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Q&A: Orisha Bowers, Executive Director of the National Harm Reduction Coalition

Oct 5, 2022

Editor's note: Interact for Health will welcome Orisha Bowers for a free webinar about harm reduction on Wednesday, Dec. 7, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Registration is required

Orisha Bowers joined the National Harm Reduction Coalition in 2019 and assumed the role of executive director in July 2022. Bowers holds a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies, a graduate certificate in women’s and gender studies, and a certificate in complementary alternative medicine. She has more than 22 years of experience in social services, nonprofit leadership, grants management, program design and civic leadership.

Interact for Health: Under your leadership do you foresee any change in the direction of the work the coalition is doing?

Bowers: I wouldn’t say that there will be huge changes in our work per se because our role and our work—policy, advocacy, technical assistance, training, convening and efficient low-barrier grant making—in the national sphere of harm reduction is extremely niched. What you will see is more intentionality of purpose, more focus on sustainability, and continual growth toward being a good steward of relationships and partnerships in community on the local, regional, national and international levels. We are really good at what we do and there’s always room to be better.

Interact for Health: You’ve said that you believe harm reduction will become even more ubiquitous over the next decade and that harm reduction education and services will become more ambient across systems. Could you please elaborate? What direction do you see the field headed?

Bowers: There is a growing interest in the interdisciplinary nature of harm reduction to cross adjacent movements. Today, there is an upsurge of interest in the academic, public health, reproductive health, criminal justice, substance use prevention and recovery and treatment, arenas to do more research and integrate the principles of harm reduction in their daily work. In terms of the direction we’re headed, there is an inherent divergent quality in harm reduction and our mainstream public health and academic counterparts. I suspect that we will begin to trend more toward convergence in the three areas.

Interact for Health: How has the pandemic forced the coalition and its members to pivot?

Bowers: We are definitely going toward being more flexible and more creative in doing our work collectively. The days of being unseen are no more. Harm reduction programs were forerunners in innovation and service delivery during the pandemic. We bore the weight of meeting the community’s needs beyond harm reduction resources when many traditional community-based organizations and public health departments had to halt or redirect operations away from harm reduction to COVID-19 response. We saw huge increases in the demand for services. We met those demands despite the pandemic, and we continue to do so today.

Interact for Health: What is the biggest obstacle to harm reduction today and how can it be overcome?

Bowers: The biggest challenges we face are a lack of sufficient and unrestricted financial resources and a policy backdrop that is punitive and criminalizes marginalized people. Lastly, there is the toxicity of stigma and shame and purposeful miseducation that keeps people stuck in a mindset that is unkind and inhumane to people. The way to change that is to redirect sufficient resources to the community, become educated about the importance and beneficial attributes of harm reduction and change the laws.

Interact for Health: The coalition will hold its biennial conference in Puerto Rico in October. What is your primary objective for this event?

Bowers: The conference has always had three objectives:

  • Providing safe spaces for the exchange of ideas and cutting-edge practices that reduce harms associated with drug use.
  • Creating networking opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds committed to dismantling the racialized policies that underwrite and perpetuate oppression.
  • Challenging stigmatizing narratives about people who use drugs by supporting their leadership development and exposing social inequities driven by structural violence and discrimination.

Interact for Health: What makes you optimistic?

Bowers: Knowing with daily evidence that what I get to do every day for a living will one day create a world where my children and grandchildren will be able to thrive and live unapologetically as the people they were intended to be.

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