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Let’s Start Using “PWLE” in Place of “People With Lived Experience”

We’re all familiar with “people who use drugs” (PWUD) — a person-first phrasing now-often used in place of once-more-common alternatives like “addicts,” “junkies,” and even “drug users.” I actually prefer “drug user” to PWUD, but that’s not important.

In the world of harm reduction, we support things like drug-involved organizations hiring active and former drug users — oftentimes, particularly-problematic drug users — and involving them in decision-making responsibilities; employing current and former sex workers in sex worker-centered outreach efforts; putting LGBT people to work in LGBT-related capacities; and so on.

All of these people have what’s called “lived experience.” But why, exactly, is preference often given to people with lived experience?

I see two big reasons for doing so:

Here’s the Dealio, Steelio

We call drug users “people who use drugs,” right?

But… get ready for a total shower thought… why don’t we refer to people with lived experience as just that — “people with lived experience,” or PWLE for short?

Why We Needa Get Wit Da God Damn Program, My Fellow Bruhs

First off, it seems like much harm reduction-related communication takes place online. Social media often’ isn’t conducive to typing things out in full. Although we don’t go into full-on “text lingo” a la an out-of-touch 65-year-old — wat u gng 2 b dng l8r? — on social media, we certainly do use initialisms like PWUD to refer to the long, drawn-out, fucking-clunky phrase that is “people who use drugs.”

What other concise — hell, even halfway-concise? — wordings do we have to refer to people with lived experience, particularly Alphabet Gang members, sex workers, people who’re temporarily without a reliable, regular living space (or, to be more specific, without both a bed and a private bathroom, two things that are often used to determine whether someone is “homeless” or not), formerly-incarcerated people, drug users, etc.?

I’m aware of PWLE, but the phrase is criminally underused. Just to clarify, while my idea for PWLE was entirely original, I am not the first person to use this compact initialism to refer to people with lived experience. A quick google search uncovered a 2013 blog post that brought up the idea — though the author was very much against using the compact alternative to “people with lived experience” or any of its many hella-longer alternatives.

For example, I found this one description on a harm reduction-related job opening posted online and it’s nothing short of long and drawn-out — it’s a clunky-fuck, that’s for sure:

People with lived or ongoing experience with drug use, incarceration, homelessness, and/or sex work; people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQIA+ communities; and people living with HIV/AIDS and/or hepatitis C are …”

This leads me to define benefit — watch out, Spanish master Daniel Garrett here! — numero uno: We’ll be better able to convey our ideas online.

This is especially important because, at least in rural, largely-right-leaning areas that lack even a semblance of harm reduction infrastructure — like where I live — most people are learning about harm reduction online. I think this will remain the norm for at least five to 10 years.

Although it seems silly that a single initialism — PWLE isn’t an acronym because you say the letters one-by-one, which is an initialism; NASA, on the other hand, is an acronym — could help us communicate better, but it really could.

Who knows, maybe it might open up people to write or otherwise communicate about PWLE and PWLE-related issues — plain and simple, I bet the grossly-expanded, wholly-unnecessary phrasing used above discourages people (especially people who write, even if it’s just to compose a personal social media comment) from discussing PWLE.

I know it’d deter me from doing so.

Time for Benefit Number Two

We need to claim the initialism “PWLE” before another community or discipline takes it for themselves and popularizes it.

I often wonder why harm reductionists don’t refer to harm reduction as “HR.” In the past few months, I’ve been doing just that — placing “(HR)” behind one of my first uses of “harm reduction” to save myself time and, hopefully, at least, make my message easier to interpret.

Yeah, yeah, we all know the lousy-ass business function of human resources has taken the two-letter abbreviation of “HR” for themselves, but if we can’t beat out the world of human resources for the right to widely take “HR” for ourselves, what the fuck are we doing, anyway?

So, while I’m on the subject, I think we should start using “HR” as an abbreviation for “harm reduction” — the phrase is SUPER FUCKING CLUNKY AND I HATE IT!

I don’t hate it, necessarily, though I’d much rather use a single word — or any other phrase that’s got fewer than four syllables, for that matter — to refer to what we harm reductionists recognize as “harm reduction.”

And What’s Behind Door Number Three?

All considered, PWLE will likely get more attention — or, I guess a better way to put it is “more advocates who’re down for their cause” — just by adopting the abbreviation.

And — quick disclaimer — who knows if adopting the no-frills alternative of PWLE would have any material benefit for people with lived experience? I’m sure a big chunk of us harm reductionists would argue that adopting PWLE on a community-wide basis wouldn’t be worth the effort.

Spongebob Squarepants, “Something Smells,” Season 2, Episode 22a

What do we lose if we do make the change and our efforts don’t bear fruit? I don’t see us losing anything. How hard could it be to make the swap, after all? Should be easy like a Sunday morning…

Something Else…

I’ve looked at a few job postings from large harm reduction-related organizations here in the United States and almost always find disclaimers that encourage Alphabet Gang members, sex workers, and drug users to apply, as members of these groups are given preferential treatment.

Alphabet Gang, if you haven’t already figured it out, means “LGBT.” Before you get your panties in a wad, I’ll have you know I’m in the in-group for all three of these classes — not just the Alphabet Gang, so, therefore, my ideas are unequivocally better than members of the out-group. Hmph! Bow down, out-group plebeians!

But, seriously — I worry that, in some (if not many) cases, out-group members may run into trouble applying for sex work/drug use/LGBT-related positions. What if inferior in-group candidates are awarded positions over better, more-qualified applicants simply because they’re queer, cam models, or active drug users?

This idea isn’t relevant to the “Let’s adopt the abbreviation ‘PWLE’ in place of ‘people with lived experience'” thing, though I’d feel irresponsible if I left it out.

By Daniel Garrett

I'm a self-employed writer, long-term drug user, and resident of rural Tennessee. Find me on Twitter at @DanielGarrettHR or email me at danpgarr@ut.utm.edu.

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