Brandie Wilson has her work cut out for her: On October 3, the legendary harm reduction organization Chicago Recovery Alliance (CRA) announced that she would be joining them as their executive director. The position was held for 25 years by Dan Bigg—the revolutionary harm reductionist credited with liberating naloxone from the confines of hospitals and putting it in the hands of people who use drugs—until his tragic death in 2018.
But after years of operating a syringe exchange in the face of death threats and harassment by NIMBY-types and hateful off-duty cops, Wilson has more than enough grit and on-the-ground know-how to guide her in her new position.
“As soon as Humboldt County residents found out that there was a syringe exchange founded by someone who uses drugs,” Wilson told Filter over the phone from her soon-to-be former home in the rural northern California, “I became enemy number one.”
Wilson launched Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction (HACHR) in 2015 after witnessing people in her social circles dying from drug-related causes. “Someone I knew fatally overdosed on New Year’s Day 2012; there were multiple suicides that were drug-related; there were ecstasy deaths. I started trying to figure out what needed to be happening,” she said. “And then we started doing it.”
For her, it was building a grassroots group that offers a brick-and-mortar syringe exchange, street outreach, and overdose prevention trainings, among other services. In 2017, the group reportedly distributed 2,751 doses of naloxone, which resulted in 185 self-reported overdose reversals, according to a two-year report. Over the course of seven months that year, HACHR workers distributed nearly one thousand drug checking kits, yielding 146 instances of a substance being found to contain fentanyl. They also dispensed over 735,000 syringes, with a 93 percent return rate.
Doing harm reduction work in Eureka, the largest city between San Francisco and Portland, has not been easy. A community opposition group, Take Back Eureka, formed. Wilson said that members of this group “threatened to kill me, keyed my car, doxxed me”—and that law enforcement was even sympathetic to the harassment.
“As a law enforcement leader I’m unwilling to sacrifice the community’s sense of safety on the altar of a syringe exchange program,” Eureka Chief of Police Steve Watson told Judith Mernit for Capital & Main, a California-based nonprofit investigative site, last year. “Parents should be able to take their children to our parks without living in fear of being stuck by a discarded needle.”
Wilson has learned valuable lessons about how to fight for the health and safety of people who use drugs in a society infused with prohibitionist sentiment. Armed with a fiery vocabulary and a palpable passion for serving her community of drug users, she knows how to “navigate the harmful narratives that certain media platforms utilize to spread hate and lies about the current situation of substance use in America.”
One way she did this was by kickstarting a podcast titled #FactsMatter to reclaim her own narrative as well as that of her organization. “The hateful people talk, and they talk a lot,” she said. “A junkie’s talking, so clearly she’s lying. And they spread a lot of misinformation. Having a team that keeps an eye on that and puts the evidence out is important. I learned how to play hardball.”
Meeting people where they’re at is a harm reduction tenet. Wilson says it’s second nature for her when it comes to people who use drugs: “When I first started, I would meet people who use drugs on the street, any day, all day—not a fucking problem.” However, “It took me a while to learn that one with politicians,” she laughed.
She learned the importance of this when Take Back Eureka launched a petition to shut down HACHR. Wilson says she gave one of the guys behind the petition a “two-and-a-half-hour” tour of the facility, during which he “badgered me every which way.” But she saw this as necessary: “When he left, I had re-upped his supply of naloxone, he had a much better understanding of syringe return. And then I met him for cleanup.”
But she also knows that meeting opponents where they’re at is a skill she needs to continue to cultivate as she moves to CRA. “I’m a fucking fighter. I’m driven. It’s my life. It’s hard to listen to their gross bullshit.”
Even in the span of a few months away from HACHR, she’s noticed that community tensions are much milder. “A lot of the hate for HACHR left when I left. They kept saying, Junkies shouldn’t be in charge. The Red Queen is dead—they called me the Red Queen. It was a real modern-day witch hunt, and I was the witch.”
Working at CRA will be different, Wilson believes. “They are established, they have great standing in the community. I don’t need to scorch any earth because there’s already a forest growing.”
Photo of Brandie Wilson by Chicago Recovery Alliance.