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Healing Justice and the Embodiment of Community Care

by Monique Tula

Photo credit: Harriet’s Apothecary

“Within the ‘healing justice’ framework we use resiliency to mean our collective and individual capacity to hold, respond to, intervene or transform struggle and grief while still staying rooted in who we are, where we come from, and how we envision our future.”

The above passage is from a reflection paper written by Cara Page, Susan Raffo, and a number of other visionary organizers who, after the 2010 US Social Forum, shared their perspective on what healing justice is and why it matters.

Healing justice is a framework that centers the long-term impacts of intergenerational trauma and violence within movement-building spaces. It is informed by a long history of political liberatory frameworks—racial justice, economic justice, reproductive justice, disability justice, and transformative justice among others—that recognize how systemic oppression, violence, and trauma impact our bodies on an individual and collective level. Black, indigenous, and queer people of color were among those who breathed life into the healing justice framework in response to, and in honor of, their survival and resilience despite being born into a system that depends on their disempowerment. Their collective wisdom teaches us that healing justice emerges through the embodiment of community care.

As a harm reductionist, the concept of healing justice speaks to my soul because I know firsthand that the relentless structural violence many of us experience everyday is an essential component of a ubiquitous system designed to keep us in a steady state of distraction while our basic human rights are eroded. From my perspective, the harm reduction community, like many other social justice movements,  can fall prey to those in power who seek to maintain the status quo, in part, by banking on internal division to slow our momentum.

Our community of practitioners, advocates, educators, and policymakers is united with a single purpose: protecting the basic human rights of people who use drugs. Regardless of what draws us to this work, its very nature often demands that we operate from a place of crisis, and moving at burnout pace can manifest in sickness, fatigue, disillusionment, and isolation. I’ve seen many of us leave this work because we give until we have nothing left. Not only is this approach unsustainable, but I fear that it will actually be the undoing of our movement and others like it.

I’ve often said that I’m surprised that most of us still love each other after three decades of fighting against the current of stigma, misunderstanding, and open hostility against people who use drugs. And because we’re human, it’s difficult to practice what we preach. Since joining this community nearly 25 years ago, I’ve become keenly aware of the pain we can inflict upon one another. It’s far easier to call each other out than take a moment to remember that we, too, are participants in a system that necessitates a winner and a loser in order to thrive.

I believe the harm reduction community is part of a larger social-justice movement working to dismantle the very structures designed to keep us divided. While some of us rage against the machine, others of us are figuring out how to manipulate it from the inside. Every member of the community holds pieces of the solution, but depending on which side we’re on, we manage to find fault with the other. It can be incredibly challenging to admit that we’re doing the very thing we preach against: we judge.

About 20 years ago, a wise man I know described the harm reduction community as being “terminally unique.” Often used in twelve-step programs, the term refers to people who think they’re the exception to the rule. In this case, no one understands how to work with people who use drugs like harm reductionists. Perhaps a bit of that sentiment is true, but at its core, this kind of thinking is pretty narcissistic. More importantly, it serves to keep us divided, not only from the rest of the world, but from each other.

Our stories are interconnected, with common threads that unite us, creating a shared purpose. We are accountable to one another and rifts that occur in one part of the community ripple out to the collective whole. The impact of our trauma shows up in our bodies and the way we engage with one another. My hope is that we begin the process of healing by setting aside our differences long enough to remember we’re on the same side. That we remember to be gentle with ourselves and each other.

In less than three months, harm reductionists from all over the world will convene in New Orleans for the 12th National Harm Reduction Conference. As in San Diego, we want you to begin your conference journey feeling inspired and galvanized to engage in important—and perhaps tough—conversations that can pave the way for sustainable and revolutionary work. I’m especially excited for opening day when the magical healers of Harriet’s Apothecary kick us off with a grounding ceremony and radical intention setting for the next few days. This year, our opening plenary is centered around healing justice—what it is and how critical it is to our movement.

As we learn more about healing justice at Harm Reduction Coalition, we want to share it with you. Violence against people like us is not a byproduct or coincidence; it is a requirement for the systems in place to thrive. Healing justice may just be the salve we need to mitigate the deleterious effects of centuries of structural violence, oppression, and intergenerational trauma.

In Solidarity,


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