Remembering the Patron Saint of Harm Reduction

Where does one begin to describe the loss of a man responsible for saving thousands? The passing of our friend, mentor, and hero, Dan Bigg of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, this past August, was and is a devastating loss for harm reductionist around the world.

Dan who pioneered harm reduction, safe syringe needle exchanges, and naloxone access was the most compassionate, fierce and loving advocate for public health, HIV, and substance use disorder. His empathetic, genuine, servant leadership- a difficult leadership style to pull off and one in which Dan managed so effortlessly- is responsible for the public’s access to the life-saving overdose reversal drug, narcan.

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The impact of his years of advocacy is immeasurable as Dan, who was named Chicagoan of the Year in 2017, trained and advised countless individuals, like myself, to administer naloxone.

I feel deeply honored to have worked with Dan, privileged to have had the opportunity to learn from him, and forever changed by his unique, insightful, and sensible perspective on drug use, harm reduction, and creating positive change.

Last fall I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dan over coffee to interview him for a class project. While my typical interactions with Dan were all business- picking up naloxone and speaking at various events with him- that day I snagged his time to learn about him, the formation of CRA, and what he believed was necessary to change the world’s understanding of HIV and drug use.

During our time together, I scribbled down notes about his work on Native American Reservations, where he first saw harm reduction practiced, how he and a dozen friends noticed a lack of services or organizations that addressed HIV and drug use simultaneously so consequently formed one, and how CRA took a year to define “recovery” as “any positive change”.

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But what I took away most from our meeting was the profound acceptance and compassion for “meeting people where they are at” in recovery as CRA defined it. It is a tid bit of advice I carry with me and strive to apply in all aspect of my life everyday and will continue to do so while carrying on the work Dan dedicated his life to.

Dan’s dedication to harm reduction through compassion is at the core of Wake the Nation’s values.

Over the last month our team assembled 1000 naloxone kits for CRA’s trucks which are strategically stationed throughout the Chicago area. We encourage you to learn more about Dan’s work, the Chicago Recovery Alliance and how you can access naloxone, better yet, we invite you to contact us to become an overdose prevention trainer and carry on the life-saving work Dan made possible.

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Reasons for the Holiday Memorial…

It might only be fall but the Wake the Nation team is preparing for winter.

Each year, the Wake the Nation team looks forward to hosting our annual Holiday Memorial. Though we dread the ever-increasing amount of ornament requests, not because of the work, but because it represents such loss, we feel sincerely privileged to be part of your family’s holidays.

Over the next week we will share all the details for requesting an ornament, but today, we want to explain what the memorial is, how it came to be and the many purposes it serves. The memorial is as significant to our team, as it is to honoring your loved one. If you aren’t already familiar with its origin, allow me to explain.

In 2012, my significant other passed away from a drug overdose, leaving behind our three-year-old son, the many nephews who looked up to him, his sisters, parents and dozens of friends. Wake the Nation was created within two months of his passing and was honestly, a way for me to avoid my grief. Six months later, while at the zoo with my son for the Holiday lights exhibit, I was overcome with the emotions I had been sweeping under the rug.

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My boyfriend’s nephews and our son the first holiday season without him, 2012.

Brookfield Zoo was the location of my boyfriend and I’s first date in high school, it was where we went so I could walk myself into labor, where we went for our son’s first outing after birth, and where we went regularly as a family on the weekends. It was our family’s spot and I was there without him.

Crying among the holiday trees and happy families I realized there was a way to maintain the significance of the zoo, my loved one’s memory during the holidays, and other’s loved ones, while simultaneously calling attention to the disease that took him from me. Thus, the Wake the Nation Holiday Memorial at Brookfield Zoo’s Holiday Magic was born.   

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My boyfriend’s nephews (they are mine too!) and our son, 2017. They love decorating the tree!

Today the memorial’s purpose is threefold. It first and foremost honors the lives of those we’ve lost to overdose. It is not only about them, it is for them. In the months it takes our team to collect and hand write each loved ones’ name and prepare their photos, we come to genuinely feel connected to their stories, as so many of you share with us.  

Secondly, it becomes a space where families come to meet, share their love for the person they lost, and celebrate the holidays with others who know the pain of spending the holidays with grief, instead of their loved one.

Many of the families who come to decorate with us have come every year and we can’t tell you how much their friendship has come to mean to us and each other. This past year we ended up hosting a “tree undressing” just so we could all spend time together again! Please know, each ornament is prepared, handled, hung, and removed by our team and volunteers as if it was our own.

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The many people we’ve come to call friends who join us each year to decorate the holiday memorial.

Finally, the tree, being located at Brookfield Zoo, is seen by thousands of families visiting each weekend throughout the holiday season. Not only does the tree make a statement and raise awareness, as it represents the overdose epidemic our world is facing, but it let’s those impacted by it know they are not alone. Moreover, it reminds those who have not been impacted by overdose that those with substance use disorder, matter.
They are worthy of our love, honor and remembrance.

Look for our flyer in the coming days!
In the meantime, visit our Facebook page to see more photos of the holiday memorial’s evolution.

Cultural inclusivity: The value that flows within

Wake the Nation recognizes that privilege and access have heavily influenced and advantaged voices that drive advocacy and  policy change in relation to drugs, substance use disorder, and mental health, as well as the US society in general.

For us, culturally inclusivity embodies diversity and builds opportunity for greater collaboration.

It is imperative for any organization, to be well informed of diverse perspectives and needs that propel a movement forward. In essence, it is the organization’s blood flow, the systemic circulatory system that carries nutrient enriched perspectives so the organization can flourish.

 

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Cultural inclusion means conscientiously seeking out materials, resources, and consultants that represent a wider swath of experiences and identities than are present in our current staff and network. The act of inclusion in an organization is to us, the process of improving the ability, opportunity, and dignity of people. To be inclusive is to build essential relationships that share a common purpose, but to diversify such relationships through cultural inclusion is known to result in higher levels of productivity, creativity and adaptability. Organizations with diversity are less prone to “groupthink”, instead demonstrating critical thinking skills, manifesting in organization and client benefits.

However, beyond representation, Wake the Nation strives toward cultural inclusion by critically analyzing the dominant representation of white, middle-class, hetero samples in research and best practice development. By practicing cultural inclusion and welcoming all, regardless of culture, ethnicity, race, religion, beliefs, socioeconomic status, gender and sexual preference, Wake the Nation works to hold space for a wide array of cultural identities to be represented in our work.

For more information about our values click here.