Wildflower Alliance: Open Letter to the Mayor of Northampton

We’re sharing this recent letter from the Wildflower Alliance to Mayor Narkewicz of Northampton, not only because it highlights the wealth of experience and wisdom that local peer-led groups have for building safer, healthier communities, but also because the debates they’re addressing from Northampton are the same ones we’re having here in Greenfield. Originally posted on their own website.

May 19, 2021

To Mayor David Narkewicz:

We are writing this open letter to you from the Wildflower Alliance (formerly known as the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community or ‘RLC’) in regards to Northampton’s efforts to identify alternatives to policing, and reimagine the ways in which the city responds to its residents in distress. We are a peer-to-peer organization with our roots firmly planted in Western Massachusetts. By ‘peer-to-peer’ we mean that our entire team – including senior leadership – have all faced and navigated life-interrupting struggles, and are now using the wisdom gained from those experiences to support others. ‘Others’ include those who are struggling themselves, as well as providers, family members, and beyond.

Although our roots are local, our work has grown to include statewide, national, and international impact. In fact, our Northampton-based peer respite, Afiya (an alternative to psychiatric hospitalization), is set to be recognized in a June report from the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of about 30 exemplary, human-rights-based programs in the world. We also developed and piloted an approach called ‘Alternatives to Suicide’ over a decade ago starting with a group in Northampton, and have since trained people in that approach across this nation and in at least eight other countries. Additionally, our work includes providing the bulk of Hearing Voices Movement trainings in the United States, as well as efforts to support people in local psychiatric units (including Cooley Dickinson) to transition successfully back to community-based living. 

It is through these experiences that we have become so deeply invested in the value of supporting people in many different forms of distress, and have reached the point where we feel we can speak with confidence on the matter of how to respond to individuals experiencing “crisis” in our communities. We are especially invested in supporting people in ways that do not add to their trauma or escalate challenging moments, for, in the words of Pat Deegan (another Massachusetts resident and longtime advocate for effective support), “Help isn’t help if it doesn’t help.” Too often, we have seen or heard stories of disabled folks and people with psychiatric labels (particularly those who are Black, indigenous, or other people of color) being further harmed and even killed by those systems that are supposed to be responsible for helping. We are well past time for change, and appreciate your efforts toward that end. 

Members of our team have closely followed the creation and work of the Northampton Policing Review Commission this past year. We implore you to consider our input as you craft a budget for Fiscal Year 2022. Specifically, we ask that you:

  1. Ensure (as the Reimagining Safety report states) that the Department of Community Care is accountable to and envisioned by communities most impacted by policing. Unfortunately, similar statewide committees have been overpopulated by individuals who are least invested in change and/or least familiar with what change could look like. Those who have spent years working in the systems we seek to move away from will inevitably have difficulty envisioning something new, even if they have the best of intentions. They also will – in most cases – have been protected from the most harmful impacts of how those systems were run, and are least likely to know what it is like to feel powerless over their own life. We ask that you make every effort to not repeat the mistake of centering voices that have already been centered for so long.
  2. Recognize that a co-responder model that partners police and social workers (or other mental health counselors) fails to address the core issues at hand, and has been demonstrated to be ineffective at making substantive change in how communities respond to crisis over the long-term.  When social workers and police join in these ways, social workers are more likely to pick up police-like ways of responding than the reverse. Furthermore, social workers (particularly those tied to large clinical organizations) are well known for their over-reliance on calling 911, and their use of force and coercion on individuals in distress. As stated in the prior bullet, after being entrenched in one way of doing things for so long, even those with the best of intentions can fail to be able to fully envision a new way of doing things.
  3. Draw upon the local wisdom and practices of peer-led responses to people in distress to fund new peer-led emergency responses.  We strongly advocate that money cut from the Northampton Police Department be invested in peer-led responses operated wholly separately from the police, as well as from social workers and other clinical providers. We have the opportunity to create something new that centers healing responses, minimizes harmful power imbalances that tend to deepen emotional distress, and incorporates critical learning from a host of projects across the nation.  You can even listen to or watch this event recording from April of this year for more inspiration: tiny.cc/peerled101.  Please don’t miss this opportunity.
  4. Ensure adequate funding to the Department of Community Care. Many efforts of this nature are never given the opportunity to be fully realized for lack of funding. It is essential to the success of this effort that individuals working to implement and operate it are paid in a manner that encourages their longevity, and affords them the opportunity to live in the community they are serving. Anything less will inevitably mean we will never find out what truly could have been possible.
  5. Reverse increased spending on the Northampton Police Department to more fully fund the Department of Community Care and other non-police responses.

This is a critical moment in time. Whatever you implement is likely to be what we have to live with for years to come. It is much harder to stop or change what has been set in motion than to take the time to ensure it is pointed in the right direction from the start. Again, we so appreciate the time devoted by yourself and so many others in the area, and we remain hopeful about the potential that is at hand.

On behalf of the Wildflower Alliance,

Sera Davidow
Director, Wildflower Alliance