Born and raised in Springhill, Rene Ross is an activist, former UN employee and an Acadia political science grad. Interning for the UN in Geneva, her focus was on women in conflict, including research on rape as a weapon of war, which was followed by work on landmine awareness with Oxfam in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. Having a baby kept her away from post-conflict zones, so she took up a new challenge here in Nova Scotia: volunteering at Stepping Stone six years ago. “With my background in human rights, I’ve always liked working with the most marginalized,” she says.
Stepping Stone is a non-profit, offering outreach programs and support to those in the sex industry. Ross is now the executive director of the organization, and has become the de facto voice for sex workers in the region. She’s also busy working in other areas, co-authoring the NS Child Poverty Report Card and helping put together the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund.
“My stance has always been is getting people to realize sex workers are people. You have to get used to getting pissed off a lot, with society. And there’s heartbreak, too. There are so many cases we work with behind the scenes. You’re working with somebody so closely for a long time and then, the next day, it’s like, ‘We can’t find her body.’”
Ross says it’s the sex workers themselves who taught her everything she needs about her work, and the schism comes when she finds these “smartest, funniest people, and stronger than most” are pushed to the edges of our society, criminalized for something that isn’t going away, no matter what the laws try and dictate.
“Decriminalization needs to happen, but that alone isn’t enough,” she says. “I think people’s attitudes need to change. Policies that have been around for years need to go. The boundaries for sex workers reminds me of the international work I used to do, the zoning people out of communities. Nobody can tell me that what’s going on right now is working. Since 1985 our count is 17 missing and murdered sex workers from Halifax.”
Stepping Stone is planning the city’s first ever public vigil for sex workers on December 17, and tomorrow, Friday November 5, is hosting a music and entertainment fundraiser for the organization at the Paragon called the Fabulous Lobster Trap, as a tip of the hat to a long-closed Halifax strip club.
“We haven’t had a fundraiser in over 10 years because we’ve always just kept our nose to the ground,” says Ross. “In this one we really need it. When you’re a harm reduction organization under this federal government, it’s a challenge.”