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We Need Harm Reduction With a Liberatory Vision

“We’re going to have to break the rules,” says Shira Hassan.

Part of the Series

“Liberatory Harm Reduction is concrete. It is a framework, but it is also a daily practice, and it is also a set of strategies. So what strategies do we need that prioritize self-determination and body autonomy right now? And how can we come up with whatever it is that we need collectively to get us through?” asks Shira Hassan, author of Saving Our Own Lives. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Hassan talks with host Kelly Hayes about healing justice, the radical origins of harm reduction, and how we can save ourselves and one another in these times.

Music by Son Monarcas and Amaranth Cove


Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to Movement Memos, a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. Today, we are talking about the ways that people save themselves, and one another, in a society that criminalizes and stigmatizes so many of our struggles. We will be hearing from Shira Hassan, author of Saving Our Own Lives, an anthology of essays and interviews about the practice of Liberatory Harm Reduction and the work of collective survival. Shira is the former executive director of the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, or YWEP, a grassroots project that was led by and for young people who were involved with the sex trade and street economies. Shira is a lifelong harm reductionist and prison abolitionist, and she has been involved with community accountability work for nearly 25 years. Shira is the founder of Just Practice, a capacity-building project for organizations and community members working at the intersection of transformative justice, harm reduction, and collective liberation. I took my first Transformative Justice 101 workshop with Just Practice over a decade ago, which was co-facilitated by Shira and Mariame Kaba. Years later, I attended a weekend-long transformative justice facilitation training that was led by Shira and Mariame. As an organizer, and as an educator, Shira has had a profound impact on the radical organizing community here in Chicago. Her insights about interrupting and reducing harm have been critical to my own understanding of community. She has helped young people around the country launch new organizations, and with her new book, Saving Our Own Lives, Shira offers us a collection of histories and reflections on Liberatory Harm Reduction that are absolutely crucial in this moment. So you may be wondering, what is Liberatory Harm Reduction? How is it different from other forms of harm reduction? Well, the distinctions are important, so let’s start there.

Shira Hassan: So the thing about Liberatory Harm Reduction is it’s actually not new. I mean, we’re calling it Liberatory Harm Reduction sort of to reclaim the original forming of harm reduction in some ways. I think that in the book I’m making a distinction between Liberatory Harm Reduction and what I was sort of calling public health harm reduction because I wanted to name the ways that public health had really distorted and co-opted, and social services and social work has distorted and co-opted this very rich, deep, complicated practice that is rooted in self determination and in community values that has a true root cause analysis that understands that state violence and white supremacy and patriarchy and trauma, all of these things are interconnected and part of a root cause that public health has really distorted our ability to practice a liberatory version of harm reduction, which is how it was created.

So I think what’s important to know about Liberatory Harm Reduction is that it’s generations old, not inventing anything, I’m not describing something new. I’m sort of naming, hey, we’ve been doing this forever as a liberatory practice because we have always needed to save our own lives and we believe that we can save our own lives through these key strategies. And so I think of the work of Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, I think of so many Indigenous resistance practices, the sex workers who have been on the forefront of ending violence, interrupting violence, transforming violence, drug users, people with AIDS and AIDS activists. And then I think, of course, the work of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera through STAR, and all the underground abortion providers, all the people who are doing menstrual extraction, and very importantly, the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords and the way that the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party sort of took over Lincoln Hospital, which you can read about. That was so incredible.

All of this is the backdrop for harm reduction and Liberatory Harm Reduction that goes back — in the book, I kind of really just go back to the late ’60s, early ’70s, but you can go back generations and centuries to track how we practice this. And so I think the definition is something that I hope changes. It’s something that I know this is a humble, incomplete offering around this definition because I know that now that we are thinking about public health and how public health has sort of co-opted and shifted these practices, we can start really digging into: What are we doing? How do we want to name what we’re doing? And so I’m offering this definition with the humility and full hope and expectation that it’s going to change over time as it’s honed by activists and practitioners who are trying to name something truly intangible.

I love what Dominique Morgan said to me in the book, when I was interviewing her and she said, “Liberatory Harm Reduction is grace in practice,” and I just think that’s such an important, important way to think about how we are with each other and what we do with each other. This is the definition that we came up with as we were thinking this through, I refined, discussed, reviewed this definition with about a dozen and a half people or so. The people who helped shaped this definition are people who I’ve been in conversation with for so long and who are either young people in harm reduction, or worked with young people in harm reduction, who are BIPOC, who are queer and trans, and who are all sort of long time transformative justice, prison abolition-oriented folks. And this is sort of the workshopping definition, which is that:

Liberatory Harm Reduction is a philosophy and set of empowerment-based practices that teaches us how to accompany each other as we transform the root causes of harm in our lives. We put our values into action using real life strategies to reduce the negative health, legal, and social consequences that result from criminalized and stigmatized life experiences such as drug use, sex, the sex trade, sex work, surviving intimate partner violence, self injury, eating disorders, and any other survival strategies deemed morally or socially unacceptable. Liberatory harm reductionists support each other and our communities without judgment, stigma, or coercion. And we do not force others to change. We envision a world without racism, capitalism, patriarchy, misogyny, ableism, transphobia, policing, surveillance, and other systems of violence. Liberatory harm reduction is true self determination and total body autonomy.

I think the key differences between Liberatory Harm Reduction and public health harm reduction is that public health harm reduction, especially as it exists inside social services, which by the way, I want social services to practice harm reduction, so it isn’t that I want them to stop. It’s just that they need to acknowledge that there’s true limits on what they can practice and start acknowledging the differences between what we’re doing in community, what we’ve always done in community, and what they’re trying to do. And one of those key differences is, for example, self-determination and body autonomy. So social work and public health would have people, for example, who stopped taking meds, psychiatric meds, hospitalized against their will, or would not allow people to make choices that feel best for themselves. Young people involved in sex trade are, at least in Chicago and a lot of other cities, if you’re under 18, you must be immediately taken to a police station.

And so there’s ways in which self-determination is undermined by public health. I think one of the other differences that’s really critical is that public health views the root cause as the activity itself. So the root cause of harm, for example, is me not having a clean syringe. The root cause of harm is they sort of understand by body as a site of disease, and so if I’m not using a condom when I’m having sex, or if I don’t reduce the kind of self-injury that I’m doing, then I’m really not understanding that what I need is to make a behavior change and that behavior change will keep us safe.

Liberatory harm reduction is not rooted in change and it’s also not rooted in the body as a site of harm or site of disease. It’s rooted in the understanding that we need to transform the root causes of harm in our lives and that what we deserve is relationship care, strategy, support, and for our life experiences that are criminalized and stigmatized to be celebrated and supported not only as the joyful coping strategies that they can be, like drug use can be joyful and often is for many people, so can sex work, so can many other practices, but that we need to be recognized, acknowledged, and celebrated for just being here as we are, that we are here together purposefully, importantly, with all of our mess. And we actually do not need to be changed, unless we want to be, we want to make changes, in which case, Liberatory Harm Reduction would accompany us through whatever change we identify.

KH: In her book Shira writes that she has mostly been known as “a hooker who gives good workshop, who gets young people out of the trunks of pimps’ cars, who busts people out of psych wards, who can find safe housing across the country for for those who don’t have identification, and works to solve problems without the cops or the state.” I love that encapsulation of Shira’s work as a problem solver, because that’s how she was known in the community where I learned to organize. She was someone who people turned to when they had no idea how to process what was happening or what to do next. The knowledge and wisdom that Shira shares with others was built over the course of many years, through the work of organizing and collective survival.

SH: So I came into this work as a younger person, and I got very lucky in that when I was using drugs and in the sex trade, it coincided with a time where AIDS activists on the Lower East Side of New York City were doing syringe exchange distribution and outreach, even though it wasn’t legalized or really sanctioned by the city yet. And so I probably was one of, I don’t even know how to think about this, but I was an early syringe exchange participant as a young person. And that meant that I got so much harm reduction information so young. And because I was using drugs and trading sex for money, and my community was queer and trans, in some ways I got pulled into a lot of great organizations that helped me develop not only my understanding and analysis of what is happening in the world and what I was doing, and how we were all doing, and how we were all surviving together, but also gave me some tools and resources to help me finish school and to kind of rethink and reframe my understanding of community as a whole.

And so I got involved in a project in my very early 20’s called New York Peer AIDS Education Coalition, which was co-founded by a number of people, one of them being Edith Springer, who’s sort of known as the godmother of U.S. harm reduction, and also Kelly McGowan, who is a really powerful anti-racist activist and AIDS activist and squatter, who was a squatter at the time and fought for squatters’ rights for years in New York City, and started some of the first syringe exchanges in New York City alongside so many people. So I don’t know how that happened, but because I got pulled in there, because I met Chloe Dzubilo early on, who was another amazing activist who was doing all this work around trans rights and sex worker rights, and was an activist with Transsexual Menace, and also worked at some of the early syringe exchanges and helped co-found some of the early syringe exchanges.

So I got shepherded into NIPAC, and then as NIPAC was closing in the early 2000s and right after 9/11, and I had just … My heart was just broken between 9/11 and NIPAC closing, so I moved to Chicago just as the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, who had been organizing together for several years, I was not a founder or a co-founder, YWEP had been in existence for years, maybe three or four years when I got there, but I did get there right as they were forming a nonprofit. And so they had gotten their C3 status. For the most part, Young Women’s Empowerment Project got our C3 status because we were made up of all young people who were trading sex for money for survival, who had current or former experience in the sex trade and street economy. And we wanted to be in charge of our own funds. We didn’t want to be fiscally sponsored because young people are never allowed to be in charge of their own money, and also people in the sex trade and street economy and people who use drugs are never thought of as being responsible enough to be in control of their funds.

It was an uphill battle to have a C3, but I got there just as that was forming. And then as YWEP sun setted because of the anti-trafficking laws, I started a project with Mariame Kaba, Rachel Caidor, Deana Lewis, Ana Mercado, and Keisa Reynolds called Just Practice Collaborative, which was formed to build our capacity to respond to sexual violence, intimate partner violence, without 911 and social workers, and to build Chicago’s capacity around community accountability, transformative justice, and understanding prison abolition.

KH: One thing I really loved about this book, which includes interviews and essays featuring thinkers like Cara Page, Erica Woodland, Mariame Kaba, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, is that it feels like a zine. For anyone who doesn’t know what I mean by that, zines are noncommercial, often homemade or online publications, that are often devoted to specialized or subversive subject matter. For example, I have some friends right now who are working on a zine about self-managed abortion, because we need material ways to move that knowledge through the world. Zines frequently include artwork and handwritten content, and there are pages of Saving Our Own Lives that have that handcrafted look and feel. As someone who usually bounces between audiobooks and print, because that sensory switch-off helps keep my wandering focus intact, I was actually able to read this book cover to cover, without audio. It just held my attention in a different way, and I feel like the recurring zine imagery was part of that.

SH: I love that’s how it felt to you, that was one of the main goals was to make it feel zine like, and there’s so much reason for that. So I think harm reduction is rooted in so many different cultural moments, and so much cultural work happens within harm reduction.

And one of the really big parts of it was that a lot of the work is frankly not legal. It’s not publishable. So when we shared information and when we do share information, we share it in zines so that we can transmit this precious, life-saving, juicy content in a way that is also going to be safe from sort of mainstream media, mainstream consumption. And almost all the information that I have about actual harm reduction practices are in zines to this day, and so it would almost be bizarre to write a book about harm reduction and not have it feel like a zine because it would almost be like taking it out of its original shape and forcing it into some other kind of shape. And I wanted us to feel harm reduction alive in the book the way it feels alive in so many of our spaces and so many of our worlds.

I found something that is so difficult to often describe to people, what it feels like to walk into a syringe exchange that’s run by drug users, that’s run by sex workers, as opposed to walking into a syringe exchange that’s run by a social service or a department of health, how different it feels, the way that, for example, the bathroom. You walk into the bathroom and there’ll be a ton of syringes, a ton of naloxone, a ton of hormones, a ton of information about how to safely inject. Maybe there’ll be some birth control pills, a ton of condoms, a bunch of clothes, a bunch of clean underpants.

You can take whatever you want. People can be in the bathroom for 30 minutes and someone will check on you to make sure you haven’t OD’ed, or you don’t need help, or you’re not sick. But that bathroom is a sanctuary. The office will be painted a million different colors. It will feel like a living room. There’ll be couches and dogs and food that people have cooked. And it’s really difficult to explain how that feels to someone who has only experienced sort of a public health version of harm reduction. And so I wanted this book to feel as much like us as I could make it feel, and I wanted us to be able to see ourselves in our work, and to see ourselves in our cultural production as much as possible.

KH: As someone who thinks we should all be students of history, I was grateful for the lineages captured in this book, and I particularly appreciated Shira’s documentation of the organizing of the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, here in Chicago. YWEP was founded in 2002 and sunsetted in 2014, when anti-trafficking legislation criminalized certain harm reduction practices. I know a lot of you probably haven’t heard of YWEP, but the group’s impact can still be felt here in Chicago, and elsewhere. I consider Shira’s storytelling about YWEP in this book a gift, not only to movements, but to the work of keeping history.

SH: I think the historical significance of Young Women’s Empowerment Project is frankly almost immeasurable. And I want to just name some of the co-founders and the founding director, who was Claudine O’Leary, and I want to name sort of a whole host of other people who founded this brilliant project, Laura Janine Mintz, Alyssa Hall, I could go on. And I think the uniqueness so far as I know of Young Women’s Empowerment Project has not really been replicated yet. Although, I think there’s a lot of groups forming who maybe don’t at this point because the way we operate is so ahistorical, and I think even the internet sort of keeps things a little ahistorical too because right now, if it doesn’t exist on social media, it’s as though it never happened.

And so I think even though ways that we use certain languaging, and we phrase certain things, I mean, I can’t prove this necessarily, but I can see the arc of those 20 years and the ways that we think and talk about things as really different. And it wasn’t just us, there was a whole group of people, a whole group of political organizations and networks of young people, young people of color, street-based young people, who were pushing that out and pushing that forward. I’m thinking so much of the work of Emi Koyama. I’m thinking of the work of Kelly Dorsey through different avenues. I’m thinking of Women with a Vision. There were so many amazing sex worker-led, women of color-led, young people-led, harm reduction-rooted organizations that were just really changing how even funding happens, and of our work, and of our groups, and thinking about if all policies should be shifted and changed.

I think the research project that we did in 2009, which was called “Girls Do What They Have to Do to Survive,” was one of the first studies, well, it was definitely the first study that was ever done by young people of color in the sex trade and street economy that was a full research study. And I think that research is still having a huge ripple effect in the world. I look at sort of the Beyond Do No Harm Network now that’s formed Interrupting Criminalization, and some of the research findings that we had in 2009 have informed how the demands were written for the Beyond Do No Harm Network.

So I think the legacy is really hard to trace, and it’s also really obvious to me in some key ways, the research that we did was on our resilience and resistance to institutional violence. And almost all research with very few exceptions, and notable, I can only think of one other study that was done by… I can’t remember if it was Different Avenues or Best Practices Policy Project, but it was the Move Along Study that looked at how police violence against sex workers, I think it started at Different Avenues, and then Best Practices Policy Project has been sort of shepherding it to this day. But the most research out there is on interpersonal violence. And my whole life as someone in the sex trade and street economy… I have obviously dealt with interpersonal violence. I think the assumption is that I’ve dealt with so much more, and that it isn’t as significant as the institutional violence that I’ve experienced or others that I love have experienced. And I think it’s just sort of a strange thought that someone could experience interpersonal violence without experiencing institutional or state violence, but that’s not a thing.

If you experience interpersonal violence and you try to seek help, you are then necessarily going to experience state violence. I think of the Danielle Sered quote, “No one experiences violence for the first time by committing it.” And so if we flip what I just said around and think about if I was experiencing interpersonal violence, I was also simultaneously experiencing state violence because some of the root causes of violence are about the state. So it’s this funny little line that we draw I think to just help our minds make sense of the vast amount of violence that’s out there, but it’s false. And so I think that the research that Young Women’s Empowerment Project did on our resilience and resistance to institutional violence, how we took care of ourselves, how we fought back, how we heal, how we collectivize, how we do our political organizing, was so disruptive, and the findings are still useful today, and they were even useful at the time.

I mean, The New York Times picked it up, another group who submitted to the Ninth Periodic Review of the United Nations used our research that helped the United Nations find the United States in neglect of young people in the sex trade and street economy and demanded that the United States be held accountable for the ways that it was causing violence to people in the sex trade and sex workers. So yeah, there’s so many ways. I think one of the other very unique things that’s less unique now, but at the time it was very unique, was that we were a project that first of all used language around the sex trade, meaning that there were some of us who were engaging with the work as work, and there were some of us who were engaging with it as things happen, I get money, and there was a barter system connected to it. And there were some people who had no identity around what was happening at all, did not want to say, “I’m a sex worker,” but did want a name, I’m involved in things and I want to be a part of something bigger than me, and I want to connect with other people who are doing these things. So there was a way in which the language that we used around the sex trade was so unique. I do hear it more now, people talking about the sex trade. But the only reason why we used it was because we wanted to acknowledge that some of us were participating in the sex trade through our own self-determination, and some of us were not. Some of us force, fraud and coercion was absolutely a part of our experience, but that you could have multiple experiences and the strange of idea of choice in sex work and the sex trade was sort of also mythical in that one day, you’re making a conscious decision, and one day you’re not, or you have all these options in front of you, and this is your decision.

There’s so much funniness around choice phrasing that we don’t hear as much talked about now, but we certainly did in the 80s and 90s, and YWEP started organizing in the late ‘90s, and we existed through 2014, so we don’t hear a lot of that strange framing around choice, no choice, the way we did in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And I do think we had a lot to do with that.

KH: One of the essays I really appreciated in Saving Our Own Lives was written by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. It’s called “Harm Reduction Is Disability Justice: It’s Not Out There, It’s In Here.” In the essay, Leah talks about how the peer-to-peer support that keeps so many disabled people alive is the kind of care work that Shira would describe as Liberatory Harm Reduction. Leah writes,

We share pills, and info about pills, and tricks for getting off the pills, and stuff that isn’t about pills. We pool money, share strategies for surviving everything from suicidal ideation to how to limit CP tremors during an MRI. We listen to what people say they need instead of telling them what they should need. We work to help others take control of their life and survive on their own terms, instead of focusing on “fixing it.”

SH: I think that part of what Leah is talking about in that piece that’s so critical is the way in which people with disabilities and people with chronic illness, people who struggle with mental health, we’re always practicing harm reduction. And so I think just the acknowledgement that we’re always practicing harm reduction is something that’s so critical. I think inside of public health, public health does not have a disability justice framing. In fact, public health is pretty much, and the medical-industrial complex specifically as a whole, even separate from public health, but it’s pretty much focused on our bodies as sites of disease that need to be cured. Eli Clare has a beautiful book on sort of letting go of the notions of cure and what cure even means. And I think that Cara Page and Erica Woodland’s upcoming book, Healing Justice Lineages, talks so much about how the joining of disability justice, harm reduction, reproductive justice, and so many other important frameworks is how we move forward together.

And so I think in some ways, we can see it right now in healing justice, when people really understand healing justice, then I think they understand what Leah’s talking about. I would also love to hear what Leah’s thinking because Leah’s an amazing activist, harm reduction practitioner and transformative justice organizer, so I also wonder a lot about what she’s thinking. But for me, I see healing justice organizing, which is really different than your right to have a massage, healing justice is this really deep, complicated, political theory and strategy. And I think the use of that strategy is what we need to be doing and where we need to be going. And harm reduction is inextricable from healing justice. Healing justice is inextricable from disability justice. You can’t take any of it apart. I think that’s another difference with public health, is public health sort of silos things and breaks it apart and says, “That’s for this department, or that’s for that department. Your body’s a diseased mess because of this issue over here, so go over there to get this dealt with.”

And I think what liberatory harm reduction is saying is, “Hey, we’re whole people right now, deserving love, fully formed, exactly as we are,” and we can organize and we can take care of each other. And we also need resources, help, and support. So not to say it’s all perfect, it’s actually all kind of a mess. But it is what we’re doing and it is what we’ve been doing, and we’ve had some really beautiful, important wins and moments built from that.

KH: One of the zine-like pages of Saving Our Own Lives that I really appreciated broke down what healing justice is and is not. I think that’s a breakdown that a lot of people need. I know I personally thought I knew what healing justice was for a while before I actually did, because it’s a movement strategy that gets tied up in a lot of assumption, projection and efforts at cooptation. So I asked Shira if she could help clarify the concept a bit for our listeners.

SH: I’m going to start with: What is healing justice? So healing justice is a direct confrontation against racism, eugenics, ableism, environmental injustice, anti-immigration policies, misogyny and transphobia. It’s pro sex work, it’s pro street economy. It’s anticapitalist. It’s anti-state. It’s a political strategy. It is most importantly a Black Southern resistance model. It’s collective care for our movements and it’s led by Black, Brown, Indigenous people of color as both healers and organizers. I think people think of healing justice as an individual act of self-care, or a business model, or an individual platform, or I’m seeing people more and more who talk about it as a movement as opposed to a strategy, which is something to dig into with Cara Page because she’s so amazing at taking that apart.

And I’m also seeing more and more people use healing justice as an opportunity to blame people for not taking care of themselves, so you’re not resting, or something like that, and then that’s healing justice. It’s not sort of about your right to a massage, or personal self-care, or singularly focused. It’s not what’s offered by health insurers and it’s not about having an acceptable body as non-sick, as non-disabled, as non-fat, as non-drug using. It’s not about creating a normative body. It’s about a deliberate organizing and organized pushback. And so healers have been organizers again for generations, if you think of the gorgeous legacy of midwives as organizers. There’s so much there.

And so it’s not just about being a healer, and it’s also not about sort of having a self-care space in your meeting. It’s actually about healers as organizers collectively pushing back on systemic injustice specific to the medical-industrial complex and the way that’s so intertwined with capitalism, prison-industrial complex, and all the carceral thinking that’s affected how we take care of ourselves and each other. I think that when we separate Liberatory Harm Reduction from healing justice or vice versa, what we’re left with is public health risk reduction or self-care, and it’s devoid of a liberatory politic or practices that truly improve our collective wellbeing.

I think the best group to look at for this is Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, who created the definition in 2005, and started doing organizing work just a little bit before that as a result of hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and then started doing a sort of national organizing after that as a way of pulling healers together to respond to multiple conditions. It’s a political strategy that is used to intervene and respond on generational trauma and systemic oppression and build the community and survivor-led responses rooted in Southern traditions of resilience to sustain emotional, physical, spiritual, psychic, and environmental wellbeing. So hopefully, that helps a little bit.

KH: When it comes to reducing harms associated with criminalization and stigma, a lot of us have abortion and reproductive justice on our minds. I have strongly recommended that people read the New Handbook for a Post-Roe America and I am recommending Saving Our Own Lives in that same spirit, because technical knowledge is not enough. We also need to think about how networks of care are established and what kind of values drive that work. In that sense, Liberatory Harm Reduction, as a framework, has a lot to offer us in this moment.

SH: Part of what Liberatory Harm Reduction and the history of Liberatory Harm Reduction can offer us is the actual mechanisms for how we can, for example, learn menstrual extraction, how we can all collect as many birth control pills as we can, so that we can redistribute them. What is the safest way to avoid pregnancy? How can we help trans young people gain access to safe transition and medical care no matter where they live? And what I love is that Liberatory Harm Reduction is concrete. It is a framework, but it is also a daily practice, and it is also a set of strategies. And so what strategies do we need that prioritize self-determination and body autonomy right now? And how can we come up with whatever it is that we need collectively to get us through?

I think of the Janes here in Chicago as one of the in many ways forerunners of harm reduction, in that providing underground abortion services in the ’60s and ’70s was something that was so, so life-giving, so essential, so necessary, that it really makes sense for us to learn from the Janes. It makes sense for us to learn from STAR. It makes sense for us to learn from everyone who came before us and put that into as much practice as we can. And what’s really fascinating about this moment and the moment that I was writing the book in was that we are in this sort of time travel moment with the early ’80s. We are in an enormous pandemic with impact that we still don’t understand. Disability justice and disability justice organizing in the ’80s and now is on fire.

We are pushing for so many changes, both nationally and locally. There is so much happening around trans rights, trans leadership. That was happening also in the ’80s. Abortion access, welfare reform, so many of the enormous, the war on drugs and mass incarceration, which was blowing up in that ’80s, those were the conditions that harm reduction sort of took fire in and sort of went ablaze because we’d been laying the foundation through all the incredible work of the Young Lords, and the Black Panthers, and STAR and the Janes, and Act Up. We’ve been laying that foundation. We’ve been doing sort of welfare rights organizing. We were doing incredible mutual aid projects for a very long time, even going back to voter registration work.

And so we can look towards that time. What were people doing then that we can use now?

KH: Something that comes up for me a lot in my conversations with people about direct action, abolition and social change in general is that people want to know how they can do the right thing without breaking the rules or getting in trouble. The fact is, we cannot change the world without breaking the rules, but most of us try to avoid winding up in jail when we can, and the loss of a job can also prove pretty catastrophic for some people, depending on their circumstances. I know Shira has helped a lot of people, including clinicians, navigate decisions about when it’s time to disobey or break the law, for the sake of harm reduction, so I wanted to get her advice for our listeners on that subject.

SH: I think one of the most important aspects of Liberatory Harm Reduction is relationships. And building long-term, meaningful, real relationships with each other means we’re going to have to break the rules. As much as boundaries are a critical part of Liberatory Harm Reduction, so are the absolute necessity that we center each other and prioritize each other. As far as breaking the law, which is sometimes the same as breaking the rules, depending on who you are and how you’re asking the question, I am in the middle of this really incredible support circle right now that I’m holding along with Rachel Caidor from Just Practice Collaborative, Mimi Kim from Creative Interventions, Erica Woodland from National Queer and Trans Therapist of Color Network, of social service providers and social workers who are abolitionists, and who are sitting every day with how to break the rules in order to maintain the political integrity, but also get us free.

And people come because they’re experiencing violence, or they need some sort of service. And how can social service providers not be gatekeepers and be in true solidarity, true allyship with people who are coming in? And I do think there’s a personal inventory that when you’re in that sort of position, when your job is dependent on your ability to say yes or no to something and what that means, I do think there’s a personal inventory about when you can and can’t afford to break the law, in the same way that there is when you go to a protest and you think about, “Can I get arrested today? And what would that mean? Do I have my meds on me? What legal action plan do I need to make?”

Similarly, with sex workers, there are plans that you make. When you’re working, what happens if I get arrested? What’s my safety plan for my kids? Do I have my lawyer’s phone number memorized? I think it’s the same sort of plan that we need, not necessarily always for breaking the rules, especially if it’s an internal rule to your organizing group, you may decide that some of the rules are not one size fits all. They’re case by case, which is harm reduction, the myth of one size fits all that we do with rules actually doesn’t make any sense. It’s always about person by person. So there’s going to be rules that you break by design in your organizing groups. You’re talking about in your jobs though, I think that there is a personal safety plan that it’s important to consider because you do in many cases, especially as we’re talking about reproductive health and justice needs, and we’re talking about the rights of trans kids to be safe and get all of the medical care that they need, we’re going to be breaking the rules. We’re going to be breaking the laws.

Syringe exchange is still illegal in some places in this country. Right? So it isn’t always about the law or the rule, but it is about your relationship to the risk and your relationship to the people who you’re supporting and who you’re in community with, and who are your people, and whose back you’re going to have. I want to say too, I know we’re going to talk about the help desk at some point, but this is the exact kind of call that I often talk through on the hep desk, these sort of ethical dilemmas in organizing work as we figure out how to be in abolitionist praxis, the intersection of abolition and practice is often harm reduction.

KH: We have talked about Interrupting Criminalization’s Help Desk so much on this show that I am probably going to be accused of making commercials for it, but I do think it’s incredibly exciting that this free resource exists and is available to so many activists and organizers. When I heard that Shira was actually working the Help Desk, I got even more excited for people who might take advantage of this free service, because the opportunity to hash out an organizing problem with Shira is actually a really big deal.

SH: The Help Desk at Interrupting Criminalization is a project that is for people who are working to end prisons and police. And it is also for people who are facilitating community accountability processes. And so you should call the Help Desk if you are at a struggle point starting your project, or in the midst of a project and not sure how you want to form it. We can think about everything from how to shape your project, to how to do political education, to community and how to do outreach, so we can think about it like that. We can also think about funding and structure, all the ethical dilemmas that are embedded in this work are things I talk about every day with people. I’ve gotten almost 160, 170 calls from actually all over the world. And it’s been amazing to sit and talk with people who are forming projects and who are either in the midst of their idea or who started a project five years ago and are stuck in a new dilemma around how to move forward.

There’s so much incredible abolition work happening. It’s amazing. And I’m also talking with facilitators, people who are holding community accountability processes, who are stuck in the holding because anyone who’s held one knows you can get stuck. I’ve been stuck many times. And so I am holding space for people who are facilitating. And so what we’re not doing is sort of resolving interpersonal conflict or doing any mediation. We’re not sort of responding to individual harm in any way. We’re working with people who are actively organizing, other facilitators who are responding to community accountability or who are actively organizing abolition responses that are community wide, or who just have one idea for a project, and they’re the only people power they need to make that project happen. They just want to create a resource for their community and put it online. And so I’ve talked to a lot of individuals who aren’t starting huge projects. They’re just doing something that they can do themselves, but they need help thinking it through.

And it’s been amazing. It’s such an incredibly inspiring moment to be in right now. And what I often say on the Help Desk is it’s really an opportunity to think things through. It’s not an answer desk. I do not have the answer, so don’t call me for the answer, especially because right now we have more problems. They’re the best problems because they’re new. We’re in new dilemmas. How exciting to be in new dilemmas because the world has changed so much and there’s so many incredible questions that people have when the rubber meets the road about how to do things. And so it’s a thought partnership, it’s time to think things through with someone who’s been thinking about it for a long time. And sometimes I’m just a switchboard, where I’m just connecting you with five other people who are thinking about things similarly to you, or who need resources about something that might’ve been done in a similar way or a similar project somewhere else in the world.

So you can get to me through the Interrupting Criminalization website, and I’m sure we can link it in the show notes.

KH: I am so grateful for the histories and storytelling in Saving Our Own Lives, and I think it really speaks to the importance of writing things down and documenting our organizing work. Because the public record is not going to tell the real stories of what has happened in our movements or how people have survived difficult times, and those stories are going to be needed, as inspiration and as building blocks. It’s up to us to write things down, and collaborate with others, as Shira did to create this book, so that the next group of troublemaking harm reductionists can learn from what happened before and figure out how to build what’s next.

SH: I am really humbled to have been in the position to have gathered the stories of people in my community and put them in one place. And the truth is that we all have so many stories about Liberatory Harm Reduction and I did not write them all down. I wrote sort of my lineage and the people who I was directly connected to. And some of the first syringe exchanges in this country were started by Black queer people, and I actually was in relationship with them for years before I realized not only that they had started an exchange, but when I started tracing the history that this book was going to cover, I realized that Catlin Fullwood in Seattle and Women with a Vision in New Orleans, they had started some of the first syringe exchanges, in the country. And those were Black, queer, lesbian led projects.

I want to also just shout out Bali White, Chloe Dzubilo, Amani Henry, and the crew in New York City who started the first ever federally funded syringe exchange for trans people. And we just think that those were started by departments of public health, no. These were started by Black, queer, and trans people. And I think the history is so important. We need to be able to see ourselves, and so I’m often awed into silence and stunned by the beauty of people who I’ve met on my own journey to find healing and wholeness, and humbled in the face of this huge collection of bravery. And what I know and what I hope happens from this book really is that it inspires tons of books about everybody’s lineage about Liberatory Harm Reduction.

And I found things that started in ’84, ’85, ’86. Maybe you’ll find something that started in ’82. What happened? How can we not be erased from our own story? I think that we have to continue to divorce the over-focus by public health on our bodies as sites of disease by embracing the entirety of who we each and all are. And so our organizing strategies have to include people who are high in meetings, who are high in therapy, who are in the sex trade, who are sex working, who are making decisions about their mental health and wellness that may not fit into the medical model.

I just want to think about how we can take next steps from our beds, from the bath, and from the street, so that we can continue to develop a practice that reshapes our politics so we can stay and love with each other’s survival and push back on systems that shred our values in exchange for flimsy reproductions of our community’s precious rituals.

So in every talk that I do, I try to close out by asking people to sort of take this pledge that honors the roots of Liberatory Harm Reduction, and so I want to for a moment imagine all of our voices combined into a single chant, and to pledge to the legendary and radical roots of those who came before us, of those who survived and those who became ancestors, who are sending messages from the spirit world. And so I ask us to promise that every time we talk about harm reduction and every time we have a conversation about this critical life-saving philosophy and this love letter from our radical comrades, that you remember and that you share with other people that harm reduction was started by BIPOC organizers, by people in the sex trade, by sex workers, by trans people, by drug users, by young people, by people who were street based, by disabled and chronically ill people, by anti-racist activists who wanted to see our resilience reflected inter-generationally.

They want us to remember that we have everything we need to survive inside our relationships with each other, inside our creative and brilliant community connections, inside our coping strategies, inside our joy and inside our grief. They want us to release the shame that comes with our struggle and live into our complexity, live into the beauty of our mess together. They want us to carry ourselves and each other through the reality of this beautiful mess with rage and glamor, with love and fury, with creativity and despondence, with generosity and curiosity because they don’t want us to be anything else but here.

KH: I hope everyone listening and reading has joined us in making that collective commitment. Our sense of history shapes our ideas about the present, and about what could be. This is a time to contemplate our collective potential. Understanding that Liberatory Harm Reduction was created by oppressed, stigmatized, criminalized people should help us orient ourselves in this moment, as we face onslaughts of illness, environmental catastrophe and state violence. We will not look to authority for our salvation, because under this system, we are all disposable, and many are being disposed of in real time. To me, refusing to leave people behind, and practicing reciprocal care, regardless of what the norms or rules of capitalism dictate, is revolutionary. In fact, it’s where all of our work begins. It’s messy work, but it’s also loving work, and it’s going to be fundamental to everything we build from here.

In a death-making world, we need social life-support systems. Some of those systems will exist outside the law. Some already do. I am grateful for that, and for everyone out there who is working to survive and to keep each other alive. Our refusal to leave each other behind, or to sacrifice each other to the system, will be fundamental to the construction of any future worth having. Toward the beginning of Saving Our Lives, Shira writes, “This book is what happens when those of us who are targeted at the intersections of structural violence … survive, thrive and build power together.”

That is my hope for us. And speaking of hope, we will be back in two weeks with our final episode of Movement Memos this year. Tanuja Jagernauth will be joining me for the final installment in our ongoing conversation about how activists and organizers practice hope. If you have not checked out the previous installments, they’re called, “Hope is Not a Given, We Must Cultivate It Together” and “To Build the World We Desire, We Must Dream Deeply Together” — and while you won’t need them to understand our next episode, I do recommend checking them out. We got a lot of beautiful feedback from readers and listeners about those episodes, and I am so glad that people have found them helpful. We thought our final installment in that conversation would be a good way to wrap up the year, so I hope you will all join us for that.

I want to thank Shira Hassan for joining me today. I loved our conversation so much and I hope we get to chat again soon.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes


  • Interrupting Criminalization’s Help Desk is available by appointment to offer thought partnership and one-on-one consultation to organizations/groups/individuals who are working on projects and community-wide interventions to end violence without using the police.
  • Fumbling Towards Repair: A Workbook for Community Accountability Facilitators is a workbook that includes reflection questions, skill assessments, facilitation tips, helpful definitions, activities, and hard-learned lessons intended to support people who have taken on the coordination and facilitation of formal community accountability processes to address interpersonal harm & violence.
  • The Beyond Do No Harm Network is a group of US-based health care providers, public health workers, impacted community members, advocates, and organizers working across movements to address the harm caused when health providers and institutions and public health researchers and institutions facilitate, participate in and support criminalization.
  • The Kindred Collective is a network of grassroots energy, body and earth based healers and health practitioners seeking to create mechanisms for wellness and safety that respond, intervene and transform conditions of generational trauma and violence in our communities and movements.
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