Everybody Should Be Considered A VIP – An Interview w/ Members Of DanceSafe

*written by A’Damaged Pro for Electronica Life

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The concept of harm-reduction services has a large shadow cast over it, specifically in regards to most major EDM events and festivals. Does acknowledging very specific health concerns, resulting from certain behaviors that are quite possibly taking place on-site, and providing additional safety measures to counterbalance them equate to an attitude of acceptance? Therein lies the conundrum. Even though harm-reduction services, such as DanceSafe, in no way promote the use of mind/body-altering substances, they do recognize that individuals make their own choices and should be afforded the access to appropriate educational material and, if necessary, qualifying preventative measures. Where is the line drawn, when the interconnectedness of the global musical landscape is constantly evolving?

Drug use in contemporary society is one of those “hot-button” issues. If it’s illegal it’s a big no-no, regardless if the activity is described as “mental exploration” or “chemically-heightened spirituality.” There is a prevalent stigma that affiliates the attendees of EDM events and festivals with drug use, almost to the point of making the illicit activities and the music synonymous with one another. The mass media sensationalizes truly unfortunate events in an attempt to demonize an entire cross-section of the population. There are socio/health-minded organizations that no in way advocate the use of illicit substances or promote that your musical experience will be better in any way by “supplementation.” They exist as a safeguard if you have elected, on your own volition, to explore your personal boundaries or perhaps your fascination with: geometry, tessellations, aesthetics, empathy, etc. If you do happen to explore, wouldn’t it make sense that someone other than massively outnumbered EMS staff or the guy selling beer would be there to make sure you’re doing alright? What makes this so controversial and front-and-center is that the presence of these organizations at an event would acknowledge and indirectly condone the behaviors of those in attendance, when “Absolute ZERO” is the prominent tolerance policy. DanceSafe is one of the most prominent organization in the field of harm-reduction, at least stateside. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview several members of their national organization: Bryan Oley (President of the Board of Directors), Chalaina Connors (Board of Directors & Director of their Portland Chapter), Missi Wooldridge (Executive Director), Carissa Cornwell (Director of Marketing & Design and former National Outreach Director), Karl Polintan (Secretary of Stay Safe Seattle “S3”), Samantha Kulinski (Peer Mentor), and Preston Murray (Volunteer Outreach Provider) in order to get a diverse and thorough insight into what constitutes proficient harm reduction and what role, collectively, they would like their organization to play in the future.

A’Damaged Pro – When did the idea for Dancesafe move towards a reality?

DanceSafeBryan: Dancesafe started early as an attempt to combat the harm we were seeing in our scene from adulterated pills and lack of knowledge about how to enjoy yourself and remain healthy and safe.  We originally had some photocopied, basic unbiased drug information to help our fellow party goers become more knowledgeable on things such as water intake, hearing issues and some basics about how to minimize risk when recreational drug use was occurring. Our first major initiative, the mail submission pill testing program, allowed anonymous submissions to a DEA licensed lab (all lab work of this nature requires DEA licensing to test illicit substances) which provided results for trending and tracking so people could see that pills were adulterated and which type in which area were showing up with non MDMA substances.  Over time, producers learned to mimic pill types, so we evolved pill testing kits to allow local testing to assist in really getting a “Right Now” measure of adulteration.  Along with the development of the kits, we rolled out our drug information cards featuring bright colors and images designed to attract attention at events.  Our key success was really that we were made up of youth from the scenes we were helping, so the trust was there that really allowed us to get in and provide services when no other groups were trusted.

A’Damaged Pro – What is the mission statement of Dancesafe?

DanceSafeMissi: To promote health and safety within the nightlife, rave, and electronic music communities

A’Damaged Pro – What is your role within the company and what are your responsibilities?

DanceSafeBryan: I’ve served on most roles in the organization during my time, including Executive Director, CFO and COO.  My primary role now is to act as a guide to the strategic planning of the organization both short and long term and to oversee both our Board of Directors and Executive Director Missi Wooldridge in the growth and inclusion of DanceSafe both as a Public Health Organization, but also as a trusted source of information and Harm Reduction messages to our constituents.  I also oversee the technical aspects of our organization, from producing our Mobile App to overseeing our website development and finding new and innovative social media outlets.

Chalaina: I serve on the board of directors, as well as am the Director for the Portland Chapter. In running the Portland chapter, I train all of my volunteers, contact promoters for allowing us at events, get volunteers to sign up, and host monthly meetings. For my role on the board of directors, I attend all board meetings, vote on decisions, and take on various duties as needed by the organization.

Missi: I am the Executive Director and I run the day-to-day operations of the organizations. I am responsible for development and building new partnerships.

Carissa: My role in the organization is a little bit of everything from customer service to training volunteers to event coordination to summer tour planning to graphic design.  I have been involved with DanceSafe since 1999 and perform a lot of the day to day tasks for the organization, but currently my title is outreach director.

Karl: Currently, I am the Secretary for Stay Safe Seattle (S3), a local chapter of DanceSafe. I organize meetings, gather supplies and inventory, and train volunteers. Also, I take the opportunity to volunteer at events giving non-biased drug information, safe sex education, and adulterant testing.

Samantha: I am a peer mentor, which basically means that I’m one of the people you’ll see out at events. That means I’m probably at the booth giving out free water, condoms, earplugs, etc., providing factual, non-biased substance/nightlife health information and conducting adulterant screenings. I’ve also been a representative for DanceSafe at two conferences this year, one of which I presented at. I hope to soon take on a larger role in the organization.

Preston: I have been a volunteer outreach provider for DanceSafe for a little more than a year. Just recently I have been taking on some of the communication duties of the organization such as emerging substance analyses and event summaries.

A’Damaged Pro – What has been your most defining moment as a member of the Dancesafe Team?

DanceSafe Bryan: There has (yet) been nothing to match the first all in meeting of the Dancesafe organization in 2003 in Miami.  50 representatives from as far away as South Africa and Australia coming together to discuss the organization, our impact and future and what we can do to support each other is something I hope to repeat very soon.

Karl: I was able to go to the DanceSafe Conference earlier this year in May, which opened my eyes to the world of harm reduction and this movement we’re working for. It was truly inspiring seeing so many people from around the world working towards the same ideal. Having the opportunity to interface with the DanceSafe leadership face-to-face also helped me make some long-term goals for S3.

Samantha: I had the privilege to attend the DPA Reform Conference this past October. The entire conference was life-changing because it really helped my understand my place in the fight against the war on drugs. Receiving the Dr. Andrew Weil Award for Achievement in the Field of Drug Education made me feel so proud of myself, my colleagues, and our organization as a whole.

Preston: TomorrowWorld in Atlanta this past September has been the most impactful event I was able to participate in and it helped me personally define the need for DanceSafe in the festival community. The festival had 140,000 people and I felt like we had some sort of impact on nearly all of them. Being at such a large scale event gave us a platform to help way more people, and I know I played a part in a lot of people partying safer.

A’Damaged Pro – How did you make the transition from the original version of the company to the 2.0 version where you guys are now?

DanceSafe Bryan: One of our greatest strengths as an organization has always also been one of the greatest weaknesses. We were a group of young and passionate activists and Harm Reductionists who wanted to be successful at really bringing together youth for a better purpose. When the organization started it was done very carefully with our board of directors consisting of dot com business leaders and other skilled philanthropists showing the way make ourselves run both successfully and with measured growth. When our founder Emanuel Sferios retired, he appointed a board consisting of chapter heads, national trainers and those passionate about the org.  One thing we were lacking though was organizational and nonprofit experience as a skill set across our board. We maintained and grew during the first decade of the millennium, and eventually came to a point where we were increasing our income but structurally we were not set to move forward. While there were a few key variables that pushed us to the next stage of our evolution that can be spoken to by our other interviewees…the main one I can speak to is the push towards treating the structure of Dancesafe as a nonprofit/social work organization business wise.  After I finished my schooling in Human Services management, my goal for the organization became to truly focus on ensuring we had the structure to support and provide for our constituents and also to maintain integrity, fiscal responsibility, autonomy and flexibility. Couple this with the introduction and ascendance of our Executive Director Missi Wooldridge and her expertise and guidance from a public health perspective, we were able to make large strides in structure and networking which provided us with better and more efficient models for what we were doing. So these models were slowly set into place and allowed us to rebuild, rebrand and reintroduce the next generation of the organization.

A’Damaged Pro – Your presence at an event/festival acknowledges the drug use of the audience even though you guys are supporting proper education and safety. How do you guys overcome that negative stigma and how do you plan to increase your presence?

DanceSafeBryan: Acknowledgement is the first step towards successful management. To ignore that something occurs means that you cannot realistically react to that occurrence when it pops up.  To acknowledge that is occurs and to prepare for it and to some extent prepare to mitigate any potential issues means that you are well prepared and smart for doing so. This is the cornerstone of any successful plan, whether it be business, military, nonprofit or even your own household. Now that we’ve take the word drugs out of the entire context, it sounds amazingly simple and intelligent as a way to handle potential risks, doesn’t it?  This is the philosophy we represent, it simply has to overcome the stigma already associated with it.  The more we educate, the more media portrays us in a positive or at least neutral way, the more people understand that education and Harm Reduction is not synonymous with promotion, the more people will be able see the benefit of our message and cause.

Chalaina: When I see this question, I am reminded of Planned Parenthood. 99% of what they do is prevention/education, yet what they are stigmatized for is providing abortions. I believe we will always have to deal with stigmas, until (and only if) all substances become legalized and regulated, will that change. But, I know that knowledge is power, and the more we can share our message about what we do, my hope is that people will listen to the truth, and not the propaganda.

Carissa: I think that attitudes towards recreational drug users is at a turning point nationally and I think that people are starting to see why harm reduction services are beneficial and I feel it is negligent not to provide information to people that could potentially save lives.

Missi: First and foremost, we remind people that drug users are people too and they deserve the right to health care and services. At the root of it all, harms and risks from drug use is a health concern, not a criminal justice concern. Health priorities should prevail over criminal sanctions. We talk about the effectiveness of harm reduction practices and services in saving lives and empower promoters/club owners/festival organizers to take a pragmatic approach to protecting the health and safety of their patrons. We are working on chapter and peer training development while increasing cooperations with promoters and festival organizers.

Samantha: It’d definitely difficult at first, but the more I do it the better I respond to it. First we like to explain that we reach far beyond our famed adulterant screening (drug testing), we give out things like water, condoms, sunscreen, it’s called harm-reduction and it’s a necessity. We were fully integrated with the medical staff at TomorrowWorld and there were zero deaths. This accomplishment is going to make makes hesitant organizers understand why they need us. We save lives, plain and simple.

Preston: Harm reduction services are always controversial. But they’ve been proven to be effective. Acknowledging potential risk behavior is necessary for any event, and promoters turning a blind eye to that risk are being negligent to their patrons. We strive to show event organizers that having DanceSafe at an event reduces the likelihood of hospitalizations while thus increasing potential for the event’s success.

A’Damaged Pro – Have you met any people that really do not like the service you guys are providing? What was their reasoning?

DanceSafeBryan: Most of the hesitancy about our organization is due to one of two things.  Ignorance about what we actually do, or ignorance about the cause of the issues we focus on.  Drug use is highly stigmatized and the knee-jerk reaction of most people is to decry it completely.  So their natural bias is to assume that anything that is not against, is for.  So most of them adopt one of two attitudes.  The first is “If someone is stupid enough to take drugs, let them reap the consequences, stop trying to save them!”  The other is “You should be telling them to not do drugs, or turn them in if they bring you something to test!”  Both of these ignore the fact that humanity has never adhered to societal norms or laws 100% of the time, and the most successful methods of working with those outside the norm is to meet them on their own level.

Chalaina: I think when people have given us negative feedback, it is due to misinformation. People make the assumption that we are promoting substance use. We are not. We understand that people will experiment, and we want them to have accurate information so they can make better educated decisions. I know that once we explain what we do, and how we do it, some of those people change their tune.

A’Damaged Pro – Are there any organizations that you guys might see yourselves fostering partnerships with in the future?

DanceSafeCarissa: I see us working more closely with several organizations like the Amplify Project, SSDP, DPA, EMA, and some large scale event promoters, just to name a few.

Missi: It would beneficial to have better conversations and working relationships with medical providers, law enforcement, public health officials, promoters and other prominent folks in the industry, etc…(Meta-corporate; just foster the connection)

Samantha: Right now we are very integrated with the Amplify Project and they work with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, this gets our information into a lot of colleges which is very beneficial because that’s part of the age group we target. We are also very excited to be building up a global network on harm-reduction.

Preston: I’d love to see us partner or collaborate with Zendo Project, an organization that does harm reduction at festivals for those who are having difficult psychedelic experiences. I think having DanceSafe volunteers receive Zendo training, and vice-versa, could allow us to include each other’s practices into our harm reduction repertoires.

A’Damaged Pro – How has the DS app been received so far? Any improvements on the horizon?

DanceSafeBryan: The App has generated a lot of Buzz around what is has to offer in all realms of social media.  With a 4.5 average rating on Google play and over 1,000 downloads in over 17 countries in the first few days, the launch was fairly successful for a specialized Harm Reduction app.  Having built in the ability for partners and other organizations to use our survey feature as well as future ideas such as in app kit availability, training, news and a component which provides information and updates on the increasingly large stream of new research chemicals and drugs in the US and across the world.  Future projects are kept close to us at the moment, but I can tell you we are actively seeking to translate into other languages, seeking researchers for drug information updates and partners for other features and that we are working with our Amplify partners on something big we eventually want to bridge into the App itself.  Oh, and Apple and other platforms are in the works to be supported soon!

A’Damaged Pro – Any new innovations or projects on the forefront for you guys?

DanceSafeBryan: Website redesign for usability, DS App, Dancesafe Radio, Social Media presence.  Nationwide training.  Drug information update.  Support for research chemical and new drug information. Many partnerships outside of our normal area to spread the Harm Reduction message.  Looking forward to partnering with many promoters, health agencies and academic institutions to standardize field harm reduction practices across the globe.

A’Damaged Pro – Are international expansions or collaborations in the planning stages now?

DanceSafeMissi: We have started to build such a great global network of other harm reductionists in Canada, Mexico, Portugal, Netherlands, UK, Belgium- just to name a few.

A’Damaged Pro – Where do you see this company in 5 years?

DanceSafeBryan: There is a long term vision, and it is similar to our short term vision but with a lot larger scope.  Inclusion, standardization and the process of bringing Dancesafe and Harm Reduction into the main stream is going to be our continuing goal.  We will always be tied to our roots, and we will always seek to maintain what has kept us involved for the last 15 years, the youth and energy that comes from social consciousness and social responsibility tied to individual growth, knowledge and responsibility.  There cannot be one without the other.  This organization will seek to be a voice and leader at the forefront of Public Health, Harm Reduction practices and the constant reach for a sane voice in the realm of government reaction to the safety and health of those it serves.

Chalaina: This is a tough question. I would love to state what I HOPE this company will be in 5 years, but in reality, I am not so sure. I would love to see DanceSafe being at every venue, and every venue providing harm reduction services, like free water, to aid in health and safety. I would like to see DanceSafe continuing to provide adulterant screening services (and being able to provide on-site screening) at all events. I would like to see DanceSafe be one of the leaders in training youth about the accurate information of substances. I wish this would take place in all schools, activity clubs, and other organizations where youth attend. But if any of these happens in the next 5 years, I will be ecstatic!

Preston: Within the next 5 years I’d like to see adulterant screening services be a required part of the music festival landscape in our nation, as well as globally. I also envision DanceSafe’s unbiased drug information to be more widely distributed through a presence at all major music festivals.

A’Damaged Pro’s final words…

This isn’t a business issues. This isn’t an insurance issue. This isn’t a personal issue. This is a health issue. The desire to explore is inherent in human nature, whether it be charting new territory on a map or splitting a rock to see what’s inside. There are some definitive roadblocks to mainstream acceptance for harm-reduction organizations. If the desire is there, the activity will ultimately not be suppressed. We are at a tipping point. While we are experiencing a paradigm shift in how these behaviors are viewed and treated, there will be additional tension on the scene. The safest approach I can muster is to acknowledge the inherent need of harm-reduction services and to greet the information they provide with an open mind. The connection between music and the recreation of listeners and artists alike has been widely discussed and systematically documented through time, but it does not and should not be what defines it.