Ben Scher reviews ‘You Talk, We Die’ – Judy Ryan’s new book about fighting to open the first safe injecting facility in Victoria (Australia). The book is a “must-read for anyone interested in better understanding how one can affect positive change in their local community”.

Is it normal for people to be overdosing alone on street corners? Should it be acceptable for elected officials to ignore evidence-based responses? If arrests are going up, why are rates of overdose deaths not going down? These were all questions Judy Ryan asked herself before deciding to take action – to enact what she calls bottom-up politics. Whereas the voices of politicians, public health, or policing actors are so often the ones promoted in the process of drug policymaking, ‘You Talk, We Die’ offers an alternative approach, a blueprint for community-led political activism.

I am an SSA-funded PhD student in Social Policy at the University of Oxford, studying the ways in which people across drug policy contexts experience various models of safe injecting facilities. Before starting my PhD, I worked in these facilities in Vancouver – a city with a rich history of pioneering various forms of innovative harm reduction interventions. With my personal and academic interest in this topic, I was intrigued and excited to find out more about Judy Ryan’s story. This article presents an overview of Judy’s new book, and offers additional insights and quotes from an interview I did with her in April 2024.

In the book, Judy takes readers to the streets of Melbourne’s North Richmond suburb, telling the story of how, as a resident with no prior experience in politics and with no backing from any of the major political parties, she embarked on a mission to challenge the status quo. After years of witnessing the drug death crisis worsen in her local community and solely equipped with an unwavering ability to rally people around a common cause, Judy led a grassroots campaign to run for local office and establish Melbourne’s first safe injecting facility.

“To be coming home from work, or going out with friends and finding a human – potentially someone you know or love being collapsed in your laneway – it really takes its toll on a community.” 

A safe injecting facility, as Judy passionately advocates throughout the book, is not just a physical space for people to consume substances, but a lifeline for people using unpredictable substances acquired from the tainted illicit market. Staffed with healthcare professionals and with robust referral mechanisms to local auxiliary health and social care services, safe injecting facilities offer people connections to key services and provide a safe alternative to isolated, often street-based, settings for taking drugs. Through vivid storytelling, Judy paints a compelling picture of why such facilities are necessary in supporting communities like hers where public drug use and overdose rates are high.

“I hope that this book empowers other drug-impacted communities, particularly residents.” 

Central to ‘You Talk, We Die’ is Judy’s strategic approach to community organising and coalition building. Through detailed documentation of the different actors, dates and times of meetings, and reflections on the most pivotal moments in her campaign, Judy provides readers with a blueprint for effective activism – navigating the intricacies of political engagement, media outreach, and grassroots campaigning. Her narrative is punctuated by moments of triumph and setback, offering important lessons in the resilience and perseverance required during a political campaign.

When asked why so many different community stakeholders rallied behind the safe injecting facility, Judy told me:

“Probably a sense of humanity. Ultimately it was the cause that bound us together… In society, drug addiction is rife. It’s in every family in some way, touched through partners or friendships, it’s not like this is some random thing that just happens over there. It’s actually part of everyday life. Every city you go to in the world, there are issues of homelessness and addiction. I think people get that and I think politicians underestimate that people feel there’s a need to help.” 

In the book, Judy offers a detailed account of how she was able to mobilise a diverse array of allies – from academics, teachers, and residents to frontline workers and eventually politicians – and why alliances like these were instrumental in establishing Melbourne’s first safe injecting facility. Judy also showcases the various setbacks and challenges that arose during her campaign, as well as new experiences such as speaking to the media, interacting with politicians, and financing a political campaign.

“Looking back, the momentum was extraordinary. But you don’t know that at the time and although some days I’d go “Wow, did that just happen?”, I was really out of my comfort zone and I was pretty much terrified the whole time. You know, going and doing those things and like there was that photo of me giving the press conference at Parliament, I was so terrified. Like, I can’t tell you how everything just scared me!” 

Weaved in and around descriptions of the campaign, Judy also tells the stories of local community members and families affected by overdoses – through these stories, continually re-emphasising the real, human cost of policy inaction. To me, however, essential pages of the book are in the appendix, where we get a glimpse of the incredibly moving interview excerpts with clients of the Melbourne safe injecting facility. These personal accounts of childhood trauma, stigma within traditional healthcare settings, and experiences of street-based injecting were juxtaposed with experiences in the safe injecting facility, which showed the holistic, multifaceted, and tangible benefits of these types of facilities.

The day of our interview, the Victorian Government scrapped plans to open a second facility despite recommendations from experts that a smaller service would be appropriate and effective in response to a rise in public drug use in the central business district. Speaking to this decision, Judy said:

“I’m so deflated by the decision made by our state government today. I just think there’s so many people who are, like me, very upset today. So we’ll coalesce. We’ll lick our wounds. And we’ll go back and keep doing it.” 

‘You Talk, We Die’ is more than just an account of one person’s fight against the status quo, it is a rallying cry for social justice and community-led political activism. Judy Ryan’s journey from grassroots activist to political trailblazer reminds us of the power of collective action in the face of political inertia. With its blend of personal narrative, strategic insights, and stories from affected families and individuals, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in better understanding how one can affect positive change in their local community.

by Ben Scher

Ben Scher is an SSA-funded DPhil student at the University of Oxford. He is using ethnographic methods to conduct an international comparison of harm reduction initiatives across Canada, Greece, and the UK. Ben is passionate about producing research that can help policymakers establish more effective and humane substance use and harm reduction interventions.

Judy Ryan stood as a candidate in the three levels of government in Australia: as an independent candidate in the City of Yarra in the 2016 local government election; as the Reason Party candidate in the Victorian state electorate of Richmond in 2018; and as the Reason Party candidate in the federal electorate of Melbourne in 2019. She published You Talk, We Die in January 2023 with Scribe, an independent trade publishing house with offices in Melbourne and London.

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