Deon Haywood is many things – a fierce human rights champion, a brilliant thinker, a powerful organizer, an African-American woman – and we are lucky to have her as part of the drug policy reform movement.
When she was invited to speak at a global human rights conference in Ireland, she declared, “To be a human rights defender is to make a choice between standing up for what is right and defending the rights of others, or passively accepting that there is no other way.”
The movement is stronger because of leaders like Deon.
Whoever firebombed Deon Haywood’s office, tore the educational posters from the walls and piled the reproductive health models in the center of the room and burned them, seriously underestimated her strength and resilience, and that of her community -- our community.
She is not the kind of person to let fires or hurricanes get in the way of her fight for justice and human rights.
My coworker asha bandele suggested the metaphor of a quilt for this post. Quilts piece together small patches of fabric into a whole, creating something warm and beautiful and useful.
Quilt making is usually women’s work, too – the kind that goes mostly unnoticed in the background, filling up the time between other tasks. It’s also often a job done in groups where each woman has something to contribute.
asha’s a writer and she knows her metaphors and she was right about this one.
Deon and the organization she leads are quilt makers, piecing together harm reduction and reproductive justice and racial justice and public health and community organizing and human rights into the fabric of drug policy reform.
Deon’s organization, Women with a Vision (WWAV), is based in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was founded to fight HIV in the African American community there. The founders understood that they had to take an intersectional approach to that work, starting harm reduction underground syringe exchange programs, and providing women with reproductive health services as well as condoms.
From the beginning, WWAV addressed the intersecting oppressions and injustices harming their clients, including the impact of drug criminalization. Women with a Vision had a significant victory in 2012 over Louisiana law on behalf of their clients.
Many of their clients were being forced to register as sex offenders, resulting in discrimination, stigma, job losses, and additional criminal charges. WWAV fought back and succeeded in getting the law changed, ending one form of criminalization.
They are tackling the huge racial disparities in drug law enforcement in Louisiana, the state with the highest incarceration rate in the country, and if anyone can change that, it’s Deon and her colleagues.
Audre Lorde said “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Sometimes those of us in the drug policy reform movement forget that, as we single-mindedly pursue our objectives.
The intersectional quilt makers like Deon are there to remind us that this is a movement that includes people who use drugs, sex workers, mothers, grandmothers, LGBT people, African Americans, and Southerners, and that we need their leadership and engagement to truly end the harms of drugs and the war on drugs.
We are grateful for her strength and leadership and for the beautiful quilt she sews of our movement.
Laura Thomas is the California deputy state director of 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.