When I think of reformers that have played a groundbreaking role in our movement, no name comes to mind quicker than VOCAL-NY.
The leaders of VOCAL-NY, Bobby Tolbert, Elizabeth Owens, Hiawatha Collins, James Dean, Wayne Stark, and Robert Suarez are known far and wide in the drug policy reform movement for many reasons, above all, for possessing an energy and passion that is quite truthfully, unparalleled.
VOCAL-NY is a grassroots membership organization that works on many issues, some of which include ending unconstitutional and racially biased marijuana arrests, overdose prevention, and medical marijuana.
Each and every one of these fearless leaders succeeds in creating transformative change because VOCAL-NY starts and ends with building power among the people that are most impacted by harmful drug policies - low-income people, people living with HIV/AIDS, and those affected by the war on drugs and mass incarceration
They are intelligent, politicized, and powerful. They are movers and shakers that know how to “organize, organize, organize” to pass legislation and reform policies that save lives and strengthen our communities.
In the last year alone, they have successfully pushed forth a number of public health and safety measures throughout New York State that have had tremendous positive effects in low-income communities of color with even greater rippling effects nationwide.
Thanks to their work on expanding access to the antidote naloxone, healthcare providers and pharmacies are now allowed to distribute life-saving kits without a prescriber present, the lives of thousands of New Yorkers will be saved.
And, after years of fighting, they have successfully instituted a 30% Rent Cap affordable housing protection for clients of the NYC HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA), preventing homelessness for over 10,000 low-income New Yorkers.
In addition to their tremendous legislative victories and continued work building strong peer networks that educate and advocate for harm reduction, we have VOCAL-NY leaders to thank for pushing the drug policy reform conversation to new levels.
VOCAL-NY’s User’s Union led by current and former people who use drugs remain the most important voices at the table. They remind us that at the heart of our work, it is imperative that we must always be working to address the stigmatization of people – whether it’s people who use drugs, people living with HIV/AIDS, people of color, or people in low-income communities. Stigmatization in many cases creates an environment that prevents people who use drugs from accessing information about how to use drugs safely, and deters people from seeking resources and help when they most need it.
But more than anything, stigmatization prevents us from seeing people, first in foremost, as people.
This Black History Month, I celebrate the groundbreaking and earth shattering work of VOCAL-NY. In the words of Elizabeth Owens, “I want to thank you for coming to work today” because VOCAL-NY, you are making history by demonstrating what true democracy looks like and what it means to fight for the dignity of all people.
Melody Lee is a policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.
*Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance. Learn about the theme and other honorees for 2015. See posts from the whole series, including past years, here.