Volume 52   Number 2 Spring 2019

From our Members

Edited by Susan M. Wolfe, Susan Wolfe and Associates

Nurturing the Student Expert in Graduate and Undergraduate Community Psychology Course

Written by Heather Lewis Quagliana, Lee University


As professors, I think we have the tendency to teach students first, and then have them apply course content later. Community psychology courses lend themselves to a practical, creative way of teaching that I have come to call, nurturing the student expert. In this approach, students are emerging experts in the field, offering complementary expertise to me and their classmates. With graduate students, this can be easier to nurture as they are typically engaged in practical work, have some experience from their undergraduate years, and often take more responsibility for their professional development. With that said, I think there are specific ways in which we can engage graduate students more effectively in developing both confidence and expertise.

I also believe that upper-level undergraduate students have more to offer than we often recognize. I always tell my undergraduate students, “I am not interested in who you are becoming or what you plan on doing. I am interested in who you are now and what you are doing now because it’s valuable.” There is such a focus in the collegiate environment on who students are becoming that we lose sight of who they are now. This generation of both graduate and undergraduate students are hungry to resolve issues of social justice, to apply immediately and simultaneously what they are learning in the classroom and let us know their stories that have shaped their paths to caring deeply about communities and context.

High Impact Learning

Research strongly supports the notion of service learning as a high impact-teaching tool with numerous positive impacts in higher education. For example, service-learning increases student ratings of instructor and course quality increases student’s academic performance, and increases self-awareness (Harnish & Bridges, 2012; Tannenbaum & Berrett, 2005).  Further, effective service learning in the classroom incorporates the following elements: Direct involvement with people (Levesque-Bristol, et al., 2010), increased understanding of academic content (Tannenbaum & Berrett, 2005), faculty service-learning training (Tannenbaum & Berrett, 2005), emotional empathy (Lundy, 2007), and regular opportunities for reflection (Lundy, 2007; Weigert, 1998; Troppe, 1995; Kendall, 1990). My approach of nurturing the student expert combines a service-learning approach with student led projects and community investment in the professor’s areas of expertise.

I have experimented with utilizing student experts in a variety of scenarios over the past 10 years of teaching Community Psychology and Community Interventions courses. The first scenario is having graduate students choose their own organization and setting to deliver a “consultation” in a particular psychological topic. I have had graduate students choose to engage community interventions on campus, such as dorm talks on self-esteem and campus engagement resources for married students.

At the undergraduate level, I have collaborated with the local Boys and Girls Club to offer annual events during their national week. Undergraduate students are responsible for the themes, event planning, and subcommittee to pull off a special event/programming that meets psychological needs in some way. Both graduate and undergraduate students are trained in how to conduct effective needs assessments, how to apply stages of psychological consultation, and how to evaluate their interventions. The aforementioned “first scenario” approach has worked, but I found myself wanting the students to have more time to develop interventions for their project. When graduate students only have one semester to make contact with an organization, develop an intervention, deliver it, and evaluate it, the projects are rushed and do not produce the depth of expertise I am seeking to nurture in them.

Local and International Application


Over the past several years, I revised my approach. I decided to plug students into my existing community consultation and intervention work. In some cases, I intentionally sought out more projects in my area of expertise to have options for students to choose projects most in line with their interests. Students have been able to choose from the following projects over the past several years: Developing a trauma training curriculum for a Liberian orphanage and caregivers impacted by civil war and Ebola, training teachers and staff at local refugee agencies in trauma-informed approaches to helping children, developing an earthquake relief manual for psychological first aid for children in Manta, Ecuador, designing a research study that examines psychological and emotional needs to accompany clean water filtration system installation outside of Quito, Ecuador, and creating  a manual for local ESL teachers that assists in labeling and coping with various types of trauma encountered by ESL students. Students are learning course content while engaging in meaningful projects that are in their developing areas of expertise.

Professor Expertise

As you can infer from the list of my connections and projects, my expertise is in childhood trauma and I have the added benefit of teaching on international campuses to also engage international students. However, each professor has to make this approach work for them utilizing their area(s) of expertise and national and international connections In this second scenario of plugging both graduate and undergraduate students into my existing projects, students have been able to develop a depth of expertise that has prepared them in ways I honestly could not have imagined. Students not only assist in developing manuals and interventions, but on most the projects, students deliver their projects in person.


Over the past two summers, student teams consisting of both graduate and undergraduate students have gone to both Liberia and Ecuador to deliver their interventions. The opportunities for projects to come full circle have produced student experts in refugee trauma, sexual abuse, natural disasters, and international consultation. Others have become experts in consulting to local community agencies to offer curriculum development and trainings. Students have been amazed with their own ability to develop expertise and find opportunities to display their applied learning.

As a professor, this approach takes some extra work on my part. I have put in many extra hours training students, developing ongoing relationships and projects within our community and managing quality assurance of the work my students are doing. But I think it is worth it. I think I am a lot like my students, I do not want to just tell them how to develop their expertise, but I want to actively show them what this process looks like. My pedagogy in class involves mentoring, collaboration, processing both content and process of projects, burnout in community work, and class work days where project planning happens with instructor oversight and peer collaboration.

My Guidelines for Nurturing the Student Expert

The following suggestions can guide you in your pursuits of nurturing your student experts:

  1. Know the service-learning literature (overview given above) and apply best practices in your graduate and undergraduate community psychology classrooms.
  2. Take time to enhance professional development. Process the pros and cons of community-based work. Discuss prevention of job burnout when working with high-risk populations.
  3. Have high expectations for your students. Expect that they can collaborate effectively with you and each other when an appropriate scaffold is established.
  4. Utilize your area(s) of expertise and use it as a model to develop expertise in your students.
  5. Model humility to your students in the entire process of community-based work and interventions.

Nurturing and recognizing students’ potentials and expertise helps to reduce power differentials and in fact live out community psychology principles with our students.


Felten, P., Gilchrist, L. Z., & Darby, A. (2006). Emotion and learning: Feeling our way toward a new theory of reflection in service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 12(2).

Kendall, J.C. (1990). Combining service and learning: A resource book for community and public service, vol. 1. Raleigh, NC: National Society for Experimental Learning.

Levesque-Bristol, C., Knapp, T. D., & Fisher, B. J. (2010). The effectiveness of service-learning: it's not always what you think. Journal of Experimental Education, 33(3), 208-   224.

Lundy, B. L. (2007). Service learning in Life-Span Developmental Psychology: higher exam scores and increased empathy. Teaching in Psychology, 34(1), 23-27.

Tannenbaum, S. C., & Berrett, R. D. (2005). Relevance of service-learning in college courses. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 9(1), 197-202.

Troppe, M. (1995). Connecting cognition and action: Evaluation of student performance in service-learning courses. Providence, RI: Campus Compact.

Weigert, K. (1998). Academic service learning:  Its meaning and relevance. In R. Rhoads & J. Howard (Eds). Academic service learning: A pedagogy of action and reflection (pp. 3-10). New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Vol 73. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

"Green" Behavioral Settings in Community Health: An Ecological Approach for the Community Psychologist

Written by August John Hoffman, Metropolitan State University and Ernesto Vasquez, Concordia University

People tend to like green things. Known as the “Savanna Hypothesis”, organic environments that provide different types of essential resources, such as vegetation, vistas of clean water, and tree canopies (used as protection from ultraviolet rays) are universally preferred by people because of their life-sustaining qualities (Orians, 1980; 1986; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1982). Natural and sustainable environments tend to make us feel better in that they can often reduce the stress that people typically experience in congested and urban environments (Ulrich, Simons, Losito, Miles, & Zelson, 1991). Natural landscapes and green environments have also been instrumental in the development of positive psychologically evolved mechanisms, such as cooperative behaviors, compassion, and social bonding (Home, Hunziker, & Bauer, 2012).

Classic empirical research (Kelly, 1966, 1971; Barker, 1965) has identified the unique relationship between the physical characteristics, interpersonal relationships, and structure of the environment as playing a central role in shaping the behaviors and interactions of individuals within group settings such as neighborhoods and community environments. More recent research has identified numerous interpersonal and psychosocial benefits (i.e., reduced prejudice, negative stereotypes, and intergroup conflict) when community agencies and organizations provide increased opportunities of positive intergroup contact (Al Ramiah & Hewstone, 2013) for community members to work collectively in the distribution of superordinate goals such as healthy foods (Gaertner, Dovidio, Banker, Houlette, Johnson, & McGlynn, 2000).

According to Roger Barker (1965), the unique characteristics of specific types of environments (i.e., “behavior settings”) can enhance how people from diverse backgrounds can communicate (i.e., “scripts”) and interact with each other, improving our ability to understand and relate to one another on multiple ecological levels.

A public park or recreational system, for example, may foster both leisure and healthy physical activities among community residents, whereas a community library may provide opportunities for individuals from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds access to media and literature, providing opportunities for members to read and share intellectual information (i.e., “book clubs”) as a means of enhanced community resilience in disaster recovery (Veil & Bishop, 2014).The_Inver_Hill-Metropolitan_State_University_Communiy_Garden.jpg

Roger Barker identified key terms such as “scripts” and “behavior settings” as concepts that describe how communication and individual behaviors evolve over time within a variety of different types of settings (i.e., social, professional and interpersonal) that provide opportunities for us to build relationships with others. In this sense, then, the physical structure of an environment (i.e., “green space”) influences how groups of individuals collaborate with each other in the development of key resources that are central the health and development of the community itself (White, Alcock, Wheeler, & Depledge, 2013). The purpose of this article is to identify how the development of environmentally sustainable community gardens can help provide essential healthy foods to low income and marginalized populations within the community and serve as vital resources to promote psychological wellness and connectedness to community members.

Sustainable “Green Space” Environments: A Collaborative Approach to Healthier Foods

More recently, sustainable community (i.e., “green space”) gardens have gained increased attention and popularity in communities in that they provide unique opportunities for individuals to work in an outdoor environment that promotes health, resilience, and empowerment with other community members (Moskell & Allred, 2013). The behavioral settings in community gardens are ideal in promoting individuals from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds to not only share horticultural practices to ensure robust yields of healthy foods, but they can also provide numerous psychosocial benefits for members from different cultures to communicate and bond among one another which ultimately increases a stronger sense of community connectedness and identity (Home, Hunziker, & Bauer, 2012). Similarly, communities that provide members with access to specific types environments (i.e., “green space” environments, community gardens and urban forestry stewardship programs) can have a significant and positive impact on both mental and physical health among community members (de Vries, Verheij, Groenewegen, & Spreeuwenberg, 2003; White, Alcock, Wheeler, & Depledge, 2013).

Community Gardens Providing Food for Underserved Communities

Unfortunately, the current rate of individuals living within the United States who suffer from both food insecurity and related issues (i.e., homelessness) is increasing at an alarming rate. Food insecurity is currently defined by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture as “a lack of consistent access to enough food to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle” (USDA, 2015). In 2012, for example, more than 8,500 low income families utilized a Minnesota-based food bank, which was an increase of 59% from the 2007 when the economic recession began. Additionally, between 2000 and 2012 visits to food banks increased in Minnesota over 166%, with over 3 million visits to different distribution centers providing food to low income and marginalized community members (Hunger Solutions, 2013). Providing community residents with increased opportunities to participate in natural environment (i.e., green space) activities can help improve overall physical health through reduced obesity and problems that are associated with obesity, such as diabetes (Dept. of Health, 2004) and also significantly reduce stress levels that are commonly associated with urban living (Urich, Simons, Losito, Miles, & Zelson, 1991). Additionally, community gardening programs have recently been identified as a healthy and inclusive process that helps improve individual wellness and resilience (Okvat & Zautra, 2011).

Low-income and other historically marginalized communities can benefit significantly from healthy food access provided through green space initiatives, such as community gardens. Food insecurity for Americans is a prevalent issue; however, food insecurity among low-income and racial minorities in U.S. households have been reported to be above the national average (11.8 %), with rates as high as 30.8 % (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2017). A lack of access to supermarkets among low-income and segregated communities, potentially limiting the availability of healthy food options for consumption (Bower, Roland, Thorpe, Rohdead, & Gaskinac, 2014), further exacerbates the food crisis among these communities. In comparison, high levels of neighborhood poverty have been associated with greater availability of grocery and convenience stores in relation to supermarkets, potentially increasing access to unhealthy food options (Bower et al., 2014). Additionally, impoverished areas have been reported to have higher availability of fast-food establishments, further contributing to the access of unhealthy foods (James, Arcaya, Parker, Tucker-Seeley, & Subramanian, 2014).

Food insecurity can exacerbate unhealthy dietary patterns which may contribute to chronic illness among affected populations (as cited in Seligman, Laraia, & Kushel, 2010). Accordingly, chronic, diet-related health disparities may manifest within low-income and marginalized communities at disproportionately higher rates given their more prevalent access to unhealthy food options; therefore, access to healthy food options may help alleviate some of the chronic health disparities prevalent among low-income and minority populations. Community gardens are well positioned to provide opportunities for these marginalized communities to gain access to high quality, healthy foods, contributing to potential dietary changes and increased overall health.

Since 2011, students, community members and faculty from Inver Hills Community College and Metropolitan State University have participated in a joint community garden partnership and fruit tree orchard. The garden and orchard were designed with community involvement to help meet the growing needs of providing healthy foods to low income families in the Twin Cities region.The_Inver_Hill-Metropolitan_State_University_Communiy_Garden.jpg

Since 2011 over 10,500 lbs. of fresh vegetables and fruits have been donated to local food banks and distribution centers. The Inver Hills – Metropolitan State University Community Garden also provides community members opportunities to become active participants in growing their own foods and provides participants with tools (shovels, rototillers), irrigation systems, seeds and instruction from Master Gardeners to ensure a successful harvest. Participating in a variety of community development programs such as environmentally sustainable healthy foods programs can help teach community residents basic skills that lead to empowerment, resilience and helps to fulfill our diverse roles and responsibilities as community psychologists.


Al Ramiah, A., & Hewstone, M. (2013). Intergroup contact as a tool for reducing, resolving, and   preventing intergroup conflict. American Psychologist, 68(7), 527-542.

Barker, R. G. (1965). Explorations in ecological psychology. American Psychologist, 20, 1-14.

Bower, K. M., Thorpe, R. J., Rohde, C., & Gaskin, D. J. (2014). The intersection of neighborhood racial segregation, poverty, and urbanicity and its impact on food store availability in the United States. Preventive Medicine, 58, 33-39.

Department of Health. (2004). At least five a week: Evidence on the impact of physical activity and its relationship to health. A report for the Chief Medical Officer.

Gaertner, S. L., Dovidio, J. L., Banker, B. S., Houlette, M., Johnson, K. M., McGlynn, E. A. (2000). Reducing intergroup conflict: From superordinate goals to decategorization, recategorization, and mutual differentiation. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice, 4(1), 98-114.

Home, R., Hunziker, M., & Bauer, N. (2012). Psychosocial outcomes as motivations for visiting nearby urban green spaces. Leisure Sciences, 34, 350-365.

Hunger Solutions, 2013.

James, P., Arcaya, M. C., Parker, D. M., Tucker-Seeley, R. D., & Subramanian, S. V. (2014). Do minority and poor neighborhoods have higher access to fast-food restaurants in the United States? Health & Place, 29, 10-17. doi: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2014.04.011

Kaplan, S., & Kaplan, R. (1982). Cognition and environment: Functioning in an uncertain world. New York: Praeger.

Kelly, J. G. (1966). Ecological constraints on mental health services. American Psychologist, 21, 535-  539.

Kelly, J. G. (1971). Qualities for the community psychologist. American Psychologist, 26, 897-903.

Moskell, C., & Allred, S. B. (2012). Integrating human and natural systems in community psychology: An ecological model of stewardship behavior. American Journal of Community Psychology, 51, 1-14.

Orians, G. (1980). Habitat selection: General theory and applications to human behavior. In J. S. Lockard (Ed.), The evolution of human social behavior (pp. 49-66). Chicago: Elsevier.

Orians, G. (1986). An ecological and evolutionary approach to landscape aesthetics. In E. C. Penning-Roswell & D. Lowenthal (Eds.), Landscape meaning and values (pp. 3-25). London: Allen & Unwin.

Seligman, H. K., Laraia, B. A., & Kushel, M. B. (2010). Food insecurity is associated with chronic disease among low-income NHANES participants. The Journal of Nutrition, 140(2), 304-10. doi: 10.3945/jn.109.112573

Ulrich, R., Simons, R., Losito, B. E., Miles, M., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 11(3), 201-230.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2018, September 5). Food insecurity by household characteristics. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2015). Food Security in the U.S. Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.

Veil, S. R., & Bishop, B. W. (2014). Opportunities and challenges for public libraries to enhance community resilience. Risk Analysis, 34(4), 721-734.

White, M. P., Alcock, I., Wheeler, B. W., & Depledge, M. H. (2013). Would you be happier living in a green urban area? A fixed-effects analysis of panel data. Psychological Science, 24(6), 920-928.

Pathways to Decolonizing the Sex Industries

Written by Christa M. Sacco, Pacifica Graduate Institute

These reflections are based on my unique positionality and experiences as a former sex worker, and the time I have spent researching through embodied shared praxis with different communities of people with experiences in the sex industries in the Los Angeles area. It is not meant to be the final word on the topic of decoloniality by and with people in the sex industries but rather the beginning of a different type of conversation around the sex industries, sex work, and human trafficking. It is a hope that the conversation evolves into one that questions and re-works commonly held terms, narratives and beliefs around prostitution, sex work, human trafficking, and marginalized sexual identities.

Researcher Positionality

I identify as a Black woman living in the US, as a person with lived experience in the sex industries, a survivor, a person with lived experience of a mental health challenge, a peer advocate, a writer, a researcher, a liberation psychologist, and a community practitioner. 

Definition of Terms

Sex work. According to Akers & Evans (2010), “The general definition we use for sex work is the provision of sexual services or performances by one person (prostitute, escort, stripper: Sex Worker) for which a second person (client or observer) provides money or other markers of economic value” (p. 10). Sex workers are diverse people who could act as escorts, call girls, prostitutes, strippers, professional dominatrix and submissive, sex toy salesperson, adult film stars and producers, phone sex operators, webcam models, rentboys, sugarbabies, erotic massage artists, etc. The culture of the streets here in Los Angeles does not commonly use the term sex worker and many ‘workers’ who come from this culture do not identify as sex workers but may feel more comfortable referring to themselves as hoes or not putting a label on it. I did not find the term sex worker until after I was out of the game. So, there is still social distance from the term sex work amongst people who society has labeled sex workers, thinking they are progressive in doing so. Not everyone who performs erotic labor wants to identify as a sex worker and there are many other identities available, but this discourse at least provides one option to broadly organize with others based on their experiences in the sex industries. 

Sex trafficking. The exploitation of someone by means of force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of a commercial sex act (Trafficking Victims Protection Act, 2000). While this can take many forms, such as forced marriages, illegal commercial front brothels, and violent torture and captivity, in the US popular media, the domestic sex trafficking survivor is pretty much synonymous with pimped street prostitution. 

Epistemologies of the Global South.  Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2016) defined epistemologies of the South as ways of knowing that come from the perspectives of people who have “systematically suffered the injustices, dominations and oppressions caused by colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy,” (p. 18). He continued, “a crucial epistemological transformation is required in order to reinvent social emancipation on a global scale” (p. 18).   Here de Sousa Santos distinguished that the concept of the Global South and epistemologies of the South extends beyond the geographic location of the south but is rather used as a metaphor to include marginalized, silenced and oppressed groups all over the globe. It is an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist South which seeks to rise up against systematic repression. 


I will not sit here and lie to you and say sex work and sex trafficking are two entirely separate phenomena and where there is sex work there is never force fraud and coercion, or conversely that where there is pimped prostitution it is always a grave violation of human rights. These are shades of gray and many people who have been in the industry for a long time have experienced a bit of both. There are terribly dehumanizing and deadly spheres of the sex industries that we currently think of as human sex trafficking that may be better defined as slavery and torture, as human trafficking is hardly severe enough to capture the dynamic that some women are subjected to when surviving capitalism in the Global South, for example. There are also spheres of sex work that are based on consent, mutuality, and pleasure. There are many shades in between. Force, fraud, and coercion can also occur in subtle ways and happen on a continuum between one extreme of consensual sex work chosen and defined by sex workers on their own terms and the other extremes of violence. Sometimes these two extremes of the spectrum can be co-mingled within the same location of work. 

One of the challenges we face in going forward with psychologies of decoloniality with people in the sex industries is how do we as an extended community create more equity in terms of sex work options and real protection for sex worker lives to be lived. Another is how do we intervene to stop the violence of human trafficking criminalization and prostitution control policies from directly impacting the survival of our most vulnerable community members, such as human trafficking and sexual exploitation survivors and Black, Indigenous, trans and migrant people. The final one I will mention here, and possibly most crucial, is how do we build safe enough spaces and strong enough relationships to collaborate across the lines of different social markers that separate us.

Sex Work as Resistance

While prostitution is part of a legacy of imperial racist domination, it is also simultaneously a site of resistance in which people can perform narratives and nurture relationships and networks (see Cabezas, 2009) that sharply contradict the socially-induced expectation of sexual and economic subordination. Sex workers are in a key social location to create a contestation to the military-masculine paradigm, to create a new psyche around sexuality and economies of sex and desire, in order to change the role of these structures into one that challenges rather than supports neoliberal drives towards world domination.

For many of the people I am in community with, sex worker identity is more than an economic choice, it is the fight to be exactly who you say you are and not let anyone else define you. It is hard to find people in outside life that can understand your work and calling.  Claiming sex worker identity is a way of resisting the label of sexual outlaw or victim. I encountered groups of people that are engaged in this fight for self-determination in different ways with diverse identities and positions. The resistance to the hegemonic influence of anti-prostitution laws grows stronger as people with experience in the sex industries continue to find ways to come together and share space. In their continued existence and continued ways of defying labels through the unique intersection of sex work identities with racial, gender, and sexual orientation identities, in the politics of representation and the continuous negotiation of being and becoming who you say you are, the struggle for sex worker survival is a struggle of resistance to the objectifying gaze of cultural imperialist groups that continue to support the policing, regulation, and abolition of sex work. When faced with the imperfect and damaged opportunities left to them by coloniality, people in the sex industries continue to fight for their right to exist under legal and economic contexts of impending doom. 

Speaking up as a sex worker is similar to speaking up as a survivor, it comes from the decision to represent and is part of the struggle for survival, to hear others talking about where you have been and need to speak your truth in response to that. The two narratives being told about people in the sex industries, either the empowerment narrative or the flat one-dimensional victimization narrative are both imposed by and dominated by White women and people who generally have more privilege in the discourse and access to education. The narratives of cisgender White women have been privileged over the voices of the majority of people who actually live or work in the sex industries who are queer people, trans people, people of color, youth, people of the Global South, and migrants and other groups that are variably oppressed by the institution of prostitution and the current manifestation of White heterosexual male dominated systems of sex work. 

The construction of sex work as a site of empowerment silences sex work as a site of systems of oppression and simultaneously a site of resistance to those systems that oppress. Painting it with an empowerment lens actually works against sex workers articulating how they are impacted by and resist oppression by the colonial power structure, by implying that empowerment is already available for all within the current contexts of capitalism, racism, gender policing/enforcement, and some of the most violent forms of patriarchy, homophobia, and sexism.

Coming out to the public and speaking about prostitution policies based on our life experiences is a major power move for sex workers and survivors alike to speak to systemic injustices and fight stigmatizing labels. However, it is also a risk that requires the safe enough spaces that make it possible for someone to speak out about their life experiences. But it is not my goal to burden everyone in the sex industries with also having to come out and speak about their lives in order to fight racialized and gender-motivated systemic violence. Instead of neo-colonial rescue missions and empowerment summits, we need to ground our platforms for advocacy in genuinely supportive relationships with people in the sex industries; not to empower ourselves to rescue, to build a movement or to draw conclusions, but to accompany them as they address in their own ways the systems that have silenced, marginalized, and dehumanized them. We can do this by privileging their own authentic strategies and insights and allowing those to come forward and be deeply heard. By continuing to create collaborative spaces of self-care and healing for the people involved without placing claims on their story, such as survivorship, trauma, resistance, agency, or empowerment. 

Sex Work and Decoloniality

Today’s prostitution abolition movement not only robs people in the sex industries of their organic ways of expression, forcing them to use the colonizer’s own ways of knowing and expressing to talk about their experiences; but with stricter and stricter laws being passed against sex work or prostitution affiliations, this abolitionism is coming to be recognized as an all-out attack on the very survival of sex workers that nurtures rather than abates contexts of violence. The cultural imperialism in the current discourse about human trafficking victims, or conversely the discourse about self-empowered activist sex workers, robs people in the sex industries of imagination and epistemologies from the south in claiming their identities.    

Epistemologies of the south as they apply to sex worker organizing starts with creating space for diverse and marginalized groups of people with experience in the sex industries to be brought to the forefront in imagining the alternatives to our current systems of sex work. Knowledge about the liberation of sex workers must come from the people who are engaged in a fight for their right to exist in their full sexuality and not from the various groups that seek to impose their knowledge on them. We have started in our various organizing processes here in LA to create new ways of knowing about and defining the sex industries that honors this diversity and limits the influence of colonial thinking by encouraging the cross-cultural exchange of ideas and the collective and intersubjective process of knowledge creation about the sex industries. Hopefully, this will grow into a true path for finding together new images and a new imaginary to story our existence that do not depend on racially constructed labels and categories of otherness. There is more rationality in the polyvocal decolonial processes of co-creation of image, art, identity, testimony, embodiment, connection, and vocation. 

The liberation of people with experiences in the sex industries implies the freedom of all to choose and create their identities, relations, cultural orientations, and systems of organization, in part through the intersubjective creation of new knowledge that is not attached to the coloniality of power. This creation or expansion of choice lies in a decentralizing of knowledge and power away from the typical centers of cultural production.  Indeed, it has become a survival strategy of oppressed peoples to hide one’s true identity and ways of organization. It may be safer for many people with experience in the sex industries to reside in the margins and better for organizers not to impose more order and control from above, to try to pull more people into the center, as is the current way of operating with human trafficking organizations or empowered mainstream sex worker organizations (I won’t name any names); not to rely on those who benefit from the centralized racist power structure to intervene to change it, but to cultivate authentic social power from the margins by accompanying people where they are and mobilizing alternative and informal networks towards those whose choices are most contested and defiled.

Decoloniality is a way of taking back being for people who have been denied their being-ness (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2013). This can be seen as a redefining being from the positionality of the counter-voice to hegemony, sexism, racism, and patriarchy.  Decoloniality for the sex industries then might begin with continuing to shift how ‘sex workers’ define themselves, how they perform their identities within the margins of colonial gender expressions and sexuality. Driving a wedge into the world of colonial thinking by continuing to make a home in the in-between places, by carving out spaces between the binarized worlds of those that hold power and their victim-defendants, by continuing to speak as a being with agency who refuses to be placed in a silenced category.  

It is not surprising to me that many of the wealthy educated sex workers that I have encountered, who live at the top of the food chain and who benefit from capitalism and White supremacy, are deeply afraid of decolonizing the sex industries. People in general are afraid of conversations about decoloniality because they are afraid that they will make a wrong step and end up the accused, but it doesn’t have to be like that. It is also difficult, even for me, let alone street workers who are still in the game or migrant workers fighting deportation orders, to have the mental space, emotional resources, capacity, etc. to imagine that things could be truly different. Maldonado Torres (2016) reminds us that we cannot win victories for decoloniality solely on the basis of individual objectivity. The work of decolonial scholars points to the need to go to a different level for our solutions. It is the level of the collective, the live-able, the imaginal, the ensouled, the performative, the embodied, the psycho-spiritual, and the supernatural. 

No one really has time to become a superhero, but that is what we must do in entering this new age, we must usher in the fifth dimension and become loving superheroes together. Capitalism does not allow time for healing, but rather demands that we keep up with the whims of the market. So, while surviving the genocide of capitalism by finding sources of income, we must also heal from soul crushing trauma and life-threatening mental and emotional pain, with new traumas and triggers compounding in this constant state of war. All of this we must do while resisting coloniality and finding new ways to re-imagine and re-invent ourselves towards decoloniality in an environment that is constantly seeking to obliterate us and the mark we have left on the world by absorbing and marketing our struggles and finding ways to profit from them while simultaneously neglecting and threatening our most basic human needs. So where do we start?

One antidote is the process I have found in the healing circles of Dr. Beth Ribet. She not only identifies as a survivor, she is also a doctor in sociology and a graduate of the UCLA School of Law Critical Race Studies Program. She is also a personal superhero of mine and founder of the organization Repair ( She facilitates our peer support healing circle of trauma survivors and teaches us and her broader community at UCLA about what it takes to heal from complex trauma and survive capitalism/White supremacy at the same time. Her ideas are definitely influential in how I hold the topic of sex work. Furthermore, the healing circle is a technology that makes a real difference in the lives of those involved, that has been for me a true lifeline for mental health and continued survival. It can be replicated with a solid commitment and minimal resources in many communities independently of the medical system. It is trauma-informed, culturally humble, horizontal, inventive, imaginative, discursive, and fluid. 

It started out with informal meetings at a café in Koreatown, then it evolved into a monthly meeting at one of the members’ homes for (vegan) chocolate fondu and a sharing circle. Since then, we have expanded into many activities, from smashing and burning things in shared ritual to creating artwork and sharing giggles over extremely low bar new year’s resolutions. But the core of the work from which everything else has unfolded has been creating safe enough spaces for witnessing and deep healing connections to happen and grow, while also being able to identify, discuss, and mitigate the impact of the various systems that contribute to differentially harm us and deny our existence. This brings me to a place of a bit more mental distance from strategically organizing for the cause of sex work decriminalization and writing letters to the government (and Dr. Ribet does not use the term sex work she finds it offensive), but it creates expansive alternative possibilities of the types of relationships and communities that it is possible to grow when people with experience in the sex industries are able to create shared contexts that move beyond the various colonial labels that currently divide us. 


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