For Learning, Loving or Loathing?
There she was in the alley. Pushing a shopping cart. She might have been mistaken as a homeless woman, except the cart was transporting a box of strawberries and a thermos of coffee. Beside her along the route of sidewalk and alleyway, we walked. She was recognized, and sometimes greeted, along the crowded path. I looked on and saw scenes replaying over and again, as if she came from central casting.
I was unprepared to meet Ann Livingston, founder of a group known as VANDU. We were in the east end of Vancouver, B.C., Canada. VANDU has been around for almost twenty-five years as an organization of drug users and former users. They organize as peers, seeking action to better their neighborhood, their personal situation and that of others. Ann is what I call a “divine irritant.” She challenges the taken-for-granted worlds of Vancouver.
Ann disrupts the “normal” activities of police officers, operators of cheap single room occupancy hotels, health professionals, social workers and drug dealers. She is a convener of alternative visions, a truth-teller, a fierce organizer. Her work — joined with dozens of others, especially drug users — rattles the tectonic plates of political, economic power. She challenges the assumptions, programs and professional expectations of many on the east side of Vancouver.
When I say Ann comes out of central casting, perhaps it is better to say she seems to emerge from the story of other women, women I never met, but have long regarded as saintly disturbers of the peace. As I watched and listened, I thought of Francis Willard, Jane Addams or Lucy Ryder Meyer, from the 19th Century.
With the arrival of fentanyl, deaths from drug overdoses in the neighborhood soared. In the last six years over 1,800 persons died from overdoses. When public officials were slow to act, Ann and others decided to set up unsanctioned injection sites. This strategy, along with clean needle exchanges, is based on the successful Four Pillars approach in Europe. The four pillars are: Harm Reduction, Prevention, Treatment, and Enforcement. To learn more see: Straight News, December 2016.
Now at the front end of my eighth decade, I am discovering how little I know and how much more there is to learn. (And, I am learning of the many places I have been wrong in assessment or assumption.) I am helped by new learning occasions. Yes, these new insights can come from books and films — but I am advocating for putting ones self in new and uncomfortable places. Places that challenge easy assumptions about life and how things really work.
Visiting an unsanctioned safe injection site with Ann, I appreciated that we are not limited to the official, and agreed upon, responses to the social and institutional challenges we face. When there was a need for a response to drug overdoses from fentanyl use, and the system failed, Ann pitched a tent and began to offer a place for safe injections. There were safe needle exchanges and a responding to overdoses by offering naloxone, Naloxone can counter the probable death from a fentanyl overdose. When asked about the consequences of breaking the law, Ann simply replies, “I am pretty sure it is not against the law to save a person’s life.”
My “learning journey” was with colleagues Mike Mather and DeAmon Harges of Indianapolis. It was a gift to accompany friend and mentor, John McKnight. John has advocated an Asset Based Community Development approach to community organizing. It is about encouraging the recognizing of abundance within all communities. This approach focuses on identifying the assets of people, rather than collecting up their deficits. This approach, that focuses on gifts rather than needs, is widely known around the world, as ABCD community organizing. Ann Livingston is a most remarkable practitioner of this approach, seeking out the abundance in her community, encouraging drug uses to be their own researchers, advocates and providers — and not being afraid to disrupt that which focuses only on neediness.
As I traveled I couldn’t help but think of our situation in the United States. Our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is determined to return our nation to the expensive and failed “war on drugs” that focuses only on ENFORCEMENT and PUNISHMENT. It simple doesn’t work. Or, better said, it provides results that are exactly the opposite of what is believed.
This effort misses all of the lessons that have been learned from around the world and across the years. It comes from lousy morality constructs and even worse theology. Incarceration only turns prisons into schools for future soldiers in the drug cartels and neighborhood pushers. The time has long since passed for us to establish ways for the addicted to have access to methadone and medical heroin. Only by ending the demand and offering a Four Pillars approach to drug use and addiction (harm reduction, prevention, treatment, enforcement) can we find a way forward that is not just a revolving door to continuing our past mistakes. Mistakes that destroy lives, families and communities.
Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan has wisely said that much of the mean-spirited, anti-democratic and fear-based political efforts in the recent years is what he calls a “loathing of the present.” It is a hunger to return to a world that never was — except in the minds of those who out of fear seek to divide, exclude and punish. In this world those who suffer, who are different, are to be loathed because they represent a reality that cannot be accepted.
Can there be a turn from loathing to loving? Any faithful Christian expression would say “yes, of course.” No need to cite chapter and verse — it is evident in the entire sweep of scripture — to move toward health, abundance and renewal… and to do so out of love and not exclusion.
By now, good reader, you have probably wondered, “Strawberries? Why was Ann carrying strawberries?” It seemed incongruous in the midst of all of the suffering and tragedy to bring strawberries to the unsanctioned safe injection site. When asked why strawberries? Ann’s answer was simple, “Who doesn’t love a strawberry?”