Prostitution: The Oldest Oppression


Gloria Steinem/Sponsored by Hedgebrook at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, 11-8-15. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

Gloria Steinem reminds us that prostitution is not the oldest profession for women, but rather it is the oldest oppression of women. This is not just some catchy, smart play on words by a feminist icon. It contains powerful truths. It contains powerful truths that affect public health and policy. It contains powerful truths that affect all of us, even if we prefer to think that it doesn’t.

I’m writing this post the morning after TV actor Charlie Sheen publicly announced he is HIV positive, and linked his infection to his history of alcohol/drug use combined with his ‘use’ of prostitutes. (See NYT article “Charlie Sheen says he has HIV and has paid millions to keep it secret,” by Emily Steel, 11-17-15.) Considering the fact that ‘use’ of female prostitutes by heterosexual men is correlated with high scores for men on different masculine hostility measures, it strikes me as ironic that Sheen’s last–and now cancelled– TV series was titled Anger Management.

Hopefully, most people know that prostitution is not the twisted Cinderella Hollywood version Julia Roberts portrays in the movie Pretty Woman. But Pretty Woman was written and directed by two fairly macho men, and it was released in the dark ages of 1990. Surely the portrayal of prostitution is much improved today. But no. Even the women’s rights advocate, TV screenwriter and producer Shonda Rhimes, is woefully disappointing on this issue. I recently watched the first season of Scandal (which Rhimes wrote and produced) in which the main character–the professional ‘fixer’ played admirably by Kerry Washington–puts on her white hat/gladiator woman power suit and successfully defends a Washington, DC high-class escort/prostitution madame, allowing her to retire as a rich grandmother in Boca Raton, Florida.

In my thirty-plus years work as a nurse, I have worked with many young women involved in prostitution. I was always clear that it was sexual exploitation for underage girls, but within the progressive subculture of clinics/agencies I worked in, we called adult prostitution ‘sex work,’ and erred on the side of harm reduction: trying to help minimize the harms of prostitution to the patient and the public. In many ways–as I view it now–we were supporting their lifestyle, enabling it, and becoming part of the problem. I remain a strong advocate of harm reduction, especially as it pertains to drug/alcohol addiction, but not applied to prostitution.

I know prostitutes who call it a profession, who say they freely choose their work. I’d like to believe them because it would make my work easier. But so many prostitutes (female, male, transgender) have histories of previous sexual abuse as children. Their bodies are not their own; their bodies have been stolen from them. In such situations free choice is not possible. This, combined with the growing evidence that prostitution–even in countries where it is legal and regulated (including health screens/care)–is one of the most hazardous ‘jobs’ in the world, has led me to the conclusion that prostitution is the oldest form of oppression. Prostitution is part of violence against women.

So, what to do about it? In my hometown of Seattle, we have begun to adopt the ‘Nordic Model’ of intervention: decriminalizing (and diverting to supportive care, including housing, health care, counseling, job training) prostitution for the women/transgender people involved, and stepping up criminalization efforts directed towards the customers–or ‘Johns’–and the pimps/BackPages/brokers in whatever forms they take. And along with stepping up legal ramifications for the buyers and the brokers, Seattle has innovative programs, such as OPS: The Organization for Prostitution Survivors. OPS has a drop-in center for women, survivor support groups, art workshops for survivors, as well as community-based service provider trainings, and the new Stopping Sexual Exploitation: A Program for Men (SSE).

Last week I visited OPS and talked with OPS co-founder (with survivor/activist Noel Gomez) Peter Qualliotine. Peter has taken the lead in designing and facilitating the SSE workshops. He explained that the SSE program was designed and piloted for two years and then began full operation in January 2015. He receives self-referrals as well as court referrals, and he’s hoping to be able to move it more heavily towards referrals. As he put it “8,000 men a day in King County are customers on BackPage,” so waiting for men to be ‘caught’ by either their wives/partners or the police and referred in to a ‘John’s School’ such as SSE, will not be very effective.

The SSE consists of a telephone intake conversation that Peter has with the men. He uses a motivational interviewing technique and asks the men, “How has this been a challenging time for you?” He said that with the rare exception of a man with psychopathic tendencies (my term here), the vast majority of men soliciting sex feel at least some qualms about it and also suffer negative consequences (sexually transmitted infections, guilt, relationship/legal/money issues).

The SSE program is based on the social-ecological model of violence prevention, and includes information and role-play on gender socialization and manhood training. It’s a support group model of three hour sessions over eight weeks, and is purposefully limited to ten men at a time. So far this year they have had sixty men complete the program, with some of the men so positively affected/changed by it that they have volunteered to help with further advocacy. (Stay tuned, because local and national news coverage on SSE is coming soon.)

Meanwhile, I know many people who work within public health realms in Seattle/King County who continue to advocate for legalizing prostitution, as if it is similar to ‘legalizing’ marijuana. And the otherwise admirable social justice/human rights organization, Amnesty International, is also advocating this stance–although they cleverly call it “protecting the human rights of sex workers.”

White People Have Culture


“Mauri” or life principle, illustration by Nancy Nicholson in Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Pere’s book, te wheke: A celebration of infinite wisdom. Awareness Book Company, 1997.

The word ‘culture’ is misused and abused. We often use the word ‘culture’ as some strangely polite code word for race and ethnicity, for people who are somehow ‘not like us.’ And those of us white people, part of the dominant culture, typically don’t even believe that we have our own culture–like racism, we can’t see it because of our own power and privilege.

Within health care, we have trainings, courses, (and silly multiple-choice tests) on ‘cultural sensitivity’ and ‘cultural competence.’ As if being sensitive to or competent in this thing called ‘culture’ is possible, and if possible, as if it is a good thing. When what we should be doing is teaching to cultural humility and its Kiwi sister, cultural safety: building in self-reflection, life-long learning, and work to see/undo institutional racism.

I’ve written about different aspects of this issue in previous blog posts: “Cultural Competence, Meet Cultural Humility” (8-16-11), “Cultural Humility Redux” (2-2-14)  and “Cultural Safety: A Wee Way to Go” (3-12-14). Until recently, I much preferred the name/concept of ‘cultural humility’ over the name/concept of ‘cultural safety,’ mainly because I didn’t comprehend the need for the word ‘safety.’ My white privilege comfortable blindness there. But the escalating, deeply disturbing litany of racist violence in our country has forced me to see–duh!–the need for ‘safety.’ My recent return to New Zealand, the birthplace of the term ‘cultural safety,’ also opened my eyes to deeper layers of nuanced meaning of this term, of this work.

Jim Diers, MSW and I co-led an international service-learning study abroad program, “Empowering Healthy Communities,” on the North Island of New Zealand this past summer. We had a group of twenty-two engaged university students, across a range of health science and ‘other’ academic disciplines, and from a rich diversity of self-identified race/ethnicities. As many of them pointed out in their final written reflections, they learned as much from living with our group for five weeks as they did from interactions with New Zealanders. We spent a lot of our time working alongside and listening to community members on various Maori marae (villages), as well as Pacific Islander and other marginalized groups in New Zealand. We learned of their strengths, considerable community non-monetary assets, of their hopes for the future–as well as their challenges and historical traumas…the subtext being the need for cultural safety within health care, as well as within all other New Zealand institutions.

As part of a traditional Maori greeting, people introduce themselves–not by our typical name and credentials/work/university, but rather by details of where you are from: the names of the mountain and river of the land of your family/tribe. So for many members of our group, it was “My mountain is Rainer (or Tahoma as local tribes call it) and my river is the Duwamish (currently an industrial dump/Superfund site..).” And “My people are from Italy, England, Nepal, Mexico, the Philippines (and wait–why ‘the’ with Philippines?–important history lesson of oppression there), China, Israel….” Lovely diversity, except that none of us, unfortunately, could claim Native American/Indian ancestry. We were always asked about that by our Maori hosts–another important history lesson that wasn’t lost on our students. Through participating in this seemingly simple ritual of greeting, we all learned about our own cultures.

At the end of our study abroad program, we received an amazingly powerful talk on cultural safety from Denise Wilson, RN, PhD, a Maori New Zealand nurse and Director of the Taupua Waiora Centre for Māori Health Research at AUT School of Public Health and Psychosocial Studies here in Auckland. She talked to the students about her work with cultural safety in New Zealand–about the need for the ‘cloak’ of cultural safety. She told the story of well-intentioned Pakeha (white/European New Zealander) nurses asking their Maori or Pacific Islander patients, “What are your cultural practices,” and being met with polite, blank stares. “Because that’s our language, our terms, not theirs,” she added. She gently admonished our students to get to know themselves, their own cultures and biases, and to practice humility when working with people they perceive as ‘different’ from themselves–to listen, and “really listening takes time.”

Her closing quote, from Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Pere, whose book I reference in the photo caption in this post, was this:

“Your steps on my whariki (mat)/Your respect for my home/opens my doors and windows.”

Words to live and work by.

BE Uncomfortable


Sliding doors/front entrance to the Nelson Public Library, South Island, New Zealand. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2014

“BE uncomfortable. That’s how you learn!” was one of the final exhortations to our students by Pepe Sapolu Reweti at the conclusion of our”Empowering Healthy Communities” study abroad in New Zealand program this past summer. She was describing the fact that there are many Pakehas (‘white’/European descent New Zealanders) who do not personally know any Maori people, much less ever been on a Maori marae (‘meeting place’ similar to our U.S. Indian ‘reservation’ except that it is the ancestral home of the Maori iwi, or tribes), much much less ever have been in a Maori home. She pointed out that our students had all been on a marae (several, in fact) and had been inside a Maori community meeting house, and had shared ‘kai’ (a meal–several, in fact). That’s an honor and a privilege and something for us to learn from, to take back home–to apply in our own country, in our own daily lives. If the students learned nothing else from this study abroad experience, I hope they learned this.

I was reminded of Pepe’s words this past week as I listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates talk about his latest book Between the World and Me, written in the form of a letter to his son about being a black man in the deeply scarred and racist modern day America. His talk was in the sold-out 2,900 seat McCaw Hall at the Seattle Center, as part of the Seattle Arts and Lectures literary series. The interviewer asked Coates about his article “The Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 edition of The Atlantic, and why he thought it had ‘gone viral’ and been so popular among white people. He replied that he thinks people like the fact he doesn’t sugar-coat things, that “It’s a sign of respect the way I talk directly about things.” And he added, “Reality is uncomfortable. Period.”

Looking around the packed auditorium in one of the whitest cities in America, I wondered how many of us white audience members were now wallowing in white guilt: white guilt which is itself a white self-indulgent privilege. How many of us white Seattleite audience members are willing to push past white guilt to do anything constructive to confront racism in our country, in our city, in our neighborhood, in our own homes? And what are we as health care educators doing to ‘teach meaningfully to’ the effects of personally-mediated and institutionalized racism?

“…as Americans we are so heavily invested in shame, avoidance, and denial that most of us have never experienced authentic, face-to-face dialogue about race at all.” (“To Whom It May Concern” by Jess Row in The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Maxine King Cap, Fence Books 2015, p. 63.) In this same essay, Row states she once saw a book on classroom management for college teachers with the title When Race Breaks Out. “As if it’s like strep throat, as if it has to be medicated, managed, healed.” (p62.)

We need to allow ourselves–and our students–to be uncomfortable, to confront uncomfortable truths in order to learn any lessons that are worth learning.

Carrying Stories: Beyond Self Care


Girl with Balloon, street art by Banksy. This one found at intersection of K-Road and Queen Street in Auckland, New Zealand. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015.

What to do with difficult stories? Stories of refugees, victims of mass shootings, of hate crimes, of rape, of torture victims, of people dying alone and unnoticed ?  It all gets overwhelming and depressing to hear or read these sorts of difficult stories, to carry them in our hearts, to bear witness to so much suffering in the world.

Of course, for many fortunate (perhaps unfortunate?) people, there is the option of tuning out these stories, turning off the news, unplugging from any non-vacuous form of social media. Taking a break from difficult stories.

But what about all the other people who cannot or choose not to disconnect? What about people whose work involves listening to these stories on a daily basis? Frontline health care providers who work with people experiencing trauma (physical, emotional, sexual). First responders. Counselors, mental health therapists, lawyers. Human rights activists. Researchers working on social justice issues. What can they do to, if not prevent, at least deal effectively with, vicarious or secondary trauma? And for those of us who teach/train/mentor students in these roles, how do we prepare students to be able to carry difficult stories while maintaining well-being?

In a previous blog post, “Burnout and Crazy Cat Ladies,” I explored the issue of ‘too much empathy’ and of pathological altruism, linking to some of the (then/2011) current research. After writing that post and some related essays, I began incorporating a new set of in-class reflective writing prompts for soon-to-be nurses in my community/public health course. I used these in a class session I titled “Public Health Ethics, Boundaries, and Burnout.”

The first writing prompt: ‘What draws you to work in health care? What motivates or compels you to do this work?’ And then later in the class session– after discussing professional boundaries (how fuzzy they can be), individual and systems-level risk factors for burnout, and asking them to reflect on how they know when they are getting too close to a patient, a community, or an issue–I gave them the follow-up writing prompt: ‘Referring back to what you wrote about what draws you to work in health care, what do you think are the biggest potential sources of burnout for you? And what might you be able to do about them?’

Feedback from students about this in-class reflective writing exercise and the accompanying class content on boundaries and burnout, was invariably positive. Many of them said it was the first time in their almost two years of nursing education that anyone had addressed these issues. I understand that patient care, electrolyte balances, wound care and all the rest of basic nursing education takes priority, but it makes me sad that we don’t include this, to me what is fundamental and essential, content.

“…people who really don’t care are rarely vulnerable to burnout. Psychopaths don’t burn out. There are no burned-out tyrants or dictators. Only people who do care can get to this level of numbness,” Rachel Naomi Remen, MD reminds us in her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal (Riverhead Books, 1996). Something to remember when we are feeling overwhelmed by difficult stories.


Here are some excellent resources:


Creating Change


Part of the timeline of slavery, racism and related issues. On the wall at entrance to UW Hogness Auditorium for the Health Sciences Service-Learning and Advocacy/Common Book Kick-off event, 10-6-15.

This past week at the University of Washington Health Sciences Common Book kick-off event, I heard a moving speech by Benjamin Danielson, MD. Dr. Danielson is Medical Director at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, a Seattle Children’s community-based clinic in Seattle’s Central District, an area which because of ‘redlining’/racial segregation in Seattle’s history, had been a predominantly black neighborhood. (see the excellent short video “A Really Nice Place to Live” by Shaun Scott). Odessa Brown is co-located in a building with its sister clinic, Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center, a clinic I worked at for five or six years. I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Danielson while coordinating care for a teen with sickle-cell anemia, and I know first-hand what an exquisitely competent and compassionate physician he is. But this week was the first time I’d witnessed his powerful public speaking abilities.

Our UW Health Sciences Common Book this year is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Time of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). This is the fourth year we have had a UW Health Sciences Common Book, with interprofessional activities based on the book’s theme interspersed throughout the academic year. Previous books have been Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (a classic if not a bit ‘overdone’ by now), Gabor Mate’s In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (great topic but his book is in need of heavy editing–he rambles), and last year’s book was Seth Holmes’ Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (great topic but read like a doctoral dissertation–which it was). The New Jim Crow is written in an accessible, non-academic and powerful style, and is, of course, on a painfully current topic in the U.S. and one pertinent to health care inequities: racism.

Dr. Danielson started his talk by acknowledging the history of the Central District where he works, and the ‘strong black women,’ of the neighborhood’s past, Odessa Brown and Carolyn Downs, for whom the two community clinics are named after. Both women advocated for quality and accessible health care for their communities. Odessa Brown, who had experienced racial discrimination in accessing health care, was active in starting a children’s clinic in the Central District before she died at age 49 of leukemia. Kudos to the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic for including information on Odessa Brown (the woman) on their front webpage, in ‘Our History,’ right under ‘Our Mission.’

Carolyn Downs was part of the Seattle Black Panther movement, who with the financial help from people like Jimi Hendrix and James Brown (both from the Central District), in 1968 opened what was then the first health clinic in the community. Less of her history is included on the webpage for the clinic, but I know from having worked there and taking care of the daughter and granddaughter of Carolyn Downs, that she died young of breast cancer–and at least partially because of disparities in access to breast cancer screening and treatment.

I provide some of the history of both Odessa Brown and Carolyn Downs because I admire the work they did during their too-short lives, and because–as Dr. Danielson said in his speech–this can become another example of “black people being deleted from history.”

What to do about the continued, pervasive, and destructive problem of racism in our society, including in our institutions ranging from prisons to hospitals and clinics? The main message from Dr. Danielson and Michelle Alexander (through her book) is that it will take both individual and collective action for us (for the U.S.) to create positive change. During his talk, Dr. Danielson spoke of using the companion community organizing guide to The New Jim Crow, titled Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow: An Organizing Guide by Daniel Hunter (Veterans of Hope Project, 2015).

In chapter one of this guide, “Roles in Movement-Building,” Hunter references the terminology used by Bill Moyer in his book Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (New Society Publishers, 2001) This work divides people’s roles into four main groups: 1) Helpers–direct service providers, 2) Advocates-who work to make systems work better for those in need, 3) Organizers–who bring people together to change systems, and 4) Rebels–who speak truth to power and agitate for radical change. The key is to recognize our own strengths and roles–where we are most comfortable working– but also to see the value in the rage of roles played by different people, because an effective social change movement requires people working in all of these roles.

This is similar to the “Bridging the Gap Between Service, Activism, and Politics” group activity from the Bonner training curriculum that I have used for many years when teaching community health. But (of course!) I like the addition of the category ‘Rebels’ to the mix and plan to add that the next time I use this in teaching.

On a very sobering (as if we weren’t already very sober) note, Dr. Danielson ended his talk Tuesday night by adding that for all the good work and innovative community outreach programs of the Odessa Brown Clinic, he often asks himself if they aren’t keeping children healthy enough that they too can end up in our country’s prison system.

Empowering Healthy Communities Through the Arts


Mural by a student in the Henderson South Studio MPHS (after-school art program for young people ages 9-18). Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

“Art is the outward manifestation of human experience in the world. Art is necessary for survival. To be human and alive is to be an active art maker. Everything that humans create in their act of living is art.” -Tamati Patuwai, MAD AVE ‘Healthy and Thriving Communities’ Glen Innes, New Zealand

It was a happy accident, an unintended yet very welcome consequence of studying ‘how the Kiwis’ do community health from the ground (literally) up, from the community members’ perspectives. The recent experience has changed how I think about community health, has deepened my respect for the power of art (and libraries) to change lives, and has even altered how I view my own community back home in Seattle.

First, a brief recap of the experience to provide some perspective. What I’m referring to here is the recent University of Washington Study Abroad in New Zealand 5-week immersive program I co-led with Jim Diers, a social worker and internationally-acclaimed community development expert. Here is what our course description said about the study abroad program:

“Empowering Healthy Communities is an interdisciplinary Exploration Seminar in New Zealand, focusing on how various communities organize and advocate for overall health and wellbeing. In this seminar, we will combine community-engaged service-learning, community case studies, readings, reflective writing, student independent projects, and immersive living experiences, to challenge students to think more broadly and creatively about participatory democracy, civic engagement, sustainability, and the social determinants of health. This course is grounded in an international, community-engaged, service-learning format aimed at creating opportunities for transformational student learning. We will address the meanings of ‘diversity’ within global and local communities; issues of power and privilege; social justice; what it means to be civically engaged at the local and global levels; and the tensions and differences between tourism vs. travel, and community service vs. engagement.


“The Oarsmen” wall mural on K-Road by Miriam Cameron, 2006. Part of the ‘Visual Artists Against Nuclear Arms’ series. “The idea is we’re all in this together.” Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

New Zealand is an ideal location for this Exploration Seminar. The country has a unique blend of indigenous and immigrant cultures, and its people have a rugged, “number eight wire” can-do, and highly creative approach to solving individual and community problems. In 2014, New Zealand ranked number one in the Harvard Business School’s Social Progress Index for overall wellbeing, while the U.S. ranked number sixteen, just above Slovenia. New Zealand spends one-third less per person on health care than we do in the U.S., yet they have much better population health outcomes. How do they do it? That is one of the main questions we will ask and explore through our work and study in New Zealand. In addition, as New Zealand is a world leader in environmental sustainability efforts, we will challenge ourselves to go ‘as green’ as possible: living in youth hostels, recycling, walking and taking public transportation, and eating a mainly vegetarian diet for our group meals.”

As we discussed with the students at the beginning of our program, New Zealand slipped somewhat in the 2015 Social Progress Index, but is still in the top tier/top ten of the 133 countries with sufficient comparison data to include. In 2015 for the ‘Health and Wellness’ category, New Zealand ranked 9th and the U.S. ranked 68th. And somewhat ironically in light of our study abroad program, the U.S. ranks first world-wide in the Access to Advanced Education category, and is weakest in Health and Wellness and Ecosystem Sustainability. I tried to remind students of this fact, especially when some of them grumbled about the vegetarian meals and relying on public transportation.

Using connections through the amazing New-Zealand group Inspiring Communities, we focused our time on a variety of local community groups working to empower and improve the places they call home. The Central Business District/ Karangahape Road in Auckland. The Avondale and Henderson communities on the outskirts of Auckland. Devonport and Waiheke Island, both more affluent communities. The Ruapotaka marae in Glen Innes. Then south to the Wellington area communities of Porirua, Bromphore School, and Epuni. Consistent through all of these communities was an emphasis the community members placed on the use of the arts to catalyze positive change and to enable community wellbeing. That and public libraries, which community members treasured as being the heart and soul and ‘mind food’ of their communities. Places where true democracy happens. Places to “dream up and enact crazy ideas.” Places that nurture “the freedom to change.”


Mural by schoolchildren at the true ‘community-building’ Berhampore Primary School, Wellington. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

Art, including literary art, was literally everywhere we turned in these communities. And not just the typical government-sanctioned commissioned public art we are used to seeing in the U.S., but also much more grassroots , low barrier, “anybody can participate” community art shown in my photos in this post.


A new version of “Girl with Balloon” street art by Bansky. On building on Karangahape (“K-Road”) Road, Auckland. Photo: Josephine Ensign/2015


P1010020 First photo is of poetry by young people at the Te Oro youth community arts center in Glen Innes. Second photo is a ‘cast off’ (in the trashcan) poem by a rough sleeper/Auckland Central Library ‘Poetry Corner.” Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

This sort of art not only beautified the communities, it also built community identity and promoted wellbeing. Walking around my hometown of Seattle this past week, I’ve been searching for similar sparks of community wellbeing through art and have had a hard time finding them. Yes, we do have some great bus shelter artwork, as well as some building and wall murals–and our public library system has been one of the best in the country (and hopefully will remain so despite a very silly rebranding effort), but I cannot find the same level of  empowering healthy communities through art. Perhaps this is an important ‘take home’ message, one we could use to improve community health and wellbeing in the U.S. More art, less guns.



The Empathy Tool: Thinking Outside the Square

P1000936With income inequality, urban poverty and homelessness rising rapidly in New Zealand, creative and compassionate Kiwis across different sectors are banding together to do something about it. While in New Zealand this past month I ran across a series of innovative interventions: the Auckland-based Family 100 Project, its companion Empathy Tool, and the research report An insight into the experience of rough sleeping in central Auckland.”

The Family 100 Project was a collaborative research project co-led by staff from the Auckland City Mission and a group of researchers from Waikato University, Massey University, and the University of Auckland. The Auckland City Mission is downtown Auckland’s largest non-governmental social service agency focusing on people marginalized by poverty and homelessness. They provide safe shelter through their drop-in center, food parcels, social worker screening and referrals, a homeless outreach team, and a drug/alcohol treatment center. In conjunction with the Auckland Primary Health Organization and the Auckland District Health Board, they operate the Calder Centre, a low-barrier health clinic. Most all of their services are located in central Auckland near the Aotea Square, the main town square and heart of the city.

The Auckland City Mission staff became concerned with the growing number of people accessing their services on a long-term, versus a short term crisis basis as had been the norm. They wanted to understand more of the lived experiences of people in chronic poverty and homelessness. What prevents people from moving out of poverty? was the main question they had.  So several years ago they partnered with the university-based researchers, and drawing from their database of 15,000 clients they selected 100 families to follow for a year (2012-2013). Reflecting the demographics of their overall client base, the sample consisted of 80 female-headed households, 40 were Maori, 25 were Pacific Islander, 22 were European/white, and 13 were Asian. The research team completed frequent in-depth interviews and mapping exercises. The interviews and mapping exercises focused on housing, debt, food insecurity, health, education, and employment.

From what must have been mounds of data, the university-based researchers and Auckland City Mission staff analyzed and interpreted the results and then presented their findings in a series of fascinating scholarly articles (linked here at the end of the page) and in more easily accessible reports, including the summary report Speaking for Ourselvesand the intriguing and highly visual Demonstrating the Complexities of Being Poor: An Empathy Tool.

The Empathy Tool was developed by Mondy Jera, Executive Researcher of the design consulting firm ThinkPlace. I visited Mondy at her ThinkPlace office in Wellington to find out more about how the tool was being used and evaluated. Mondy and her team were also responsible for the design of the rough sleeping in central Auckland report, which has a series of wonderful graphics including the ones shown here. P1010064This was based on a research study focusing on the experiences of rough sleepers in central Auckland and was completed in February 2015. She said that a homeless rough sleeper man in Auckland pulled the report out of his backpack and showed it to a librarian at the Auckland Central Library and told her he uses it to help him navigate services. Not an intended use P1010063of the report, but a very clever one.

She also told me that the library staff saw ‘library’ on her graphic of a house (shown here) representing research findings on what happens when public and private domains meet on the street. The library staff decided to set up special training for them on how to work effectively with rough sleepers, and they have started a movie night at the library for their homeless patrons.

The Empathy Tool is being used in ongoing training with housing groups in Auckland, with Maori Affairs, and in special poverty sensitivity trainings with staff of the New Zealand Ministry of Finance, which is responsible for setting economic policy for the country.

Mondy, who has a Masters in Public Health from Otago University and a bachelor’s degree in sociology (criminology) from the University of Utah, designed an 8-week ’empathy experience’ for a group of eight people from the Ministry of Finance. They first did classroom training using the Empathy Tool and practiced role-playing scenarios. She then gave them each $2 NZ to take the cross-city bus to the soup kitchen for lunch. Most of them had not taken a city bus since their college years and by the time they figured out transportation to the soup kitchen, the kitchen had run out of food. So they pooled their money and bought a communal lunch at the grocery store, commenting on how expensive any healthy food choices were and how time-consuming it was to meet basic needs while ‘being poor.’ They then did a series of on-the-street intercept interviews with people in more impoverished sections of Wellington and finally had an in-depth de-briefing session to talk about their experiences. They were then tasked with designing an innovative intervention to address a common poverty-related problem. They completed this training program a year ago and Mondy plans a follow-up evaluation of it soon.