Looking back on the first Midwest Syringe Services Programs: Virtual Institute

In collaboration with local health departments, community partners and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, AIDS United brought together more than 260 people working in harm reduction for our first-ever Midwest Syringe Services Program: Virtual Institute.

Over two days, participants explored current strategies and perspectives from programs across the region and received insight to specific dynamics at play in the Midwest. Taking into consideration the global pandemic, the institute also allowed participants to examine what it means to successfully operationalize and sustain syringe services programs within the COVID-19 landscape.

Zach Ford, AIDS United’s senior program manager for the Syringe Access Fund, delivered closing remarks that summed up the energy shared over the two days of grappling with where we are and where our work must go. Below are his remarks.

It has been almost seven months exactly since we held the Midwest SSP Institute in Minneapolis. That trip was the last time I traveled and the last time I saw anyone from harm reduction in person.

Seven months ago, we gathered in person at the Graduate Hotel in Minneapolis. We mourned recent losses, we shared anxiety about the virus spreading across the globe, we laughed as Phoebe Kebec’s son walked onto the stage during a panel, and we shared about how to provide services to people who use drugs.

A lot has happened between that institute and this one.

The way we provide services has completely shifted due to a global pandemic. The basic tenets of harm reduction — creating safe spaces for people who use drugs, shifting power to marginalized communities, meeting people where they are and revolutionary love — have had to be adapted to social distancing, shutdowns and quarantines.

The overdose crisis continues to decimate our community. We have lost thousands of people to overdose. I have lost eight friends and colleagues since we were together in Minneapolis, and I know many of you here today have lost loved ones as well.

Our country has been reckoning with its violent, racist past, white supremacy and state violence. People around the nation have spoken out and stood up against state violence, only to be faced with a judicial system that is riddled with white supremacy and a refusal to make change, reduce harm and heal.

This has led to our community having difficult conversations about the compromises we have made with the state in exchange for legitimacy as health care providers, asking questions about our movement without clear answers.

Despite the challenges that lay in front of us, the two days we have spent together have given me energy and hope. I have been able to see friends and colleagues for the first time in months. I have heard stories of creativity and innovation, programs that continue to show up, day after day, for the communities who rely on them. I have observed attendees engaging with one another and panelists, asking questions, gathering information and making plans to strengthen their programs.

But, most of all I have felt the love that harm reductionists always bring to these spaces. Whenever I spend any amount of time among harm reductionists, I always walk away with a fuller, softer heart, and today is no different. I feel energized, ready to continue fighting for expanded access to comprehensive harm reduction services. I feel a sense of community, recognizing that this movement is so much bigger than me and exists beyond my home office.

Thank you so much to all of you for taking time to join us and contribute to this space. Thank you to our panelists for sharing your knowledge and experiences with us. And, thank you to each one of you for the work you do every day to reduce the harms to our community and loved ones.

To learn more about the Syringe Access Fund and AIDS United’s harm reduction work, click here. To learn more about AIDS United’s Capacity Building Assistance (CBA) programs, click here or email cba@aidsunited.org. Additional information regarding the CDC’s CBA Provider Network (CPN) can be found here.