Session: Operationalizing Political Social Work: Learning from Sex Worker-Led Community Organizations (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

239 Operationalizing Political Social Work: Learning from Sex Worker-Led Community Organizations

Sunday, January 17, 2016: 8:00 AM-9:30 AM
Meeting Room Level-Mount Vernon Square A (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
Cluster: Gender
Symposium Organizer:
Megan C. Stanton, MSW, University of Pennsylvania
Commitment to social justice is a key tenant of social work ethics. Engaging in socially transformative action, however, remains a grand challenge of the social work profession. Political social work is often discussed but rarely operationalized. What are the various forms of political social work? What does political social work look like on the ground? Answers to these questions can often be found in collaborations between social workers and community-led activist and advocacy organizations. Through these inter-organizational partnerships, social work targets structural causes of marginalization in a manner concordant with the priorities and ethics of affected communities.

Sex workers constitute one such marginalized community. Research examining lived experiences of sex workers illustrates the effect of systemic factors, such as economic and social marginalization and criminalization, on the well-being of sex workers and their families. Public discourse on sex work, however, is dominated by an individualistic narrative portraying sex workers as powerless victims or criminals. Many social service interventions with this group, therefore, are deficit oriented and are ineffective at establishing positive change in sex workers’ lives.  In contrast, sex worker activist and advocacy organizations are led by sex workers themselves and have a nuanced understanding of sex worker strengths, challenges, and service priorities. Political in nature, these organizations understand influences on sex worker health and well-being at the individual, community/environmental, and policy levels. Social workers working with such organizations can have a lasting impact on not only the health and well-being of sex workers and their families, but also advocate for broader sociopolitical change.

This symposium will present three examples of political social work with sex workers. The first study investigates collaborations between human service non-profits and grassroots sex workers’ rights organizations and examines how such partnerships are used strategically by sex worker activists to advance community goals and by service organizations to build services in tune with community need.  The second study discusses the role of collective action on sex worker mothers’ ideologies and parenting practices around the health and well-being of their children.  The third study describes the impact of a sex worker-led micro-banking initiative on sex worker economic agency in Kolkata, India. By fostering agency in independent financial decision making as well as organizational leadership, this bank makes a political intervention into the prevailing paternalistic status quo of sex worker economic interventions.

Social work seeks to be a vanguard profession of social change. Engagement in political social work is a key component of achieving social transformation, a grand challenge of social work. These studies operationalize political social work and underscore the role of learning from and collaborating with activist and advocacy groups to advance sustainable and systemic change. If social work research and practice will indeed be at the forefront of social change, then social work researchers and practitioners must learn from the collective action of the community members we aim to support.

* noted as presenting author
The Role of Collective Action on Family Well-Being
Samira Ali, PhD, New York University; Toorjo Ghose, PhD, University of Pennsylvania
Combating Material and Symbolic Oppression through a Sex Worker-Led Micro-Banking Initiative in Kolkata, India
Megan C. Stanton, MSW, University of Pennsylvania; Toorjo Ghose, PhD, University of Pennsylvania; Rita Roy, Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Society
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