Tuesday, September 22, 2020

“You’re my family too…” Elizabeth Owens: A Harm Reduction Oral History

Owens and Jennifer Flynn, who tweeted: 
"We lost another giant in the movement today. Elizabeth Owens believed in building lists of people who were willing to work. She coined the phrase, “thank you for coming to work today”. I’m showing up for Elizabeth today and certainly every day until the election (and then beyond).

photo by erik r. mcgregor

Owens at ACT UP's 29th Anniversary Action, April 2016

I met Elizabeth Owens in 2016 during ACT UP’s 29th Anniversary Action. After her furious speech, she thanked me for bringing my kids. “You did the most important thing you could do, you shared your family with the movement,” she told me. After that we always joked and smiled. My daughter was inspired to research Hep C drug pricing after the demo. Like any good activist, she inspired questions instead of telling us the answers. She called me her “Brother from another mother.”  A harm reductionist at its finest, she invited everyone to participate.  “Thank you for coming to work today,” she told everyone. She saw people as abundant, without shame.  You felt better about yourself around her. She became a VOCAL-NY member in 2010, became community organizer in 2012 to coordinate our GROW (Grassroots Organizing to Win) program for member-led base building and mobilization. She was a long-time community activist around LGBTQ and harm reduction issues and previously worked as a community outreach worker in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan.  November 2016, I conducted an oral history with Owens at the VOCAL offices on 5th Ave in Brooklyn.


BS:  Interview with Elizabeth from Voices of Community Activists and Leaders. At the beginning of the anniversary action, Act of ’29 action, she stood up and talked about her Hepatitis C treatment: "This is not a joke to me. I have hepatitis C and they say my illness is not critical enough to get the medication to save my life...This is a day I want to live...I don't give a damn how long it takes. I'm gonna stand right here to make sure Pfizer and every other corporation lowers its medication [prices] now..."

We talked about that at the beginning of the interview.

Interviewer:  So, as I was saying, we were saying, at the Act Up demonstration, you sort of stood up and said this is not about passing anybody by. If you can’t get treatment for everybody, I don’t what this. What were you saying? What… You were really passionate in that moment.

Elizabeth:  Because I do have Hepatitis C. If I did on stage… They’re telling me that my liver is not serious enough to receive medication. And I’m like come on now. I went through everything. I’ve been through the drug program. I stopped using drugs and stuff. I’ve been homeless, so when you went through all these trials and stuff like that and now you’re aware that you want to live, how dare a doctor tell you, oh, you’re not sick enough to cure yourself. When you have the medication there. Or tells you, oh your service doesn’t pay for it. Of course, (inaudible) is too much and they don’t feel it’s serious enough. Why should I have to go through that? When I’m coming there to take care of me so I can live longer?

Interviewer:  Right.

Elizabeth:  So, when you start thinking about the people that passed away that had Hep C and stuff like that, and then it makes me feel I don’t want to die like that.

Interviewer:  No.

Elizabeth:  Especially if you live in New York City where the man is supposed to take care of the sick.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  And then all of a sudden, they’re telling you, you are restricted to save your own life. Who the hell gave you permission to be god to tell me whether or not shall I die?

Interviewer:  Wow, that is.

Elizabeth:  So if you’ve been through… I used to mainline going in different arteries and stuff like that. Survived that. Homelessness, survived it all.  Now, I do have my own apartment.

Interviewer:   Mm-hmm.

Elizabeth:  I gained employment. Now, I’m a full-time organizer here. All this stuff, then you’re telling me that I’m not allowed to sit up there and be somebody because you say so. No.

Interviewer:  No.

Elizabeth:  You are not going to decide my fate of death, when I stood up there and did everything I can to want to live.

Interviewer:  I got it. Yeah. So, when did you first… Every organizer has a moment in their life when they say, they look around and they say there’s something wrong. Something right. Somebody I love that’s being affected by something. When, did you first, sort of, look around and say, wow?

Elizabeth:  When I was in the drug treatment program and I found out that they was trying to program people to be weak and not strong to live their own loves.

Interviewer:  Okay.

Elizabeth:  Then, it got me missed off and I wanted to know, what can I do about this?

Interviewer:  Okay.

Elizabeth:  So, by me volunteering at NYRE  and volunteering here at VOCAL, I noticed VOCAL had a strong set of look, you’re still human.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  You know, don’t let somebody tell you that you don’t have a mind of your own.

Interviewer:  Right.

Elizabeth:  Let me teach you what you can do to speak out.

Interviewer:  So, they were trying to… When I worked in drug treatment, I would see that there would be some programs that would want to punish people who were down.

Elizabeth:  Right.

Interviewer:  Like this is the low moment of your life, let’s see if we can humiliate you. And I don’t know what the theory is that that’s going to make anybody better.

Elizabeth:  Make them relapse and come back.

Interviewer:  I guess that’ sit.

Elizabeth:  Because they didn’t give them their strength. When people dream about wanting to be somebody or people thinking I can do something else. Instead of them uplifting their dream or making a decision what they want to do tomorrow, they sit up there and say, we’re going to suppress you and you’re going to do it our way. And you’re going to join our club and we want you to open up a bible and start praying in the bible and all that stuff.  A lot of people separate religion from taking care of themselves.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  But the program somebody said, you have to be this way in order for me to help you. That’s when I knew something was wrong with that type of system.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  When they sit up there and say, here you take Sinequan and give you all this type of medication. I had gained weight sizably. I listened to them. See, this is how I used to look.

Interviewer:  Yeah, wow.

Elizabeth:  Taking medication that I didn’t need.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  What happened was, people was getting addicted to Sinequan so now they sleep all day.  They want to put you on methadone and stuff like that.  And say look, instead of us putting you on 20 or 30, we want to put you on 100 and 150. That means I’m walking around there like a zombie and can’t think.

Interviewer:  Yeah, wow.

Elizabeth:  Then on top of it too, being an Afro American woman, you’re extra abuser, then homeless, it was all them stigmas and they started saying instead of be proud of yourself that you’re doing something for the future. No, we’re going to make you miserable so they could be a crush… so you could be a crush on them to program you to walk around and represent their agency or their, you know, program.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  Because they was trying to use me as a poster child. And I refused that because I did not agree with the treatments, what they were doing.

Interviewer:  Yeah, I used to work at… I used to get stuck at working for Project Return for a little while. They moved me into that agency. What agency… Do you remember the agency? Do you want?

Elizabeth:  VIP.

Interviewer:  VIP, yeah.

Elizabeth:  And they didn’t believe in harm reduction.

Interviewer:  No, they didn’t believe in, no.

Elizabeth:  So, at the same time I wanted to go out there. Like a lot of people, a lot of my friends were getting HIV, Hep C, yellow jaundice and stuff from sharing needles.

Interviewer:   Mm-hmm.

Elizabeth:  So, I wanted to work in a field where I could make sure I could pass out syringes to keep people from spreading the germs.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  They… I was told, no, you cannot work in a truck that gives this, that and the other now. Because in fact, they were tricking you. But when you send me to NA to listen to Dry Highs, that tricked.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  So, when you notice, when you start getting your body back and stuff like that and they tell you if you don’t attend this or if you don’t do that, then we cannot take care of you anymore, mind you they have your Medicaid, your welfare and all that. You’re a hostage.

Interviewer:  Yeah, so it’s kind of a control model.

Elizabeth:  Yes, a control model, to me a control model of destruction.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  So, I started thinking outside the box. Then I would be down here with VOCAL and (inaudible) restraining me and a few other coworkers, and I used to have to give letters for them in order to attend certain events.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  That’s how bad it was.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  Then when they found out what I was doing, they kept locked because that’s a lawsuit. Remember you’re supposed to have obtained a job or something. So, they were trying to block my job and anything. You doggone right I was going to press charges against the whole system.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  Because how can you expect me to be a productive citizen in the world, when you’re telling me that you want to control my whole system of what I’m trying to do for myself.  And it turned out, I wind up saving. Got me an apartment, a job, doing the thing I love but there was no help to that.

Interviewer:  Yeah, I don’t know. I think the harm reduction is all about the individuals having control of their own lives. They think. They’ll have to make their own choices.

Elizabeth:  But the beautiful part about it and I learned about harm reduction, I didn’t notice discrimination.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  And that gave me more strength and more power to get myself to grow and be where I would like to be. And that was the beautiful thing about it. And being an Afro American black woman that goes back into the community where she has started from and, you know, doing drugs and everything, I find myself now, I moved in a building where I don’t have to run into drug dealers and anything. (Inaudible), but if I left it to the program, they would have stuck me in some apartment to share with somebody else. Mind you, I was paying my rent. You got to pay rent when you’re living there. So, to be responsible like that, the only thing I could see is to go back and teach others that you can be somebody. Don’t let nobody hold you down. And I never knew that that was organizing until Fred had told me. He said listen, if that’s organizing.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  I didn’t know nothing about organizing and all that stuff.

Interviewer:  Did you take the power training?
Elizabeth:  Yes.

Interviewer:  Serious alumni are going to do the power training there. You know, my friend Laverne is in the power training. Do you remember Laverne Holly?

Elizabeth:  I have to see.  Laverne Holly, I remember Holly.

Interviewer:  Scream loud. You knew Laverne, right?
Man: Oh yeah.

Elizabeth:  Yeah.  With Cameron, I called them my brothers and sisters.

Man: Cameron.

Elizabeth:  Yeah, I know.

Interviewer:  They’re the best. Those two, I remember going to Washington DC so many times with Laverne and Cameron.

Elizabeth:  Cameron still comes out with us and stuff.

Interviewer:  How’s he doing?
Elizabeth:  He’s doing fine. I usually talk to him over the weekend and stuff like that.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  Her birthday had passed, so he actually took it kind of hard. But I talked to him, you know, through the whole weekend.

Interviewer:  Okay, good. Well that’s it. Friends are going to keep you going through this. Well, step back. May I ask the date of birth? Do you mind me asking that?

Elizabeth:  9/26, that’s on my birth certificate 59, but (inaudible).

Interviewer:  Where you from?

Elizabeth:  New York City.

Interviewer:  What borough?

Elizabeth:  I was raised in Queens, Bronx. I lived in all five boroughs.

Interviewer:  Yeah, my live. And Stanton Island?

Elizabeth:  I live in Stanton Island, 37A (inaudible).

Interviewer:  All right, New York City. Well, so then, you know with the organization, you always think some of us are trying to change something out there. Some of us are trying to change something inside because the personal is political. When you’re thinking about it, where do you feel you’re… Where is the change that you’re looking at?

Elizabeth:  I’m looking at change that one day all women can stand up and not be ashamed of the mistakes that they have made in they life.

Interviewer:   Right.

Elizabeth:  That they can speak out without being stigmatized.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  That they can stand and hold their head up high when they speak to their children whatever they learned on the street. Not to sit up there and beg them to love them back, but to let them know that look, I’m alive. I made it through and I want to live. I just want them to have voices for women that have been through this.

Interviewer:  Yeah, that’s right.

Elizabeth:  Because a lot of them like now, I have women doctors. At one time, when I had men doctors, they couldn’t relate to me, drug user. She’s just a hypochondriac. This is not going on with her body and that. But they had me thinking, of course you got certain insurance, you got to go by what they say where they could go. So, that means I had doctors that wasn’t practicing harm reduction. Looked at me disgusted because I was a drug user and stuff. That I was nobody.  They were just collecting the money and writing out scripts.

Interviewer:  Yeah, and how do you change that?

Elizabeth:  How do I change that?
Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  I got empowered by removing my insurance from them, for them using it and stuff. First of all, I was working with Welfare and got on and had my own insurance now. And stuff through the job, then I empowered myself by going to look for women doctors and request because I noticed that I was the voice and not the.

Interviewer:  Yeah, well these ideas, theoretically force people to have partnerships with their providers, not doctors to god. The patient receive is, but the patient is the expert on their own life, their own body. So, hopefully that makes it.

Elizabeth:  But with Hepatitis C it’s so scary. You know, like people have to realize when you notice that you (inaudible) anything, you trip back on how did I get it. You know, and you go through memory lane. So, when you go through memory lane, you start remembering things that you forgot all about. So, sometimes some weeks I’d be… Like say for an anniversary of somebody death come up, all of a sudden I start remembering all the people. The funerals I went to, or things like that. I have people died in my arms. I had people O.D. I have been with women that died on me. So, all that stuff is back. And so, you start to remember when the mother starting crying about why wasn’t nobody there for my child and things like that. So, for the rest of my life, you know, I will always hear that.

Interviewer:  Yeah, well the phrase… I guess my question is how do you… How do friends support this? How do you get friends? I mean I come to VOCAL and I see such energy of everybody. You know, when everybody.

Elizabeth:  I consider everybody family. I don’t look at them as my coworkers.  Like Fred, he’s my brother, sometimes my office husband. You know, I don’t look at them as, what you say (inaudible)? Or Jeremy and them, I look at them as my brothers and stuff like that.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  I feel that the type of relationship that we have together it shouldn’t be a relationship based on lies and anything. And they always open up the door, if I need to talk with them personally or any ideas I have.  And at the same time, it’s like teaching your brothers and sisters another angle how to deal with life. So, how can I give that up just when I live in the everyday world? Because to me, they took out the human touch in our communities. They put racism in there and I don’t see racism. I just see love and I feel that everybody needs a hug.

Interviewer:  Yeah, that’s right. And so, I think and it’s one of the things when I think about Laverne and I went through ups and downs. And I remember I was no longer at City Wide and people, and Laverne was one of the only people that would still always come say hi.  I always really appreciated that, very human, you know sense of friendship.

Elizabeth:  Exact.

Interviewer:  Very, very human quality.  How do friends help organizing?
Elizabeth:  I don’t, like I said, I don’t look at them as friends. Like I said, everybody is brothers and sisters. So, I look at organizing as that they teaching me things that I have done by replacing them with meanings and words. In other words, like I say I didn’t know I was organizing. I just thought I was building an outside family. That’s when they… So, they had to break it down. What is organizing? What is building power? What is, you know, encouraging others that they can be listened to and putting back resources in the community. You know then they showed me the power how you can do this, that and the other and you can do it. There’s no such thing as can’t.

Interviewer:  Yeah, that’s right.  What do you… When you think about this stuff like what’s the hard part?

Elizabeth:  The hard part is saying goodbye to people that you know that they’re alone and whatnot and nobody had a chance to hug them or take the time to listen to them.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  You know, that’s the hardest part. And another thing, is that you have to know when to cut it off to have private time so this way you come back to teach others and refill. So, I had to learn that I could mix, how you say, business with pleasure.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  I had to learn the guidelines and separation. And so, when I went to Fred and them or if they notice anything about me, they used to give me different types of exercises I could do. And they wouldn’t just share with me unless they did it themselves and that’s what you call true people.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  Because if you be somebody that lie one minute that yeah, yeah, yeah. The next minute they not like that. It’s hard for you to trust. It’s bad enough when you live on the streets, you can’t trust everybody but you consider they’re not be a criminal at somebody.

Interviewer:  Right, right. Well, then what I wonder. So, tell me about the…

Man: Oh, pause.

Interviewer:  Tell me about the (inaudible)…

Elizabeth:  I’m looking at Jason Walker, he’s the head… of HIV and AIDS. So, I have four buildings that I do go door knocking and everything. So, a lot of things are still going by house of reform and, you know, affordable housing and stuff which Jason is teaching me little by little. So, my job is to go out and recruit other people to come in and let them know they’re not alone. So, when I do door knocking, you know they have like single woman occupants there. And some of the buildings are not up to par and homes are not up to par. But when I come there, they know I’m their sister from another mother.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  So they, you know, everybody always up to me. They always share certain stuff with me and I try my best to find out information. And what I don’t know, I learn with them.

Interviewer:  Right. We all are learning together.

Elizabeth:  Right, because I notice that (inaudible) is like a complicated thing. Then, you have the governor who promised that he wanted to end the age at 20/20 and stuff like that. But no, he was full of shit because he wanted to be quoted and be popular and all that stuff. Everybody keep dodging different types of access, different types of angle where it could be easy just to get it over with and give. So, imagine passing a 30% room (inaudible) after eight years and you’re telling people yeah we won. And then all of a sudden, they have nowhere to go. They won’t take the voucher they giving them. Or they don’t have or real estate, they don’t want to touch HASA and stuff like that.  So, have to, I had to learn how to maintain myself by not looking disappointed. And so, what I do is make sure to bring a witness that let’s raise a sister, not a damn door.

Interviewer:  Yeah, right. What is living with Hepatitis C? Like tell me about that?

Elizabeth:  I’m very energetic and my body is not as strong as it used to be. I wake up every morning at 3:00 in the morning. That’s because that’s the (inaudible), you know and stuff. So, when I get up instead of me doing drugs, I get up and pace myself because also I have rheumatoid arthritis real bad and stuff. So, with the Hepatitis C, it’s like you urinate sometimes you sell your urine different. You always checking your skin color to make sure nothing has changed, your eyes. And that’s, of course, the way doctors have came out to tell you about it, but they don’t share with you the different types of symptoms that you don’t have to worry about right now.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  So, being in a panic all the time, I’m always watching. Do I see anything? Do I do this? Do I do that? I also make sure I don’t take every type of pill that they want to give me.

Interviewer:  Yeah, stay out of the cure of the month club.

Elizabeth:  Right.

Interviewer:  Because you’re not a guinea pig. Try this pill. Let me see how it goes on you.

Elizabeth:  That’s what they did to me. They was giving me arthritis medication and they changed the medication and stuff was cause my body to react different. So, now my body is a little bit of weak and stuff. That’s why I’m not taking it.

Interviewer:  Okay, so not. It doesn’t work you for you.

Elizabeth:  I’m not taking it. No worries, I just go get a couple packs of Motrins and whatnot and relax myself in the tub and I’ll be alright.

Interviewer:  Now, when did you first find out about Hepatitis?

Elizabeth:  When I was in the drug treatment program. They was telling everybody they had Hepatitis, but they wasn’t like giving me not results or anything. They made me sit up there and say, hey you take this pill and you take that pill.  And it turned out to Senequan and.

Interviewer:  What does Senequan do?

Elizabeth:  Senequan is for manic depressant, which I wasn’t. It will make you calm and whatnot. Then they was giving me… Instead of them giving me something for my bones and stuff like calcium and stuff. I found out when I went to the doctor when I finally got my calcium level was very low. So, they had to give me a high dosage of it. So, they wasn’t giving me that. They was giving me like pills to medicate me so I could be like a space cadet.

Interviewer:  Okay, and how long were you on the street?
Elizabeth:  I started out on the street when I was 12. So, I was at my apartment back and forth. My mother and father wasn’t drinkers or nothing like that. What it was is that they was workaholics and had children. And what I did was sacrifice my life to keep them from being on the street to be killed because I was in the projects. I was in projects, right?  I was raised up around. You would never know. Here I’m coming back and I’m a workaholic.

Interviewer:  (Inaudible).

Elizabeth:  And I didn’t want to live in the projects at the time. Because I really felt it was like a project to keep us down. I had a hysterectomy 17 years old.

Interviewer:  Had a what?

Elizabeth:  Completely stripping at 17. That’s what they was doing. They was making sure that people didn’t have babies. Try to cure the population and stuff.  So, I’ve been walking around with menopause all this time, but I won’t take nothing.

Interviewer:  Wow.

Elizabeth:  I learned that after you do heroin, which I was doing pure heroin, okay? And how I found out I was doing pure heroin is that I had a group of people that be (inaudible) gallery and one didn’t see they (inaudible).  And they sell out. And then overdose and we got them to the hospital and found out it was 100 pure. So, that’s when I thought, you know.

Interviewer:  Too much.

Elizabeth:  I had to stop.  All of a sudden, you get a certain age and you get tired. But I never had a problem running the street. Everybody who I deal with like I say, I call my drug dealers nephews. I call, you know, so we had a different type of relationship. I’ve always been like this.

Interviewer:  Yeah. I mean, but you finally said enough.

Elizabeth:  Yeah, one day I just got tired. You know, (inaudible) hospital used to have a detox center and you could go in there for 10 days and come out. Rotating and closed down. And there was something I should say. I can’t do this no more. Signed myself in somewhere.

Interviewer:  And you signed yourself and said.

Elizabeth:  That’s it. Notice that you’re getting old and know you’re recognizing how old you were all this time. You was coming up… See when I was out at 12 years old, I was dealing with the owner of the black gay club called Bonnie and Clyde. So, I had to act older. And so, what she taught me was like equity. How businesses run and all that stuff and we was together for over 17 years.

Interviewer:  Wow. And so, you were going to that club for 17 years?
Elizabeth:  Yeah, them other clubs. Remember clubs started from those other clubs and stuff. So, I was more like a wifey, wifey.

Interviewer:  It is a black club?

Elizabeth:  It was the first/gay lesbian bar in The Village.

Interviewer:  Okay.

Elizabeth:  Beside the Duchess, Pandora’s Box and all them other clubs. So, you know, it’s like you learn how to drink. You learn how to maintain yourself. You got to keep the secret about your age and stuff.  A whole bunch of stuff because that would have charged us, you know with something.

Interviewer:  Was it fun?

Elizabeth:  I had a good time. I cannot complain about it.

Interviewer:  Yeah, sounds fun.

Elizabeth:  I’ve been partying for a long time. I was out there when the Red Robin’s at peer and all that stuff. I also worked on 42nd Street at Show World.

Interviewer:  You were at the Show World?
Elizabeth:  Yes, child.

Interviewer:  You used to work in there?
Elizabeth:  Yes, as a dancer.

Interviewer:  I was in New York City for five minutes before I was at Show World. My money would burn a hole in my pocket. Whenever I was in New York City, it was always Show World.

Elizabeth:  (Inaudible) and all that stuff. I know all about the street life, you know, and stuff.

Interviewer:  Wow.

Elizabeth:  Make sure I go to school. The lady made sure I go to school and stuff like that.

Interviewer:  You worked at Show World. Did you work at the Rim Rod?

Elizabeth:  Rim Rod, no I didn’t work at. That was an all males.

Interviewer:  Yeah, going to it, but Show World you worked at?

Elizabeth:  Show World, (inaudible), what else? Horses Real on 47th Street and 7th Avenue.

Interviewer:  How do you bring all those experiences into the work that you’re doing now?

Elizabeth:  You know what? I didn’t think about it all until I started to run into women and started sharing stories and stuff like that. And I said, you know, I got to make a difference. Because they found that every time they went to groups and stuff, even though they had suppressed you know the drug and everything, they got off. They still had that in them, whatever they did while they was out there.  They didn’t have nobody to talk to. So, the counselors or whoever they set up, did not experience the street life. So, they got tired of being used, as how you say, a subject.t

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  And stuff, and they really needed to talk to somebody that had been through the same things that they’d been through. So, what’s when I started to (inaudible) and stuff.

Interviewer:  What is (inaudible) vocal? I’ve heard that, but tell us about it.

Elizabeth:  I alright. I started (inaudible) vocal because all the different kind of, all the women numbers. It’s a place they’re like sister and stuff and share different types of experiences they had at different programs. And they got tired. And they want to talk about when they were out there hustling with them drugs and, you know. They wanted somebody to understand what it was to get up and be sick. I mean I had to head groups like, you know, like groups oh, you’re not doing drugs no more and stuff like that. And this is how you’re supposed to do it. And they got tired of that type of structure.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  So, when they came to me and I said, look, you know, they go to doctors and doctors are them treating them wrong. Or any place they was going, they was not being heard. So, now I’m teaching them how to advocate for their self about resources and stuff that need to come back in the communities.

Interviewer:  Didn’t (Maurice) do that group too?

Elizabeth:  No, I started (inaudible) Vocal. This just started. Members kept coming to me with different type of things and I didn’t want to leave my sisters out in the cold.

Interviewer:  Well that’s the thing. I feel like women often get left in organizing, left a little to the side.

Elizabeth:   Mm-hmm.

Interviewer:  And that’s their tough part. So, you bring like a support group advocacy?

Elizabeth:  It’s more. It beginning to be an advocacy group, but it’s about to teach each other how to, you know, trust each other. And then all of a sudden do it together as a community. And so, we’re on that stage now. Although I have ladies that sit up there and haven’t been to school since the third grade. And they went back to learning classes and stuff like that. Because they were so stigmatized.

Interviewer:  Yeah, so. One of the things I heard once when you were at City Hall and you had spent the night and you talked about why did you spend the night, the anniversary of occupy last fall. And you said, you know, I don’t want to leave anybody behind. I don’t want anybody to think that we’ve got our housing and we’re leaving you behind.

Elizabeth:  Right.

Interviewer:  That was very powerful and I was just sort of wondering, where did you come from to think that? I love that. It was really moving to me.

Elizabeth:  Of course, you have to think about it. When you spend time in the shelter system with people and stuff like that, you know, and there’s this type of structural settings that they call is self-helping. You know, you have to think we had a relationship together. There’s a whole community together that trying to go get what they did, you know, a home for life and all that stuff. And then when I got my apartment and everything doesn’t mean I’m supposed to forget anybody. I’m going back to show them. If I got to take this step by step on how to do it. If I have to get and say how did you do it? Well, I went around looking at apartments. I don’t want you to give up.

Interviewer:  Right.

Elizabeth:  I want you to not be afraid to go ask the (inaudible). If you don’t need this, pass it on to someone else.

Interviewer:  Right.

Elizabeth:  They may could use it. So, it’s like teaching everybody how to care for one another.

Interviewer:  Yeah, well that’s a good skill because not everybody does that, everybody how to care for each other.

Elizabeth:  That’s why I hug everybody because everybody needs a hug.

Interviewer:  Yeah, everybody needs a hug.

Elizabeth:  Right, keep forgetting by being that, you know, people have pushed people so far away because they don’t know them.

Interviewer:  Yes.

Elizabeth:  And the when they (inaudible0, they can sit at the table and break bread with them to get to know them.

Interviewer:  Yeah, that’s right.

Elizabeth:  But people, and I always notice that people that don’t understand, they’re quick to throw hate at.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  How you going to hate something if you don’t know? You only read it or saw it on TV.

Interviewer:  My daughter was so shy. She barely can talk to people sometimes. And you were so nice to her. She said she had such a nice time at that demo. You were so nice to her. So, she’s like I’ll go back and hang out with her.

Elizabeth:  Good.

Interviewer:  To me that was what it’s all about, you know. It’s feeling like this community of people are looking out for each other. That’s what HIV at least to me has taught me and working with my students and working with people I’ve known all these years if we’ve got to look out for each other.

Elizabeth:  Me, I don’t have HIV. I have Hepatitis C. What I did by having that outside family, you know, why turn your back? (inaudible) garbage to eat. You know, I have did dumpster diving. I have, you know, I have went to supermarkets and stole something to eat. I’ve slept on floors. I have sit up there, and you know, at the shelters was crowded or something like that. Sometimes they had made you share a bed.  Things like that, that if you go and say it in public and you bring them in there. Oh no, we don’t do that.  Everything behind the scene is something different.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  I have to speak up for everybody.

Interviewer:  Yeah, wow. For you, what’s the part that you’re most proud of all this work?

Elizabeth:  That I have an outside family that’s going to last for life because this is for life.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  No discrimination, no cutting each other down, giving each other strength, you know love to listen, listen to love. You know, I’m happy every time I go home. I love thanking people for coming to work today because they do not know what they do. You’re showing other individuals that they have a shot at what you represent, men and women. So, we’re always teaching around the clock. I had some ladies that actually while I was you on drugs. I have train buddies. They’ll ask me questions. What made you get on drugs? You know, why you gay? Was you raised? No. That was my decision. You know, and stuff. You know, there’s so many people that has questions about our life that they used to call the dark side. I want them to stop reading books and looking at videos and learn how to set a table and ask us questions instead of assuming what somebody told that. That’s my dream to have a big dinner where everybody sitting at the table, city officials, everybody and ask real questions, not bullshit around the bush. And say, you know, how does this feel for you to get by? You know, why did you medicate yourself? Little things like that instead of waiting at the last minute that you hear somebody die in a rich neighborhood and you never had any answers or questions of why they was medicating their self.

Interviewer:  Yeah. I love the expression, I hope we can meet up again in a barbeque. I just love that. I always loved that because I think that would be a really powerful thing. If somebody could break down and share a space like that.

Elizabeth:  I always wanted. Just like.

Interviewer: (Inaudible) Wilson talks about that. She said I want to see all my friends at a barbeque at the end of the day. It is so powerful to me.

Elizabeth:  Sometimes I buy flowers and just give it out to people on the street just to let them know. You know, why not brighten somebody? People think it takes so much.

Interviewer:  What were you saying? You sometimes bring people flowers.

Elizabeth:  Why not? Sometimes people give me a bouquet of flowers all the time in the neighborhood or something like that. And so, what I do is go out and pass it around to others. I see LBG women out there, I think them for opening the doors for me. Because remember, in the old days they didn’t have benefits or anything. And so, I just let them know that, you know, I appreciate everything they have done. And see one day a child younger than me will come and thank me of opening up doors for them.

Interviewer:  Opening doors for me, wow. Who are your heroes?

Elizabeth:  Who are my heroes? Every last person I have met in my life. Every last. Because think about it today. If it wasn’t for me meeting people yesterday and today, then where would I be at today? So, they all had a part of this relation in my life for me to keep going and pushing forward to share with others.

Interviewer:  When you, with VOCAL, what’s the campaign you’re most proud to have been a part of?

Elizabeth:  All of them, being a GROW organizer, every last one of them. You can never … It’s always the same faces for the first time they come out to an action. And if you can see their face to find out, that I can do this? Because on the street, they tell you oh, no, you can’t sit up there advocating for yourself unless you have a PhD or a master’s degree. Lies.

Interviewer:  Lies.

Elizabeth:  Lies. Do you know a lot of people don’t know that they have the power to hire and fire?

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  So my thing is every time I meet somebody and bring them to an action and they’re going someplace to see the look on their face. Or they run up and hug me real tight and say thank you, thank you. That’s my biggest reward. To let them know that I’m their sister from another mother and I’m there for life.

Interviewer:  Right, that’s right. You’re a sister from another mother. Is there… have I missed anything?

Elizabeth:  I don’t know. You know, you can feel free to call me anytime if you got questions.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  You’re my family too. I tell people to share your beautifulest gift that you have, your children. I take that as an honor. You know, so when somebody does that, it makes me feel so proud to share.

Interviewer:  We’re all sharing with each other. That’s what the movement’s all about. I can learn. I mean that’s why I still continue to find so much pleasure in organizing because I see people brining and sharing so much.

Elizabeth:  I mean the feelings I get and stuff. Or when I come in and they help me. Because I tell them, I see you down the street. You walk by me without saying nothing to me.

Interviewer:  That’s right.

Elizabeth:  And they start blushing.

Interviewer:  How do you deal with the hard part? How do you deal with the conflict, a fight? How do you handle it?

Elizabeth:  I just sit up there. One thing I love about Fred and them, they taught me how to go home and think about it before reacting, and stuff. And to find another solution instead of being and have no door to exit.

Interviewer:  Oh yeah.

Elizabeth:  So, they taught me how to, you know, like focus what you want and do it another way. Don’t let nobody take it down a notch for you or anything. Sometimes it takes people different ways to explain to them to get it.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  And I love that that was with me for them to get to know me. So, just play it forward and do it for other people.

Interviewer:  That’s absolutely right. I mean, so we all have our, unfortunately there’s a little bit of ego in this sometimes. People bring a little of that.

Elizabeth:  See, I don’t care, the egotistical stuff.  Of course, the simple fact some people have, you know, you have to welcome people to the real world of what’s happening. Or you’ll be a man on an island by yourself.

Interviewer:  No fun. Yeah, that’s right.

Elizabeth:  You give like a scenario to them. (Inaudible). With nobody around you. You have no other choice but to think about what you do. Of course, now you locked away.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  You know, and it’s no fun. So, sometimes you have to teach them and let them know that they belong to a team and it’s not called I.

Interviewer:  Yeah. Sometimes you have to teach people.

Elizabeth:  So that’ everyday life though. If I wasn’t doing this, still it’s the same thing.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  Now, I have cops salute me. Thank you for coming to work today. Or I have police officers driving me home and they know I’m tired and stuff. My neighbors think I’m all the time in trouble. You know, the cops come on, get in the car. We ain’t going to let you walk because we know what you did today. So, my neighbors think I’m always in trouble until they hear me say thank you nephews. Have a good day.

Interviewer:  What was the thing? Sometimes you have to teach people to not say I? What is it?

Elizabeth:  Sometimes you have to teach people that there’s no such work as I in a group. That’s teamwork.

Interviewer:  Yeah, there is no such thing as I.

Elizabeth:  It’s about us.

Interviewer:  Yeah. I in a group. It’s about us. Wow.

Elizabeth:  Because people can’t show up to different actions and stuff like that. I represent you just like you represent me.

Interviewer:  Yes.

Elizabeth:  So, when you come back and tell me (inaudible) and I heard that such and such a drug is out there and it’s hurting people. You’re doing teamwork and you don’t even know it. People that’s up there (inaudible) and against you. They don’t know they teaching you not to be like them. So, they still teaching but they don’t realize what they’re doing.

Interviewer:  We’re all teaching. That’s right. Well, look I think we covered a little bit. I think we covered a lot.

Elizabeth:  Sometimes I like people that are still using and stuff like that, hear from another person. So, I’m getting ready to start my mailing little cards day. You know, hey guys, you know, I love you. Feel free to talk to me any time.

Interviewer:  Yeah.

Elizabeth:  (Inaudible). I also have women, I got took out of my pocket postage cards, you know, because they know I’m content with their children and accounts with what happened to them. So, they say write them. I’m still alive. I’m thinking of you. I hope to hear from you soon. If I get a response back (inaudible).

Interviewer:  Powerful. It’s very hard to have people, when I teach my students about harm reduction, I think they want to assume that people are getting high for one reason. There’s a million reasons why people get high.

Elizabeth:  So many reasons.

Interviewer:  And sometimes it’s love. Sometimes it’s self-medication. Sometimes people are just trying to cope and people feel ashamed of themselves. Sometimes, I don’t know, there’s just a lot of share.

Elizabeth:  I hear a lot of shame from women and stuff like that. But I tell them, what you got to be ashamed of? I mean look at you. Look at you yesterday. Look at you today. Haven’t you noticed that you can give yourself anything that you want? So, don’t be afraid to dream. Tomorrow is always another day.

Interviewer:  Don’t be afraid to dream. 

A blurry snapshot of Owens and this writer a year ago at the VOCAL Gala. 


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