Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sometimes when they touch, it's all a bit too much

I would expect some pretty big fallout if someone in a Canadian workplace routinely called a co-worker “Fatty.” Or nicknamed them Chino because they had a bit of an Asian look to their features.
    But for the most part, such things don’t seem to rile the average Honduran. I mentioned to one of my co-workers this week that if she ever came to Canada, it was probably best not to call anybody “Fatty” – Gordito – as she had just done while summoning a chubby co-worker. She and the so-called Gordito both looked surprised to hear that such a nickname could be construed as offensive. Gordito himself noted that sure, a nickname like that might cause offence if said the wrong way. But if said in a friendly voice – hey, what was the big deal?
    It got me thinking yet again about cultural differences. A good part of what I see around me in the workplace would be interpreted as harassment in Canada, or at least as “unacceptable practices.” Yet if the other party not only tolerates it but appears to be perfectly relaxed and happy with whatever is being said or done, what then?
    The Hondurans I've met don’t seem to have the same sensitivity around body image that so many North Americans do, which perhaps explains why rather blunt comments related to their appearance don’t seem to rile them. I sense that they accept themselves as they are much more readily, and don't have the crazy thinking patterns so common in my land that if you could only change your physical appearance, everything about your life would be better. 
    So while I quietly wish they'd quit calling each other Fatty, Skinny, Liar and other impolite nicknames, who is it that actually has the problem if I’m the only one taking offence? I've drawn the line at using such nicknames myself, of course, but I'm also trying to stop taking offence on someone's behalf every time I hear such things, given that they show no signs of being offended themselves.
    Then there’s the kind of touching that goes on in the workplace, which is way beyond a modern-day Canadian’s tolerance level. I’ve seen my co-workers – single and married alike - give each other back rubs, lay a hand on each other’s thighs, even cuddle up beside each other on a bed.
    Sometimes we’ll be in the middle of a meeting and one person will come up behind a co-worker and wrap their arms snugly around the person’s waist. The two of them might stay that way for 10 or 15 minutes of the meeting. And we're not talking about a licentious group of people here; my co-workers are deeply religious.
    More than a year and a half on, I’m still quite freaked out by the intimate touching that goes on in broad daylight by people who work together. But I've come to see by the calm and welcoming expressions of the people being touched that in fact, the problem is mine. Nobody but me seems to be troubled by any of it (although I suspect spouses might object were they to show up at work unexpectedly and catch an on-the-job cuddle in progress). And no one is touching me, given that I'm much older than any of them and emitting a prickly don't-even-think-about-it energy.
    I don’t doubt that such touching begets sexual harassment, a concept that my Honduran co-workers are not yet familiar with. I’m sure there are Honduran bosses out there who are taking much advantage of the practice of intimate touch in the workplace, and unhappy employees whose faces are not showing the same calm acceptance that I see among my own cuddly co-workers.
    But perhaps that's a conversation for another day here in Honduras. My co-workers, male and female alike, look at me like I’m some old prude on the rare occasions when I mention that people sure do touch each other a lot more intimately in the workplace than we do back in my land, and call each other rather cruel names that could get you slapped with a harassment suit in a heartbeat in a lot of Canadian workplaces. The people I work with truly see nothing inappropriate in what they’re doing. 
    Chalk it up to cultural differences. I envy Hondurans for being comfortable enough in their own skins that being called Fatty doesn't rile them, but I do wonder where all that workplace touching will lead. Give me a clear no-touch policy any day.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Worry: There's no escape

Long, slow drives to distant communities are opportunities for interesting conversations with my co-workers, as there’s often just me and one of the guys in the truck. We've talked about workers’ rights, Canadian salaries, time management, trades training, attitudes toward homosexuality – you name it.
    “Why do so many people in Canada and the U.S. use drugs?” asked a co-worker last week during one such conversation. Hoo-boy, I thought to myself. Tough question.
    Making a living in the illegal-drug business is something a significant number of Hondurans are intimately familiar with, but there’s not much of a culture (yet) of using drugs and alcohol. Could be the lack of money, could be the Christianity. But it also strikes me that Hondurans just don’t have the drive to experience an altered state in the same way that those of us from privileged countries do.
    I speculated that people in my country just seemed a little more anxious and stressed-out about things, and that they use drugs and alcohol to take the edge off. I think my co-worker was a bit baffled by the idea that people would feel anxious even when they've got 10 times the resources and options that a typical Honduran has. We got to talking about whether there’s a certain amount of worry that people need in their lives.
    If you’re a typical Honduran, you might fill your worry quotient with fears about growing enough food for the off-season, paying your child’s school tuition next month, getting that festering wound on your leg looked at even though you have no money for medical care or transport to the clinic. You’d worry about your day-to-day job, being extorted by thugs on your morning bus ride, how to keep your teenage son from getting killed by the narco-traficantes he has taken up with.
    Few people from a country like mine have those kind of problems. But they might be worrying about where their life’s going, or whether they should quit their job. They wonder if their spouse still loves them. If they've got enough money for retirement. If they're living life to the max. If their children are happy.
    So we're all worrying, but about very different things. Managing problems through drugs and alcohol isn solution for any kind of worry, but I would think that it’s a lot better of a fit with anxiety-type worries in a middle-class country than it is with basic issues of survival. There’s just no margin for error when you live as close to the edge as so many Hondurans do.
    A middle-class Canadian misusing drugs or alcohol will eventually pay the price by way of risking their job, family, hard-earned savings and self-respect, but most of us could go years and years before anything bad actually happened. A campesino who takes up alcohol as a way out of his farming troubles puts his life and that of his family at immediate risk.
    Would my co-worker understand the developed world’s healthy appetite for drugs and alcohol if I told all of this to him? I don’t think I have the words to explain middle-class angst and anxiety to people who have never had the luxury of getting past survival. 
    I don’t know whether my co-worker feels heartened to learn that even when people have the life he wishes he had, they still have things that weigh heavily on their minds. But so it goes. And so the drugs move from south to north, adding a few more worries at both ends as they pass through. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Microorganismo de Montana: The Movie

    Oh, we talk a lot about the importance of organic agriculture back home, but would we climb up a 75-degree slope into a beautiful but buggy mountain forest and dig around in the dead leaves for a couple of hours looking for flecks of white fungus?
    That's how a couple of my favourite Copan coffee producers passed a big part of their day last week, collecting the microorganismo de montana that is used by organic growers in Honduras to make a special fertilizer known for helping plants of all kinds arm themselves against diseases and infestations.
    The fruits of the men's labour are now tucked away tightly in a 45-gallon barrel. The microorganisms will be dining on molasses and rice semolina for the next 15 days, and multiplying like crazy in an anaerobic environment.
    When the mix is uncapped later this month, the result will be a barrelful of natural microorganisms ready to enrich the soil around the producers' coffee plants. That kind of preventive care is always important, but it's critical right now as the producers head into the second of three tough years of losses due to a persistent coffee fungus (the infected plants are either having to be cut back almost to the soil or torn out and the land replanted, either of which results in three years without a coffee crop as the fincas are rebuilt.
    Here's my video of that day that explains how it's done. I've made versions in English and Spanish - clic aqui para la version espanol.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

If PEERS was a person, I guess I'd call this love

Find the newsletter at http://www.peers.
    I can’t think of many former employers that I would happily continue to work for without pay. But PEERS Victoria is clearly one of them, seeing as it’s been six years since I finished my time there as executive director and yet I still threw my hand up with genuine enthusiasm last month when asked to put together PEERS’ latest newsletter.
   What is it about the place that has caused this permanent attachment? 
    Part of it is the passion I feel for doing something that gets us thinking about how we judge and marginalize sex workers. Another big part is the amazing, resilient and loving people I have met over the years because of my association with PEERS and sex work – both the people come for services and those who come to work or volunteer there. A lot of us appear to be bonded to the place for life.
   But the other thing that ties me to PEERS is that after spending three years observing its grassroots model in action, I’m a believer. PEERS was created by and for sex workers, and in its best moments it is capable of amazing work. When things are going right at PEERS, you really feel the power of grassroots action to change lives.
   Things are not exactly going right at PEERS in this moment, unfortunately. The great staff and volunteers are still there – many of them the same ones I worked with during my time at PEERS – but the resources to run the place aren’t. (Read an earlier blog of mine here to understand more about how the current financial situation came about.)
   PEERS has had to give up its daytime drop-in, its group programs, and all the many community connections that have grown out of that vital work. Outreach services continue, and that’s a very good thing, but the drop-in and group programs were the all-important next steps for many outreach clients.
   Harm-reduction and referral services directly on Victoria’s stroll are obviously very important for the vulnerable, street-entrenched women who are frequent PEERS clients. But to no longer have the next step – the services that support people who need outreach first but then are ready for bigger changes in their lives – well, that’s a cruel folly.
   To no longer have one safe, judgment-free place where sex workers can go, in whatever shape they are in on a particular day, gives the lie to all that hand-wringing we did after the Pickton trial revealed just how complicit we all are in creating the conditions for murder.
   Vast sums were spent on Pickton’s prosecution and an inquiry into those horrible, shameful years in B.C. - $102 million on the trial, almost $8 million on the inquiry. For that kind of money, PEERS Victoria could run its day programs and drop-in for the next 366 years. And what did all that spending result in for the province’s sex workers? Fewer services. PEERS Vancouver closed last year, and PEERS Victoria is struggling to hold on. As they go, nobody else is stepping up to do this specialized type of work. (The 2012 inquiry is titled "Forsaken." Fitting.)
   I hope you’ll check out the newsletter, and consider passing it on to others who might want to know more about this situation or have ideas for new funding sources for PEERS Victoria.
   About $300,000 a year would restart the drop-in and day programs. On the one hand, that’s not much. On the other, that’s way beyond bake sales and car washes. While individual donations are always welcome at PEERS, what I’m wishing for is that someone within government who cares about the issue will step up quietly to guide the way to a good funding fit. Somebody out there knows where there’s money for this important work.
   Running PEERS was the toughest job I’ve ever had, and there were lots of times when I’d be  crying in the car on the way home. That was definitely a first for me. But there were many moments of something akin to bliss, too, where I would look around at all these caring people trying to pull each other through and just see all the love and optimism in that work.
   What a pleasure it has been to stay connected with so many of my PEERS friends for nine years now, and to see the tremendous changes they have brought about in their own lives and those of others who they’ve since reached out to. And I’m very happy that the PEERS gang still thinks of me when a newsletter needs doing, because that tells me that the bond goes both ways.

   Please keep the buzz going about this issue. Keep the media comments and the emails circulating. May the office phones of our MLAs and MPs ring incessantly with demands to do something about this unacceptable loss of services.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Stumbling into a micro-organismatic adventure

  There are days when the frustrations of a new work culture pile up on me. And then there are days like the one I had this week, when it’s all just a total blast.
    The occasion was a workshop in a neighbouring community to demonstrate how to make two kinds of organic fertilizers. I like the hands-on workshops anyway – always interesting, loads of picture-taking opportunities – but looked forward to this one in particular because a couple of campesinos I always enjoy talking with were going to be there.
    Workshop days virtually always start with having to load heavy things into the truck and then drive around looking for some piece of equipment or fertilizer ingredient that we don’t have. The slow starts used to drive me crazy, but as time passes I've grown to like them. Instead of sitting tensely in the truck waiting for my workmate to return from his or her chores, I do a little wandering, maybe shoot a little video (my current obsession).
    Eventually, off we go, in this case to the house in Sesesmil II where the workshop was going to take place. But before we could get started, the two coffee producers who I really like had to hike into the woods to gather two sacks of a naturally occurring microbe known here as microorganismo de montaña. My co-worker suggested I go with the men – Don Candelario Hernandez and Don Alfredo Morales - in order to get video of the process.
    We’re going way up there, Don Alfredo told me, pointing high into the hills. I laughed, thinking he was joking. He wasn't.
    Within minutes of starting out, I regretted my choice of shoes that day: Sandals, although at least they had some grip. I would later come to regret my lack of insect repellent as well, and my folly at bringing my purse along. It swung jauntily on my shoulder as I slogged through creeks, over slippery rock and mud, then up what had to be a 75-degree, heavily forested slope.
    I slid, slipped and fell several times on the side of that mountain. Fortunately, it was slow-motion falling that left plenty of time for grabbing a branch on the way past, and I appreciated that the men I was with just acted like my tumbles were part of the adventure. By the time we got back to the house a couple of hours later, my purse and I were covered in mud, I was nursing a bruised hip, and my cute little sandals were caked in dirt and bits of dead leaf.
    This is not to suggest that I was unhappy with any of that, however. Even after a year and a half of doing this work, it’s still a treat to be able to head into the lush Honduran hills with people who know their way around. I marvel at their machete magic, at the way they fashion a glass out of a big leaf to scoop up creek water for a drink. Scrambling up a crazy incline to dig under rotting leaves for pockets of a mysterious microorganism would not be an invitation I’d jump at, but maybe that’s why I like my work adventures so much: I end up doing things I’d never have done otherwise.
    And how cool is it to watch these guys collecting this microorganism (picture bits of white fungus-like stuff, which in nature helps rot dead leaves) and thinking that I just might be enjoying the benefits of their work one day while sipping my morning cup of coffee? I come from a land where there’s a lot of talk about organic processes, of getting back to the land and doing things the natural way. But these guys are living it.
    Want to try your own microorganism fertilizer? Here’s the recipe, presuming you have access to a tropical forested mountain to get started: Two sacks of microorganism de montaña; 1 quintal (45 kilos) of rice semolina; and 4 litres of molasses diluted in enough water to ensure the mix ends up uniformly damp but not wet. Pack it all into a big barrel – pounding it down as you go to remove air – and seal it tight for 15 to 20 days. Dilute a half a kilo of the mix in 15 litres of water for a fine organic foliar spray.
    But of course, the fun all happens on the side of the mountain. Video to follow. 

Monday, September 02, 2013

Dwindling services for sex workers tells grim story in the post-Pickton years

It's very nearly nine years to the day since I jumped out of my comfortable life as a journalist and took up a job heading a small grassroots organization for sex workers. Many things have changed since then, but PEERS Victoria is never far from my heart no matter what else is going on for me.
   I could write a book about the things that astonished me, informed me and bowled me over in those three years as executive director of PEERS. There was so much to learn, not the least of which was how to live with an unwieldy new performance-based contract with the province that had replaced the core funding that PEERS had received up to that point.
    The third generation of that contract is what has turned out to be PEERS' undoing. The organization announced this week that it just can't make a go of it anymore in its contract with the Ministry of Social Development, and is having to give up its daytime drop-in and its daily groups for sex workers seeking change in their lives.
    A sad development, yes. A terrible thing to happen for vulnerable, stigmatized people who often won't access other services because they're afraid of being judged. But as one of the many people who have tried to make various forms of that blasted provincial contract work over the past decade, the only thing that surprises me about this turn of events is that PEERS actually managed to make the contract work for as long as it did.
    In its first manifestation, during my time at PEERS, the contract was extremely difficult but still possible, especially given that the contract manager on the government side was willing to trust the organization and put a little stretch in the rules to accommodate the vast number of barriers that sex workers are facing when they first walk through the doors at PEERS.
     But my creativity was still tested to the max trying to make that contract work, because it was based on PEERS running a pre-employment training program when the reality was that the people we were working with were still trying to struggle out of serious addictions, critical mental-health issues, poverty, housing problems and violence. Under the contract, we had six months to get those people ship-shape and either into the "square" job market, taking further job training at another agency, or attending college or university. That simply wasn't possible.
    Still, we did manage to squeeze enough money out of the contract to offer a pretty good program. But in the second- and third generations of the contract, which came along after I left, the money got tougher and tougher to access for PEERS, and for any of the non-profits serving people with complex and multiple barriers.
    This last contract iteration, which came into effect in the spring of 2012, is a fee-for-service model that doesn't pay for anything unless it can be delivered as a billable service. So any interaction with clients either had to be reinterpreted as a billable service - a terrible fit with a peer-led organization that knows a slow and gradual approach is the only thing that works - or go unfunded. The contract also has complicated and heavy reporting requirements that eat up much (unfunded) administrative time.
     It pays poorly to boot, and required for the first time that PEERS give up being a direct provider and instead become a sub-contractor. That change has prohibited PEERS from having contact with government contract managers or doing any lobbying about the problems of the contract.
    Like I say, it was only a matter of time until everything went sideways. And now it has. Fortunately, PEERS continues to have other funding for its day and night outreach services, but the drop-in space that was such a vital support t is gone. So are the daytime programs, which not only served to help clients start working through their many challenges but also as a de facto detox for people who desperately needed a structured environment to be able to stop using drugs and alcohol.
    And so it's a sad day. One more service gone for marginalized, vulnerable people trying to get their lives together. One more service gone for sex workers, who have already lost PEERS Vancouver and other sex-worker-specific supports as a result of the provincial and federal governments' continuing withdrawal from community social services.
    PEERS will survive, of course. It always does. This time returning to its roots as an outreach service might even be good in a way. But who could have imagined in the hysteria of the Pickton trial just seven years ago that where it would take us would be to a time with even fewer services for sex workers? Who could imagine that not only would we ignore the recommendations of the Pickton inquiry, we would retreat even further from doing anything helpful for the women we seemingly only care about when they turn up dead?
   The following are just a few of the reactions from PEERS clients after learning that the drop-in and Elements are gone. And if there's anything you can do to change any of this, please do.
From the clients: 

The first few weeks at PEERS I was a closed-off and very detached person. I would freeze with anxiety just from being around people. As time went on I felt more and more safe and started to wake up every morning excited to go to class. I made friends. My life today is so much better and I have my children back and am free from drugs.

When I learned the program was closing, at first I was in shock, then a little disturbed and upset and worried and wondering what I was going to do to keep myself in routine. Worried that my depression will set in without having some routine and friendship I have through PEERS. This is one of the best programs I have ever been to – and I have been to a lot. This program is a form of treatment that works!!!
I am a person with mental illness. I am on permanent disability. PEERS is the only program that I actually fit in and am accepted in, as quirky and different as I am. I do not use drugs or really party. PEERS helps me find me. It also helps me learn. These are some things that I have personally learned at PEERS: Treat people the way you want to be treated; any behaviours that I have that need to be changed to better myself and I don’t change are insane behaviours. They taught me respect of myself and others. I learned communication skills and skills to express my feelings. I also learn about patterns and what I can do to change them. Identifying our problems is the key that allows us to change.
With [Elements] closing, how can I learn to change and grow when I do not fit in any other program? PEERS is a unique program that turns no one away, even when no one else wants you. These staff members are special and unique and deal with many people on a broad spectrum of issues, most having mental health issues.

Every time I have come [to this program] since before it has been closing, I been really sad. I feel different about PEERS. Also it was a good place to vent. It helped me with problems and finished my probation order to come here. I really sad that I won’t be able to come here for the great food and company. Plus it help me get my Wal-Mart cards to get food at the end of the month. Please think about not closing the Elements program.

I am [age removed to protect anonymity] years old and am strong and healthy. I have PEERS to thank for that. Three years ago ago as a vulnerable escort, I was a victim of domestic abuse, sexual violence and was doing sex work 70 hours a week. I was broken. Sent from Victim Services, I made an intake appointment to begin attending PEERS. I was so nervous, I was afraid of being judged. Then I met Sarah. She was the counsellor and intake worker. She was very comforting and reassuring. I applied for Elements. I was told it was a program to support me while I was in the sex trade as well as help me transition out of it. I was reassured that the women were very welcoming and that everything shared in Elements was confidential.
    The Elements program changed my life! Meeting other woman who had quit working in the sex trade really motivated me. The structure of coming to classes really helped me. Through work sheets, check-in and counsellor-led classes, I worked through my trauma and addiction. I found the group setting really helped me feel a part of something. Hearing women’s stories that were similar to mine, I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew my feelings were normal. Us girls in Elements became like a family. We consoled while maintaining healthy boundaries. PEERS taught me boundaries.
    In the past, I had been through lots of therapy. I found I didn’t get the same kind of healing. I couldn’t open up the same as being at PEERS. At PEERS, like the name, everyone is a peer. I knew that the counsellors and other women, clients or staff had “been there, done that.” It was the first time ever I had felt understood.
    PEERS helped me to recover from my post-traumatic stress disorder. The counsellors helped me work it out and walked me through the court process. They also came with me to court. When I was afraid to leave my home, a counsellor transported me to and from PEERS to keep me safe.
    PEERS not only helped me with my emotional needs, but also my physical. I was taught safety precautions to keep me free from STDs and unsafe clients. They provided me with a “black list” of all dangerous clients to avoid. They also provided me with a female doctor. Dr. Cunningham made STD tests and other checkups comfortable and thorough. She never rushed me, and I felt safe in the comfort of PEERS.
    PEERS always provided basic needs – a nutritious hot meal daily and when I didn’t have groceries or the money to buy them, PEERS would send me home with a care package.
    Some of my fondest memories are of Beauty Day. I always looked forward to Friday, Beauty Day. We girls were pampered, making us feel beautiful and helping our self-esteem. We would receive haircuts, manicures and massages. All of these were done by professionals. I was also welcome to help myself to the clothing room. To this day, most of my closet consists of clothing from that clothing room.
    Today I think of all the skills and abilities I have learned and taken from PEERS, and they help me each day. At PEERS I attended poetry classes, where my poems were published in two books. It helped my self-esteem enormously. I also learned yoga and knitting, which will help me for the rest of my life. They help me get through the tough times.
    To whoever reads this, I hope you have a better understanding of the importance of PEERS. PEERS has saved my life. I am distraught that my safe haven is being taken from me. I need PEERS. The love, support, safety and resource is a necessity for Victoria.