December 22nd, 2016
Two nights ago Don McVinney, a pioneer of the harm reduction movement, was found by a close friend who hadn’t heard from him for a couple of days. Don, who was 66, had been battling major health issues that had him in the ICU earlier this year and left him with blood clots on his lungs.
Some of you may have already heard about Don’s death. I was fortunate enough to find out from a trusted colleague and friend. I had a moment to check in with a few other folks and briefly mourn together. Then we were stopped in our tracks by the New York Post.
Without giving the specifics—if you must know, you can find the article yourself—Don was characterized in a way that not only didn’t do him justice but denigrated the work he did for more than two decades.
Don was part of the “first wave” of harm reduction pioneers who pushed the boundaries of traditional public health and substance use ideologies. Coming at the same time as ball-busting visionaries like George Clark, Edith Springer, and Imani Woods, Don paved the way for the next generation of harm reductionists.
He was at GMHC when it was a young organization and its very existence was a political statement. He brought his mental health and substance use counseling skills to the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center in the early 1990s, when he provided free mental health services to drug users devastated by the AIDS epidemic. He was part of Triangle Treatment, providing support to members of the LGBT community experiencing drug problems.
He was a consummate educator and as well as his hands-on, frontline services he centered his work in academia. He taught the first harm reduction course at Columbia University’s School of Social Work—arguably the first of its kind in the country. Don also spearheaded Harm Reduction Coalition’s Training Institute, where hundreds of people from around the country could explore and learn cutting-edge theory and practice based on harm reduction strategies.
Don, like his first wave comrades, is the reason so many people fell in love with harm reduction. After leaving Harm Reduction Coalition, he entered the fray renewed and reenergized by joining the staff of Harlem United.
He had a flair that reminded me of an off-stage ’70s rock star. We’d walk the streets of the city with him in his white jeans, black leather jacket, and perfectly coifed hair. He loved hearing how magnificent his hair looked. He loved when I told him he reminded me of post-Ziggy Stardust Bowie. He loved to share stories of his time at the Factory, modeling for Warhol, and hanging out with Ultra Violet. Don was a star in his own right.
By most accounts, Don McVinney was adored by his students at Columbia. He spoke about drugs, drug use and drug users in a way no one else did. His course at Columbia was popular and he received several awards, including Outstanding Professor of the Year.
The Post’s characterization of Don had so little to do with who Don is. The journalist chose to distill his life down to a few insensitive, hollow words. Some of us believe that Don wouldn’t necessarily want his relationship with drugs and alcohol dismissed. After all, those relationships were an important part of his journey. But focusing exclusively on those relationships makes it impossible to see an individual as a whole person.
Don often spoke about the American moral perspective on drug use, which at its core, “locates the problem in the person.” Harm reduction, according to Don, “locates the problem in the relationship between the person and the drug, because lots of people use substances and don’t do so problematically.”
This was, and still is, a revolutionary perspective. Don deserves our praise and reverence as an influential thought leader in our movement. To be sure, it may have been challenging to work with him sometimes, or maybe some of us found his approach to the work too refined for such a grassroots movement. But no matter your feelings about Don, we gotta give him credit for helping move the work forward. He was a force.
I’ll miss our walks through the streets of New York. But I’m forever grateful that Don walked beside me, beside us. He will be missed by so many. Rest in power, brother.
Monique Tula is the executive director of Harm Reduction Coalition.