Text AA

Amplifying Hope

Interviewing the Unsung Champions of Harm Reduction
Over the next few months we will be interviewing a number of influential harm reduction and drug policy reform advocates from across the country. These are the people who are working against incredible odds, are largely unrecognized and serve as inspiration to the wider harm reduction community. Our aim is to amplify hope by telling their stories, uplift the people and programs delivering harm reduction services, and raise awareness about the strength and resilience of the harm reduction community across the U.S.
Haley Coles – Sonoran Prevention Works, Arizona
  • Please tell the harm reduction community a little about yourself

First and foremost I’m an Arizonan, and extremely committed to the big, hot, strange state I live in. I have been active in harm reduction since 2006, when I first bleached out a syringe that somebody else had used in attempts to protect myself from HIV. Since then, I have been involved in syringe access programs in Phoenix and Tacoma, WA, created a nonprofit harm reduction advocacy organization called Sonoran Prevention Works, and dedicated myself to engaging with hostile political systems to fight for health equity for Arizonans who use drugs.

  • How did you first become involved in harm reduction?

In 2010, I was invited to a friend’s house to learn about syringe access programs. Three of us – Nathan Leach, Turiya Coll, and myself (we all still work together on harm reduction projects in AZ) – researched the policies that prevented a program from operating in Phoenix, applied for a startup grant through NASEN, and began focusing on advocacy to change those policies. Within a few months we began outreach to people who inject drugs and potential partners in Phoenix. We figured we’d present the problem to the health department and they’d immediately start working to change policies. What a bunch of idealists we were! We were essentially laughed out of multiple rooms and told that we’d be threatened by law enforcement if we ever tried to set up a program, so we shouldn’t bother.

I never wanted to work within the system – I was just an ex-IV drug user who was into poetry and DIY life. But after repeatedly seeing the apathy, which for me translates into cruelty, of many public health and political leaders in the state, it became clear that I was going to have to suck it up if I wanted to see the kind of equitable change that I envisioned. So I wear heels, shake hands with cops, kiss babies, and search for creative ways to subvert resources to make it into the hands of people who are directly impacted by the violent conditions imposed on them by the state.

  • What is your most memorable experience doing harm reduction work?

There are so many life-changing experiences I’ve had over the years, but one of the most positive moments occurred just a few weeks ago. The outreach that Nathan, Turiya, and myself started in 2011 has grown into a program that makes 5000 contacts each month with people who inject drugs in the Phoenix area, and is run by about 20 volunteers. At one of the busiest sites, volunteers decided to host a participant and volunteer appreciation BBQ and kit-making party. We made a few thousand kits and burned through 500 hot dogs and burgers. I cooked like a hundred burgers, even though I don’t eat meat. I saw so many new relationships formed between and among participants and volunteers, and the love flowed hard. At that barbecue I was deeply reminded that we’re all in it together, that I’m not free until the war waged on other Arizonans ends, and that I’m incredibly privileged to be involved in such a radical, fearless, and necessary program.

  • What continues to motivate you to do harm reduction work?

Honestly I’m just a brat. Every time a politician, nonprofit, or whoever tells me I can’t do something, I’m more emboldened to do it and prove them wrong. I also still get to do direct work on the ground, which reminds me of why I put on the fancy clothes and attempt to adapt harm reduction to the values that perpetuate in Arizona. And finally, I’m a bit of a nihilist. I feel pretty hopeless about the world, the future… But equity for people who use drugs in Arizona can be achieved, it really can, and we have many other areas of the country whose footsteps to follow. Harm reduction gives me hope.

  • In these turbulent times, what words of motivation can you share with the wider harm reduction community?

For me, it’s been about leveraging the new and existing intersections that impact people who use drugs to build a network of accomplices. As certain protections continue to erode, new frontiers and collaborations emerge. Find people who are willing to stick their necks out, people who understand that being ethical requires taking action, people both disturbed and inspired by the state of things, and get to know them. These people can be found in positions of leadership, in government, in healthcare, in the nonprofit field… Bring them into the fold, learn from them, and scheme with them. Nothing can be accomplished by yourself, and not much can be accomplished by endless planning. Get out there and do the shit with your new friends, make mistakes, and do it better.

  • Any final comments?

Don’t reinvent the wheel! I’d never heard this term until I got connected with the harm reduction community, and I’ve never heard it so much since. People in harm reduction are truly the most generous, visionary people I’ve ever met. Resources, suggestions, supplies, and moral support are freely shared, because we’re all in this for each other and for the people we fight with, not for the credit or the recognition. I’ve really only gotten this far by copying what other harm reductionists have been doing for decades, and I hope one day I can be involved in something that others will copy.

 For more info on Sonoran Prevention Works see: http://spwaz.org/
Designed & Developed by Firefly Partners