Liberation-Oriented Harm Reduction

In mid-October, I attended the National Harm Reduction Conference for the first time. It was a whirlwind experience from which I am still unearthing lessons. I walked away in a deep state of reflection on both my role in harm reduction and harm reduction’s role in a broader social justice movement. Many of the speakers, particularly women and queer people of color, opened my mind and heart to newer understandings of how to practice liberation-oriented harm reduction.

For me personally, liberation-oriented harm reduction begins with reclaiming my creativity and continuing to build grassroots power with other Asian, Latinx, Black, and Indigenous harm reductionists. For me professionally, as a grant-funded policy advocate, it requires me to critique and consider the ways in which we collaborate with government systems. Some systems—public health and law enforcement in particular—are often considered necessary for harm reduction policies and programs to be “successful,” but historically these systems have been and continue to be harmful and oppressive. Is liberation possible in collaboration with such systems?

Left struggling with how to navigate these essential challenges of harm reduction policy advocacy, I look back to some insights from conference speakers and attendees:

“The more we get accepted into public health, the more we lose our imagination. We need to act as if [drug use, sex work, and homelessness] is illegal everyday because it is.” — Shira Hassan

“In our work [in Vancouver], we talk about shifting the narrative from ‘evidence-based practice’ to ‘practice-based evidence.’” — Elizabeth, Vancouver B.C.

“When you have less, you are more creative to reclaim and reimagine what is possible around our well-being and safety.” — Erica Woodland

While my brain in still spinning and I could go on forever unpacking these and many other quotes, I am left with one primary lesson: don’t lose sight of your vision of liberation. In so doing, we must be transparent about our strategies and have consistent messaging. We must leverage moments to build power, not just programs (thank you, Kassandra Frederique for inspiring these take-aways).

I welcome my fellow Baltimore harm reductionists to join me in working to embody these lessons. To this end, I offer the following questions for consideration and discussion:

  • What are your initial reactions to these quotes? What is resonating with you? Challenging you?
  • What is the role of harm reduction in the fight for reparations for decades of the racist war on drugs, particularly in Baltimore?
  • What else can we consider in our magical radical imaginations to attain liberation?

I have no answers to these questions. In fact, I feel strongly that there are no clear road maps to liberation. However, the work is in collectively holding each other accountable to be vulnerable and self-reflective in wrestling with these issues together. I encourage you to comment here, engage with us at BHRC, and hold space to discuss these important questions in your networks.

Rajani Gudlavalleti, BHRC Community Organizer

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