Written by: Laura Guzman
I am honored to continue my service with the National Harm Reduction Coalition (NHRC) as acting executive director! I have transitioned to this role after serving for three years as NHRC’s senior capacity building and community mobilization director, leading our fabulous San Francisco and California team and work. Initially, I became one of the first West Coast trainers for NHRC (then called HRC, or Harm Reduction Coalition) from 1999-2012 and continue that work to this day.
My harm reduction passion blossomed 28 years ago at the Ambassador Hotel in San Francisco, where I worked as an outreach benefits counselor. The majority of the hotel’s 150 residents were people dying of AIDS who would have otherwise died on the streets as a result of government inaction and neglect. Our team managed the privately-owned SRO (Single Room Occupancy) and offered nursing, medical, social work, and palliative care support despite not being funded. People Living with AIDS (PLWA), People Who Inject Drugs (PWID), nurses, social workers, Black and Brown folks, lesbians, trans folks, and other queer-identified people were my early mentors. They organized and were determined to fight for housing, access to treatment, and resources for those most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS – and offered mutual aid and support to people who use drugs (PWUD) so they could die with dignity. This work was crucial given this country’s colonial history designed to keep Black, Brown, and Indigenous people and other poor folks at the margins.
I also served as the founder and director of the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center (MNRC) for 16 years, one of the first harm reduction drop-in centers focusing on Brown and Black unhoused communities and SRO residents in the district. We inspired many to join us in our community model of healing, interdisciplinary services, and advocacy on behalf of – and with – people who use drugs, immigrants, trans and cis women, sex workers, and queer folks. Harm reduction was one of our key values and mantra for all our services.
Harm reduction has been and continues to be about saving lives, showing love to people and each other, and fighting for our people’s liberation. Although I firmly believe harm reduction practices truly work (through three decades of personal and professional experience), I am most proud of NHRC’s roots and history of activism and organizing by rebeldes – rebels. They did not ask permission to distribute needles or naloxone when this was illegal, and helped people who use opiates to get well to survive hours of waiting at the emergency room to receive treatment for an abscess or untreated pneumonia.
As we celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the founding of the NHRC, I feel privileged and challenged to be invited to lead us into this new chapter of our herstory and commit to keeping our rebelde roots while re-envisioning our people-driven, movement-driven, and values-driven organization and work toward supporting a broader anti-colonial, social justice, and human rights-focused harm reduction movement led by people who use drugs. I, and we, welcome your insights and your energy. Join us.
Hasta la victoria siempre.
Laura Guzman, NHRC acting executive director