SWOP (Sex Worker Outreach Project) is the most recognized name in sex workers’ rights advocacy in the U.S. Currently, they have over 25 chapters around the country, and a board of directors—SWOP National. The only requirements to be a chapter are that March 3rd (International Sex Worker Rights Day) and December 17th (International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers) are recognized in some way. To avoid outing and endangerment, SWOP does not require its members to identify as current or former sex workers, though the board’s president must always be an out sex worker herself.
Savannah Sly, SWOP National’s president, newly elected in the spring of 2015, e-mailed us about the mistake the SWOP National board felt they’d made not supporting Oklahoma City serial cop racist Daniel Holtzclaw’s victims more as an organization. This mistake highlighted long held bad feeling about SWOP among sex workers who felt the organization did not stand up for sex workers of color, survival sex workers, and other less privileged members of the community. SWOP National wanted to address the community publicly about their commitment to working on these problems. I asked Sly if I could interview her about the way the organization worked and its goal to be more inclusive. The following is an abridged version of our ensuing e-mail conversation:
SWOP, and especially SWOP-USA, has sometimes had a reputation for being inaccessible and unsafe for survival sex workers, sex workers of color, trans sex workers, and other workers who fall short of a certain sort of respectability politic. What are you doing as an organization to address that?
I think SWOP is arriving at the same uncomfortable place that a lot of organizations come to, where we need to take a hard look at what we’re doing and how we’re thinking, and admitting to ourselves where our internalized prejudices are manifesting as oppression.
One difficulty is that as an organization, SWOP has not been great on creating institutional memory. SWOP was founded in 2003, and since that time, we’ve had some amazing leaders and members who have done incredible, radical work. Sadly, many of these accomplishments aren’t well documented, nor are the trials that SWOP has dealt with along the way.
So, the current board has really struggled to piece together our organizational beyond word-of-mouth anecdotes. I’m always thankful for anyone who shares a piece of SWOP history… Especially the bad. I know there are people out there who have had negative experiences with SWOP on a local or national level, and those experiences need to be known and honored. They need to be learned from.
I feel that our ability to partner with other organizations and communities is critical to our evolution. On the board, we’ve been talking about how we need to start “showing up” for intersectional groups, to support their efforts, to show that we understand how oppression overlaps.
Part of that is reflected in who is on our board now. Our board reflects myriad identities and experiences, as do many of our local chapters, and we’re dedicated to not just maintaining, but furthering diversity within SWOP. This is a value, not a project that will ever be “completed”, and it’s something that will require on-going self-awareness and evaluation.
As we work to make our spaces and projects more accessible to all, a big question looms in the forefronts of our minds: Should SWOP support any step in the right direction, regardless of whether there is any benefit to the most vulnerable? Or should SWOP be firmly dedicated to ensuring that those who are hardest hit by criminalization are included and considered during any shift forward? This is a live conversation at National, and one we return to frequently as we decide what projects to take on, and how to respond to issues.
What can you tell us about SWOP’s response to the Holtzclaw trial? How would you want to improve SWOP-USA’s responses to community issues that affect marginalized sex workers in the future?
In light of the last question, this one is emotionally hard to address. I personally feel our response to the Holtzclaw case lacked concrete support and mobilization, and I know that there are people out there who feel failed by our response. We did not “show up,” we did not reach out to those affected, as pointed out by members of our SWOP network and here on Tits and Sass and by our community.
We acknowledge how we fell short on supporting the survivors, and understand that our subsequent actions come too little, too late. When I recognized how we contributed to the media silence surrounding this case, I was (and continue to be) beside myself, and personally, I feel changed by the experience. On behalf of the board, I am deeply sorry to those who felt underserved by our response. May our future efforts reflect how we have learned from this.
I sense that many among the Tit and Sass readership can relate to the feeling of constant urgency around sex worker issues in the media and news. I think our response to the Holtzclaw case is indicative of losing sight of priorities, which usually happens when focus is fragmented, communication lacking, or there are too many balls in the air. We’ve been crafting a media response protocol, but we need to examine how that model actually fits into our capacity. Clarifying the means by which we adhere to our values would help us remember where to put our energy, especially when we’re feeling overwhelmed, or working late into the night.
How does SWOP-USA balance activism and outreach?
Ah, balance. This is something that I feel occurs naturally in a group when people are empowered to pursue their passions in a supportive and collaborative framework. Easier said than done, eh?
Locally, each chapter has freedom to decide what issues and projects they’ll tackle. Many chapters develop some sort of direct services for the sex worker community, such as offering “Know Your Rights” classes, teaming up with local service orgs to make free testing available, street outreach and the distribution of harm reduction materials, and providing peer support.
Many chapters provide regular sex worker community “socials”, which are casual gatherings where people can meet others who might relate to their experience of being a sex worker. This can be an immensely powerful community-building activity, but it can also be where people feel most alienated or unable to relate. This is one place where we feel the sensitivity and AR/AO [anti-racism/anti-oppression] training is most needed, to ensure that SWOP is creating safe and welcome environments for everyone. Other chapters do a splendid job of legislative activism, public education, cultural events, and advocacy. We encourage chapters to gravitate to the type of advocacy and service that they are best equipped to undertake.
On a national level, a lot of SWOP-USA’s current energy is going toward running the organization and building capacity and activism. We have realized that being reactive to headlines is not advocating from a place of power, and we’re creating systems to help us work proactively.
This year, possibly for the first time ever, our advocacy committee drew up a national advocacy agenda spanning the next two years. We developed this based our observations as a board, and on a chapter needs assessment we did last summer. We sought feedback from chapters on the final agenda, and now we are getting to work on those items.
Here are a few projects that are currently in the works: A coalition of chapter members with harm reduction and drug reform allies are working to expand Good Samaritan laws nationwide. We have plans to launch an anti-stigma campaign, and are forming a bad date list working group with contributions from other sex workers orgs. Finally, we are planning to begin reviewing and assessing the various PROS Networks (directories of service providers, legal, medical, and mental health professionals who are capable of providing non-judgmental, client-centric oriented care to individuals in the sex industry) SWOP chapters have established around the country, and identifying how similar service networks can be implemented in more regions.
How is SWOP-USA funded, and how are SWOP-USA’s funds used? Is there any way for community members to access SWOP-USA financial statements?
SWOP-USA is funded by individual donors, grants, and fundraising events and campaigns. We’ve published our 2014 financials (and that of prior years) on our Guidestar profile, and are in the process of creating financial statements and an annual report for 2015.
Since SWOP-USA is a 501c3, non-profit, National acts as a fiscal sponsor to local chapters. We file taxes on behalf of our chapters. Something we’ve been putting a lot of time and energy into is developing better tools and protocols for tracking finances on a local and national level. Money that is earned by chapters (through events, donations, and the like) is earmarked for their use.
The vast majority of our funding goes straight back to chapters. In 2016, we will disperse $25,000 to our chapters through several funding categories. This funding is available to all chapters, and even to individuals and outside groups whose missions are in line with our own. A portion of funding will be going into the development of AR/AO [anti-racism/anti-oppression] materials and accessible governance models,[…]and we also wish to provide basic advocacy training for all of our chapters. A large portion of our resources are always spent on event and conference coordination, as a way to raise awareness and offer our members opportunities to network, speak, and connect.
This year, we’ll be allocating a large chunk of funding to support members who want to attend Desiree Alliance. We’ll also be holding our board retreat right before Desiree, to try and reduce the cost of travel. Since we work remotely and are scattered all over the country, finding at least one time a year to get together face-to-face is a critical part our cohesion.
On a national level, SWOP’s 2016 funding priorities include bringing on paid part-time personnel and contractors to tighten up the ship, provide consistency, and help us develop the training materials we need to create training for our broader community. We have recently hired a communications director, a chapter coordinator, and two grant writers. We prioritized hiring from within the sex worker community, but for reasons […] around privacy and safety, do not require people to publicly disclose their history with sex work.
Are the many one person SWOP chapters cropping up representative of SWOP-USA—do these small chapters interact with your national organization at all?
Ha, I’m always a little bemused and delighted when I hear about a SWOP chapter popping up that none of us knew about. It’s indicative to me of the desire people have to plug into something bigger, and the “just do it” attitude a lot of sex worker activists posses.
Our chapters range in size, from single-person chapters, to robust communities of activists and participants. I want to express that we deeply value lone individuals who are out there trying to make change in their region, and we recognize how incredibly challenging it can be to rally other people to this cause.
We’re working on ways to help activists connect with potential collaborators in their region, and in this way, reaching out to allies becomes a powerful tool. We’ve found chapter liaisons to be really helpful at connecting chapters that reside in the same state or geographical region, as there’s a lot of camaraderie that can be found from existing in the same political environment, or under the same laws. For example, we’ve recently had a number of chapters start up in the Texas. These chapters range from 1-3 people, and they’re in dialogue with each other. While they all have their own focus, they’ve done some speaking events together, and can potentially serve as a resource for each other.
There’s something really inspiring about single individuals wanting so badly to make change, that they’re willing to set up shop and get things going on their own, regardless of the challenges in their area such as conservative culture, geographical distance, and lack of an urban center. We’ve been embracing a “slow and steady wins the race” kind of attitude around this sort of local growth.
What we’ve found, regardless of the size of the chapter, is most rely upon a core of 2-8 people who have the drive, time, ability, and really, privilege, to be unpaid, volunteer community organizers. Creating inclusive and accessible activist and community spaces is a challenge…and it’s a critical step towards becoming the kind of advocacy organization that can truly represent the interests of all sex workers.
We recognize a need to create new governance models which enable chapters to remain autonomous, but ensure that anyone can get involved and be safe, respected, and accountable. We’re reaching out to groups that have more experience in creating these kinds of environments within activism, and we’ll extend what we discover to chapters. This is all a learning process, and we’re definitely open to ideas.
How does SWOP-USA evaluate its national and regional programs and campaigns to determine whether they are successful?
We’re trying to develop the capacity to do that right now. I came into SWOP-USA in April of 2015 after having been a rep for SWOP-Seattle for about two years. Before that board expansion, SWOP-USA had been run by three (yes, THREE) people for nearly two years, who were really just trying to keep the organization afloat.
In 2015, they expanded the board from three to ten people, and one of the first orders of business was to conduct a chapter needs assessment. 23 of our 25 chapters participated. From this assessment, we determined that there was not a sense of connection between chapters and National, relating to inconsistent communication and a lack of national direction.
All the new actions we’re taking on are still very much directed by our chapters and what they see as gaps in our national presence…We’ve implemented monthly chapter support and training calls…and founded a monthly chapter newsletter to support better National-chapter communication. There’s still a lot to be done, but the impact of our efforts has definitely been positive, and I’m proud of that.