The Harm in Harm Reduction MICHAEL EVERETT
Looking back . . . I remember attending the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC) conference for the first time in 2006, when it was held in Oakland, California. The experience was unlike that of any other conference I had ever attended. I remember being both shocked at how few young people of color were present and yet amazed at the diversity amongst conference goers. While I didn’t witness diversity in terms of race or among youth and adolescents, there was broad representation of active and non-active drug users, HIV prevention specialists, addiction spe-
once every two years. The workshops and the people were both fascinating. However, the general agreement amongst staff from my organization was that there were barriers keeping harm reduction and the harm reduction community from being accessible to young people and some persons of color. By the time we returned home, we learned that while there are diverse communities across the country (and beyond) practicing harm reduction, it would be necessary to develop different strategies in order to expose harm reduction principles to those who have traditionally been unable to access them. Beyond that 2006 experience, I continued to attend harm reduction conferences. I also struggled with this idea that I needed to find opportunities to make harm reduction accessible to people who looked like me and had grown up with my experiences. Much like the young people I was working with, I grew up in a household with a Mother who struggled with her own addiction issues. I remember that
I also struggled with this idea that I needed to find opportunities to make harm reduction accessible to people who looked like me and had grown up with my experiences. cialists, friends and family of people impacted by drug use, and even members of faith-based communities. At the time, I was newly employed by a youth organization that had always worked to incorporate harm reduction strategies into their work with young people (which seemed radical then). The Executive Director when I was there believed in exposing staff to harm reduction, as it seemed like a promising tool for addressing issues staff were facing at the drop-in center. To this end, the Director made it a priority to send 17 of her staff members as well as some participants all the way from Philadelphia to Oakland to experience an event that occurs
14 Fall 2011 Issue 16
the only option provided to my Mother was abstinence. For over 20 years, my mother suffered in silence – never feeling quite good enough for her family or the people in our community. I also lived the shame of her addiction; I felt unsupported in my personal decision to meet my mother where she was, while managing my own desires around the person I wanted her to be. We were confined to the limitations of a Narcotics Anonymous culture where cliché’s did not account for individual experiences; I struggled with what I perceived as the Christian-rooted, codependent nature of the program, which was operationalized in both covert and explicit ways.
. . . and moving forward The 8th National Harm Reduction Conference was held in Austin, Texas during the same year that I came to work for the Harm Reduction Coalition as a Capacity Building Advisor. I’m fortunate that in this role I get to work strategically and concertedly to promote harm reduction as a viable option, particularly for those within the helping profession. The bulk of my work and advocacy experience has been around HIV and I appreciate that capacity building has helped to sustain my interactions with HIV/ AIDS organizations. However, HIVspecific capacity building housed at a harm reduction organization has not only allowed me to expand my understanding of harm reduction from a drug use perspective, but also from an organizational perspective. This has meant offering organizations ways to identify potential harms incurred by an agency’s participants or staff – in addition to public perception of the agency – as a result of its mission and policies. The “harm reduction for agencies” concept comes from some of the work I have done with organizations that serve Black men who have sex with men (BMSM). It was through my capacity building work that I started to hear employees question certain dynamics, institutions and policies within their organizations, and more broadly, within the field. For example, I heard people exploring things like the impact of all white leadership in institutions that serve BMSM as well as issues that come up when BMSM participants are hired to do outreach in the communities where they live, date and/or frequent. Another taboo topic raised in these conversations — which came out as a common issue at some agencies — is intimate relationships between staff members or between staff and participants. These issues are all potentially harm-initiating factors that could threaten the sustainability of organizations and prevent