When Charlene Burmeister was first introduced to harm reduction in 2010, she was amazed by how much work still needed to be done to support people.
What started as a peer coordinator role supporting other people with lived and living experience with substances, quickly evolved into Charlene’s life mission.
Charlene is currently a person with lived and living experience stakeholder engagement lead with BC Centre for Disease Control’s harm reduction team. Her passion for her work is evident in her strong work ethic.
In addition to her role at BCCDC, Charlene also runs a community service group called Coalition of Substance Users in the North. Between the two, she has an immense workload that requires working more than 80 hours per week.
“It is heart-heavy work,” Charlene shared.
“It involves facing vicarious trauma from preventable losses in the community. Helping people understand that it’s the system that’s the problem and not them and helping them start finding ways to contribute to change. That’s what keeps me going.”
From resistance towards safer supply to finding funding to hire more peer coordinators, harm reduction faces multiple challenges. And workers like Charlene are among those on the frontlines.
“I sometimes feel like I am doing a disservice in many ways because I cannot be the committed leader I want to be.”
Charlene has been advocating for change for many years. She has been heavily involved in educating communities about safer supply and has even engaged in one-on-ones with members of the general public. It can be tough turf to tread but Charlene is not one to give up.
“I have had a lot of negatively impactful interactions including around our work but I have also had some community engagement that was really good.”
Charlene’s message on this International Overdose Awareness Day is that people with lived and living experiences with substances need to be included in policy design and delivery.
“Nobody knows better what people who use drugs need than people who use drugs. Nothing about us, without us.”