Ethical Accountability and High Stakes Recordkeeping – the blog post

Hello readers! This blog post is a compilation of a number of conference presentations that the Sex Work Activist Histories Project (SWAHP) team and friends have given over the years on a topic that is really important to us – how we work together ethically and maintain good relations with each other even when the stakes are high.

The folks that have been involved in these conversations and that are writing this blog post are Amy Lebovitch (Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC)), Jenn Clamen (Stella, l’amie de Maimie), Shawna Ferris (University of Manitoba), Danielle Allard (University of Alberta), and Micheline Hughes (University of Manitoba). The conference presentations have happened at Canadian Association of Information Science (CAIS) 2021 (presented virtually on June 9, 2021), Women and Gender Studies et Recherches Féministes (WGSRF) 2022 (presented virtually on May 15, 2022), and Alberta Society of Archivists (ASA) 2023 (presented virtually and in Edmonton Alberta on May 27, 2023).  Here is the first slide from each of these presentations:

What follows in this blog post is the extended abstract from the first of these presentations. The full conference proceedings are also published on the CAIS website and linked to here (Allard,  Lebovitch, Clamen, Ferris, & Hughes, 2021). Below that we have included compiled and slightly revised speaker notes from each of us as we grappled with the important issue of working together in ethical and relational ways in the context of high stakes recordkeeping. We organized our presentations around a series of questions for each speaker and have organized our conversation below in the same way.

Ethical accountability and high-stakes recordkeeping: Discussions from the Sex Work Activist Histories Project (Panel)

Extended abstract from Canadian association of Information Science (CAIS) annual conference

1. Introduction

A vibrant, influential, and connected Canadian sex work rights movement has, for decades now, been engaging in an array of remarkable resistance projects that counter dangerous sex work laws and dehumanizing public perceptions about sex workers. The Sex Work Activist Histories Project (SWAHP) is an interdisciplinary research initiative to record and disseminate the radical knowledges, activist expertise, and alternative histories created by many of these activists. SWAHP has set out to (1) collect or record, write, curate, preserve, and/or engage with more than forty years of activist histories from some of the longest-standing sex worker-led organizations in Canada; (2) augment, develop, and implement methodologies and best practices for valuing and sharing knowledge and expertise between non-academic and academic communities; (3) develop methodologies and best practices for the sharing/recording and preservation of alternative histories told/represented in ways that matter to their creators, including the Sex Work Database – a community archives being created by the project, and (4) support and contribute to feminist anti-violence scholarship and activism that contests conceptions of violence against certain people as deserved and expected. An ongoing challenge in doing this work collaboratively are the divergent vocabularies, project priorities, accountabilities, understandings of what is at stake, and risks and vulnerabilities between and among the sex work activist organization members and academic partners in this relationship/partnership. At the same time, we share the work of project administration and decision making, record arrangement and description, and the use of analytical and critical thinking skills to further project goals. Perhaps most importantly, we share a wish to explore and uncover how we might put archival processes at the service of sex work activism.

This panel will discuss established and developing practices and key findings from SWAHP’s first two years as we worked with our partners to collect and archive their histories. We will first introduce feminist and Indigenous notions of ethical, affective, and relational accountability (among groups, between academics and non-academics involved in the project, and between humans and their records/histories) to explore our work together (Agustin, 2004; Brown & Strega, 2005; Caswell & Cifor, 2016; UNAIDS & WHO, 2007; Wilson, 2012). Caswell and Cifor, for example, draw from feminist ethics of care to suggest that “archivists [should be] seen as caregivers, bound to records creators, subjects, users, and communities through a web of mutual affective responsibility” (2016, p. 23). We elaborate this notion to consider how all participants in SWAHP have differently situated responsibilities, obligations, stakes in the project, and experience different vulnerabilities through their participation on the project. Our discussions will consider both the divergences or differences between academic and non-academic project partners, our convergence or common ground, AND the bridges we must build between academic and non-academic concerns and practices to establish and develop methodologies and practices that inform SWAHP’s ongoing collaborations including the development of sex-work activist histories, archives, and related sex work activism. Drawing on feminist and Indigenous notions of ethical and relational accountability provides a framework for us to productively consider how to be mutually accountable to our varied and complex analytical and affective positionalities in the specific context of this work and as we move forward together.

2. Panel format

Rather than identifying the specific arguments that each member of the panel will make, below, we identify instead broad perspectives and positionalities brought to our partnership by differently located members to demonstrate our divergent and convergent responsibilities, obligations, expertise, and the stakes with which we are contending. Each member of the panel will introduce themselves and their relationship to the project. Panelists will then be invited to respond individually to a series of related questions, as well as to each other. Finally, we will invite the audience to offer their own thoughts and experiences to this conversation about working in complex or community partnerships.

3. Participants

Sex Work Activist Organization Contributors: Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC) representative Amy Lebovitch; Stella, l’amie de Maimie representative Jenn Clamen

The non-academic, sex work activist group representatives in this panel discussion will consider and discuss both their group and individual responsibilities and accountabilities to the project as well as the ‘high stakes’ nature of this work. The context is high stakes for some groups because of the possibility that SWAHP might be the only place or time that their histories are recorded and/or formally recognized since community groups may not have the pre-existing funding or infrastructure to do this work alone. These representatives sometimes feel pressure to acquiesce to academic timelines, frameworks, and expectations that do not align with their own goals in order to ensure that the work gets done. The context is also high stakes for many individuals because of considerations around personal legacies; because many activists’ personal lives and experiences—some of which are secret, or private, or violent, or intertwined with others’ lives and experiences they do not have permission to tell or record—are connected with group records and histories.

These contributors will also emphasize that activist histories from marginalized groups are often difficult histories because of the losses to groups and individuals that they include. On the other hand, contributors often feel a strong sense of pride at seeing the depth of history and significant labour, recordkeeping and otherwise, that has gone into organizing for their own rights. Re-telling and recording histories can therefore be associated with joy, pride, or exhilaration as well as trauma, mourning, anger, and frustration. Group representatives will elaborate how SWAHP work requires a range of expertise and labour, including significant emotional labour, on the part of activists. Within academic and LIS and archival practice circles at least, this emotional labour is rarely accounted for when academics describe their work, how they do it, and why it matters.

Academic Contributors: Women’s and Gender Studies associate professor Shawna Ferris; Library and Information Studies/Archival Studies associate professor Danielle Allard; Indigenous Studies doctoral candidate Micheline Hughes

The academic contributors on this panel discussion will each consider and discuss their academic and ethical responsibilities within each of the disciplines from which they come. For some of the reasons identified by the non-academic contributors, the context is also ‘high stakes’ politically, emotionally, academically, and historically for SWAHP academics. These contributors will focus on the ethics of doing ostensibly academic labour and archival practice with and for groups to whom they are outsiders, but with whom they consistently work to maintain good relationships. The academics will also examine the emotional labour of SWAHP recordkeeping—labour for which academic training does not prepare researchers or LIS practitioners. Recognizing that because the histories being framed and recorded are not theirs, the academic team members may not experience the more difficult emotions associated with SWAHP. They have learned that they must nonetheless prepare themselves emotionally for the responsibilities of witnessing/receiving complicated histories. Contrary to traditional education about LIS and archival practice, contributors argue that they have also learned to anticipate and make room for their own and others’ affective responses to SWAHP activities.

Academic contributors will also explore how this work requires them to open up their definitions of what is a record, what is an archives, and what is a best practice, as they discuss and prioritize the understanding of these concepts with non-academic stakeholders. As with other community archives, because this project focuses on preserving histories in ways that matter to their creators, foundational and traditional archival concepts are revisited if/when they don’t serve the goals of the project (Zavala, Migoni, Caswell, Geraci & Cifor, 2017). Opening up and questioning these definitions and practices can feel risky. We must also acknowledge however that the risks are not equivalent to the risks that non-academic contributors face as they work to preserve and tell their own histories.

To be very clear, the sex work activist community members participating at this conference have a long history of participating in academic settings and working alongside academics to improve the research, journalism, cultural heritage, and social narratives that are created about them and without them. We offer this conversation at this conference because we believe it has significant value for LIS researchers and educators engaging in, speaking to, and teaching about community-based research and practice. We wish to generate honest discussion that can make visible the high stakes of this work as well as the bridges that must be built in order to work together on the SWAHP project and to be accountable to each other and our various affiliations. More broadly, this work aligns with our shared commitments to re-imagine LIS research and institutional contexts that are supportive of rather than harmful to sex workers and sex work activism.

Questions for community partners Amy Lebovitch and Jenn Clamen

Amy Lebovitch

Question 1. What histories do you want this project to remember?

I want to remember and record how diverse sex workers are. I want to remember the histories of sex workers who use drugs, and other sex workers who are marginalized, even within our movement and who are often not included in mainstream activism because of “respectability politics”.

For me,  more important than what to remember is HOW to remember. As sex workers, our histories are often told by academics. And while we as sex workers and activists tell and share and remember our own histories together, in so many different ways, society has this fucked up idea that libraries and academia hold histories. I would argue that our histories are routinely NOT held or represented  in a way that benefits sex workers in those spaces, or in a way that benefits our collective fight for rights and the reduction of whore stigma. In fact, these spaces reinforce and exacerbate whore stigma.

Question 2. What makes this high-stakes recordkeeping for you? What makes this work important? What makes it difficult?

Our work  feels high-stakes for me on a few different levels:  Personally. Politically. Ethically. I am in a few different roles on the project. I am part of the project, helping to manage and record the histories, and at the same time, I also have been part of those histories or at the very least they are about my community of sex workers, my colleagues, and my friends. So, in my role on the project, I feel a sense of accountability. Am I doing things correctly? Am I making the right decisions for my community?

With grants and funding especially, things move slowly. We have a small team. We can’t work with all the activist groups, record all the histories, and do everything all at once.nd so I have some feelings around that. This project will take years and years of continued work. This isn’t going to take a few years and it’s done. It will take years to complete, and then to maintain and add to,because our activism keeps going. This is not  a project that can  be created and walked away from. How do we continue to get funding to do this long term work? How do we do this within the academic system that, from my perspective as part of a population of “overly researched”, is interested in coming into our communities, recording their findings, and going out. Leaving. It’s rare for research to continue far beyond the initial project, and in fact, grants often say that they are not for projects that are continuations of other projects. Grants are funded when they have new ideas. This has to change. This creates problems for projects like these which move beyond community based researcher, or even community based participatory research, and into community driven research, which by the way, is the ONLY ethical way to do research WITH sex workers. Period.

I need and want to get everyone’s records in the archive, as soon as possible, as I know all too well that histories get lost when we lose people, when things burn down, when people have to leave behind boxes of records and artifacts because of eviction, and because of other tragedies. But I also know that things take time. I know that we are not only taking care of the actual records, but also the stories behind those records, and making sure the tags on the records are from a sex worker rights-based position. We are not simply “recording” but participating in preserving these histories in a way that honours individuals, groups, stories, memories, folks lives, and folks work. his archive promotes a strong right based approach. We make sure that our activist stories are told in a way that honours them. It’s a lot of pressure and it’s a lot of fighting to get our project done in a way that feels ethical to sex workers. Not ethical to the university. Not ethical to Shawna’s or Danielle’s or Micheline’s peers, but to my peers. My sex worker community.

Question 3. How are good relationships on the project maintained? What else do you want researchers to learn from this panel?

Good relationships are maintained through honesty, integrity, and not working with the academy; instead we work  through it, piercing it, and making it work for us. We work to challenge these powers that hold funds, that hold ideas, that hold histories, and that apparently hold ethics. We make sure that community knows that those on this project don’t just want to sit back and work alongside these bad policies, the harmful practices that don’t help sex workers, and the policies that allow for research to continue on us often in bad,unhelpful, and harmful ways. We want to maintain our good relationships with community by showing up for community. We want to pay people well. We recognize that community holds the expertise on things and work to use the power of academia to facilitate and access what community wants and needs.

I want researchers to know that we are not something to research. Go research something else. But, if you want to help us, if you want to use your power to facilitate projects and initiatives and research that we can actually use, then do that. As a non sex worker, what you think is cool or interesting or needed, likely isn’t. Please use your power to make change. Please use your resources to help my community achieve what we need. We are the experts in our own lives, and we need you to use your powers for good. Ask us what we need. We will tell you.

Jenn Clamen

Question 1. What histories do you want this project to remember?

We want to engrave in history the diversity of sex workers that have been organizing in some of the most difficult conditions. In the 27 years that Stella has been active, thousands of sex workers have come through our doors. Sex workers’ stories are so often minimized or sensationalized and the real diversity is rarely represented in popular media, feminist movements, and in the public. Sex workers’ stories are also glorified and sex workers are discounted as either “happy hookers” or “victims”. So ensuring a broad and diverse library of stories through record keeping is the only way that we can tell the truth about the diverse communities who do sex work.   For example, people need to know that the movement in Montreal was started in Montreal by trans sex workers on the street. And the documentation we have to tell that story is important – the photos, the posters, the flyers.

We also want to ensure that the differences of style, personality, and ways of resisting are recorded  – including the deep levels of creativity in our resistance movements. Resistance and advocacy are so difficult, and take so much time and resources from people’s lives as they struggle to survive the conditions of criminalization, discrimination, and stigma. And people resist in so many formal and informal ways that need to all be documented. Our organizations have had the privilege of collecting artefacts from this organizing and these stories need to be told to inspire and inform the next generations of sex workers.

We want to remember the sense of community and how actions brought people together. So much of this can be seen in the power of the photos and documents and recorded words.

Sex workers are judged and critiqued, and at every moment people try to discount sex workers. showcasing and remembering the things that people refuse to see, in the hopes that one day they will see and understand, and because of this, that sex workers may experience less discrimination as a result of this understanding – that’s why it’s important to remember and showcase these memories.

Question 2. What makes this high-stakes recordkeeping for you? What makes this work important? What makes it difficult? 

For the same reasons that it is important to tell these stories, it’s dangerous to put them in the public. They can be misused, appropriated, and told without context – context is everything – what the story is behind the artefact, who it was created by, what was going on in the city at the time of its creation, what was going on in the political, physical, and social environment when the artefact was created all tell the story. The artefact on its own only tells a partial story. So the stakes are high and we need to ensure that we provide the context to each of the stories, that the story is told with  the rich context in which it happened.

Another reason this is high-stakes recordkeeping is because this is the only record of the stories –  our records are the institutional memory of the organization, without them there are fewer or disjointed stories to tell. The memories can’t remain with  individuals alone because people leave the sex industry and disassociate with activist communities, they die, and they move on.  The records feel precious and important to keep, and it sometimes feels like a big of a rush to do that keeping. There is also concern for who will pick up the mantle of keeping the records and how we teach the next generation to use the records as they were intended.

Because the records are filled with memories – going through the past and looking at the stories can be useful, but can also be painful. This also feels like high-stakes work. Seeing the photos and documents and memories of people we have lost – it can be melancholic, but also enraging. The record keeping is one way of ensuring we keep that rage alive, and the memories alive. 

Yet another reason this work is high stakes is because of the nature of the records and the stories that they tell. Sex work is criminalized – this means that people do not always want to be known. I found this to be the hardest part of the project – protecting the identity of people who are no longer in community. How should we do that? This was mainly an issue with photos – when the photos were taken in the 1990s and early 2000s people didn’t think through the implications of how information lingers on the Internet. Today with social media etc, people are more conscious that photos are shared and remain online forever, so there is more consent and engagement around photo taking and sharing. But in earlier years when people snapped cameras, the images could not travel as quickly or as widespread. So how do we keep those photos and share sex worker stories without putting people who have left the industry at risk?  Along the same lines, we need to decide what  records to keep private to the organization and what to make public, and in what ways they will be used by the organization. Throughout all of this, it feels high stakes because the people working on the project – because people come and go so often it’s only a few of us in the organization who hold the historical knowledge – need to make all of these decisions, and that also impacts how the history is told.

Question 3. How are good relationships on the project maintained? What else do you want researchers to learn from this panel?

This kind of project requires trust. Archives can be used to tell any story, so the people who tell the stories need to understand the importance of those stories and maintain the intention of how the stories were collected. As I mentioned, sex workers’ stories are so often co-opted and used to tell a different story of immorality and exploitation. Sex workers have to work so hard to tell their stories the way they want them to be told- stories of resilience, of criminalization, and of hardships within their full context. We need people doing this archival work who are willing to hear the stories that we  have to tell, and not hear them through their own lens, but really hear what we are telling them so that they can understand and appreciate the real story. This non-judgement is hard to find in researchers. 

Another challenge is that we need researchers to work on community timelines, not the other way around. Organizations that are “by and for” sex work are often inundated with work, responding to community needs. The SWD project is amazing but it does not fall within the priority needs of community who are so often addressing urgent, front line needs, so it has taken time to put together. Researchers, academics, and archivists need to have patience and enjoy the process.

Questions for academics partners Shawna Ferris, Danielle Allard, and Micheline Hughes

Shawna Ferris

Question 1:  What are your ethical and academic responsibilities on the project?

My responses to questions like this one have evolved as we’ve moved through the project. I initially came to the project from a place of panic. What does it mean when sex work activist records and their associated radical social justice histories go away? I thought if I could just find a way to help preserve these records and histories, then researchers will be able to do research on these groups, and students will be able to learn from these groups and their many actions and initiatives. I worried that if we couldn’t find a way to keep all of these records, then the knowledge and lessons would be lost. 

Over the years, my approach has shifted as I’ve realized that we just “can’t have/save everything.” Records, historically and in the present, have to be curated in ways that value the knowledges they contain, yes; but they also have to be curated to protect the people who did/do the actions and produce/d the knowledges. Not all records, and not all lessons can be passed along. Some histories have to be allowed to go away. Danielle and I wrote about this in Feminist Media Studies in 2016: we called this process of selective record curation “strategic ephemerality.”​

I’ve also learned alongside Danielle, Amy, and our various contributors to the Sex Work Activist Histories Project that it matters who decides what to keep, and who tells what (hi)stories about a particular group or set of actions. What is important to one person might not be important to another, so folks may not always agree; and I can give an opinion that folks may or may not value. I don’t have to be silent in these discussions; but I do have a responsibility to encourage folks to make their own choices, and I have to support the choices they make.  ​

Question 2: What makes this risky or high-stakes recordkeeping for you?  AND Question 3: How do you maintain good relationships, and what else have I learned on the project that my academic training didn’t teach me?​

I am going to answer questions two and three together. What makes this work difficult for me, in addition to the details I already shared, are the many feelings associated with this work. Not to be a super-stereotypical academic, but I really didn’t expect the actual work of recordcollecting on site with sex work activist groups to be difficult. I expected the days to be busy, for sure; and I’m used to being busy—so no big deal, right? Wrong. 

I remember being surprised at how utterly exhausted I felt at the end of a day of in-person record collecting. I’ve come to understand that the exhaustion reflects the high stakes nature of the work we’re doing. Different—sometimes quite heavy—emotions are attached to and experienced alongside many activist records. Obviously, my emotional responses differ in degree from those of the activists whose actions and memories are attached to these records. But early in the project I started to feel increasing care and concern about the work we were doing: I worried–What if we get this wrong? What if we screw this up?

Fortunately, we work closely with sex work activists themselves, and this has resulted in my learning to trust their processes, and this trust helps to alleviate my concerns about getting things wrong.  I’ve learned that if we follow the lead of activists themselves, and if we maintain good relationships with them; if we are accountable to them in all decision-making, then we can in turn accept the trust they have in us, and it will be alright. It will be excellent, even. What this has looked like to date: 

  • We published a book with chapters from activists across the country, but we did so by following a timeline that works for activists, not academics and our often ‘fast-tracked’ institutional deadlines. Amy and I write about this in the introduction to Sex Work Activism in Canada
  • After years of trying to make ‘out of the box’ digital archiving software work for the Sex Work Database, we finally decided to develop a custom, community (not institution)-friendly platform based on the stated needs of the groups and individuals donating records to this collection. And the groups who donate records to SWD can thus decide what goes into the collection, and how SWD will be accessed and used.

As the previous discussion begins to make clear, record collecting for SWAHP, especially for SWD, is very intimate. It’s almost like  we go through folks’ underwear drawers. I’ve realized how important it is to think very carefully about what it means to do this work, and to create space for emotions, both those of the activists with whom we are working, and the emotions of our research team members.

We have had to make space for the care work involved in the witnessing and receiving of complex histories. And, as archivist Carmen Miedema (University of Manitoba doctoral student in Indigenous Studies) once said in a project-adjacent presentation, we have to recognize that records live through this work. They are not just words or images; they live when all of us see, touch, talk about, and remember them. And all of us either retain or form relationships with them during the organizing and collection processes. Through the work all of us do on this project, the records are/become the people, the actions, the victories, and the losses they evoke. They are/become love, rage, hope, joy, desolation, laughter, community, and social justice. They are both the achievements of social justice and the desire for it.

Danielle Allard

Question 1:  What are your ethical and academic responsibilities on the project?

My role on the project is as the archives lead. My academic background is in Information Studies. I have learned archival skills and practices on the job. I’m also a professor of Information and Archival Studies and this informs my work on this project which informs what I teach archival students. Although I don’t talk about it at length here, learning ethical community archival practice and sharing that knowledge with students is a very important outcome or academic responsibility of this work for me. I am really grateful to my SWD colleagues for teaching me so much about how to work with sex work communities in a community-driven way.

I work with community partners to translate archival principles and practices into practices that work for sex work communities and activist archiving. I bring a very specific set of technical and practical knowledge and archival practice to the team. My technical knowledge is important to get many things done on the project but it’s secondary to the community ways of knowing and doing that Amy and Jenn have highlighted. Acknowledging that I’m here to offer archival support as needed to move the project forward is how I orient myself ethically on the project.

Question 2: What makes this risky or high-stakes recordkeeping for you? 

I think it’s fair to call this ‘high stakes’ record keeping for me too though I would argue that the stakes for me are different and also lower. They are both personal but also professional. In terms of the personal for example, I recognize that because the histories being framed and recorded are not mine, I may not experience the more difficult emotions associated with SWAHP. At the same time I have learned to prepare myself emotionally for the responsibilities of witnessing/receiving complicated histories. Hearing the stories of sex work activism and learning about the smart, creative, and often artistic movement-driven actions undertaken by sex work activists is always wonderful and sometimes difficult to hear. It is so special to receive the stories and learn the histories of sex work activist organizations. I accept these stories as the gift that they are but they can also be hard to hear and sometimes difficult for the storyteller to share. As Shawna also said, I have learned to anticipate and make room for my own and others’ affective and emotional responses to this work. I’m really pleased to see that folks in my line of work, archival and information studies,  are beginning to think through the impacts of affect and emotions on creators and users of archives as well as those who do archiving and recordkeeping (Caswell & Cifor, 2016; Wright & Laurent, 2021).

Question 3: How do you maintain good relationships, and what else have I learned on the project that my academic training didn’t teach me?

I maintain good relationships by being a good listener and trying to be a good translator between archival concepts and community knowledges and needs. I don’t assume that I know how all things should be done, even those archival things for which I might be considered “the expert”. I don’t assume that I understand others’ experiences. But I listen hard. I believe what community members tell me. And I work together with project partners to apply what might be useful from archival practice into this community archiving context.

Put another way, I like to think we do what needs to be done. I think that if you want to build trusting relationships with communities you need to demonstrate that you are there to do what they need to get done. This might not align with your own immediate priorities. I will share an example. When we traveled on a week long trip to another city to digitize the organizational records of a sex work activist group, I walked into a board room full of 25 years of unorganized records. I did not digitize one thing that week. Our team did do alot of digitizing but I spent the whole time helping the group sort through and organize their records. It was what needed to be done. And it was incredibly useful to the group. It wasn’t what I thought that I went there to do but it was the best thing I could do. 

As with other community archives, because this project focuses on preserving histories in ways that matter to their creators, foundational and traditional archival concepts are revisited if/when they don’t serve the goals of the project. Opening up and questioning these definitions and practices can feel risky especially if you are trying to prove in contexts such as at academic conferences or in publications that you are a “good archivist”. But care and trust is expressed as belief in, attention to, and working together with sex work activist groups to operationalize the decriminalization community politics that inform the Sex Work Database even when – and maybe even especially when – they contradict traditional archival ways of knowing and doing.

Micheline Hughes 

Question 1:  What are your ethical and academic responsibilities on the project?

So much of the answers to these questions are informed by my positionality; who I am in the world and how I move through it. I have been taught that sharing who I am and where I come from is an important responsibility, so I will first do that: 

I grew up in Ktaqmkuk on the unceded lands of the Mi’kmaw Nation, my mother’s side of my family is Scottish and my father’s side is Irish and Wampanoag. In addition to these relationships, I also have close familial relationships with members of Mi’kmaw Nation. My responsibilities are informed by where I come from and what values are required to maintain good relationships.

Relationality and accountability are central to how I strive to be in good relationship. This applies to both my personal and professional life. In the context of SWAHP, I worked as a Senior Research Assistant for years, and during this time I considered how I could be in good relationship with the other members of the team, the communities with whom we worked, and also the records themselves. This is a shift from what is typically seen in Western academic practices. Of course, Western academia is now being pushed to consider the voices of community, but I think there continues to be a need to recognize that we also have responsibilities to the records, or stories with  which we work. We have a responsibility to contextualize these records because they do not exist in a vacuum. Practically this may mean representing records in ways that, minimally, echo how community understands them. This might mean ensuring, as much as we are able to, that tags are representative of the languages communities use. Amy and I have spent countless hours discussing what language should appear in tags lists and also which tags are most appropriate for each record. This is both a relational and ethical responsibility. Without this granular work and thoughtful consideration, I cannot be in good relationships with the records.

Question 2: What makes this risky or high-stakes recordkeeping for you? 

Managing the tensions between what Western academia demands and what accountable relationships look like can often be high stakes. In my field of Indigenous Studies, we recognize that OCAP® (Otherwise known as “The First Nations Principles of Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession “assert that [Indigenous] Nations have control over data collection processes, and that they own and control how this information can be used.” “OCAP® is a registered trademark of the First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC))” (FNIGC, 2023), is a minimum standard of care that stakeholders or stewards of community knowledge should be afforded. But this is not always recognized by Western Research Ethics Boards. SWAHP wants community to be able to make decisions for their own records and this means building in protections to ensure that community makes decisions about their records. Part of these protections are reflected by the record storage practices. SWAHP keeps community records on a private server that is not owned by any academic institution. A story I love that reflects SWAHP’s dedication to this added protection is,  years ago a community member asked Shawna what she would so if her university job was ever threatened. Shawna responded that she would grab the server and run. This demonstrates a couple of things; this community member was distrustful of the institution and it was important that their histories remained outside of the control of the institution, and it also demonstrates Shawna’s, and SWAHP’s, dedication to remaining in good relationship with the records and communities.

Question 3: How do you maintain good relationships, and what else have I learned on the project that my academic training didn’t teach me?

Part of the way that  I strive to maintain good relationships is to first understand what good relationships are. For me, good relationships are open, reciprocal, respectful and acknowledge the obligations we have to each other. In part this means being a good guest when you have been invited into community spaces. At the outset, I had some concerns about what being a good guest meant in sex work activist communities because my background and training is in Indigenous Studies. If I was headed into a First Nations community, I know certain protocols I should take to be a good guest; for instance I would typically bring tobacco and banana bread. You should never enter a relationship empty-handed or without recognizing the time or expertise you are asking of someone. So in this case, I consider what I understood being a good guest meant and followed Amy’s, Shawna’s, and Danielle’s lead. I, of course, found that some things about being a good guest are similar; you don’t enter community spaces empty handed, or with a plan that is so strict it cannot change to meet the present needs of community, you pay people for their time, you feed people, and you position yourself as a learner (Absolon 2011) who is there to simultaneously support community wishes and learn from these knowledge holders. There are no rules that are universally applicable, but the guiding goal of being a good guest and being a good learner mean coming up with solutions that both honour records and the wishes of community. For instance, if a community wants a photo in the archive but there is someone in the photo who is not “out” as a sex worker, we ask: how can we preserve this photo and also honour the wishes of that particular community member? Our answer might be that the photo is kept private, or to blur or crop the image. Maintaining good relationships requires working with communities to come up with solutions to these situations.

Reference List

Absolon, Kathleen E. Kaandossiwin: How We Come to Know. Black Point: Fernwood Publishing, 2011.

Agustin, L. (2004). Alternate ethics, or: Telling lies to Researchers. Research for Sex Work, 7, 6-7.

Allard, D.,  Lebovitch, A., Clamen, J., Ferris, S., & Hughes, M. (2021). Ethical accountability and high-stakes recordkeeping: Discussions from the Sex Work Activist Histories Project (Panel). CAIS conference proceedings.

Brown, L., Strega, S. (2005). Research as Resistance: Critical, Indigenous, & Anti-oppressive Approaches. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Caswell, M. & Cifor, M. (2016). From human rights to feminist ethics: Radical empathy in the archives. Archivaria, 81, 23-83.

Ferris, S. & Allard, D. (2016). Tagging for activist ends and strategic ephemerality: Creating the Sex Work Database as an activist digital archive. Feminist Media Studies, 16(2), 189-204.

First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC) (2023). The First Nations Principles of OCAP®

Lebovitch, A. & Ferris, S. (Eds). (2019). Sex work activism in Canada: Speaking out, standing up. Winnipeg: ARP Press.

UNAIDS and WHO. (2007). Ethical considerations in biomedical HIV prevention trials. Geneva: UNAIDS.

Wilson, S. (2012). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing Co. Ltd.

Wright, K., & Laurent, N. (2021). Safety, collaboration, and empowerment: Trauma-informed archival practice. Archivaria, 91 (June), 38-73. 

Zavala, Z., Migoni, A.A., Caswell, M., Geraci, N. & Cifor, M. (2017) ‘A process where we’re all at the table’: community archives challenging dominant modes of archival practice, Archives and Manuscripts, 45(3), 202-215.