I do a lot of public speaking to professionals and random ‘average’ people in the community, talking about my clients’ experiences, about drugs, about harm reduction, and about anything and everything related.
Our area is working towards implementing supervised consumption services (“safe injection sites”) so the topic has gotten really contentious and I’m never quite sure what I’m going to encounter when I’m asked to speak. Still, if you invite me I’ll show up.
Generally, I get a lot of positive feedback – people thank me for giving them some facts or info, they tell me they learned something new, and they were happy to have the opportunity to ask questions. I’m proud of this – if I can nudge someone towards empathy or a bit of understanding, I’m making life better for my clients bit by bit. I also really enjoy public speaking, so spending 2 hours talking about my people and having it be well-received keeps me motivated at my job sometimes when things are difficult.
My talks are usually a mix of facts – gathered through our local public health unit – and anecdotal stuff. I put out some numbers, I talk about how it feels to go through withdrawal from opiates, I talk about the facts behind safe injection sites, I talk about poverty and mental health and a lot of other stuff. I generally try to think about what I can say to people to make my clients’ lives easier – like, if you knew THIS about my clients, perhaps you’d be kinder to them or at least not shitty.
I know the facts because I attend an ungodly number of meetings throughout the month. I know the anecdotal stuff because I’ve tried to listen to clients over the years, I have a coworker who has told me about his own experiences (and I am grateful he shares), and through observation, too, while I’m out in the community. I also read a lot of work-related things in my spare time.
It’s really rare for my clients and other ‘vulnerable’ people to get to hear me speak in a formal way – for a bunch of reasons. Often I’m talking in places that aren’t welcoming to them, they don’t have transportation to get there, the timing isn’t good, there’s a lack of support for them to show up, and really, I’m not sure how interested they are in hearing about their own lives over a series of 100 bleak powerpoint slides.
But still, I figure it’s my chance to advocate and educate – so when I talk, I try to channel my people – talk about their concerns, about their experiences, about the things they tell me.
Last week I did a presentation at the library and it was open to anyone who wanted to come. It was a small turn out (many of my friends came, which was cool, and my beloved husband got to hear me speak too!)
A few days later, a guy staying at one of the local shelters came up to me at an outreach location and asked to speak with me for a minute. I don’t know him, he’s not a client, but I recognized him from seeing him around from time to time.
He said he had been in the audience at my talk and was really impressed. He thanked me for talking about the complexities of drug use and addiction and treatment (how people don’t ‘fail’ at treatment, treatment options fail people). He thanked me for talking about all of it with a good sense of humour – like how I compared my daily coffee consumption to meth (they’re both stimulants but only one has any real negative values assigned to it). He also said that he learned a lot about what’s happening in our community.
Listen – – that 30 second interaction meant more to me than hearing from any Executive Director or otherwise ‘powerful’ person, of any agency, anywhere, ever. I am really glad that I have so much opportunity to advocate for my people and I totally believe in what I do, but to hear that I’m doing a good job from this person kept me flying high for a solid week. He felt heard by me, and felt like I represented him well, and that’s really all I want out of my job.