5 Questions for Hanifa Nayo Washington
Ask Hanifa Nayo Washington what she does, and you’ll come away wondering what she doesn’t do. Washington is an artist, a singer-songwriter, a healer, a facilitator, and above all, she says, a community builder. In 2020, she co-founded the Fireside Project, a non-profit that aims to reduce the risk and amplify the potential of psychedelic experiences. In April, the organization launched a hotline to support people on psychedelics, trip sitters, or people who wish to process a previous psychedelic experience. So far, they’ve fielded over 900 calls, mostly from people using psilocybin, MDMA, or LSD.
The Microdose chatted with Washington about the hotline and its role in supporting equity and safety in the growing world of psychedelics.
If I were to call the hotline, what might I expect from the process?
There are a few ways people can call in: you can dial the number in your phone, text 62-FIRESIDE, or download the app. The app is designed for someone who might be in an altered state in mind; there are two huge buttons, one that says call, and one that says text.
Your first interaction would be with a recording saying, “Hey, you’re in the right place.” Then the call goes to a connector, who assesses what the caller needs. Is this someone who’s seeking to integrate a psychedelic experience? Someone having a psychedelic emergency? The connector directs the caller to the appropriate person.
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
Who picks up on the other end?
On each shift, there’s a supervisor and one or two volunteers on duty. So far, about 500 people have applied for about 45 volunteer roles. Volunteers go through a 36-hour training, which includes The Ancestor Project’s psychedelic anti-racism training. We are not medical experts or emergency services. Our training is about how to view the full person and not to guide, not put our biases or story onto people. We offer reflective listening, active listening, heart listening, as well as to make space for silence, to be with the person. That takes practice; we’re very used to wanting to fix things. We ask our volunteers to put all that aside and to listen and reflect what they’re hearing back, which is a deep, deep practice.
The hotline is offering “culturally attuned care.” Can you explain that and tell me what role it plays in peer support?
It’s important to anticipate that people are going to have psychedelic experiences that are based on their identity. If we have a volunteer force that is homogeneous, that’s a disservice to our callers.
For example, I identify as a black woman. There was a psychedelic experience I had at a retreat where I processed the releasing of racial stress. There was no one within the leadership — facilitators, supporters — that weren’t white people. I didn’t feel safe reaching out to them or vocalizing the experience because it would be stressful to me. Later I reached out to a BIPOC psychedelic integration group where I was able to process it, because we had some shared lived experience.
The content of calls is confidential, but what can you tell me about general trends? Who’s been calling, and what are their experiences like?
We’ve had 900 calls since April. About 60 percent of our calls are people who are integrating past psychedelic experiences and 30 percent are people actively tripping or in an altered state. The rest are trip sitters, prank calls, or people with questions.
We also send callers a post call survey, and about a quarter have responded. There were 35 callers who said they would have dialed 911 or gone to the emergency room if it weren’t for them calling Fireside.
From what people have shared with us, psilocybin is by far the most popular; MDMA and LSD are near the top, too.
Right now, a fair amount of psychedelic use is still underground, but as psychedelics become decriminalized and potentially even legalized for treatments and therapies, we might see more risk reduction initiatives like yours built into its use. What role do you see Fireside playing in the long-term?
Public education is super important around understanding what psychedelics are, what they’re not, and how to be with them in a way that’s safe. We’re in the process of developing trainings. We see the importance of connecting at the governmental level — federal, state, local. For instance, Fireside is working with folks in Oregon to be listed as a service in their directory and in any of the trainings they are developing there. (Editor’s note: In late 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use.)
We need to name, as a part of our public education, that we have been, and continue to be traumatized and impacted by the war on drugs, through people being incarcerated and the impacts of that on the larger society. There’s a lot of healing that needs to be done. Undoing past harm, to me, looks like normalizing psychedelic use.
Also, representation matters. When there are more leaders and skilled facilitators that come from identities, people who identify with them will come. We often get the question, ‘How can we get more marginalized communities represented in the psychedelics space?’ My answer is change your lenses. People of color and people who have been made marginalized are the originators.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.