Brandie Wilson, the executive director and founder of the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction, was named by The New York Times as one of “18 Memorable People We Met Across the Country in 2018.”
Wilson has endured a lot since founding HACHR, which utilizes a harm reduction approach that has drawn criticism from some members of the community. Harassment, threats of violence, and even death threats mark the journey Wilson has taken in an effort to reduce the impacts of addiction in Humboldt County.
“We were doing such big work under such intense pushback,” she said. “We’re doing what science says is supposed to be done.”
Jose A. Del Real, a New York Times journalist who named Wilson for the list, said she reminded him of many of the people he’s worked with covering the opioid epidemic nationally.
“She is so clear in her conviction and is so willing to be the person that is speaking up even if it means she’s getting negative attention,” he said. “It can be difficult to become that person — that itself was quite striking.”
Despite the potential for negative pushback, Wilson never hesitated to participate in his story, he said. It was important to Wilson to speak up for the community she felt wasn’t being listened to, he added.
“She’s so compassionate and so caring,” he said. “The conversation she helped start in her community is very [important].”
Wilson said the recognition is a bit surreal and pushes the spotlight to focus on the larger picture.
“It’s our work that is memorable, and not me,” she said. “There’s a large story out there about drug policy and harm reduction happening across the nation — we’re a piece of that story.”
Wilson took the moment to applaud the community’s work to prevent overdoses through organizations like Open Door Community Health Centers, the RxSafe Humboldt coalition, United Indian Health Services and other county agencies.
The story of how HACHR was founded began after a close friend of Wilson’s died from an overdose in 2012 on New Year’s Day.
“That was sort of the last thing I could handle,” she said. “I found that in 20 plus years, Humboldt County has been above the national average of overdose deaths.”
Wilson lost a number of people from drug-related incidents in the next year and began reaching out to the community to look for a solution. Wilson said a member of the Drug Policy Alliance was one of the few people who responded and suggested she apply for a grant from the organization. She did and didn’t get the grant, and never has. But that has not been a deterrent.
Locally, the Humboldt Patient Resource Center made a small financial contribution, which Wilson said helped HACHR operate in the early stages.
Mariellen Jurkovich, director of the Humboldt Patient Resource Center, said she first met Wilson when she was a graduate student at Humboldt State University. Jurkovich said she offered a small contribution to HACHR because she believes HACHR’s harm reduction model aligns with their practice at the Humboldt Patient Resource Center.
“I will never apologize for being pro-harm reduction … we are taking care of humans,” she said. “It’s great for our community that we have an (organization) that cares about people that nobody really cares about.”
Moving into 2019, Wilson is excited for the future of HACHR.
It has become a licensed hepatitis C and HIV testing center. HACHR partnered with Open Door to offer treatment navigation and case management. The organization is also continuing podcasts, which can be found on its Facebook page, its website and on KMUD. It also received a grant to help provide a medicated assisted treatment street team, which will provide comprehensive services to help people complete treatment successfully, such as transportation to and from treatment, bus passes and appointment reminders.
“If we can’t eradicate those barriers, we’ll find a workaround,” Wilson said. “We’ve endured a lot and we’re still standing and still smiling.”
Philip Santos can be reached at 707-441-0506.