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We’re the Best Because We Have to Be

sasanka sitting on a bed as a child

Sasanka Jinadasa

I started out shy, a bookworm in the closet, desperately avoiding attention. My parents, strong-willed immigrants without a semblance of a college education between them, reminded me every day: this world was not built for you. It is your job to go out and take what you need. They moved into the whitest neighborhood with the best elementary school in Long Beach, CA and my education started there. I learned that you have to be the best, and sometimes the loudest. I learned how to take up space everywhere: to correct every mistake the teacher made so that she would know not to underestimate me; to beat every boy at math facts so teasing me about my hair and skin would mean little; to have a blistering reply to anyone who called me a terrorist after 9/11.

To start off in life as a little brown queer is an act of resistance. To resist your whole life is exhausting. And necessary.

Fast-forward, over a decade, past the times when I was a champion debater and an aspiring journalist, to being the angriest queer person of color at Harvard University, constantly yelling about gender-neutral housing, affirmative action, and rape culture. I hadn’t stopped to breathe in fourteen years, since I was six years old, reading a book quietly where no one could see me. Tired, depressed, and angry at my career prospects, having tried internships on the Hill and at think-tanks and research departments, I didn’t know what to do. I learned how to be good at everything. I learned how to see what was wrong and rail against it. But I hadn’t learned how to stop, how to create, and how to be.

Black and brown people, queer and trans people, and women and femmes saved me.

People of color have been practicing harm reduction, without calling it that, for as long as history entails. Jose Munoz called it “disidentification.” Audre Lorde called it “the constant edges of decision.” Grace Lee Boggs called it “taking care of one another.” Cathy Cohen called it “radical potential.” Harm reduction: a philosophy of survival, rooted in navigating tangled and engorged structures of violence, with a framework of minimizing individual and systemic injury, pain, and trauma.

My journey into harm reduction didn’t start at HIPS, although that is the wonderful and incredible place that I honed my skills in micro-counseling, training, facilitation, and trauma-informed communication. It started with learning the difference and necessity of self-care and community-care through the work of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a queer disabled nonbinary femme writer and cultural worker. It was in Women of Color Collective meetings, where we met to discuss our pain and our needs. It was through discovering how a culturally competent therapist could change my relationship with antidepressants and counseling.

I own my truth and respect my knowledge. I joined Reframe Health and Justice because I have learned many lessons that I want to share: the practiced and dynamic tools I have created to structure equity in any organization; the intersections of race, gender and sexuality with the medical industry; the promise of negotiation frameworks offered by sex workers, survivors of violence, and queer people to develop better communication skills. When you work with Reframe, you work with the best — not just because it is run by queer and trans people, people of color, women and femmes — because our knowledge and experience comes from introspection, education, and survival. We are the best because we’ve always had to be.

We are also hopeful. We believe that our labor is valuable. We believe that we can do better than reform. We believe that we can fundamentally transform the ways people and organizations interact with each other and with the systems of power at hand. We reduce harm in the smallest and the biggest ways.

I end with gratitude, and as I end most days, with the words of Assata Shakur:

“i believe that a lost ship,
steered by tired, seasick sailors,
can still be guided home
to port.”

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