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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.
Tino Fuentes, Harm Reduction Consultant, New York City
  • Please tell the harm reduction community a little about yourself

I’m a native New Yorker and grew up poor as hell. The people that had money and had food in my neighborhood were the ones selling drugs. I was a drug dealer. Good people do bad things, it doesn’t make you a bad person. Through dealing I learned about harm reduction and have been working in the field ever since. These days I go around New York and other and cities testing for fentanyl and teaching people how to test, use safer. I also try to train everyone I meet about overdose reversal.

  • How did you first become involved in harm reduction?

My past made me who I am today. It was really by accident. I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while who needed to get syringes. I went with them to a syringe access program and while they were getting supplies, I started chatting with a staff member. This person changed my life. They told me all about sterile syringe distribution and working to keep people healthy and alive. I got hooked, I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard! Taking care of people who use drugs and helping them out. After only ever seeing how fucked up people who use drugs are treated by everyone from welfare to the medical profession, it was a complete transformation for me.

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

There has been countless. This is probably not what people want to hear, but my very first reversal. I saved someone from dying. That had a huge impact on me, and so many reversals after and still, I’m in awe when I see/hear that first breath coming back to the person. I stopped counting my reversals in 2010, and then I was at over 75 reversals. The first person was literally about an hour after being trained so it was very scary, but the thought of the person dying was even much scarier.

  • If you had one ‘take home’ message about fentanyl, what would it be?

Fentanyl is not going away, it’s only going to get worse. We need a harm reduction approach.

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

Life. Trying to help people stay alive. No one should die because they use drugs. So that motivates me, knowing that what I do has the potential to save lives.

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

Keep doing what you’re doing, think outside the box, and don’t let the law define what you do or stop you from doing what you do, because most times we must work outside these archaic laws to help people.

  • Any final comments?

Drugs are here to stay, and no matter what people will continue to use. It’s time to take away these moralistic views and do the right thing, which is helping people stay safe, healthy, and alive. I don’t think what I’m doing is the solution to the problem, I don’t think I’m going to save the world, what I do think is that I’m saving lives and every little bit counts. Do what you know best and go at it hard. It takes all of us and we all need to work together. Really there is not much more I can say, but that everyone deserves a shot at life and if you can help save one person, you’ve done a lot, but don’t stop at just one.

To support Tino’s harm reduction work on fentanyl testing, please consider donating to his GoFundMe page.

Angie Gray, Harm Reduction Program, West Virginia
  • Please tell the harm reduction community a little about yourself

I am the Nursing Director at the Berkeley County Health Department, in Martinsburg, West Virginia. I taught Community Health clinical for Shepherd University’s bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) program from 2009-2011. Since 2013, I have also served on the Morgan County Board of Health as the elected chairperson. I am a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Public Health Nurse Leader; and a longtime member of the West Virginia Public Health Association, I have served in many elected roles on the Nurse Executive Committee. Growing up in West Virginia I faced many of the disparities that West Virginia’s still faces today, I realized at a young age that we don’t all start out on an even playing field. I am dedicated to the health and well being of all West Virginians.

  • How did you first become involved in harm reduction?

Being a public health nurse, I always say I have a front row seat to what is happening in our community, many times long before other entities even recognize there is an increase in certain health issues. In STI clinic I saw an increase of people who inject drugs and they would ask for help, but due to the limited behavioral health capacity in West Virginia, the option was a 3-6 month waiting list. The frustrations of this lead me to look for ways to help. I saw harm reduction programs as way I could give support and vital disease reducing supplies and concepts.

  • What is your proudest moment or most memorable experience working to reduce drug-related harms?

My proudest moments are when I am discussing concepts of harm reduction with someone who is totally against harm reduction, and views it as enabling, and I see that ‘aha’ moment come across their face. When they walk away a believer I know it was worth the fight.

A memorable experience was when a participant, after being asked if there was anything we could do better, stated “No, you guys are great! Better than Baltimore City Harm Reduction Program.” We all know the great reputation of Baltimore’s harm reduction program, so of course I was feeling pretty good. I asked the participant what made our harm reduction program better than Baltimore. The participant replied “Your cookers have handles”. Small things make all the difference!

  • West Virginia is the state hardest hit by the opioid crisis. What continues to motivate you to work there?

After participation in our harm reduction service, a grown man walked out and through the lobby with tears running down his face, because he was treated with respect and as a human being. Moments like these, fuels my determination to continue to do harm reduction work in the state.

  • Given that you’re working against such incredible odds in West Virginia, what words of motivation can you share with the wider harm reduction community?

Slowly, but steadily, we are making a difference.

  • Any final comments?

Finally, I would like to add that connecting to Harm Reduction Coalition was invaluable to obtaining our goal to open a comprehensive harm reduction program with syringe access. Special thanks and much gratitude to Joanna from Harm Reduction Coalition!

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/
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