Member spotlight: Meet Christine rodriguez of AIDS United

We recently sat down with Christine Rodriguez, senior program manager for harm reduction at AIDS United, to learn more about the organization’s Harm Reduction Futures Fund (previously the Syringe Access Fund). Rodriguez joined AIDS United in August 2021 and has over 15 years of experience in drug user health across HIV, viral hepatitis, and overdose prevention. In her current role, she oversees strategic grantmaking and technical assistance within AIDS United’s harm-reduction portfolio. 

Q: The Syringe Access Fund is now the Harm Reduction Futures Fund—can you tell us about this shift and why it’s important?

Rebranding had been on folks’ minds for a while. While syringes are certainly a crucial piece of what we provide funding for, it’s not the totality of what we do or are willing to fund. To keep their doors open, syringe services programs also need funding for staff, infrastructure, and supplies beyond just syringes. Additionally, as an intermediary fund, we want potential and current funders to better understand the breadth of our support and not be put off by the stigma surrounding the word “syringe.”

On the grantee side, not all of our grantees operate in jurisdictions where syringe services are supported, accepted, or even legal. That makes it difficult for them to receive support from us when the word “syringe” is right there in our name. It makes it tough for them to say, “Well, we got money from the Syringe Access Fund—but no, we don’t buy syringes.” So, the old name could have put them in a very uncomfortable position.

Lastly, we’re hoping to create a different narrative around the fund and around our grantees’ work. Harm reduction has a record amount of mainstream support right now, but it’s also subject to a significant amount of misunderstanding and vitriol. Some organizations that don’t follow best practices are also co-opting the term “harm reduction” to take advantage of public funds that have become available. So, we wanted to intentionally use the term to emphasize our framing and definition of what harm reduction should be. It’s also important that we infuse a sense of hope into this work at a time when it’s being criticized, misrepresented, and stigmatized.

Q: What is the role of harm reduction in the U.S. Ending the HIV Epidemic Initiative? What would you like other funders to know about this work?

Harm reduction is essential to ending the HIV epidemic, and the U.S. Ending the HIV Epidemic Initiative acknowledges that reality. It supports using harm reduction—both as services and as an approach—to reach the folks who are at risk, vulnerable to HIV, and living with HIV.

Harm reduction has never been adequately funded; as the field has grown, the financial support has not grown to scale. Syringe services programs provide a really incredible return on investment. Some estimates show that the return is about $7 for every $1 spent.

Ultimately, the epidemic doesn’t end without people who use drugs. It doesn’t end without people in the sex trade. It doesn’t end without addressing vulnerability and services for folks that we call “key populations.” I don’t love that term, but they’re key for a reason. I think that we have to trust those communities to lead and to dictate the kinds of services that are provided—just like we trust every other impacted community to do the same.

Q: Last year FCAA launched a set of guiding principles for HIV-related philanthropy around racial justice. They included a focus on participatory and community-rooted and -led funding. Can you talk a little about the intersection of harm reduction and racial justice, and how you address that as funder and advocate?

I love the principles that were released by FCAA. It was really heartening to see such intentionality behind those principles, and I really appreciated the focus on community-rooted and -led funding, which we also really value.

In terms of the intersection, I would say that harm reduction not only reduces health consequences associated with drug use, but also seeks to minimize the harms caused by the war on drugs. The latter necessitates that harm reduction be infused with, and informed by, racial justice. Black, Indigenous, and Puerto Rican people who use drugs are especially hard hit by fatal overdoses and other consequences associated with drug use, so we have to explore how to serve those communities.

As a funder, we’re trying to grapple with how to really support BIPOC communities when organizations led by BIPOC are in the minority. We’ve begun prioritizing organizations led by and serving Black, Indigenous, and other people of color—really making sure that BIPOC folks, particularly those who use drugs, are part of our conversations and decision-making. We are also putting BIPOC folks on our grant review committees, uplifting those leaders. It’s the only just and right thing to do.

Q: How has the Fund’s work, and the communities you serve, been impacted by COVID-19? What lessons has the Fund learned from COVID-19 that it will be taking forward in a post-COVID environment?

At the beginning of the pandemic, we wondered what would happen, and it was interesting to observe the response of this community. It was really beautiful, frankly, and in many ways unsurprising. The majority of syringe services programs remained open and instantly figured out how to innovate their services and their service delivery. They successfully fought to be recognized as essential service providers. They really didn’t skip a beat.

The funding situation was more dire due to increased needs around PPE and sick leave for staff. It underscored how much these programs need access to consistent, reliable funding. They need access to emergency funds, flexible funds, and low-barrier applications and reporting requirements. So, on our end, we examine our processes with every round and every iteration of funding to make it less painful. It’s hard, especially as an intermediary fund, because we have data responsibilities to our funders. So, within our constrictions, we’re continuing to ask ourselves what we can do.

Q: In FCAA’s latest strategic plan we highlight the importance of “HIV-informed grantmaking” in addressing the deeply ingrained injustices that the epidemic is symptomatic of.  What does HIV-informed grantmaking mean to you?

As it relates to harm reduction, HIV-informed grantmaking resonates because it centers people with lived experience and their stated needs with vision and courage. The criminalization of drugs requires that we—and our funding partners—have enormous courage, conviction, and compassion, as was the case during the earliest responses to the HIV epidemic. That necessity still exists today in harm reduction. The innovations in harm reduction have always come from community, from people who use drugs, and are always ahead of the law. So, the idea of really having courage and vision among funders, absolutely resonates.

Q: Are there any upcoming milestones or programs you would like to highlight?

We recently incorporated individual giving into our development plans, so folks can donate directly to support the Fund now, which is exciting.

It’s also still a couple years away, but we’re always thinking of how to commemorate the Fund’s 20th anniversary in 2024.

Mainly, the bread and butter of the work is what excites me. Getting to facilitate funding for syringe services programs is such a privilege, and I’m really committed to seeking out other funders who will join us in this necessary and righteous work.