Dept. of Edgy Grantmaking: $60K to a Group Supporting Sex Workers

Based on my nonscientific survey of what I recall reading on the internet during the last several years, sex workers have been in the news to an unusual extent lately.

The documentary Red Umbrella Diariesrecently featured on the Huffington Post, shares first-person experiences of LGBTQ sex workers in New York City. Activists are lobbying the Associated Press to change its style guide, replacing the more disparaging term "prostitute" with the more accurate (and empowering) "sex worker." And the Washington Post's Wonkblog convincingly made the case earlier this year that sex worker rights are really just worker rights, which is not that hard a concept to grasp in theory, though there are a few minor issues of entrenched discrimination to work out before American public policy regarding sex work begins to match up with any kind of system that makes sense.

So as the national conversation moves toward empowering rather than punishing sex workers, why is the New York Women's Foundation investing in retraining former sex workers for jobs outside of the industry?

Oh, I don't know, maybe because not everyone wants to be a sex worker for the rest of their life. 

The New York Women's Foundation recently awarded a $60,000 grant to the Red Umbrella Project with the stated goal of "providing job training for former sex workers." By way of background, the New York Women's Foundation has, since 1987, awarded grants to organizations empowering women in New York City. This year, the foundation will make about $5.5 million in charitable investments, focusing primarily on women's economic security; domestic violence prevention; and health, sexual rights, and reproductive justice.

The Red Umbrella Project, meanwhile, is a peer-led sex worker empowerment organization in Brooklyn that engages in a variety of projects to amplify voices of people in the sex trades and to support them in taking greater control of their lives. The organization, RedUp for short, publishes its own member-driven literary journal, runs a podcast, operates advocacy workshops for sex workers in New York City, and even has its own improv theater. RedUp's policy agenda touches on issues related to sex trafficking, access to condoms, police procedure, and more. 

One other thing: Most of those involved with the group are LGBTQ.

But even as RedUp supports sex workers, it also has an eye on helping people leave the industry if they so choose. Which can be easier said than done. Professionally speaking, leaving sex work to pursue other endeavors presents a number of logistical challenges. So RedUp offers services to assist sex workers in transition to achieve their professional ambitions. Via the New York Women's Foundation's grant, the Red Umbrella Project will be able to expand its career support offerings for sex workers seeking to leave the industry.

But make no mistake: RedUp's core mission is to shift American consciousness and policy in a way that improves justice and working conditions for people in the sex trades.

In addition to this year's grant to RedUp, the New York Women's Foundation supported the group in 2012 and 2013. The Red Umbrella Project has also received support from the New York Foundation, the Puffin Foundation, the Left Tilt Fund, Craigslist Foundation, and the Sparkplug Foundation.

Funding an outfit that supports workers in an illegal industry is pretty edgy, and not the kind of thing we see every day. But you can see why funders would be drawn to the issue of sex workers, especially foundations like the NYWF with a focus on women and an avowed commitment to "take risks." The added wrinkle that so many sex workers are LGBTQ further distinguishes this issue, given the attention of some funders to empowering this slice of Americans. 

One other thing about this particular grant by the New York Women's Foundation: Its aim of helping sex workers leave the industry if they choose is a tad different than a grant to, say, help them improve their existing job skills.