Healing Justice + Harm Reduction — What Does it Mean?

Last week, we released our Principles of Healing-Centered Harm Reduction — check them out here! In this week’s blog post some of us at RHJ, along with current healing justice practictioners, share our thoughts on healing, liberation, and harm. We’re especially grateful to Ismail Ali and Richael Faithful for their continued partnership and commitment to joyful and badass healing that destigmatizes + demystifies the ways we experience harm.

To learn more about Richael’s work as a multi-disciplinary folk healing artist and healing justice practitioner rooted in the African diasporic tradition of conjure, please visit their website!

What does healing justice mean to you and why is it important to talk about healing-centered harm reduction?

Magali : We talk so much about harm reduction and survival, which is important, and also is only one part of a continuum. There is so much more than survival and we need to hold that possibility for people and help actualize it.

There are two ways that I think of healing justice in the context of a movement for the health, rights, and dignity of people who use drugs and trade sex. The first is recognizing that we have been removed from the ways in which our ancestors healed. By way of slavery, colonization, and imperialism, we have been guided to address healing in a clinical or medical context which is embedded in the prison industrial and medical industrial complexes. Healing justice, then, is a return to the ways in which our ancestors healed through circles, sacred plant medicine, sacred sexuality, and developing deep connections with self, community, and nature.

The other way that I view healing justice, which is how the term is used in its most traditional sense, is as a way to approach harm that we cause each other or that is caused on a community or movement level. This backs up into the #metoo conversation. There are great leaders whom lots of people look up to in this movement who are also really problematic in some ways. Most of them are cis-white men. Most of them are EDs or work at one of the handful of prestigious national harm reduction organizations. Healing justice is the way in which we approach the oppression and violence inherent in society. It is how we do our work; how we address harm in order to reduce harm. Healing justice is conducive to harm reduction because the process is holistic and compassionate, seeking to repair harm and create change rather than punish and isolate.

Richael: Healing justice, to me, is a name for love-based organizing and community-being that we have long known in the South, and particularly among Black folk. When our needs to eat, stay safe, witness each other, truth-tell, make medicine, and be together are one in the same. I draw a lot of inspiration from Fannie Lou Hamer and her Freedom Farm, as well as living, wom*n/trans/queer cultural workers of color, like Cara Page.

In the southern tradition too, I should share a short story.

I entered the healing justice movement about ten years ago. I was a full-time paid organizer in Virginia, which is one of my homes, after a few years organizing as a college and high school student. I was learning to be a strong strategist but my heart ached. I didn’t feel whole as I met people individually, spent time in communities that were new to me, navigated my queer identity, and made pitches to people about my group’s statewide work. I felt distance from myself, from them, from place, and any shared values. I was so grateful when Iimay Ho, now a dear friend, powerful visionary, and leader of Resource Generation, reached out to me about Southerners on New Ground (SONG).

SONG was the first place I experienced where we were coming together because of love — love of our queerness, our Blackness, our browness, our brokeness, our bodies, our survivals, and love of us sense of identity and place as southerners. It was the first time ever that I was asked how our relationships to land, work, spirit, and body influenced my political analysis. It was the first example in which the depth of my experience was as valued as my politics and even my identities. Since then I’ve come to learn that healing justice is the set of principles that ground love-based organizing — we prioritize in our safety, histories, well-being, and mutual support because we understand that these aspects are the fundamentals of our work toward systemic transformations. Until that point I never knew this kind of togetherness was possible; this revelation alone was an encounter with healing justice.

Healing-centered harm reduction feels like a pathway which leads harm reduction back to its roots. The truth is harm reduction is not merely a theory or practice, but it is a tradition among those of us whose ancestors have known attempted genocide, terrorism, and dehumanization. Harm reduction is not about just about a version of healthcare, but it is about radical survival and well-being among those of us whose bodies are political-cultural targets. Beyond knowledge of survival strategies, harm reduction is a set of practices within the tradition of healing justice that rejects our systemic conditions but accepts how each of us navigates our reality.

I believe that Black southerners have practiced harm reduction since our ancestors were kidnapped on slave ships, and liberated themselves into the ocean. Their legacy means that harm reduction is available to us in ways that may allow us to survive despite of it all. Yet, somewhere along the way, harm reduction was co-opted and estranged from its healing justice roots — made narrower, smaller, exclusive, and professionalized. Healing-justice harm reduction allows us to re-center this tradition is humanization and love within our context, and intricacies. It is the healing of the harm, making a way for justice that we need.

Kate: The intersection of healing justice and harm reduction is about asking more than survival. Harm reduction has been an important first step to recognizing the lives and wellbeing of marginalized communities as something to value. It has also been only a first step which is too often looked at as a destination and not a framework.

Beyond the individual, the relationship between harm reduction and healing justice speaks to where so much of our harm and the need for healing comes from: institutions built on violence, oppression and exploitation. When we look at the work that is done in harm reduction spaces, we are often mitigating the on-going violence perpetrated by these institutions. Educating sex workers on how to screen using blacklists is necessary because the criminalization and policing of the sex trade makes sex workers a target population for violence. Exchanging syringes is necessary when basic health tools are criminalized and hard to come by, even when we know people need them. Harm reduction is often a reaction to the violence seen by communities and bodies of color, of poor folks and of women.

Healing is focused on the scars left behind and seeks to restore them using the tools that are in our blood and are passed down through our culture.

Ismail: Before defining healing justice for myself I’d like to acknowledge my own education on the topic via Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s article “A Not-So-Brief Personal History of the Healing Justice Movement” in which she states that “Healing justice as a movement and a term was created by queer and trans people of colour and in particular Black and brown femmes, centering working-class, poor, disabled and Southern/rural healers…. Core to my understanding of healing justice is also the idea that trauma didn’t have to be a secret, something shameful and “personal” to never be dealt with, but that many if not most people are survivors of trauma from abuse and oppression, that we often come to movement spaces hoping to heal that trauma through doing freedom work, and that the work itself could reactivate trauma.”

I bring that up because my own interpretation of “healing justice,” which was formed before I learned of the history of it as a cohesive movement, came directly out of my own relationship with liberatory psychedelic healing experiences, through which I reached a similar conclusion: many people doing justice/movement work are experiencing, processing, and re-activating trauma about their own lives and histories that has been passed on from their ancestors while they are also trying to change the world; however, in order to change the world, we have to acknowledge and heal from trauma in an intentional and collective way. They are tied together more than the chicken and the egg. In that way, healing justice to me is both the process of infusing justice work with healing frameworks, and also the necessity of an acknowledgment, addressing, and restitution from cycles of harm for restorative and transformative systems to be built out from a “new” groundwork.

The reason we need to talk about healing-centered harm reduction is because harm reduction by definition comes from a place in which harm is implied to be the default, which is the fundamental misalignment between the status quo and the world we are trying to create. One helpful reframe to “harm reduction” that can come with psychedelic substances, which the US government and western medical systems haven’t been able to “justify” before (but now can because of the scientific research that’s been done), is “risk reduction” or even (gasp) “benefit maximization.” That is not to say that there aren’t risks, but rather that by looking at change as a multilayered process, we see that the need to create holistic, healthy, accessible alternative systems is as important as the need to dissolve and disassemble the ones we’re currently dealing with.

Sasanka: I am learning how to reconnect to healing and have found new paths to embrace it through healing justice. As someone raised in a Theravada Buddhist tradition, I saw how theoretically healing practices could be corrupted by organized religion, racism, sexism, homophobia, and nationalism. I always found it strange that Americans, particularly white Americans, used an Orientalist gaze towards practices like yoga and meditation without recognizing the pervasive violence that Sri Lankan Buddhists and Hindu nationalists perpetuated.

To me, healing justice is about connecting to the spirit and the body, growing more comfortable engaging the colonialism/violence that I am always soaked in, and learning how to reflect // transform. The philosophy of harm reduction helped me survive many things — a suicide attempt, abusive and toxic relationships, eating disorders. Harm reduction is crucial to my approach to survival. It does not condemn or condone. It says my choices are mine to make, no matter how I am limited by systems. Healing-centered harm reduction is crucial to my approach to life. It uplifts. It centers joy and revels in complexity. It holds space for connecting with my chosen people. It says yes to surviving and yes to thriving. And it says no — no to white supremacy in our movement and all movements. It says no to the murders of Black trans women, no to criminalization ripping kids from their families, no to homelessness. It reduces harm through transformative justice and practiced accountability.

Healing-centered harm reduction breathes vitality into ancestral practices. It rejects linear models that place “harm reduction” as a European public health intervention of the 1990s rather than a collective approach to building safer and healthier communities that sees roots in Black, Indigenous, and POC communities all over the world. It is part of the dance floors and bathrooms and runways and bodies of nightclubs and trans/queer communities. It is the approach that says I deserve to be alive. And in this life, I deserve to heal with my communities, imagine, and manifest a sweeter world.

Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to send us an email at contact@reframehealthandjustice.com!

A collective of individuals dedicated to reframing the sociopolitical paradigms through which we understand race, gender, health, and justice.