Judy Ryan’s 2023 book “You talk, we die: The battle for Victoria’s first safe injecting facility”, takes readers through a rapid-fire campaign journey to establish a drug injecting centre in inner-city Melbourne.
This book tells a rich story of how Judy Ryan bought together residents to propose a solution to one of the challenges posed by drug addiction. After years of seeing tragic and horrific overdoses and paraphernalia left in their streets and yards, Ryan helped elevate community concerns and build support for a safe facility.
This book offers a meticulous account of one person’s relentless push for change. In doing so, the book provides a campaign chronicle that doesn’t merely skim the surface but dives deep into the mechanics of a successful campaign.
Ryan’s story began when she had a particularly tragic experience with someone who had overdosed. While Ryan had seen many overdoses before and experienced its tragic outcomes in her own family, something about this hit hard. As she noted, ‘writing about it years later doesn’t diminish the trauma.’
Her growing awareness that somebody needed to do something about it took her on a journey involving standing for local government, forming the Residents for Victoria Street Drug Solutions community group, building connections with other community, political and medical groups.
The campaign team, led by Ryan, sought to influence politicians, community members and the media to recognise drug use as a health issue and not a criminal one, culminating in the successful establishment of Melbourne’s first medically supervised safe injecting room.
The book is structured through a chronological description of each campaign tactic undertaken by the author and her team. This chronological approach had its pros and cons. Sometimes key moments passed by so rapidly that it felt like being on an express train; the book got me to the destination quickly, but there wasn’t much time to look out the window.
On the other hand, the speed and structure of the book across the two-year campaign could make it a valuable blueprint for anyone looking to initiate a social justice campaign and doesn’t know where to start.
The Personal is Political
The story highlights several key elements that decades of social movement research have shown to be central to the success of campaigns.
Up first, her story is a powerful message about how much personal experience matters in underpinning activism.
Ryan herself, as well as residents, businesses and school children saw individuals overdose regularly as they went about their lives in the community. Laneways were frequently blocked by ambulances as paramedics were called out time and time again, while small children would skip over discarded needles. The salience of the drug issue in her own community was a powerful motivator for action, aligning with a wealth of social psychology research highlighting the importance of emotional connections in mobilising people to take action.
It’s one thing to hear about drug-related issues in the media, but another thing altogether to see an overdose in your own front yard.
Ryan’s book clearly demonstrates how personal experience of an issue, and communication which resonates with people’s values, experiences and identities can kickstart campaigns for change:
I was accustomed to finding people injecting, ‘on the nod’, or overdosed as I moved around the community. I had run 000 countless times, waiting with drug-affected people until help arrived. But today was the first time that I had witnessed a fatality. Collapsed beside a dirty public toilet block was a dismal, sad, cold place for this young woman to take her last breath… In the following hours and days, it was impossible to not think about what I had experienced that afternoon… I was exasperated, angry, and determined to do what I could. – Judy Ryan
A second lesson from Ryan’s book relates to the importance of networks of supporters and allies. The network-building chronicled in the book maps onto the theory of “resource mobilisation” (McCarthy & Zald, 1977).
This theory describes how the pooling resources – whether human, material, cultural or other – helps build power amongst different stakeholders. Ryan’s campaign wasn’t the first to propose safe injecting rooms; as she recounts, many others had been calling for these facilities for years.
However, her campaign brought together these different interests, including academics, politicians, frontline workers, schools and her own local community to create formidable collective strength in one specific local area.
The campaign was also able to leverage research and applied learnings from others, drawing inspiration from international examples of successful drug injecting centres and promoting the proven benefits of the Sydney facility. This evidence was critical in overcoming sceptical audiences and countering opposition to the facility; highlighting the reduction in ambulance callouts and discarded needles in the streets experienced in those other locations.
Steer the Narrative
Ryan’s narrative also mentioned a number of sceptics. Through building networks, the team tried to not only build understanding and reduce the demonisation of people with an addiction, but also turned potential adversaries into advocates.
Of particular importance was the mostly favourable media coverage obtained in the early stages of the campaign.
The campaign team found journalists with personal experience of the impacts of addiction, who then reported on the issue with compassion and depth.
This media further amplified their message and potential benefits of a safe injecting room, bringing the cause into the living rooms of countless individuals. Lastly, Ryan’s narrative recounts a constant carousel of actions. From rallies to information evenings, to inquiries and art exhibitions, action after action was proposed, organised and completed. The relentless activity served to keep the cause both visible and engaging, helping to boost the campaign’s visibility and reach.
With so much to pack into one short book it is unsurprising that the book occasionally loses its depth by glossing over certain elements of the campaign. While it meticulously outlines a series of victories, the inevitable challenges and failures that pepper any campaign are briefly mentioned before moving onto the next campaign moment.
The narrative, often recounting successive wins, seamless networking, and a roll call of supportive stakeholders across a diverse range of sectors would benefit from space to provide a more rounded picture.
The book struggled to balance the need to share achievements and name all those who put their shoulder to the wheel to drive the campaign forward. The sometimes-lengthy listing of names and groups engaged in each campaign milestone may have been a record keeping requirement, but can also be distracting and disengaging.
Some readers – especially experienced, long-term activists – may have wished for more information on how Ryan managed to keep up the hectic pace over 24 months. The book hints at the personal sacrifices made by the author but doesn’t delve deep into the balancing act she must have maintained between activism, work, and family.
Forming, leading and sustaining groups can be a heavy load for activists, especially when faced with opposition and dissent. While Ryan’s campaign built on an existing groundswell of support for a safe injecting facility, it still experienced setbacks and frustrations. How the team dealt with burnout, stress, and exhaustion, and juggled their own personal obligations with the campaign demands was only lightly considered in the book.
Yet, their campaign was an outstanding success, a story of perseverance and community justice that achieved outcomes which directly, and regularly, saved lives. How they lived through this experience could provide learnings for all of us who strive to also change the world for the better.
Ryan’s book shows how a local campaign can bring together powerful allies and change norms around often intractable community challenges. As such, the book is an invaluable resource for activists seeking to build community-based social justice campaigns in their own local areas.
- Listen to Book (Audible)
- Listen to podcast with the author – Judy’s fight for Victoria’s first safe injecting facility (ABC Conversations, 52 mins)
- Listen to podcast with the author – The Battle For Victoria’s First Safe Injecting Facility (Triple RRR, 53: 50 mins)
- Making change: What works?
- Coalition building: Start here
- Why stories matter: The art and craft of social change
- How to build public support with personal stories
- Framing Issues for Social Justice Impact: Directory of Messaging Guides
- Activists - Stories_Accounts about/by Individuals
- Campaigning - Grassroots
- Movements_Campaigns - Drugs