"SSA gave me the foundation for the work I do today. I was not aware of all the skills I learned at SSA until I went into the real world and realized the knowledge I gained that I was applying to my work."
Rachel Durchslag is the former Executive Director and Founder of CAASE, the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, an organization committed to building a global community free from the demand for commercial exploitation. CAASE opened its doors in June 2006, but Ms. Durchslag’s interest in women’s rights and social justice started much earlier.
After growing up in Chicago and attending high school in northern California, Ms. Durchslag completed her undergraduate degree in women’s studies and social work at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, NY, in 2000.
She had an interest in feminist concerns, specifically reproductive rights and issues surrounding women in pornography. At the Chicago International Film Festival in 2001, she saw a film about a woman from Bosnia who had been trafficked into the sex trade in Chicago. Profoundly moved, she decided to devote her career to stopping sexual exploitation.
To better understand the issue, she joined the Prostitution Alternatives Round Table, a project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. She also learned more about the sex trade by traveling to Thailand, where she worked with young girls who had been kidnapped or sold into sexual slavery, and to India, where she met with women and children in brothels in Calcutta and outside Bangladesh. "Seeing the women and children, and hearing their stories, was very difficult, but also increased my desire to work to end sexual exploitation" she says.
Ms. Durchslag decided to go back to graduate school to acquire a broader skill set and chose SSA. "I knew I wanted to focus on administration, and SSA had the reputation of having a top social administration program," she recalls. Her family also has strong ties to SSA; her mother and grandmother both attended the School, and her grandmother still serves the community as a member of SSA’s Visiting Committee.
During her time at SSA, Ms. Durchslag found a mentor in Assistant Professor Virginia Parks, Ph.D. She remembers, "Professor Parks taught me about community organizing. She was a feminist, and her social justice lens is very prominent."
Professor Parks was Ms. Durchslag’s faculty sponsor on an independent project: an in-depth analysis of community response to prostitution, where she examined ten different factors such as homelessness and drug use, as they relate to prostitution. "I still use parts of my independent study presentation in the work I do today," she says.
"I felt like I had finally discovered what I wanted to do with my life, but there were very few jobs, if any, in advocacy, as most jobs were direct service jobs. It was then I realized I would have to start my own nonprofit, and that is how the plans for CAASE started."
Ms. Durchslag dove into starting CAASE, but wondered if she had the experience and knowledge necessary to build the organization she aspired to create. In light of this, she decided to pursue an internship in California with Dr. Melissa Farley, a national figure in prostitution research.
"CAASE is unique in that it focuses specifically on demand elimination," she states. The organization focuses on ending sexual exploitation through prevention, community action and education, and intervention. In May 2008, CAASE published a research study on men who pay for sex in the Chicago area. Ms. Durchslag hopes this information can be used to drive policy that will end demand for sexual services.
"SSA was also valuable in connecting me to a network of social workers in the City of Chicago and beyond." In fact, she and CAASE regularly partnered with many organizations, including the Chicago Mayor’s Office on Domestic Violence’s Demand Deterrence Committee, the Prostitution Alternatives Round Table, the Center on Halsted, Footprints, Dominican University, and PROMISE (Partnership to Rescue Our Minors from Sexual Exploitation), among others.
She has won many awards for her work, including the YWCA’s Promise Leadership award, the Soroptimist’s Woman Making a Difference award, and the 2008 Young Nonprofit Professional Network’s Young Nonprofit Professional of the Year award.
Ms. Durchslag serves as a mentor to others, and opened CAASE to SSA students completing their fieldwork.
"I think that SSA has remained a top school of social work because of its commitment and integrity, and working for social justice with an analytical lens. SSA also stays current as the field of social work develops and grows, and recruits and retains the best professors."