Controversial Transitions

Special Considerations: Communication Tips for Controversial Transitions

Largely as a result of the on-going War on Drugs its sibling, the criminal industrial complex, and the intersectional structural violence that enable them both, harm reduction organizations are more likely to experience controversial transitions as a result of incarceration, fatal overdose, or substance use impeding the ability to perform leadership responsibilities.

When such a situation arises, harm reduction organizations find themselves in the complicated position of making decisions about what is appropriate to communicate about these transitions. Those tasked with keeping the organization afloat need to balance many needs and interests and should consider the following when communicating information about controversial transitions:

  • What are the wishes of the leader’s family? What are their main concerns at this point?
  • What does the leader’s family know (and/or not know) about the leader’s relationship with drugs?
  • What do the leader’s other legal representative(s) say?
  • What, if anything, was the leader’s outwardly expressed viewpoint on similar situations affecting others in the past? To the best of your ability, imagine what the leader themself might wish in this situation regarding their own circumstances and use that for guidance.
  • What needs to be said publicly? What needs to be said right now? What needs to be said by me/us right now?
  • How certain are you that you have all the information? What information should you wait for?
  • What are the pros and cons of providing partial information immediately versus waiting until you have all of the information? (For example, waiting for postmortem toxicology results or not communicating information about a leader’s death).
  • What aspect of this situation is already public knowledge?
  • More detailed information leaves less room for rumor and innuendo – how can you balance privacy, funder considerations, staff concerns, and minimizing disinformation and misinformation?
  • Does this situation require interaction with the media? Do you have a trusted media contact?
  • How can you frame the transition through the lens of a critique of the War on Drugs, racism, classism, sexism etc and/or criminal industrial complex as opposed to the personal failings of an individual?

Unfortunately there are often a wide variety of responses when harm reduction leaders transition in ways that are controversial; many of these may be surprising and rooted in judgement, fear, or trauma. People may express feeling hurt, betrayed, disappointed, or angry about the situation.

For these reasons controversial leadership transitions are particularly challenging, confusing, and painful.

FINAL NOTE: We (the authors and funders of this website) invite you to contact any of us directly to discuss, evaluate, brainstorm, and/or strategize next steps if your organization is in this situation.

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. 

James Baldwin
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