Friday, August 29, 2008

5 Questions for James Harrison, Site Director

5 Questions is our ongoing feature where we introduce you to the people who make Brandywine Counseling run, spotlighting a different staff member every two weeks.

Name: James Harrison
Job: Site Director, Lancaster Avenue
Time with BCI: 20 years

1. How did you get started working in the addiction treatment field?
I think mine was a unique situation. I was actually finishing up a three [year] mandatory prison term, and Kay Malone and Linda DeShields came to the Plummer Center in 1988, and at the time, the American Red Cross was providing HIV education in the prison. They had a gentleman that came in, and none of the inmates would respond to him. They were rowdy, they were disruptive. And so, the warden asked me if I would co-facilitate the group. And I agreed to it. And after his first presentation, I actually took control of the presentation.

All the inmates were extremely receptive. It was like hearing it from one of their peers. And this was a time when HIV and AIDS was at truly epidemic proportion in our city, and folks were dying within five years. And so I hollered out, “Listen up, people! I have some life-saving information!” And people were quiet. People listened. And that kind of opened the door for me to start doing some prevention education, after I was released. Of course, Kay and Linda DeShields agreed to hire me after I was released, waited five months for my release, and I’ve been here ever since.

Many people would be surprised to know that I’ve actually had a 30 year history with Brandywine. So, many folks, especially newcomers, oftentimes will not realize that I’ve spent ten years on the other side of the fence. And so, I’ve seen the changes we’ve made as an agency, particularly around process improvement and access, and just being kinder and gentler to the addict. I think what folks will not realize is that ten years as a consumer embedded an advocacy in me that will never leave. And so I carry with me, day to day, having to straddle both fences. I’m still in recovery, I will say that. I can always see the client’s view clearer in my head as I’m also trying to move our agenda, and move the agency to the next level. So when you first look at me, you don’t see the old James, and so that’s the piece that I carry with my job that many folks don’t know about.

2. What changes have you seen in your 30 years with BCI?
Part of what I’ve seen is a growing trend, that we’re seeing a younger, sicker population. And I look at all of the old-timers, for loss of a better analogy. They are the dying breed. I recall one consumer I saw yesterday, who has been with Brandywine [for] a 30 year history, is actually wheelchair bound, and blind. And that same person, I used drugs with, I hustled with, I participated in drug addict behavior with. And now this person is barely struggling to survive.

And I see on the other spectrum, young white females and young black males chronically addicted to opiates, but now struggling with HIV, mental illness, and addictions. And I think the most obvious change has been the severity of folks’ addictions and their problems, coupled with the social ills as well: increased gas prices, food, housing shortage. All those other issues, where I think years ago, folks could make it off of a year’s income of about $12,000, but now, that’s starving. And so, couple that with addiction that’s more severe in its nature, we’re seeing sicker and more violent individuals as well.

3. BCI was in the news last week because of the challenge of reaching black drug users with the needle exchange. What do you think it will take for this population to access these services?
There was a workshop I went to, years ago, that addressed this very issue. The name of it was, “Beyond Tuskegee.” And if you remember the Tuskegee experiments, blacks historically had a fear of public health systems, and the whole notion that, “This is suspect, in terms of, the government has its hands on it, and that law enforcement may use this as a vehicle to further disenfranchise us.” So getting beyond Tuskegee would say that, “No, this is not true. There’s not a great conspiracy theory around accessing needle exchange, or providing services in an outreach effort.”

I think we have to build a comfort zone for African Americans. It’s like, if they see me drink the water, then the water’s okay. But until they see it and watch me be okay, many times they won’t access. So I think the most valuable tool we’re going to have is our African American peers who currently work on the [needle exchange] van. For [drug users] to see, again for loss of a better analogy, that they too have drunk the water and the water’s okay. So there’s got to be a comfort level in saying, “You know what? Needle exchange is a good thing. It saves lives, it’s not connected to law enforcement, it’s not some sort of drug inside the syringes.” The belief that it is a good thing has to be kind of penetrated throughout the community.

And accessibility -- going into what we call the “red light district” of the city of Wilmington is challenging, especially with all the shootings. I don’t know if African Americans are truly the population who are now injecting at an alarming rate. Certainly we do have some folks injecting, but I also believe that this is a dying population as well. And more people, because of drugs being purer, are smoking and sniffing. And so, there may not be as great a need for syringes as we first thought. So I think a collective kind of effort with our Senator Margaret Rose Henry, who’s birthed this project, our community leaders, our naysayers, our people who advocate for this population, we all have to collectively come up with a strategy to keep pushing the message that the water’s okay.

4. You can tell a lot about a person from their office. Tell us what you have in your office.
My office is very eclectic. I sometimes am embarrassed about it! But I have jazz artwork here. I have New Orleans. The Nanticoke Indians, which never really got recognized during Mardi Gras, but they too decorated, and had the same kind of celebration, but never recognized. But then I also have one section that’s dedicated to family. I have pictures of my son who graduated from Villanova. I also have a collection of articles of the work we’ve done here at Brandywine, the projects where I grew up in as a kid, and articles saying, “A $10 bag of heroin approximate to the 95 exit [for] sale,” “Fewer resources spent on prevention,” and then one of Basha [Silverman] and a syringe-filled shooting gallery, which reminds me of the work that we do. And that’s in addition to the Comprehensive Accreditation Manual from Joint Commission, books around licensure, and policy and procedure manuals.

But I also have a snake to unclog many of the restrooms, and a quart of oil for some of our vehicles. And so, you can find anything from a light bulb to the 2007-2008 Delaware Psychiatric Residency program’s pictures, of which I’m also a part, doing some training with the residency. So I like to think of it as eclectic. I think there’s times when it’s more orderly than others, especially when visitors are around, but for the most part, it really depicts my work here at Brandywine. One minute I might be the janitor, one minute I am the clinical supervisor, the next minute I’m an administrative person, the next minute I am a client advocate. So it really depicts the changing roles I play.

I just recently described my job here at Brandywine to someone, and I said, “I can’t call it work, because it’s something I like to do.” Now, it just so happens I get paid for it, but even [in] absence of money, I would still be doing this type of work. So while the paycheck helps with the mortgage and the car payment and travel, absent of that I would still be doing the same thing I’m doing. So I’m fortunate and blessed that I can come and do something I was going to do anyway for the rest of my life, but get a paycheck for it.

5. If you had $30,000 to donate to BCI what would you do with it?
I think I would go to a learning institution and ask that we start a program specifically for addictions counselors to grow the work field. The major challenge is a workforce that’s declining. [BCI senior staff] will be leaving in a few years. We have a younger workforce, that I think for the most part, is not prepared for the challenges of a more sophisticated system, in terms of licensure, accreditation, and just maintaining a quality level of services.

So I would go to a Lincoln University, a Del State, or University of Delaware, and say, let’s have a name for a program specifically to grow the field. So I think that’s what I would do. While another clinic would be nice, a transitional house for recovering people would be nice, but I think if we don’t grow the field, we’re going to miss the opportunity to help people get better.


Tanyel Johnson said...

Reflecting on this article regarding the need for younger human service providers in the substance abuse community in my opinion will need to include userfriendly access to more seasoned professionals e.g. increase trainings by and for lineworker staff, trainings for improved supervision staff and advocacy for increase in salary ranges.

Pauline said...

Thanks for letting me know about other good stuff!