Loss and Hope

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Our social work practicum placement Sam has been working with us for the past three months, and leaves on Thursday. Working with her has been a pleasure, learning alongside her and supporting her in exploring social work engaged in community, connecting through nature, with strength based programming.

We are living and working on the unceded lands of the Coast Salish peoples, in the context of concurrent (and preventable) homelessness and opiod overdose crises. Keeping hope alive, when there is so much potential for despair, is more important and more challenging than ever.

The following is a reflection, written by Sam, around the loss of a community member who was an advocate, leader, teacher and hope carrier for many of us; she will not be forgotten and we will seek to keep her work and words alive, moving together towards social justice, inclusion, and the honouring of all lives.

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A community leader died last week. Tracey Morrison was a well known figure in the community. The Bannock Lady. Tracey was loved and respected. Tracey held important positions in progressive, valued community agencies. Tracey was highly engaged in her community, in a multitude of ways. Tracey was knowledgeable and giving, wise, funny and brave. In a community meeting about community ethics and media production last Wednesday night, Tracey sat across the table from me. I took notes for the meeting and after Sarah gave a short welcome to the group she requested we go around the table and introduce ourselves and speak to why we felt compelled to join the conversation. Tracey sat to the left of Sarah and Sarah asked her to start us off. Tracey’s name is the first on my list in my notes, the different agencies she was there representing listed beside her name: President of Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS) and Board Member at Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).Tracey spoke about how WAHRS had struggled with people outside of the agency and the community wanting to come in to do research and how the agency had been working to address the issue. She had copies of the policy and forms WAHRS had drafted and were using and she offered them to the group as a resource.

Later in the meeting, a DTES community member and participant at Hives for Humanity spoke of a past experience he had with the media. He told the room that many years ago he was shooting up in an alley way when a news crew began filming him. He said nothing to the crew while they filmed him. He told us his friend asked him why he didn’t speak to the news crew and that his friend viewed it as a missed opportunity as he considered him a good spokesperson for the community. He told us that he had plenty to say but because the news crew didn’t ask him anything he said nothing. Now he says, years later, whenever that station needs to show a clip to go with a story about addiction they pull up the film of him shooting up in the alley. ‘I am their stock footage for drug addict’ he told us. His story, and others shared that night, touched me deeply. Not because the man telling it was now, years later, ‘clean’ and sober and haunted by this old reminder of a different time but because this man is a human being and regardless of his life circumstances he is as worthy of dignity and respect and we are all people first. I was moved because this man, and others that night, spoke of not being asked the right questions and not being listened to when giving the right answers and yet they were still here at a community meeting using their voices. I continue to be astounded and humbled by the resiliency and sense of community in the DTES.

There is no denying the power of the media. How they choose to present a topic or issue can have an impact on public opinion. The continued portrayal of the opioid crisis as a problem of substance users, who are ‘other’ and thereby ‘lesser than’ to everyone else perpetuates the stigmatization of substance users and excuses society at large for not addressing the deeper problems in our communities. Community meetings like the one I attended are a great step toward discussing how communities can both protect themselves from dangerous media exposure and how to use media/research projects to the benefit of the community.

On Friday night, two nights after that community meeting, Tracey died. Despite her work dedicated to educating the community about overdose prevention, about using safely, she used and she died. I didn’t hear about her death until Monday night just before bed.

Monday was kind of a funny feeling day at Hives for Humanity. We did some gentle work. I worked alongside two lovely participants, one a typically fast and somewhat frenzied worker one a deliberate, slower worker. We used pulleys to lower down the drying racks (made from trellis) from the ceiling and we undid the bundles of lemon balm and mullein that had been drying, harvested from the garden. The rack was specifically made for this function and it works beautifully. We crushed the herbs and stored them for future use and gifts. Later that day a bag of mullein would go to Culture Saves Lives. Sarah seemed in her own world tidying the kitchen area, organizing, cleaning, making right and working on making healing salves from stuff harvested from the garden and the hive. We listened to a Fleetwood Mac album, twice. Both sides. Then one of the women and I walked down to the farm to harvest raspberry leaves, mint and more mullein. On the way she was more talkative then usual, to me anyway. She was sort of trying to tell me about someone dying, a woman who used to make Bannock, but no other details. Later that night I was checking social media before bed. I saw a post, a CBC news post, saying that Tracey Morrison had died. I did a double take. I checked the name. I looked at the face. I pulled out my notebook and checked my minutes from the meeting. I let it sit with me for a few minutes. I have very little experience with death. No one close to me has died. I have never attended a funeral. I don’t know about death and I am here in a neighbourhood that knows too much about death. I am in a community where people experience the death of people they know well, often. I am not sure what is supposed to happen, what is supposed to be felt.

I thought about Sarah and wondered if she knew. She didn’t say anything to me. There have been 2 other deaths while I have been here that I heard about but didn’t tell Sarah about. Both times after she found out I wondered if I should have told her. I am not always sure who knows who and have come to realize just how small this community in a vast city really is. I wondered if I should text her and if I wondered if I wanted to initiate this conversation for my benefit or hers. I decide I should not text. I decided that if it happened Friday night then Sarah probably already knew. It would explain the feeling at Hives for Humanity today. If she doesn’t know, I decided, I don’t want to convey that message through text. It can wait. Tomorrow morning.

Tuesday morning Sarah brings a pot of coffee to her desk. I tell her I saw the post on Facebook. Sarah tells me that social media is how she found out about her friend Tracey dying, someone tweeted it. This is hurtful to Sarah. I am thankful for Sarah sharing her perspective with me. I think about the way we share information and news with one another through social media and how we must be thoughtful of our audience. We need to ask ourselves for what purpose we are passing along stories and weigh the costs and benefits of posting news, particularly news stories that involve injury or death. I think about how much privilege I have, never having experienced the death of someone I was close to, professionally or personally. Thinking about how alarmed and taken aback I was to learn through social media about the death of Tracey Morrison, not knowing her at all, I can easily understand that it must have been painful for people who knew Tracey to learn of her death in this way. As a society we have become fairly desensitized to sharing grim stories at the click of a button. Whether we aim to be the first person to share a breaking story or we want to draw attention to a serious issue and/or honour a beloved community member, we need to remain cognizant of others. We need to think of people. We need to examine our use and usage of media and how well it is serving our society. Stories need to be told but who ought to be telling them? Tracey, I am told, had a favourite saying and it is one I am fond of as well, ’not about us, without us’. Who are the storytellers in our community and how do we help them to tell their stories?

It is expected that hundreds of people will come to the memorial happening in the park on Friday. All week people are preparing, getting ready. There are various posters up around the community. Some are telling people to come to Oppenheimer Park on Friday, some are saying we must end the opioid crisis with a picture of Tracey’s face, some are letting community members know that particular services expected to happen on Friday are cancelled because of the memorial. People are stopping and chatting in clusters their conversations all ending with ‘see you at the park on Friday’. I overhear Sarah talking to two women at the farm about the park on Friday. They showed up for a shift today after a long time of not coming. The three of them agree that there will be a big crowd at the park on Friday. One of the women says ‘we don’t want the media there’.

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Thank you Sam, for this beautiful and powerful reflection, honouring this community and its members.

Thank you, Reader, for sharing your time through this post.

Thank you Tracey, for all you have gifted this community. You are loved and missed.

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