In May of this year, I talked to Deon Haywood, Executive Director of Women With A Vision in New Orleans about her approach to organizing. WWAV scored a significant grassroots legal and political victory in the last year with the NO Justice campaign, which removed hundreds of cis and trans women from Louisiana’s registered felony sexual offender rolls. Deon is a longtime activist in the city of New Orleans, with a history of organizing low-income women of color around reproductive justice, harm reduction, and human rights.
Margo St. James of COYOTE once said, “It takes two minutes to politicize a hooker.” She said that in 1975, when it seemed that political consciousness was greater and ordinary people talked about politics. But today, when you talk to someone who is not “political,” when you want to recruit someone not involved in political activism, what’s your rap?
This is going to sound really basic but I really try to just lay it all out. I really pretty much try to tell people the truth. Or help them see the truth.
I always tell the story about the group of women I talked to on the North Shore, on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain. I had been invited by the YWCA to speak to these women. Many of them are retired with lots of income. There were maybe twelve of them in the room and they were trying to figure out how they might want to volunteer. When I came out, I was literally the only black woman in the room. This was pre-Katrina [August 2005]. And they really couldn’t relate to anything I was talking about: rates of HIV, poverty.
You were losing them.
Yeah, especially when I was letting them know about our primary areas of work. We’re talking about STDs, injection drug use, or drug use, period, of any form, and we’re also talking about being in areas that are historically known for not being safe, i.e., the housing projects and the surrounding areas. One of them said, “Well, I’m not interested in any of this and I don’t see why any of this has anything to do with why we’re here.” And all the women chimed in. “These women are prostituting themselves.” Those were their exact words. “If these women are prostituting themselves, that’s on them. This is the kind of life they’re choosing to lead, and blah blah blah.” They didn’t get it. And they didn’t care.
I understood that, especially because, at the time, the majority of our work took place in the streets. This was not where any of these women would want to go. So I just told them that they might want to care, simply because black men do not buy sex from my clients, “but men who look like your husbands do.”
They were like, “What?!” I was like, “I’m not trying to offend you, but between 5 and 8 p.m., after they get off from work, there were [at the time] a lot of women working around Earhart, around South Rampart, Sam’s—that under the bridge kind of area, the easy pick-up on your way home to the North Shore…Easy blow job on your way from work, just roll through…No, most black men are not driving up in the Range Rover, or the BMW or the Mercedes. That’s not them. The quick blow job is for your husbands and the majority of women that I work with, many of them could use care, they deserve treatment for all the things that are going on with them. So in your mind it doesn’t affect you, but the wrong mouth on your husband’s dick could affect you.”
That changed everything. It became a conversation. And I asked them how these women are any different from them? It wasn’t a volatile thing. We weren’t arguing. There were some laughs. But it was mainly helping them see that there are many women in this country, around the world, who are with men that they wish they weren’t. And they’re holding out for the kids to get older, they’re holding out just ‘til he dies, you know, whatever it is. But you’re doing it for your survival. You know you’re going to get taken care of. So why, because these women are poor or even black, is it any different? They’re doing it for survival, and so are many other women. And they were like, “I never thought about it like that.”
I may not always be that graphic, but I just lay it out: these are the issues. I just try to humanize it so people can see that it may not be done your way, it may not be done my way, but people really just do what they need to do for themselves, and sometimes it’s necessity. We live in an area of the country with the highest incarceration rate, and high dropout. A lot of it has to do with being poor, and not having access. Once you start saying that to people, they get it. Because it’s really not that difficult to get. The only time people don’t get it, is when they choose not to. Because it’s basic.
NO Justice taught me that more people care than not. Working on that campaign, I had a group of nuns here in the city say, “you’re really doing God’s work.”
The women we work with, so many of them are the working poor. In a place like New Orleans, hotels and tourism rule everything. That’s the industry. So if it’s not a Walmart job, or housekeeping or waiting tables or dishwashing—historically, these are the kinds of jobs that poor people in this city have held. They don’t pay enough when you have three kids.
That brings up the issue of class differences among sex workers. All this (relatively recent) talk of “choice” and empowerment language suggests some sex workers could work anyplace, do anything they want to, and therefore they’re not like those people.
But isn’t that like anything in life? People make those kinds of separations. People make a hierarchy amongst drug users. Heroin users—they’re right up here compared to crack users. And marijuana users want to separate themselves from the ones that society sees as worse. Society teaches us to separate ourselves from “those people” no matter who we are.
So how do you deal with that? Because one thing is to just call them on the classism, but what are some of the ways?
Some of it is recognizing that we are blaming the victim, saying that they’re bringing it on themselves, because of what they did. The reality is that we live in a country where race matters. I’m amazed by the number of people who want to engage me in this conversation about women’s solidarity and who’s an ally and who’s not and who fits and who doesn’t, and they don’t ever want to talk about race.
For me, I can’t help calling people on race because the majority of women who I work with are poor and they’re black. I’ve been working with Women With A Vision for a very long time. My first job wasn’t with Women With A Vision but working for another program, doing outreach at 5 in the frickin’ morning, giving clean syringes to heroin users and then doing outreach to the sex workers that were working on the streets. So when you talk about street-based sex workers, these are normally women who are poor.
One of the things we’re dealing with now are women who travel to New Orleans to work. If they get caught they go through municipal court [which handles low-level offenses]. If you are a street-based trans woman, sex worker, any form of female on the street and you’re struggling with addiction, or you’re homeless and poor, then your case kind of gets charged with a CANS [crimes against nature felony] offense. It still happens here and there, and they’re still sending them through criminal court.
If a person who has a master’s degree is stripping, and decides to come off that stage and write a book…come off that stage and apply for a job…they may be connected well enough that they don’t even have to talk about their background.
I just wish that people really understood their place. When I started doing this work at 19, I remember meeting a girl who was the same age as me. And I was like, “you know you don’t have to do this…” and she was like, “Fuck you. You don’t know nothing about me. Do you have children?” and I was like “Yes!” And she was like, “Have your children ever been hungry? Have your children ever gone without?” And guess what? My grandmother and my mother made sure that my children did not do that. They didn’t know what it was like to go without. They may not have had a whole lot, but they were never hungry and they always had a place to sleep and there was never a threat of us not having a place to stay. This woman, who was the same age as me, lived in a one-room apartment with her kids. She was like, “I have a job. But it’s not enough. So I do what I have to do.”
That forever changed my life. We may have had similar experiences but we’re living them differently. You know what she taught me? To know my place. And if more people were willing to see that like that…Some people want everyone to be one. And we’re not. We are not all in the same boat. And if we keep playing like we are, we’re not really going to make the kind of change we’d like to see. Because the women I work with are never going to be able to jump into the sex workers’ rights movement. They don’t feel like that movement is for them.
And I think also because that’s not their only issue.
Because they would be into something that was about raising the minimum wage to a living wage.
Exactly. Or for the women I know who are functioning addicts: “Can I get some support about being a user? And not having to live with the stigma. Or not have the threat of losing my kids or losing my freedom, or being able to walk along the street just because I use?”
I don’t think people think about how environment plays a role on peoples’ health. We look at those things when we think about diabetes. We look at those things when we think about heart disease. But for whatever reasons, people don’t think about those things when it’s about HIV, or drug use. Or, for example, living in a city like New Orleans, the murder rate and the level of violence that people deal with—and what that does to somebody’s mental and emotional state, how that affects them. If you’re not living under those kinds of conditions, you can’t possibly think that we’re all in the same boat.
Many of the women I work with don’t feel the shame around doing what they have to do ‘cuz they feel like, “I’m doing what I gotta do to take care of me and mine.” Even if addiction is involved, they’re like, “I’m not stealing, I’m not killing nobody, I’m doing what I need to do for myself.” And at the end of the day, that’s really what everybody wants to do.
What’s your larger philosophy about that? I see this as about human rights. We, in this very rich country, don’t ensure people live in decent housing, earn wages that support them and their families, and get good healthcare.
It is about helping everybody to see their part, their role, in making a difference. You know sometimes I ask myself, “Am I delusional to think that we can change some of these things?” But historically, that’s what we’ve done.
I’m learning that it doesn’t have to happen in my lifetime. This is my new motto. It doesn’t have to happen in my lifetime, but I’d like to do enough to lay the groundwork for the next generation. I just want people to remember, we each have a role to play. I can’t sit here and talk about being free or having freedom if people around me do not. And that goes beyond race. There are many white women struggling in the same way. We have to know that it’s not all right for somebody to work 50 hours a week and bring home a check for less than $700. Less than $700 and rents are high and the schools are inadequate—it’s not all right. You don’t have to fight my cause, but can you find one?
I’m going to do what I can. And hopefully, there are enough seeds planted, from the people who think like me, and who want to work and to fight and organize in the way that I do, that we leave enough seeds for growth and change so that young people—I’m sounding old—or anybody coming behind me and anybody else, they have something to work with. With bigger and bolder ideas. Every time I read something from Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, Assata Shakur, any of those people, or even if I read something like W.E.B. DuBois’ The World and Africa (and I’ve read that doggone book four times,) each time I see something different. Each time I see a quote by Malcolm X, I see something different. When you think about when these books were written, I either was not here or just getting here. But they’re saying the same thing that many of us are saying now.
The groundwork is there, and we just need to keep working at it.
We’ve got the analysis. Let’s not be paralyzed by the analysis at this point, let’s just go in and get something done.
Right. That’s my big pet peeve. I get so tired of people saying, what are we going to do? And I’m like, “what do you mean what are we going to do?” Some people want to plan for like five years. We don’t need that. We need action.
Do you think it’s okay to do any kind of action? Or do you have to be strategic? Or do think it’s sometimes just okay to start giving people condoms, like you did your son’s class for their senior trip?
We want to make sure the military has what they need. We want higher education, so people can prepare for their life. But in many southern or conservative states, we don’t even have comprehensive sex ed. And for us here in Louisiana, we’ve got a government that allows people to make shit up as they go.
How fair is that? That we’re not teaching kids how to make decisions, that we’re making sex something so secretive and mysterious that it’s killing us. But if we talked about it, and made it, you know, like going to buy a loaf of bread…People don’t have any problems with eating. Even if they do too much of it.
Sometimes things happen and they just need to hear us: You’re going to see me. I’m not pleased with this. But it can’t be reactionary.
It’s important for people to understand that this is a movement, and it’s constant and it’s happening. And so we’re always present and we’re always here. And so the potential for you to do something, the potential for us to act is always. That’s what I think people don’t get. In a real movement, there’s always action. That’s why they call it a movement.