Ten Questions with Terry Gotham: Sara Gael, Director of Harm Reduction, Zendo Project

(Yes, I’m never going to stop banging on about harm reduction. At least as long as Burners are still smoking ground up ecstasy pills and combining heroic levels of dumb drugs. The people at the Zendo Project continue to keep Burners at burns all over the world safe, so I’m delighted to speak to Sara Gael, who has more to do with Burning Man staying sane than most will give credit!)

Zendo Project Manager Ryan Beauregard and Zendo Project Director Sara Gael performing a skit about harm reduction at Symbiosis Gathering in Oakdale, California (2016)

Photo care of Zendo Project

Interview by Terry Gotham

1.What is Psychedelic Harm Reduction like in 2018?
For the Zendo Project Peer Support services, we will continue to attend our regular events, and also expand our training workshop program. We provide both public and private trainings both in the US and internationally. We saw the demand for these trainings grow tremendously in 2017. The purpose of these workshops is to provide individuals and organizations with helpful tools to work with challenging situations, substance-related or otherwise- when they encounter them in any environment. Our public trainings draw a diverse crowd-everything from University students to mental health workers. We have also private trainings and consultation for event producers, emergency service professionals and we are increasing the number of these trainings in 2018. At Burning Man, we still hold our largest annual public training, on the first Tuesday of the burn week. Over 300 people attended this training in 2017. We feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to now train thousands of individuals in the Zendo Project model.

2.For Burners who may only remember the Zendo from a few years ago, what new awesomeness is coming to playa this year?
In 2017 we moved to one centralized location near Center Camp and Rampart. We plan on having one location again this year, in a slightly different location but still near 6:00. We are planning on doing additional talks and workshops later in the week after the main training for people who show up later in the week who can’t attend the main workshop. We are also planning on working more directly with major theme camp organizers to help prepare their camp leads for handling situations they may come across in camp.

3. Besides regional/international Burns, has the Zendo Project had any success connecting with retail/EDM festivals?
We provide the Peer Support component of Project #OpenTalk, a non-profit initiative developed by Insomniac in collaboration with the Drug Policy Alliance, Healthy Nightlife, and MAPS, with the aim of providing drug and sexual health information and emotional support provided services under one umbrella. We have been collaborating with Project #OpenTalk since Electric Daisy Carnival in 2016 and have provided services and trainings at multiple events since then. The initiative that Insomniac is developing is unique in that it serves as a multi-disciplinary effort to combine different harm reduction services. The peer support services that we provide are just one element of the umbrella of event/festival harm reduction which is under the even bigger umbrella of drug harm reduction initiatives taking place all over the world. Our goal is to continue to collaborate with other harm reduction organizations beyond just the transformational festival setting.

Zendo Project staff members Ryan Beauregard, Sara Gael, and Erica Siegal leading a public training about psychedelic harm reduction at Lightning in a Bottle in Bradley, California (2017)

Photo care of Zendo Project/MAPS.

4. For everyone out there in the trenches doing harm reduction for their friends or attendees, are there any principles that they can take from the Zendo Project and use on their own?
Our mission is comprised of two components – direct service and education. It has always been a priority to educate the public by engaging in honest and unbiased conversations about recreational drug use. We dream of a time when the collective is more prepared to work with difficult emotional and psychological experiences, whether related to psychedelic use or otherwise. The Zendo Project model is one of compassionate presence, acceptance, and creating a container for processing and transforming grief and pain, as well as celebrating life. It is a place of connection where people have the opportunity to be witnessed and held in their darkest and most vulnerable moments. All of the principles and practices that we teach are easily accessible through our website and we encourage individuals to take these practices and apply them to their unique communities and situations.

5. What is the wildest thing your teams have seen in the last year or two? Would you say the volume of Burners you serve is going up or down as the years go on?
I’d say that the wildest thing we have seen is harm reduction being more accepted and integrated as a theoretical framework and practice at events, and how exponentially this grows from year to year. Zendo was born at Burning Man and even prior to the Zendo Project, MAPS worked to help develop harm reduction at transformational festivals like BOOM in Portugal. Transformational festivals have really led the way as far as modelling what it looks like to incorporate services such as the Zendo Project. It is exciting to see bigger event and festival producers begin to adopt a harm reduction model. The general public knowledge of harm reduction and peer support has also expanded. We have had an increase in the past couple of years of professionals looking to

The general trend at all the events we attend is that our numbers usually increase every year. We believe that this is related to a few factors:

  1. More people learning about and thus accessing our services.
  2. An steady annual increase in attendance at most of the events we attend.

6. How does legalization advocacy and the work that MAPS does collide with the Zendo Project’s goals? Have there ever been big synchronicities or (conversely) conflicts due to the slightly differing goals of the different groups?
Psychedelic harm reduction, clinical research, advocacy, and education are all elements of MAPS mission which I believe are intrinsically linked and mutually supportive. MAPS is currently primarily focused on doing clinical research to help MDMA become a medicine for the treatment of PTSD while also doing advocacy work for substances like MDMA and cannabis. While MDMA and other psychedelics have therapeutic value and potential, it is important for us to simultaneously address the risks of recreational use of these substances. The Zendo Project helps accomplish this through education and direct service. We believe that providing safe environments and support for challenging psychedelic experiences is community advocacy work in action. Providing these services decreases the number of incidence of arrests, sedation and restraint, and unnecessary psychiatric hospitalizations. This in turn influences the public view and stigma surrounding psychedelics. The legal and political climate and punitive policies in place do not keep people from doing drugs. As we work toward medicalization of psychedelics and decriminalization advocacy work, we must simultaneously address the fact that millions of people are taking psychedelics in recreational environments. These individuals are at a greater risk without harm reduction initiatives.

Photo care of Zendo Project/MAPS.

7. Besides donating to MAPS & the Zendo Project, how can people who love what you do help you do it?

  • Continue to learn about harm reduction and peer counseling.
  • Encourage festival producers to implement harm reduction services at their events.
  • Sign up for our newsletter via our website to learn about our local workshop events and attend and promote them!

8. Is there music played at the Zendo? If so, what do you play & how do you select the tunes?
We currently don’t have music playing in the Zendo but we have considered having some soft background music like chimes, singing bowls, flute, hang drum, live sound healing to help move the energy in the space. One of the challenges is that music is very personal and so we have opted out until now. Also, there is already so much music at these events that we decided to offer a place of silence, similar to an actual Zendo meditation hall. We may be shifting that up a bit in the future. For the first two years at Burning Man we were located right inside one of the bigger sound camps on playa:  Fractal Nation/Fractal Planet. The Zendo structure shape itself turned out to produce a bit of a sub-woofer effect, so that it was often louder INSIDE the Zendo then outside. That drove people crazy-volunteers and guests alike. We have had a relatively quiet few years since then and we’ve been enjoying that aspect!

9. What is the biggest barrier hampering the Zendo Project’s efforts currently, and what do you believe will be the biggest obstacle to summit in the near-term future?
Funding is still an obstacle, though becoming less so as people really start to see the importance of this work and event organizers see it as an essential service. In the beginning, it was sometimes a hard sell because we were doing something that wasn’t really being done. When people have a new idea that solves a particular problem, sometimes it is hard to see the problem until you see the power of the solution. With initiatives like the Zendo Project, if you build it they will come. Many festivals don’t realize how many of their participants are in distress except in the more extreme cases where people are violent or disturbing other attendees. Once event organizers see how busy we were and the pressure we were taking off of the other emergency service departments so they could focus on their areas of expertise-they begin to recognize that this is a real issue and that money and other resources need to go toward this type of work. Then other organizers and producers follow suit. If you are going to have a medical tent or security at your event, you should also have people who specialize in emotional and psychological support. Just because you can’t see someone’s emotional wound doesn’t mean it’s not there.

We need to move toward becoming a more compassionate society that takes these things seriously and care for one another. This work is labor intensive. In some ways, it’s like the opposite of a Western medicine get in, get out model. We have a “come, stay as long as you would like as long as you would like” model. People will spend hours getting help from a sitter in the space. This requires a lot of staff and volunteers. It also requires that we stay open 24/7. This all costs money. We are blessed to have had the support of our successful crowdfunding campaigns and the forward-thinking festivals we have worked with over the past 6 years.

10. If I could snap my fingers and make it happen, What would your dream event to host the Zendo Project for, be?
Burning Man, of course! ☺ But really, I would like the bandwidth to implement services at all the regional burns. We aren’t there yet but hope to work toward it. We helped get the Sanctuary at AfrikaBurn off the ground over the past 5 years. We are at the point where the local leads are carrying the torch and we no longer need to be there. Although I will miss going to Africa every year, this to me is one of our great accomplishments and demonstrates an effective training model.

Share your thoughts with us

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s