An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast
Dylan Dunn shares experiences navigating changes to policies and laws to prevent fatal overdoses and support health and recovery on college campuses with host Ashley Stewart.
November 14, 2022
Ashley Stewart, Host (00:05): Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Dr. Ashley Stewart, the Director of the Center for Health Equity at C4 Innovations. Our topic today is pivoting with policy changes. My guest is Dylan Dunn, calling in from Denver, Colorado. Dylan is the Assistant Director for SAFE Campuses, Training and Professional Development at SAFE Project, and is also a higher education and student engagement specialist. Dylan, thanks for joining us today.
Dylan Dunn, Guest (00:33): Yeah, thanks for having me.
Ashley (00:35): Can you tell me a little bit more about SAFE Project?
Dylan (00:37): SAFE Project, SAFE stands for Stop the Addiction Fatality Epidemic, and it’s a national nonprofit where our job is really to do just that. We have a lot of arms and legs of the organization, like SAFE Community, SAFE Campuses, SAFE Veterans, and others, and we do our best to support people in finding solutions to this issue and this problem that we’re all trying to grapple with, and be as creative as we can. And so I work on the SAFE Campuses team, where I get to approach the addiction crisis from a higher education perspective, knowing that universities are often laboratories for solutions to these issues.
Ashley (01:11): I know that we’re talking about pivoting with policy changes, but I also want to talk a little bit about what seems like a pivot in maybe your career. Can you tell us a little bit about how you transitioned from working primarily in student engagement to working with recovery in this capacity?
Dylan (01:28): Yeah, so I think, like a lot of people who end up working on campuses, or in student engagement, or student affairs, we work there because it was important to us and because it changed our lives, and so we get into this really incredible opportunity to continue offering that to other students. That was my story, I was a student, and I wanted to keep offering that to other students, but I quickly found myself being one of the people in my meetings, or in my offices, that were willing to talk honestly and openly with students and professionals about things like addiction and recovery, and it often required me to say the unpopular thing, or say what needed to be said but had never really been said before in this kind of a space, like colleges don’t often talk about these things.
(02:14): And so I’m sure we’ll talk about it as we go on, but a student overdosed in Colorado while I was in a graduate program, and that student’s parents are the founders of the organization I now work, for SAFE Project, and so they heard of the work that I was doing at University of Denver, which is where I ended up working, to start a collegiate recovery program in the memory of that student who passed away. It was never my actual career trajectory or career goal, because these kind of jobs didn’t exist before, but now I’m really fortunate to be able to work in the intersection of higher education, student affairs, and also recovery, and then after a year of doing that on campus they invited me to do this work nationally. So it’s a fun story that didn’t start with a lot of positive things, but we get to do positive stuff through our work now.
Ashley (02:59): Wow, thank you for sharing that with us, it really highlights this work is heart work, this work is hard work and it’s heart work, and just honoring the folks who you show up for in this work each and every day, and thank you for the work that you’re doing.
(03:14): So I felt that as it relates to pivoting when there are major policy changes, it might be helpful to give some specific examples, and maybe we can look at it in real time. I know that there’s quite a bit going on with Good Samaritan laws, and I’m wondering if you could give us a little context.
Dylan (03:33): So in Colorado we just actually had a pretty major change to our Good Samaritan law where in 2019 we had defelonized most possession charges in the state, and then in 2021 we basically just exempted any situation that involves fentanyl from our Good Samaritan law. What that means is that Good Samaritan laws typically protect folks from incarceration or arrest if they’re acting in good faith to keep someone alive, and so when it comes to overdose, a friend and I are using together, if they overdose, I don’t have to worry about being arrested or charged with a crime if I want to bring them back to life with naloxone, for example.
(04:13): This was just changed because of all the fear and all the things we’ve heard about fentanyl to exclude anybody, so again, a friend and I are using together, we happen to be using fentanyl, if either of us have fentanyl on our person, neither of us are now exempt from a criminal charge or arrest, and so that adds a layer into the situation that a lot of us public health folks are not super excited about.
Ashley (04:37): Wow, and I’d imagine that that creates a lot of barriers with people not necessarily having all the information they need to know to make informed decisions about how to support a friend or loved one, or maybe even just someone on the street, and bring a lot of apprehension to some really life saving opportunities. How do these changes apply directly to the work that you do?
Dylan (05:00): Because I work with colleges and universities primarily, one of the things we’ve been working on, because of the founding of our organization is from the overdose or our founder’s son, I’ve been working with universities to implement overdose response programs, naloxone availability, fentanyl test strip availability on campus, and a lot of campuses have their own version of Good Samaritan policies. And so they encourage their students, if the students are at a party and a student is drinking too much, they want them to get that student help, even if everybody at this party is underage. So focus on the health and the safety, get this person help, and then we may have a conversation afterwards about how we can be safer in the future, but please don’t worry about getting in trouble, that’s secondary here.
(05:42): Even if campuses have those, they still are subject, and their students are subject to law and policy of the state and the jurisdiction that they’re in. And so I’ve been working with some universities in Colorado to get naloxone available to as many students as we can, that includes education and awareness, but it also means that I have to navigate the policies of a university and the politics, and the politics are often the hardest part, because you’re balancing alumni, and all the supporters, and all the public folks that have any interest, in especially a taxpayer funded university like a state school, and this adds just that other layer of, is a student going to wait out of fear and maybe not call for help if they’re not sure if they’re going to get in trouble or not? And they’re more worried about getting in trouble with the police than they are with getting in trouble with the university, and most students aren’t excited about calling the police in the first place.
Ashley (06:31): Yeah, there’s a lot of layers to that. And a lot of times these decisions, or these policies, or these conversations are happening outside of the context of people being directly and immediately impacted, I’m wondering, what have some of the conversations you’ve been having with students look like around this, what are they saying?
Dylan (06:51): A lot of conversations I’ve always had with students have been about how do you navigate real life? It’s a lot of just life skills conversations around life is happening around you, there are systems that you have to interact with that have real implications on your life and you often don’t know about them until it’s too late. And so even when we’re bringing students into the university we have to remind them, check your email. Just because you didn’t check your email, that’s not an excuse why you didn’t register for classes on time, or why you didn’t pay your bill, you’ll just be removed from the university.
(07:21): And so a lot of this is actually, we are trying to prevent students from having to have this conversation as a surprise. And so a lot of the students that we talk with that are actively interested in this are already in a graduate program around addiction or mental health or public health, and they happen to be on those right listservs, or they happen to be on those right email chains where people are sharing these things, the challenge is how do you have this conversation with students who are the most impacted themselves? And with a lot of universities it happens in a conduct hearing, where a student has gotten in trouble, or has gotten into trouble in the past and so they built this relationship, hopefully a positive one, with the university’s conduct folks who are willing to have conversations like, “Hey, these are the policies that exist, these are the choices you’re making and the actions that you’re engaged with, how do we bring those together in a way that gets you the outcome you’re looking for?”
(08:10): And it’s these very frank and pragmatic discussions around, hey, if you are around a friend who has overdosed, or is overdosing, do you know to check your own person and say, do I have fentanyl on me? Before you call police? It’s sad we even have to ask them, and instruct them to have these conversations with themselves, but it’s very pragmatic stuff of maybe what they thought they were dealing with system-wise is not what it was yesterday, because it’s changed yesterday, and that happens, like you said before, in many levels, from university policy, to just general public policy.
Ashley (08:41): Yep. I also am thinking about how uncomfortable people are having these conversations. Prior to doing this work I too was very much into student engagement and thinking about some of those interactions that I had with students, usually in these emergency situations there was a discomfort with talking about it outside of that context, outside of that moment, and I think that that is playing a major role in why we are unprepared to respond, and how we are limiting our ability to serve or show up for or help people when there’s a need.
Dylan (09:19): We often center fear in these conversations because we’re having them reactively, and so when we’re talking to students, it’s trying to limit those uncontrollables of the situation of if you’re afraid it’s because you don’t see the situation as something that you can actively control or contribute to, but if I can have a conversation with a student that they likely haven’t had with their parents around, “Hey, if you find someone who is not breathing at a party, what are you going to do? Who are you going to call? What are you looking for? Not because we want it to happen or because we think it’s going to happen, but if it does, what can you do to be helpful?” It’s something we’re not used to doing, which is even sad to think about, is we’re not used to preparing for things out of care for people around us, we’re often put in these positions to respond without being prepared.
Ashley (10:06): Yeah. Thinking about this major, I mean, it’s a very, very significant shift in policy and protocol, and the legality around it, I’m wondering what sort of adaptations did you make or are you all making to adjust for these major changes?
Dylan (10:24): There’s a couple, and one is proactive, where we have to start talking to these universities before they get someone who is scared talking to them. And so where we can bring a clear mind often of, okay, university X, this policy changed, this is what we were doing before, this is how we might need to talk about it differently in order to still save lives, but not empower people to get themselves arrested, because again, no one’s trying to get their students arrested, it doesn’t help anybody, because if we don’t have that conversation in front of an alumni who heard this change and now they’re looking for that excuse to get us to stop doing naloxone on campus, this is a great one to get us to stop, if we can get in front of that person we can have the conversation with the university in a clear way, in a way that keeps these resources in front of students.
(11:13): And so that’s looked like, with the university saying, even though a student now is at a higher risk of being arrested if they help a classmate, what we can do instead is give them fentanyl test strips so they know that they have fentanyl on them or not, and if they’ve tested their drugs they can now make a more intentional choice around, are they calling police? Are they not calling police? Rather than just giving them these overarching platitudes about what you should or shouldn’t do, we can give them tools, and tools often let us, like I said before, dig through the fear and get past it as best as we can, even though these situations are going to be scary, and so a lot of our trainings have changed to be far more practical and actually talking about policy specifically.
Ashley (11:52): Yeah. What you’re talking about really makes me think a lot about some of the nuances of student and individual identity as well. Do you see these conversations happening about how people’s interactions have been with law enforcement or the criminal justice system, and how that is influenced by identity or racial identity?
Dylan (12:14): Of course, yeah. One of the pieces that we had to actually add into our recommended Narcan training for campuses is a what if you don’t call police? Because before it was university saying, “Nope, every training you have to have them call the police because that covers us,” basically, it keeps the right people, according to their liability, in charge. But we couldn’t ignore the fact that this may cause students not to call police in a situation.
(12:38): And so it’s just these extra two, three slides that if you choose not to call, for whatever reason, even if we don’t have a clear reason of why we’re not calling police, if you don’t hear the options, and that will change state by state, because for example, in my state, the Good Samaritan law says you can present that person to a medical provider, so maybe I’m getting my friend into a car and driving them to the hospital myself. Other states that might not be the case, and so it’s as an empowering professional is knowing enough about the policy where I can have those discussions, and just really rationalize human experience, because I’m not here to tell a student to call the police and if they don’t want to they’re out of luck.
Ashley (13:14): I’m so glad that you bring that up, because what I find is that when people are looking for accurate information, there’s so much of it that varies state to state. Do you see that as a boundary, or do you see that people are able to easily find accurate information about Good Samaritan laws in their state?
Dylan (13:33): The resource that I use is I think 120 pages that I have to dig through in order to give people advice, and so when someone calls me, or calls SAFE Project and says, “We want to build a program for our university, or even for our town,” the first thing I do is pull up this big old document. I just Google Narcan and Good Samaritan laws and there was no easily accessible helpful information, but there are these long pieces of research that folks have done, so I reference that, type myself some notes, and then I also just do another quick Google of has anything changed since this document was published, and it requires you to get really comfortable with policy writing, and reading policy that was written, really not for anybody who’s actually going to use it in every day, it’s written for folks who interpret it at a very high level, and so it’s a skill that I encourage most folks to get used to and acquire over time.
Ashley (14:19): Yeah, I think that that’s so important to acknowledge and to name, because it is, it’s convoluted, it’s difficult, and that can be really discouraging to people trying to find information, you go to try to access it and you can’t understand the jargon. And so I think that it’s encouraging for people to know that they’re not doing anything wrong, that the information is not readily or easily accessible, and that’s also something that we should be looking at in terms of getting people clear, concise information so that they can know what’s going on state to state.
Dylan (14:52): A piece of the legislation here in Colorado that is, I think, a really good example of that is in the Good Samaritan law change there is, I think, a 40 word section that when you boil it down just means that no amount of fentanyl is covered, but it says, “From grams one to four, and from four plus, or if it’s a fentanyl mixture,” but the reality is if any drug has any fentanyl in it, it’s not covered. And so it’s a skill that I can have, and that we can have, is to translate, and a lot of this public service work is actually about translating across fields and making things accessible, because again, they weren’t built to be accessible.
Ashley (15:28): Yeah. As we think about the landscape of this conversation, do you have any best practices or key takeaways from listeners who maybe are faced with this same major pivot when it comes to laws and policies, or maybe one that’s going to come down the line, how do folks stay on their toes or be prepared, or what are some best practices you have for them?
Dylan (15:53): The first one is a very practical, I think very human one, is just find your people and find the people that help you go through these times together. When this law was changed in Colorado I had a stress headache for probably a week, and I just needed people in my life to be there with me in this moment, because it’s then very easy for, in my situation I could have acted out of anger or fear and made the problem worse from a political level, where having people that you know are on your side and that you know you can just make sense of all of this with, a lot of us want to always be that person for others but rarely want to ask for that help ourselves.
(16:26): And so that’s the first step I encourage folks to do, but also just practically, as a helper, is simplifying things almost as if they’re a game, which can seem really oversimplifying and childish, but there are rules to the games we play, and we have to be able to navigate them ourselves, and navigate them with and for our communities. And so equipping people with, again, those one line guidance pieces of, “Okay, the law has changed, you can read the 50 page article if you want, or I can give you a couple sentences that help you with some instructions about how do you navigate the change in the game today.” And that’s, again, it can feel childish and feel oversimplified, but that’s the point, is we got to make these things digestible for folks as they’re making real human complicated choices.
Ashley (17:11): Wow, that’s so dynamic, thank you. And I really hope that folks recognize how important exactly what you just said is, we need to be able to make this accessible to people. A major barrier that I see, or that sometimes folks are so unfamiliar in with the terms, or the context, or there’s just a natural resistance, what are some tools that you have that have been really helpful, or tools that you access and encourage people to have to have these types of conversations?
Dylan (17:43): It often comes through this almost back door of breaking down the mythology of these conversations, of what are the news articles you’ve heard? And by starting a conversation by asking people those questions of what do you know? How are you the expert in the room alongside me? And how can we build understanding together and therefore build tools alongside each other? Because often we want to come in as public health folks, or as experts in the room and provide the toolbox and say, “See, you use this tool in situation A, this tool in situation B,” but that’s often the place where folks are the most resistant, is if they feel like you’re telling them what to do instead of seeing themselves as partners in those conversations.
Ashley (18:22): Dylan, it’s been amazing talking to you and getting to know you, even in this process. You bring such a positive energy to the work that you do and I’m just wondering, what keeps you inspired, what keeps you going?
Dylan (18:35): So SAFE Project, the SAFE part stands for Stop the Addiction Fatality Epidemic, and so I would love to say that that’s something that I’m always hopeful about, but of course I’m not. It’s hard to look at the number of 108,000 people died last year and get hope from that, but I do get hope from our students. And so, again, this Good Samaritan law has changed over the past few months, but we’re about to fly 50 students across the country and get to know them and empower them and help them make change in their own world, no matter how big that world is for them. And so it’s working directly with people, even though my job isn’t direct service most days, seeing that people have hope to change their world, like I said, and really operate within their own sphere of influence, if you will, helps me from getting overwhelmed by the fact that my scope is the nation, and 4,000 universities, and we don’t seem to be winning this battle anytime soon, but we can still try.
(19:32): And it’s cheesy, but I often have to remind myself, when I was a, I don’t know, five year old watching members of my family go to prison for this stuff, I never would’ve thought that I was living across the country making actual change here. And so it’s this constant reminder of finding these stories in my life or these people in my life that can remind us that we have to be more persistent in the problem, and I tell people that all the time because I need to hear it. This problem is not going away anytime soon, so therefore neither can I.
Ashley (20:02): We have to be more persistent than the problem, that’s good, that’s really good. I just want to take a minute before we wrap up just to honor the work that you’re doing, honor the work that your team is doing, it’s so important and we’re so grateful that there are leaders and people who are influencing these conversations like yourself. If folks wanted to stay in contact or get more information about SAFE Project, we’re going to link information in the show notes so you can follow up and keep up to date with some of the amazing initiatives that are happening around SAFE Project. Dylan, thank you so much for joining us today.
Dylan (20:39): Again, thanks for having me, it was a blast talking to you.
Ashley (20:41): And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
Erika Simon, Producer (20:45): Visit C4Innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
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