a small group of people stands around a new sapling being planted
Members of the CRA community, including executive director John Werning (second from left) and harm reductionist Karen Bigg (second from right), gather to plant a tree in Dan’s memory in 2022. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

UPDATE Tuesday, August 29, 11:30 AM: Just before the Reader went to press on Tuesday, August 22, Karen Bigg unfortunately passed away. The CRA Annual Overdose Awareness Day/Dan Bigg Memorial BBQ mentioned in a previous version of this story has been canceled.

In August, the mosquitoes on Taylor Street between Sacramento and Kedzie swarm as thick and lazy as a muddy river. They rise languidly from the green grass gone wild that runs up against the freight train tracks that go for blocks on the south side of the street, and head toward the smell of sweat and barbecue. They are slow, but like the devil, they stay busy. Each one I slap leaves a smear of blood.

Across the street, the garage door of the Chicago Recovery Alliance is open. People and dogs ease in and out. A man from Indiana pulls up with a truck full of watermelon for sale. Another man, also from Indiana, is here to talk about syringe exchanges. Outside, music blasts from parked cars while folks from the neighborhood sit on benches left here years ago and folding chairs just pulled from trunks. Some are younger, but most are over 50. Waving fans and flyswatters, they’re here to talk shit, play spades, and remember. 

Last year, 30 or so people from the CRA and the block around it came together, despite the mosquitoes, to plant a tree. It was August 31: International Overdose Awareness Day, and four years since harm reduction pioneer and CRA cofounder Dan Bigg died at age 59. Every August, the CRA—a harm reduction organization that offers drug testing, sterile syringes, condoms, and other free useful tools for staying alive—hosts a barbecue for volunteers and the neighborhood. The tree, a Merlot redbud, was planted in Dan’s name. 

CRA Annual Overdose Awareness Day/Dan Bigg Memorial BBQ
Canceled as of August 27. Contact info@anypositivechange.org or visit
instagram.com/anypositivechange for updates.

I started volunteering at the CRA in the fall of 2019. Then, it’d been a year since he died. Everywhere in the warehouse, I saw Dan’s face: in photos and on T-shirts, in the oil and ink of art framed on the walls. I soon learned that Dan was a lifelong activist and Chicagoan who, in the 1990s, supplied syringes to people in need when doing so was illegal. He is often described as the first person in the country to get naloxone, the lifesaving opioid overdose reversal medication also known by the brand name Narcan, out of the hospitals and ambulances and onto the streets, where the majority of overdoses occur.

“But his legacy is far more than simply handing out naloxone,” wrote Maia Szalavitz for Vice in 2018, “though he did tons of that, often carrying duffel bags full of the stuff to conferences to urge those who wanted to help to start programs in their own communities. Dozens took him up on it: by 2014, there were more than 644 known naloxone distribution sites across the US.”  

Harm reduction, a philosophy founded by sex workers and people who use drugs, centers bodily autonomy and individual choice by taking practical steps to make drug use and sex work safer. Because harm reduction has been done largely by and for the marginalized, its history is sometimes overlooked at best, and rewritten at worst, by more mainstream public health movements and organizations. Taking the time to reflect on that history is like a gut check, helping root us in legacy and know where to go next. 

This August 21 marked the five-year anniversary of Dan’s death. As the CRA gets ready for their 2023 barbecue, I dropped by to learn more about Dan and his legacy from folks who knew him best. Those conversations, lightly edited, are below. 

Karen Bigg, 54, harm reductionist and Dan Bigg’s wife

Dan was one of the 13 founders of the Chicago Recovery Alliance. He pretty much brought harm reduction, as opposed to risk reduction [similar to harm reduction in some ways, but with abstinence from sex work and drug use as its goal], to Chicago, and probably to the midwest. He was always happy to explain it to folks. He wasn’t ever bothered by people asking him questions.

I met Dan here at the Chicago Recovery Alliance. We both had dogs—that’s what initially connected us. I’ve been working here since 2000 and started volunteering here in 1998. In 2000, we started a youth program. That was really cool. We worked with kids aged 16 to 25: they would just go to their own groups and do needle exchange. And then we would get together and talk about stuff that they wanted to talk about. 

What drew you to Dan?

You know, he was really funny. Yeah, he was hilarious. We were both Capricorns, so sometimes we butted heads a lot. [Laughs] But mostly he would defuse any situation with a joke.

He was good at coming up with ideas, and organizing people to work on ideas. I was telling [a volunteer] that when they started the CRA, they had two sizes of syringes. Now we have all these things! He was really good at just nurturing people to let their creativity come out. He might not have thought of, “Let’s pass out pipes,” but he gave other people the freedom to. 

Where do you see his legacy today in Chicago?

All the harm reduction places that exist now, like the Opioid Task Force on the south side [and] Opioid Task Force on the west. He popularized it, just by sheer force of will and networking with people. He did it kind of seamlessly too. He didn’t need to be patted on the back for all that stuff. 

One of the other things he brought about was our board of directors. He was adamant about [people who used CRA services] being in charge, so in our case, the whole board was people who were also participants. I don’t know what our board looks like now, and I don’t know if that has become popular—I think sometimes when people do that now, they have an “advisory board,” not so much the board of directors. I think us maintaining that sets a pretty good example for other people who want to do this kind of work.

What do you think he’d think about Chicago Public Libraries carrying Narcan now?

I think he’d be thrilled. Cook County [the John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital] was a hospital that he was trying to get the Narcan into: he wanted them to give it to people who came into the emergency room. He had to do a lot of cajoling for that one.

One of the things we were able to do for a couple years—again, by sheer force of will—was start a mobile methadone program [to distribute medication used to treat opioid dependency]. We had a van like this one [gestures out toward the tree, where a silver van is parked] built out to be like the mini methadone program. The—we call it the methadone mafia—[those other, more formal methadone clinics] didn’t like that. We were so inexpensive, and a lot of the people that they were seeing started coming to us. We were also low barrier—we didn’t make up arbitrary rules like, “You have to be here six months before you can go on vacation.” The state of Illinois shut us down. That was a big blow. [Dan] always hoped to start that up again. 

Yeah, there still are no mobile methadone programs in Illinois, though the state greenlit a pilot mobile suboxone program to treat dependency in 2022. What are some of your own hopes for overdose prevention and education in the next five years?

Well, making some big steps toward having a safer injection space is something I would love to see. And I think Dan would love to see that, too.

How are you doing, five years on?

It’s sad without him. My daughter has been keeping me busy—we can either commiserate together, or sometimes she’s just doing her own thing. That helps me. But now she’s going to college. So I’ve been thinking, “Am I gonna start feeling everything?”

I didn’t use his last name until he died. It’s kind of a way to keep him close. When he died, a harm reduction therapist started working with me two times a week. And that’s been a really big help. Now it’s down to once a week. I’m just getting used to that. 

The Merlot redbud honors a man who entirely reshaped the world of harm reduction. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

Pier Moore, 61, CRA community coordinator

[Pier points at her pants] This is supposed to be for the mosquitoes. Hell, they still find a way to bite me!

Seriously. How did you come to know Dan?

I was introduced to Dan by one of the guys I used to work with on BEHIV [Better Existence with HIV] in 1997. Me and Dan hit it right off. I started going out there on the van. He was actually like a mentor to me, and at one point, he offered me a job. I was like, “Damn, I’ma have to cut you.” “What you’re gonna cut me for?” “About my money!” I said. [Laughs] And so I said, “Well, we’ll just stay and keep it like it is.” I rode the van and he educated me.

We stayed friends up until he passed away. Actually, his daughter is one of my godchildren. She’s very dear to me. Beautiful little girl, but she’s in college now, which is great. 

Dan absolutely cared about people; wasn’t nothin’ fake about that. He wanted people to use safely. Early on, he was doing a lot of underground work. I’ve heard the story that 68th and Halsted was his first site. It used to be two big courtyard buildings on the corner. A lot of the individuals that lived in that building, they were Vietnam vets, and they was all sharing equipment. And Dan was one of the folks that was distributing them clean needles out of his station.

You’ve mentioned before that he was your mentor. How do you mean?

Oh, I learned all about hepatitis and intravenous drug users. The syringes is different gauges: some are long, some are short. We also provide syringes for diabetics, which could also be used as well for injecting drugs. Just working on the van, going to different community areas, I learned about that community area. We joked, we laughed, we always have fun.

How do you see his legacy, five years later? 

The CRA, we’re still here. Everybody is carrying Narcan, and Dan kinda opened this gate up. They protested, they marched on Springfield. He fought, fought, fought. Hollered, screamed, did whatever he had to do to get that. And now they’re starting to listen, because they see the number of overdoses. Every year it’s a new record. I saved four people’s lives last week out here.

Tell me about that.

Oh, child, they was overdosing. Each time, somebody ran in here and said, “Grab one of them things!” That’s just how they said it, and I knew what they was talkin’ about.

I got somebody coming in, they was born in 1940. Vietnam vets, they have PTSD. One, he comes every Saturday still, to 68th and Halsted. I work that site now. It’s one of my favorite sites. 

[Pier starts walking toward a client, then yells over her shoulder.] He was like a big teddy bear. Put that in there!

“The Fruit Man,” as he identified himself, from Indiana, shows off his wares at the CRA’s 2022 BBQ. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

John Werning, 34, CRA executive director

Do you want any bug spray? [John gestures to a table where a citronella candle is burning next to four bottles of bug spray.] We have the natural stuff too. 

I’m good for now, but thank you. What’s the last year been like since you planted the tree?

Well, I wish we could get these damn vending machines placed, but nobody wants them!

Talk to me about that. 

We have three vending machines [of Narcan] that are stuck inside [the CRA warehouse]. And we get, like, 90 percent of the way through finding a place to place them. And then the other entity will always back out. I’ve talked to [the Chicago Department of Public Health] about this too, and apparently they have the same problem. We can’t get them a partner agency. It’s super sad.

When did you meet Dan?

I first met Dan when I was 24. He would be on the phone with me for four hours at night. I’d call him up and be like, “Hey, I have a question about this.” And then we’d get into a tangent. I remember having to be like, “Dan, it’s 9 PM. I have to go! Love you.” It’s so incredible to me that he gave me the time. He was very generous with his knowledge and information. There was always something comforting about that. 

Dan was brilliant, very talkative. And also, and I say this with love, a little territorial. In 2014, there wasn’t a lot of funding, broadly speaking. The world of harm reduction funding has changed drastically in the last ten years. So we’d be talking about grant funding, and I’d say, “Well, TPAN [the Test Positive Aware Network, an organization that serves people living with or vulnerable to HIV] is looking at going for some independent grant funding.” And he’d be like, “Well, John, you shouldn’t be going after my money.” [Laughs]

When he died, it was devastating. It really felt like a little bit of sunshine had been blown out. He had an outsized role—still does—in Chicago harm reduction and national harm reduction. It happens very often where I meet with funders, and they say, “I knew Dan for 20 years and we did X,Y, Z together, and he was just such a huge influence in my perspective.” Right now, we’re trying to buy more pipes. We just met with Smoke Works, and they were like, “Dan was pivotal in getting us off the ground, and we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

If Dan were here, what would he think we still need to focus on?

[Karen Bigg, who was sitting with John and I, answered:] People still can’t wrap their heads around the idea that abstinence is not the end. We work with a lot of organizations who are all about giving people syringes, naloxone, and all that, but with the goal being that [the person using drugs is] going to stop someday. Dan believed that people should do what they want to do. You have the right to do it safely.

What did you learn from Dan?

[Back to John] I learned to be excited about harm reduction. I don’t know how to put it: It’s not that I wasn’t excited about it before, but he made me excited to learn about it, to understand the context, and, in the same way, to also be very angry at the war on drugs. Just how intersectional it all is. I probably have a stack of Post-it notes of quotes of his in my house. There’s a lot of great Danisms. 

What’s one?

Maybe this is too morbid or sentimental, but he used to say this thing I posted in a number of the agencies I worked for: “Loss is often a better motivator than success.” Which is why we see so many advocates come to harm reduction after they’ve lost someone that they love. 

Yeah. Grief often can be gasoline. 

I think about that quite a lot.

Dan’s tree, one year later
Credit: Katie Prout

A year later, a bench has shown up beneath the tree, which continues to grow. Even with the mosquitoes, it’s a beautiful spot, sheltered by larger trees and dotted with leggy Queen Anne’s lace and purple clover. On my most recent visit, the CRA’s silver outreach van was parked next to it, “VEHICLE FOR POSITIVE CHANGE” spelled out in black letters above its back doors. “Any positive change” was at the core of Dan Bigg’s embrace of harm reduction, something he repeated so often that it’s on CRA T-shirts and their website URL. In the doors’ dust, someone had taken their finger and drawn a round little heart.