Principles for Organizing the Unorganizables

On March 27, 2018, John and Peter talked with Ann Livingston about her pioneering work in the movement to eliminate harms associated with drug use. Some of the questions they explored were:

  • How did you come to get involved on the Eastside of Vancouver, the home of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU)?

  • Tell us about the nature of the neighborhood and its people.

  • How did you go about organizing the people?

  • What are the key elements of a harm reduction policy?

  • What has VANDU achieved?

  • Any advice on the opioid crisis?

In the process, Ann shared the principles that guided her in her work “orgnanizing the unorganizables.” She also mentioned a couple of books for listeners to consult to learn more about her approach:  Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle with Addiction, by Travis Lupick and Raise Shit! Social Action Saving Lives, by Susan Boyd, Donald MacPherson and Bud Osborn.

Principles for Organizing the Unorganizables


  1. Don’t ask permission
  2. Invite people to join with membership & belonging
  3. Listen for the language & wisdom of the members. Notice what divides & unifies the members of the group
  4. Record the issues the members bring forward so they can see what is recorded
  5. Bring research on issues they raise so the action decided is informed by & owned by them: ISSUES, ANALYSIS OF ISSUES, ACTION
  6. Prepare for the disagreements & conflicts with a practical, useful governance structure & group process – ie Societies Act
  7. Be fair, transparent & vulnerable
  8. Begin each gathering / meeting with the reading of the mission or purpose of the group & end each meeting with a moment of reverence
  9. Every new member is welcomed — there is always room for 1 more member
  10. Remember that everything accomplished can be wiped out in a flash except the enduring friendships, shared hope & sorrow and the pride of resisting the unendurable.-Redemptive suffering
  11. Develop leadership by ensuring the organizer is only the humble hardworking executive assistant of the elected leader
  12. Don’t fight for services. Progress is measured with a kinder more inclusive community where social justice is achieved.
  13. Scale is important — neighbourliness ensures success. Form groups as they become needed.

Read more about Ann and her work here. Go here to download or listen to the audio recording. Go here to read a transcript.

Home page image: Emiliano Aranguren


About the Lead Author

Ann Livingston
Ann Livingston
Ann Livingston is a pioneer in the movement for harm-reduction and affordable housing for people who use illegal drugs. In addition to co-founding and leading VANDU for more than a decade, she co-founded the Pivot Legal Society in 2000, and was a founding member of the Eastside Movement for Business & Economic Renewal Society board in Vancouver, BC. Ann was instrumental in the opening of Insite, Vancouver's supervised injection site and the only one of its kind in North America. Her work was featured in the documentary film "FIX: The Story of an Addicted City," which follows a group of street addicts in their fight to open Insite. She now speaks and works with community groups around the world to set up provincial, national and international drug user groups.

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