Holy Toledo!

Alec and I are off to Ohio! We’re scheduled to present Dear ‘john’ at the 10th Annual International Human Trafficking, Prostitution, & Sex Work Conference at the University of Toledo.

The Neighbourhood Empowerment Team (NET) was one of the partners in Dear ‘john’, but it wasn’t solely our show, so we’re quite humbled to be representing the team, and Edmonton, for that matter.

Dear ‘john’, like most 118 Avenue grown initiatives, is a story of collaboration – of people setting their respective agendas aside and coming together. Not unlike the revitalization itself.

This is the story of Staff Sgt. Jerry Nash with the Edmonton Police Service, Judy Allan with Avenue Initiative Revitalization, Christy Morin with Arts on the Ave, Kate Quinn from CEASE, Joachim Holtz from the Alberta Avenue Business Association and, of course, of the local businesses community and countless residents who banded together to drive change.

Although the story of our coming together as a community is a romantic and accurate one – the history of sexual exploitation along 118 Avenue, and our relationship to it, is less enviable. We’ve had a confused relationship with sexual exploitation – with a focus far to weighted on the side of ‘supply’.

We, as NET, have historically avoided the issue; unsure what to do in a meaningful way with resident outrage and concern directed mostly at the women who occupy the corners.

I would argue that many of these women aren’t even seen as people anymore, they’ve become symbols –a barometer of neighbourhood health and safety. Of something undesirable, something unsafe.

One fundamental piece that is all too often missing in this conversation is demand -the ‘johns’. The symbolism associated with the women has a great deal to do with the fact that there here – visible in the neighbourhood. The ‘johns’, on the other hand, are often not.

So what about ‘john’? In addition to this being a story of people, it is also a story of tension, of common thread and ultimately of reframing this issue.

The ‘Dear John’ letter originated in America during World War II. Often stationed for months or years at a time, servicemen would sometimes find themselves in receipt of this iconic letter, which informed them that their spouse had found someone else and was moving on. The letters were often affectionately worded – but the message was to not come home, to move on.

The similarity in title (John) had been sitting with me for a while, but having stumbled upon the history of this letter, the idea of mimicking the approach at a community level was fascinating to me.

118 Avenue and the authors of these letters share common ground. The neighbourhood has not found someone new, but they’ve found something new – safety, a sense of overwhelming community. It seemed only appropriate that we let ‘john’ know.

This is what initiated Dear ‘john’ – a campaign built on a break-up letter from the community. The letter lets ‘john’ know the relationship is over – that we’re moving on and he should too. We wanted ‘john’ to know that this community is an active one – intolerant of their safety being compromised. You can read the full letter here.

We approached the issue from three different angles – education, mobilization and enforcement. The Dear ‘john’ letter was hosted on Transforming Edmonton, and we asked that people use the comment field to write their own message to ‘john’. We also announced the hashtag #Dearjohn (more on this later) and ask that people tweet away.

We pulled key messages from the Dear ‘john’ letter and printed them on mobile signs. These became mobile deterrents placed on sexual exploitation hotspots upon the request of residents. The purpose was to let ‘john’ know that, at a neighbourhood level, residents were watching, that they were on to him.

Concurrent to these efforts, our Edmonton Police Service partners heightened ‘john’ enforcement. Having aligned with the Victims of Crime week of awareness, the timing of these actions was perfect.

There are a number of ways one could measure the impact of this initiative. Edmonton’s media community was brilliantly supportive. The told the story eloquently, and shared it far and wide. The same could be said for Edmonton’s, errrr, I mean ‘#YEG’s’ social media community. The content was rich as it was rampant, trending the day of the launch, reaching 2445 people via Facebook. As for the Dear ‘john’ blog, the interest was unprecedented reaching the highest number of views ever on Transforming Edmonton.

In the event ‘john’ didn’t get the message via traditional or social media, our EPS partners were there during the campaign conducting enforcement stings. This approach was an unfortunately busy one.

We’re proud of this work – but there certainly were lessons we learned. Firstly, it is important to do your research before launching a hashtag. The use of #Dearjohn gave rise to a ‘hashtag collision’ with the very popular film of the same title staring Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum. This resulted in confusing feed on Twitter – messages about Tatum’s abs beside messages demanding an end to sexual exploitation.

At first we were dismayed by this oversight – but it spread the conversation further than we could have ever anticipated. A newspaper in London even picked up on the story as a result of our error. So really, it was a great mistake to have made.

Sexual exploitation is a polarizing topic, no doubt. It is a topic that is also characterized by great deal of tension. That said, we feel as though Dear ‘john’ located the common thread – I would argue that it was a desire for safety. Then, through public education, and providing meaningful ways to participate, the campaign transformed this angst into something that had considerable impact.

Interested in Dear ‘john’ and NET in general? You can follow me on Twitter.

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About the Author
Kris Andreychuk
Kris Andreychuk is a social worker with the City of Edmonton and a supervisor with the Neighbourhood Empowerment Team. These teams have played an integral role in community policing and crime prevention in Edmonton for the past 8 years and are the result of a four way partnership with the City, EPS, The Family Centre and the United Way.
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