Atlanta Adds Southern Flavor to Harm Reduction

By Rob Banaszak on September 27, 2012 in Harm Reduction, Southern Initiatives, Syringe Access Fund

By Tessie Castillo, NC Harm Reduction Coalition

You know you’re in for a good time when a conference kicks off with an electric guitar performance. Last week Atlanta hosted the 2nd Annual Southern Harm Reduction conference, launched with a spirited song about jack shacks and brothels and sung by a former sex worker from Georgia…and it only got better from there. Throughout the three day conference, active and former sex workers and drugs users gathered with law enforcement, veterans, academics and community service providers to discuss hot button issues such as overdose prevention, safer crack use, mass incarceration, human trafficking, and drug policy. The event aimed to add southern flavor to harm reduction, a concept usually synonymous with government-funded syringe exchange programs in northern states. But while New York and Massachusetts might have a strong harm reduction presence, small nonprofits and activists from all over the south are quietly addressing issues such as syringe access, appalling rates of HIV and hepatitis, mass incarceration of minorities, violence against sex workers, and drug user stigma.

Take Atlanta for example. Syringe exchange is illegal in the state of Georgia, but Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition (AHRC), who was one of the conference hosts hosted, has been providing life saving syringes to drug users and taking dirty needles off the streets for years. Rain, snow, sleet or hail, you’ll see Mona Bennett and her famous button hat offering HIV testing, referral to drug treatment, or a helping hand to people who use drugs.

Further up the coast, the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition provides harm reduction based direct services and advocacy, as well as trains law enforcement officers on how to avoid accidental needle-sticks and works with them to advocate for saner drugs laws.  In addition, organizations like Project Lazarus have saved hundreds of lives through educating medical providers and the community about overdose prevention.

To the west, Streetworks in Nashville is educating drug users on how blood borne pathogens spread through crack and injection drug use and works to improve the lives of people who use drugs.

Dip down to New Orleans where Women with a Vision provides women and sex workers with empowerment tools for how to lead healthier lives and to serve as their own advocates. These organization are just a few of the many harm reduction programs working to save lives, reduce stigma, and make safer communities below the Mason-Dixon line.

There is a lot of harm reduction in the South, it’s just not as visible as elsewhere. Southern programs grapple with different challenges than northern states, such as greater stigma, fewer resources, and complex legal situations. Southern harm reduction isn’t big and flashy, but small groups of dedicated people are making a difference in every state. The conference in Atlanta was a chance to come together and to learn about what works from people who are doing it. It was a chance to realize, “hey, we’re not alone.” It was a chance to say, we don’t have to bring harm reduction to the south, because we’re already here.

What People Said About the Southern Harm Reduction Conference in Atlanta:

“This conference is a chance to grow harm reduction in the south. I love it because I feel like my neighbors are getting closer.”

– Mona Bennett, Atlanta Harm Reduction, Atlanta, GA

“The incredible attendance for the conference speaks to the commitment in the south to be part of a harm reduction movement and to highlight the issues we face here, because they are unique.”

– Deon Haywood, Women with a Vision, New Orleans, LA

“As a law enforcement officer, I feel encouraged that people from various disciplines are willing to put their differences aside and come together to discuss greater safety and better communities for everyone.”

– Ronald Martin, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, Raleigh, NC

“Using drugs doesn’t make anyone less of a person. We’re here to learn how to protect drug users’ rights and to reduce the harm caused by active drug use.”

– Ron Crowder, Streetworks, Nashville, TN

“I’m stoked at the number of people who have poured out to support southern harm reduction. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve always said that if we could bring support and experts to the south and begin to educate our folks about harm reduction, we could really start to see changes here.”

– Jeff McDowell, Atlanta Harm Reduction, Atlanta, GA

“I’m here to learn and to support my fellow peers in the trenches…I believe we can learn from each other. We get a lot of edicts from the CDC about prevention measures, but what works in New York might not work in the rural south. At this conference I can meet someone from Kentucky who is doing great work and I can bring it back to my state and emulate it.”

– Art Jackson, Independent, Fayetteville, NC

“It’s wonderful see participation from sex workers and people who use drugs. Living in Washington DC it’s easy to get away from that, so it’s important for me to listen and participate and to get involved with people on the ground.”

– Whitney Englander, Harm Reduction Coalition, Washington DC

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*To see conference photos go to the “Southern Harm Reduction and Drug Policy Network” Facebook page

*To check out the podcast on the conference go to the following link: http://harmreduction.org/publication-type/podcast/seventy-nine/

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