On Saturday, April 22nd, I attended the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) Partners Meeting organized by the amazing team of women led by asha bandele, Senior Director for Special Projects & Grantmaking. The meeting took place in Atlanta at Morehouse School of Medicine, the first DPA gathering held at a historically black college or university. This is significant as it exemplifies the organization’s continuing efforts to center it’s work and activities with the communities most impacted by punitive drug policies. Despite the acknowledged increase in illegal drug abuse in white working and middle-class communities, black and Latino communities continue to be disproportionately targeted for punitive drug law enforcement. I’m happy the media has been focusing on preventable heroin overdoses and promoting harm reduction interventions like naloxone distribution and “good Samaritan” laws, nonetheless, we can’t forget that on a daily basis drug law enforcement continues to focus primarily on low-income communities of color.
The DPA Partners event seamlessly incorporated a diverse group of people representing a cross-section of problems and issues created by drug prohibition – some had been imprisoned for drug-related offenses; some had lost loved ones to overdoses; others lost loved ones to drug-related violence; some people are still living with the effects of HIV or Hep-C acquired in part, because of punitive drug policies; many have struggled with substance abuse or addiction, seeking treatment they could only obtain after arrest with the threat of prison if they “failed” the required program. These are just some of the myriad ways the so-called “war on drugs” affects the lives of people on a daily basis and rarely for the good. The DPA event, aptly titled, Not One Step Back, did a great job of connecting human faces and human stories to the abstract concept of a “war on drugs” so that participants had a clear sense of what’s happening in our communities and what we need to do to change it……
Unlike many drug policy reform events, this one was consciously inclusive of women and our issues. From start to finish the role of women – especially women of color – as leaders of the movement was prominently on display. I give much credit and thanks to asha bandele, Kassandra Frederique, Lynne Lyman, and Tamar Todd among others who have been consistent and relentless advocates for empowerment of people of color and women and who by example and achievement have silenced skeptics and opponents. The Partners event was unique in the ways it traversed a broad spectrum of mediums of expression beginning with the opening ceremony featuring African drummers and dancers that invoked the spirit of the ancestors as a palpable presence in the space. Poetry, music, storytelling and video were used in ways that both expressed us and elevated us.
I particularly appreciated the way the DPA team consciously lifted up the work and accomplishments of allies and activists via events like the cocktail reception in honor of Susan Burton, founder and Executive Director of A New Way of Life – a project that has generated new models of supporting the healing and empowerment of formerly incarcerated women. Susan’s book – Becoming Ms. Burton has just been released – it’s both moving and informative – another amazing achievement by a woman previously marginalized and ignored by society.
The ability to express joy and laughter – even in the face of pain and tragedy – is an important part of African-American history and culture – asha’s exercise for the group – called – “you better recognize” was an exquisite example of the masterful combination of fun and personal affirmation. I want to acknowledge and commend asha bandele for her numerous accomplishments over the past year – not least underwriting the successful video on the drug war produced by Jay-Z and dream hampton, which received critical acclaim, broadened our base of support and won last year’s DoGooder Award…
Finally, ending the event with a speech by Congresswoman Maxine Waters – what can I say….my cup runneth over. Rep. Waters has been a strong voice against the so-called “war on drugs” throughout her entire Congressional career, being one of the first to point out the covert government role in facilitating the flood of crack cocaine into south central Los Angeles. She was an early proponent of repealing the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity and has advocated for other important sentencing and drug policy reform initiatives. As a woman with a strong, independent voice, she appreciates that in others, so it’s not insignificant she took time out of her busy schedule to come to Atlanta at the request of asha and her team…..While Rep. Maxine Waters personally claims no predictive powers, I believe her when she says she thinks Donald Trump will be impeached. Her views on Donald Trump match mine entirely. I’m not rooting for the success of a president I don’t respect, don’t think is legitimate and whose success is defined in part as the decline of me and mine. I thank Maxine Waters daily for having the courage to say publicly what many of us believe..DONALD TRUMP IS NOT MY PRESIDENT..
The DPA Partners meeting was a remarkable testimony to the commitment and resilience of everyday people who are in fact extraordinary. It’s a testament to asha’s small, but cohesive team that they have supported these extraordinary people for years in empowering their vision for reforming our nation’s failed drug policies and repairing the damage forty years of drug war carnage has wrought. I write this in part, to both commend and highlight the great work of people I respect and have grown very fond of. Additionally I want to point to few distinctions I think are relevant during this time of political turmoil and transition.
I believe it’s important that this transition in our field is being led by women of color – there’s a particular energy we bring that is both expansive and protective at the same time. We open up spaces inside a firm commitment to protect all those who enter it. We are the antithesis to Trumpism at a time the world needs to see and experience real alternatives – not fake ones. Finally, we tend to work in teams – we find strength, support and success in teamwork – perhaps it’s part of a shared survival strategy but it’s particularly relevant and useful now.
As we enter a period that promises to produce a ramped up drug war, increasing drug abuse and associated harms, as well as more police brutality and community anger in response, it will be important to have leadership that can meet the challenges of the time. We need leadership that stresses cooperation over individualism, consultation over decisiveness, compassion over strength and a willingness to adopt a long-term perspective in defining goals and achievements. The search for new leadership at DPA should look to this example of a new way of leadership that is centered and led by women of color and has proven to produce bountiful fruit…Daughters of the Dust Unite!!