To be Black and a woman in the U.S. is a testament to the constant need for harm reduction in one’s life. Navigating the uneven terrain created by racism and sexism creates constant risk in the circumstances of one’s life.
This is a maxim that Paula Santiago, harm reduction coordinator at VOCAL New York, likely discovered early in life. Born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico and moving to Brooklyn, NY at age 11, her experiences with racism compelled her to learn more about both the racism she saw around her and the colonial oppression experienced by her people in Puerto Rico. These lessons would drive her to work on behalf of those stigmatized and marginalized on the basis of their drug use and HIV status.
In 1987, Paula formed New York City’s first HIV-positive support group for homeless youth as an organizer with Streetworks, a drop-in center for homeless youth on the Lower Eastside. In partnership with Edith Springer—widely regarded as “the mother of harm reduction” who published the first clinical article on harm reduction in the United States, Paula built upon her work with young people and co-founded the New York Peer AIDS Education Coalition. This organization engaged in harm reduction outreach and provided HIV prevention education to New York’s young people. Paula has shared her model of support spaces for people with HIV in her native, Puerto Rico as well as Germany and Brazil.
Her experiences organizing with many of New York’s most vulnerable populations led Paula to the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC) as a community organizer. Over her nearly two decades with HRC, she organized eight conferences, growing those conferences from intimate community gatherings, to national convenings of thousands of Harm Reductionists. In 1997, Paula organized the Harm Reduction and Women Conference – the only one of its kind. And bringing her roots together with her work, she formed the Caribbean Harm Reduction Coalition.
We celebrate Paula this Black History Month because her Afro-Latino identity informs her drug policy reform work directly. Paula’s work centers the human dignity and personal sovereignty of people who use drugs. Her work makes clear the rational act in drug use, and expands the choice to include safety and survival. She has lost her own brother to a drug war that doesn’t recognize the humanity of people who use.
But Paula’s work is also strongly identified with Blackness, liberation, self-determination and her Puerto Rican roots. . Paula is an accomplished poet who has published a book of Puerto Rican nationalist poetry. She has also testified before the Committee on Decolonization at the United Nations on the right of Puerto Rico to be a sovereign, independent state.
Paula is a harm reduction trailblazer. She is an accomplished drug policy reformer. And she is a freedom fighter, fighting for the right of drug users to their lives and their bodies, as well as the right of Puerto Ricans to their land.
Kristen Maye is policy associate at the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York policy office.
*Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance. See posts from the whole series, including past years, here.