an option for non-sex workers to use. The discussion also contains profanity and explicit content relating to gender-based violence, sexual abuse and childhood trauma. We recognize that the conversation may be triggering for some. Please prioritize yourself and seek support if necessary. 

Meet our panelists 

Avery   

Avery Grey, (pseudonym), is a team leader at an organization that supports women in Vancouver’s DTES. After only two years in Vancouver, she is very proud to have become a trailblazer in motivating women to achieve their employment goals and very much enjoys seeing them succeed. Friends and co-workers would describe her as a loving mother, kind and forgiving soul, and is not shy to back away from a fight. Avery is choosing to challenge family separation and the believe that substance use automatically makes someone an unfit parent.  

Mikayla Cadger  

Mikayla Cadger is a 47-year-old proud, Transgender woman. She is a lifelong artist, writer, poet and dreamer. As a former street-based sex worker and a survivor of Trans violence, her journey has been difficult. However, today those scars are symbols of her strength, not reminders of her pain. Those experiences have shaped the woman she has become and are the inspiration for her Trans rights advocacy and activism efforts.     

 

T, (pseudonym), is a proud First Nations mother, grandmother and community ally. She works in Vancouver’s DTES supporting, teaching and empowering women across various feminist organizations. Others would describe T as a gentle, patient soul with an edge. She is a passionate advocate for women’s rights, justice and above all, truth telling.  

Liz   

Liz, (pseudonym), has lived in Vancouver for more than 20 years with many of those dedicating her time (paid/unpaid) advocating for the rights of women, drug users, and sex-workers. Friends would describe her as a woman with an endless and abundant amount of lived experience. Liz became involved in street-based sex work when she was 13 years old. Liz’s soft spots are her canine fur babies that she loves and adores. Her lifetime of challenging norms, stereotypes and stigma is what sparks her activism. Liz is choosing to challenge stigma and the ongoing violence faced by women, in particular street-based sex workers.  

Jasmine  

Jasmine, (pseudonym), is 30 years old and has been living in Vancouver since 2008. Currently, she is a street-based sex worker navigating countless barriers while trying to move her job indoors. She supplements her sex-work income by working at a feminist organization in Vancouver’s DTES and since the pandemic, she has thrown herself into creating safer and more accessible/inclusive spaces for women to access the services they need to not just survive but thrive. Friends would describe her as a natural team leader and activist. On this International Women’s Day, Jasmine will be challenging criminalization, privilege and violence against sex workers. 

Watch the full panel discussion:

Emerging themes from the panel discussion:  

LACK OF CHOICE/PRIVILEGE  

    • It’s very dangerous due to the lack of time you have to screen and make a decision [as to] whether you’re going to get into the car or not. You have to make up your mind right away whereas indoor [sex] workers have time to go back and forth on the phone and text the guy and ask for a deposit, ask for his photo ID. On the street, you don’t have that luxury. You have to decide right away – are you going to get in [the car] or not? – Jasmine (pseudonym) 

     

    • Sex work is often the only work that is available to us because they don’t want to give the tranny a leg up – the system itself is designed to break you down, not to help you, not to lift you up. The few of us that beat that system… why is it that we all end up struggling? We all just survive, we don’t thrive.” – Mikayla 

     

    • “[Street-based sex work] is more dangerous and women who work on the streets aren’t given much of a choice. They must make their decisions in the moment for the needs they have right at that moment. They often have to have a lack of choice; they’re rarely given a moment or any time to think which puts them way more at risk.” – Liz (pseudonym) 

     

    • “Choices have to do with privilege and privilege is on a spectrum. Some people on the street have more privilege than others on the street for a multitude of factors. For example, if you’re going to work in a state of withdrawal – you’re probably going to feel like you have less of a choice to turn down unsafe work because you just want to feel better and get your night started… It’s often the choice of taking an unsafe date or going home with no money and having to worry about all the things you can’t afford.” – Jasmine (pseudonym) 

     

    •  “We just want to live our lives. We just want to raise our children, we just want to be happy, healthy, productive people but how do you do that?”- Mikayla (pseudonym) 

STIGMA 

  • “In my experience dealing with children services, the title ‘sex worker’ would just not come up because that was just another check against me… So when you have an addiction, you have experience in sex work, you have abuse – any of that, those are just setting you up for failure because they’ve already decided that no matter what you do, your lived experience is what determines it.”  – Avery (pseudonym) 
  • “It doesn’t matter what area you look in, whether it be the justice system, the health system – there’s just so much negative attitude and negative actions, discrimination. It just goes on and on. It’s just a vicious cycle for women and as far as I’m concerned, our women need to stand together.” – T (pseudonym)
  • “[Sex workers] are always judged. People are always looking at them as lower class. For some reason, they deserve the bad things that happen to them – which they don’t.” – Liz (pseudonym) 
  •  “I don’t feel there was any empathy. As for stigma and judgement, they see a drug addict, they see a sex trade worker… I see someone that has extreme strength and willingness to get my child fed no matter the obstacles. I see somebody that uses a substance to give me enough energy in the day to be that perfect mum for my child. I don’t see anything that they say because I’m not that person.” – Avery (pseudonym) 

RECONCILIATION 

  • “We see time and time again, especially First Nations children being taken and apprehended from families and this is history repeating itself time and time again. It’s just a broken system. Residential schools, Indian day schools, sixties scoop – it’s all the same. It’s the same history of abuse that First Nations families go through. – T (pseudonym) 
  • “There’s absolutely nothing government can do in regard to reconciliation unless they look at the unjust and the wrongdoing they have done to our women – all our women, especially sex workers.” – T (pseudonym) 

VIOLENCE 

  • “Why do we have to take this abuse? Why are we not seen the same as other women? We are the ones the serial killers and the abusive men take their anger out on. That’s not right, that’s not okay.” – Jasmine (pseudonym) 
  • “Nothing seems to get done to the people who abuse these women [sex workers]. People tend to think they’re [sex workers] are deserving so nothing gets done. ‘It’s okay for dangerous people, sex offenders to be released down here around us. We deserve it, we can take it, right? Better us than somebody else.’ That’s the way they look at it. – Liz (pseudonym) 

 

Trans activist and panelist Mikayla Cadger wrote an essay and a poem for the event. You can read both in full below:   

 

WISH Learning Centre celebrates 20 years!

WISH Learning Centre celebrates 20 years!

It’s hard to believe it’s been two decades since the Learning Centre first opened its doors at WISH.

The program is the result of 20 years of collaboration with Capilano University’s Community Development and Outreach Department, as well as the hard work of countless others, including funders, donors, participants, staff, and volunteers.

For women involved in Vancouver’s street-based sex trade, the WISH Learning Centre became both a physical and mental space for them. By year one, more than 300 women had come through the Centre, with more than a dozen women making it part of their regular routine. Within the first few years, the Centre had distributed hundreds of donated books, journals and reams of writing paper. Women had published newsletters and debated politics, the use of prescription methadone and the role of government in their lives.

“The more we learn, the more we are empowered to help ourselves.” -Learning Centre Participant

One of the purposes of the Centre was to fight some of society’s deep-rooted myths and stereotypes about sex workers and learning, including the erroneous belief that women who trade sex are not “ready” to learn, nor were they interested in building their minds.

“It is the women at WISH who have been the stars. Tough, soft, courageous, smart, resilient, generous, outraged, visionary women who have earned our respect and deserve opportunity,” said Lucy Alderson who is an Instructor and Program Coordinator at the Community Development and Outreach Program in Capilano.

From left to right: Betsy Alkenbrack, Lucy Alderson and Catherine Minchin.

Lucy has been involved with WISH’s Learning Centre from the beginning and has continued to play a key role in the success of the program.  Another significant member of the Learning Centre team was the longest-serving employee in WISH’s history, Catherine Minchin. Although recently retired, Catherine’s dedication, compassion, and patience made her an extremely popular and much-loved member of the Drop-In staff and Learning Centre team. All three, pictured below, have remained cherished members of the WISH community.

“The Learning Centre is important to me because it gives me something else to do besides drugs. It has saved my life.” Learning Centre Participant

Betsy Alkenbrack also played a vital role in the program and has been an instructor at the Learning Centre for the last 16 years. “I started at WISH as a volunteer in 2002,” Betsy added. “After sixteen glorious, challenging, enlightening, heart-breaking years as a Capilano instructor in the Learning Centre. I know the thing I will miss the most [as retirement nears] is the women—laughing, crying, screaming, bragging, debating, comforting, creating, playing—just sharing their lives and their wisdom. I have learned so much. What a privilege it has been.”

During the last municipal election, WISH’s Learning Centre became a polling station for the first time ever.

From day one, participatory action research also played a key role in the curriculum of the program, making sure the voices of street-based sex workers were given a platform. This includes research reports such as “Literacy for Women on the Streets,” which examined the impact of literacy activities on the lives of women working in Vancouver’s street-based sex trade.

“Change in our Back Yard,” is a ground-breaking peer-led community consultation and survey process in which survival sex workers came together to learn formal research and interviewing skills. (Credit: Wendy D.)

“Deepest congratulations to the WISH Learning Centre on your 20 years of providing transformational services and supports in your community!” said Brad Martin, Dean of the Faculty of Education, Health and Human Development. “We, at Capilano University, have been proud to serve as your partners and look forward to many more years of collaboration in the future.,” he added.

Thank you to Capilano University for 20 wonderful years of partnership. Thank you for continuing to work with us to improve the health, safety and well-being of women who are involved in Vancouver’s street-based sex trade.

Local family celebrates 20 years of fundraising for WISH

Local family celebrates 20 years of fundraising for WISH

Peter Graham-Gaudreau, known as Peter G-G, says the desire to help came to him 20 years ago when he was walking around the Downtown Eastside and was witness to the violence, vulnerability and inequality experienced by some of the women in the community.  

“WISH’s statement resonated with me and so I decided to put on a concert where WISH was the beneficiary,” said Peter. His first Sing-Along was held 20 years ago, and now, two decades later, the annual tradition continues.  

Although at first the event was organized by Peter, once he had a family, the fundraiser quickly became a family tradition. “They love it,” Peter added. “So I expect this to keep going, and going, and going!” His two children, aged 11 and 15, perform an acapella duet every year, “They really look forward to it.” 

Peter’s children River and Sapphire performing their yearly duet. (Credit: Bob New Photography)

“As it’s grown it’s just become a tradition for people in our neighbourhood and beyond, people will come and look forward to being part of it,” Peter added, noting even Attorney General David Eby has participated in the event. 

The fundraiser is held twice during the month of December and can last up to four hours! “We just do every song that we can, and we keep it going for as long as we can!” 

Last year’s annual Sing-Along (Credit: Bob New Photography)

However, due to COVID, this year’s event will look a bit different.  

“We’ve talked about holding it outside at a park so people can get together and sing, but we don’t know with the latest regulations if that will be able to happen,” Peter explained. But luckily Peter and his family already have a Plan B: an online concert venue called SideDoor, which will allow people from all over the world to join in on the fun.  

“You can see all the other people participating and even sing along together because they provide a technician!”  

Last Year’s annual Sing-Along. (Credit: Bob New Photography)

So even if this year’s Sing-Along might look a bit different, Peter says the spirit of giving and coming together will always be there. So make sure you join the 20th Annual WISH Holiday Sing-Along! Follow Peter on Instagram and Facebook to ensure you’re notified of when the event will take place!  

Thank you for 20 years of generosity!