My name is Karen Broman, and I am an AmeriCorps VISTA member based in Prescott, Arizona, serving Sonoran Prevention Works (SPW), a statewide, grassroots non-profit organization focused on harm reduction education, advocacy, and evidence-based programming for the benefit of Arizonans impacted by drug use.
I came to my year of national service a bit later in life than many. Prior to this, I enjoyed a much comfier lifestyle: I spent nearly thirteen years working my way up the ranks within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs at the Minneapolis VA Healthcare System in my home state of Minnesota. My role there was as a Medical Technologist in the Special Diagnostics Testing Laboratories of the Pathology & Laboratory Medicine Service. From our cramped, basement bunker of a lab, our small team was responsible for ALL of the forensic toxicology testing for the VA nationwide, in addition to several other assignments. I loved the work, my coworkers, and the veterans I served. I even kept working while pursuing and obtaining my Masters in Public Health (MPH) degree. Ultimately, I was promoted to a Lead Medical Technologist / Certifying Scientist position which gave me a lot more agency over my day-to-day tasks, as well as the opportunity to be a leader, which to be honest, I kinda tend to do regardless of whether I am wielding the appropriate title. The salary and benefits were great, my family was closeby, and I enjoyed a very full slate of extracurricular interests.
…Yet I didn’t feel sufficiently fulfilled. I never tired of the work, but increasingly, hesitations about the impetus behind the work became too persistent to ignore. I didn’t feel good knowing that sometimes other VA employees faced disciplinary action as a result of the high-quality laboratory results I was delivering. As a person who has used plenty of drugs in the past, I wanted to be part of the solution, not simply part of the punishment. This nagging, more compassionate mindset was the driver for getting my MPH in the first place. So after MUCH deliberation, crying, worrying, and consultation, I decided I needed to take a big leap from my cushy nest.
That leap took me first to Las Vegas, Nevada, where I split my time between volunteering to feed unhoused folks through Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada and executive-producing my partner’s first independent feature film. I had a long list of personal and professional development goals for this “personal sabbatical,” as my older sister said a bit enviously, but almost a year later, I had accomplished hardly any of them. I felt like I had made a big mistake taking this risky detour from the safe, consistently upward life trajectory I had created for myself in Minnesota.
So I leapt again. I applied for AmeriCorps for a few reasons: I’ve always loved volunteering, I’ve enjoyed being a positive cog in our federal government machine, and honestly, I had trouble finding a job in public health that didn’t require that elusive first “one year of experience” that apparently no employer wants to give anybody. It felt scary to realize that taking an AmeriCorps position would mean another year with virtually no income, but I decided to trust my personal finance skills and do it anyway. After submitting my application fourteen minutes past the deadline for a VISTA position that seemed a great fit, I was pretty sure I blew it. The next day, Arizona Serve’s Training and Program Manager, Annie Reifsnyder, and I had a super encouraging phone call where we talked about my skills and abilities and she urged me not to fret, that she had something on the horizon that might be available soon. That opportunity turned out to be the perfect one for me. I really could not be more pleased that I procrastinated my way into my dream job.
My role with SPW is to build capacity for take-home naloxone distribution and harm reduction education and outreach in the Overdose Prevention Program, with a focus on notoriously hard-to-reach, rural Northern Arizona. As any current or former AmeriCorps member knows, operationalizing this role means that I am actually wearing MANY hats, but I want to share more about just one of our most recent achievements.
March 29 marked an important milestone for SPW: It can now say it convened the first-ever Arizona Harm Reduction Conference (AZHRC). Approximately 350 people attended the event, which sought to expand SPW’s narrative beyond its flagship opioid overdose prevention work and introduce Arizonans to what harm reduction looks like on a much broader scale. Keeping true to SPW’s values, people who use drugs and people who trade sex were at the center of the planning and execution of this moving, impactful day. There was much discussion of intersectionality and, naturally, many of those conversations related or connected back to the experience of those living in poverty. My work in preparing for AZHRC included sending out sponsorship appeal letters, helping to design the conference program, creating the event’s evaluation form, and securing a volunteer to help with on-site videography. On the day of the conference, I functioned as the volunteer coordinator. I am now focused on analyzing the results of the returned conference evaluation forms & utilizing that data to inform recommendations for what SPW hopes will become an annual or biennial event. Conference attendees ranged from mental health & addiction professionals to members of law enforcement to sex workers &, of course, people who use drugs. The diversity of voices was wonderful, as was the fact that so many community stakeholders that don’t always see eye to eye were able to come together around the notion that every individual has dignity and worth, that all of us live our lives carrying the traumas we’ve experienced on our backs, and that if we truly want to support all people, we must celebrate any positive change & delight in the incremental climb toward a better way of living for all members of our communities.
Aside from being borderline-obsessed with my gig at SPW, I have made a great group of friends through Arizona Serve, all of whom value being of service to the world around us as much as I do. Had I known that I could be part of the solution for people who use drugs if I’d simply been open to doing this work for a poverty-level wage, I’d like to think I would’ve come to it much sooner. Alas, that’s not really how life works, is it? Everything in its own time. One of the mantras that I like to play in my head is, “Nothing great is easy.” This short sentence has helped me push through many challenges over the last decade of my life, and I can’t see it becoming any less useful in the future. It’s ok with me now that my upward trajectory may not be as smooth as I’d always envisioned, so long as I learn something new from each bump in the road.