01/30/2009 01:35 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

RIP George Kenney, early proponent of harm reduction approach for drug users

On Friday January 16, Imani Woods called to let me know that George Kenney had died at 12:30 pm. He had been ill with multiple health problems for a number of years and I, like many, had fallen out of contact with him. George was an early proponent for working with drug users utilizing a harm reduction approach and was a member of the Harm Reduction Working Group, which morphed into the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC). George was a dedicated advocate committed to providing services to drug users with a special eye towards helping users stabilize their lives and move into the recovery process. He was a gifted leader who had an abiding love for the people of his community.

HRC Board member Mark Kinzly wrote last week: "George was a critical part in getting syringe exchange to Boston. Jon Parker (AIDS Brigade) came into Roxbury in the early 90's and just set up shop in the neighborhood. That move probably set syringe exchange in Boston back at least five years and cost who knows how many infections. If it weren't for George Kenney there probably wouldn't have been a chance in hell that there would eventually be syringes exchanged in Boston. George helped bring the North American Syringe Exchange Convention to Boston and hosted one of the most spirited discussions that I have ever seen at any of the conferences. Neighborhood residents came to the conference and pretty much said that over their dead bodies would there ever be syringe exchange in Roxbury or Dorchester. Because of George and the respect that folks in Boston had for him that situation turned into an amazing educational opportunity and ultimately lead to most of the naysayers at least becoming open to the idea that many of their friends would still be here if they only had access to clean injection equipment. As a board member with North American Syringe Exchange Network for many years George had a unique perspective on many of the ideas that surrounded the early days and he became an amazing friend for me when I wasn't sure how to balance my own personal recovery and work in harm reduction, George brought much clarity for me. I will miss him and am grateful I had the opportunity to know him. Be well my friend and see ya on the other side."

George was opening his center back when I ran a needle exchange program in Manhattan and he asked me to come up and talk to local drug users and folks who used the drop-in center. Our center on the Lower East Side was open up to10 hours a day and the needle exchange operated about 3 hours of that time. The rest of our time was spent providing case management, group-work, counseling, medical services and so on. At that time, participants in our syringe exchange program ran the exchange component, so a vanload of Lower East Side drug users and I drove up to Boston. I had a slide show prepared that illustrated our work in New York City. At particular moments during the storytelling one of my colleagues would step up and explain in more detail how they took part in the various activities. Surprisingly, every single one of the drug users also explained to the audience that they were no longer using drugs due to working at the needle exchange. Unbeknownst to me, their drug use had declined as their involvement in delivering harm reduction services to their peers gained a greater importance in their lives. Giving back had reprioritized and refocused their lives. Some of those folks remained drug free, some died and some went back to using. However, it was a powerful lesson for me that a harm reduction approach to drug use is not simply about preventing infectious diseases but is a holistic philosophy that, when embraced by drug users themselves, can have a significant role in providing a sense of stability and centeredness that had previously been lost.

When we first began our work, personal recovery was a big issue for George, Imani, Mark, I, and many of the other characters who started harm reduction programs. There were many debates around the issue of harm reduction and abstinence, and our relationships to both. However, in listening to my colleagues that day in Boston and in reflecting back on the work George did, it is ever clear that the essential nature of the work we do has little to do with how we define harm reduction or the decisions we make about our own personal routes to happiness. The right work we do is fundamentally about providing space and support for people to make informed decisions for their own best selves and to enable others to craft a path towards their individual happiness.

On that note, so long big fella. You made a difference. Thank you and it was good to know you.

Cross posted from Daily Kos