BLOG: Kassandra Frederique spotlight

Beyond Black History Month spotlight: Kassandra Frederique

Black harm reduction future includes joy and dignity


When Drug Policy Alliance’s Executive Director Kassandra Frederique talks about bringing Black harm reductionists together, she names how learning about the ways Black reformers had been erased or pushed out of harm reduction and drug policy over many years – and continuously marched forward despite this exclusion – has been “both maddening and inspiring.”


Frederique said Black harm reductionists weren’t spoken about in the spaces she was working in, though when she started to learn more about the history of Black folks who led waves of change in the harm reduction and drug policy movements, she realized this was a path that had been traveled before.


Learning this has been inspiring, she said, because “the things that you believe are rooted in something, and there’s this constant connection that someone keeps picking up the baton to try to do it…[and] maddening, because you didn’t see it before, right? And there are tons of reasons why people have been erased or no longer mentioned or not in the space anymore that have been harmed.”


As part of her work with the Black Harm Reduction Network (BHRN), Frederique said the collective is striving to change that. She said the BHRN’s vision has always focused on building community among Black people working against and experiencing racist drug policies and navigating through the impacts of the so-called “War on Drugs” – more accurately named a war on people, particularly Black people. She said BHRN also recognizes the power that must be built as part of the Black harm reduction evolution.


“I’ve always seen the network as an opportunity for connection and power building,” she said, and importantly, also “defiance, because there have been so many stops and starts – and part of that is structural – and the fact that we keep coming back to this means that it has to happen.”


Woman wearing patterned dress and black face mask speaks to group, gesturing with her right hand. Behind and in front of her, out of focus, are four folks pictured. In background, sign reads, "BLACK HARM REDUCTION NETWORK."

Photo courtesy of Joshua Uquillas

Frederique highlights how opportunities to build power among Black harm reductionists have been under-resourced, disrupted, or not prioritized altogether, and the BHRN is making moves to right these wrongs. It’s a mission that extends beyond fighting for justice for people who use drugs.


“Black harm reduction is about the drugs, but it’s also about Blackness, right? And how do we reduce the harms of being Black in this community, this society – what does that look like? What are those strategies, what are the connections we have to make, what is the power we have to build?” she said.


For Frederique, “I think our genesis, our connecting point, is being in the space of harm reduction [and], drug policy, but it’s probably more understanding that Black people are harmed in this country – and how do you reduce the harms of being Black in society? Our entry point is that of harm reduction and drug policy, but it’s also a lot broader.”


She pointed to the years of extrajudicial killings of Black people in the U.S., in which drugs have been used as a justification, and assumptions that a person using or possessing drugs is dangerous. “The impetus,” she said, is this reality combined with how Black people are disproportionately impacted by the overdose crisis – despite a narrative that focused on white people dying.


Communities of color, she noted, face barriers to resources and infrastructure “to hold the pain, and because it’s building and compounding on pain of the ways the drug war impacts people’s lives…it felt right to try to formalize organizing – organizing Black people doing harm reduction work, Black people doing drug policy work, Black people who were drug users to be in a space together to build a political strategy and a broader vision.”


Woman with short, dark brown hair, wearing orange shirt and white blazer. She holds a microphone with her right hand and gestures while talking with her left hand. She smiles as she speaks.

Photo courtesy of Avery Cole

Frederique said she hopes the BHRN will soon establish regional chapters, representing a geographically diverse group of folks that aren’t highlighted or heard as much as those on the coasts and urban areas. She said she’s looking forward to the BHRN, “really platforming Black folks that are not often in the front,” including rural, southern, and midwestern Black people. Frederique also noted the BHRN and movement as a whole must collectively show up for Black trans women.


“One of the principle points of harm reduction and drug policy is that of autonomy, and I think Black people need autonomy, but a Black trans woman needs autonomy the most, right?” she said, discussing how important it is to find ways to build a vision that incorporates all Black folks in the work.


It’s something she plans to continue in her advocacy, which has been influenced by her collaborations with other collectives including Interrupting Criminalization and the In Our Names Network that focus on ending police and state violence against Black trans and cis women – an important interconnection.


Asked about closing thoughts on the BHRN’s calling and what lies ahead for the network’s future, she said, “Our main purpose is to build power so that we can change conditions for folks that we care about…it’s necessary work for building a vision, a future – a radical future that includes Black people who use drugs.”


Frederique continued, “There’s also the part of this work that is not just about pain, right? Not just about loss…and that future includes joy, and it includes dignity.”



To learn more about the BHRN, click here:


or reach out to the collective’s Facebook group page: