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Written by:Taylor Edelmann| Published Originally: July 28, 2022

Intro by: Taylor Edelmann (he/him), LGBTQIA+ Health & Harm Reduction Manager at NHRC

Written by: Palana Hunt-Hawkins (she/her), Director of Operations at New Hampshire Harm Reduction Coalition

One of the best things about this project is discovering new voices in harm reduction. When we received the nomination for Palana, I was struck by how many accolades she’s been able to rack up in a relatively short time. From organizing with the ACLU, becoming the first openly trans person elected to a city council, and then taking a shot at running for mayor, she’s done quite a bit. Impressed and intrigued by this, I was really excited to hear about what brought her toward the movement, what she’s been working on, and where she thinks we need to go next.

Since filming, Palana has been elevated to Director of Operations at New Hampshire Harm Reduction Coalition, which is no surprise given her tenacity and willingness to stand up for her community. Although she would rather deflect the spotlight, it’s apparent to those around her that she is an LGBTQIA+ trailblazer in every sense of the word.

In addition to this blog post, we invite you to check out Palana’s recorded interview as well as this Instagram post about her and her work.

My name is Palana, and I am the Director of Operations at the New Hampshire Harm Reduction Coalition.

As a child, I would repeatedly rent an anti-drug PSA from my local VHS rental store called ‘Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue.’ This 1990 cartoon – funded by McDonald’s and complete with an introduction from President George H Bush – featured a superstar cast of cartoons trying to ‘save’ a teenager named Michael from his budding love of cannabis. For those that haven’t seen it, the movie culminates in a cloud of pot smoke locking Winnie the Pooh in a cabinet.

This cartoon was just one of the many messages I received as a young person that drugs were never okay and that people who use drugs are not deserving of compassion. This was reinforced by nationwide programs like ‘Just Say No’ and D.A.R.E.

Needless to say, I was given a lot of misinformation about drugs going up.

Fast forward to high school. I am maybe 15 or 16. Some of my friends began experimenting with drugs. Mostly alcohol and weed, sometimes cough syrup or lean. I didn’t have any interest in participating – largely out of the stigma that had been impressed upon me – but I hung around and watched. I didn’t judge. It just was what it was.

Fast forward another few years. I am maybe a year and a half into college, age 19, and I finally tried smoking weed for the first time. I found that I loved it—a lot. I also discovered psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin, which I also really liked.

I was able to use these substances without negative interference in my day-to-day life – but I felt like I was doing something very wrong. I used to spend significant time agonizing over my drug use. I would plead to my therapist to validate my ‘drug misuse problem’ – and I just didn’t have one. I had a stigma problem. The stigma makes its way into every part of your life – even interpersonal relationships. And that stigma and shame directly led to risky behaviors like smoking in dangerous places or precarious situations.

This was not unlike my experience as a transgender person. When I began struggling with my gender identity early in life—and like so many others at the time—I didn’t have the language or community for what I was experiencing. What I did have were the cultural cues of the 1990s, and it was clear to me that if you defied gender stereotypes, you became a punchline. I carried so much shame. I could barely say the words in my head, let alone out loud. In holding back my gender identity, I was holding back so many parts of my personality.

Fast forward to 2016, age 26: I got myself out of that closet and—with a lifetime of built-up feelings and desire to create positive change for others—caught the advocacy bug. I had developed a focus on bodily autonomy as an advocate, including accessible trans health care, supporting sex workers, legalization of drugs, and unfettered abortion access. By 2019, I ran the ACLU of NH’s Trans Justice program and became the first openly transgender person elected to a city council in New Hampshire.

I ran for city council because I wanted to be the positive change I would have benefited from so much earlier in my life. The city I live in has a history of furthering stigma against people who use drugs and the organizations providing support to that population. This has included repeated lawsuits against a recovery organization and the city’s most affordable mobile home park and banning tenting on city property. I ran on a platform supporting recovery and harm reduction services and defeated a longtime incumbent by a healthy margin.

I had turned my focus to municipal politics because I wanted to do something for my community. I liked being part of the council (which I remained on until earlier this year), but I knew it wouldn’t be how I could best make the change I wanted in my community. Still, once I became elected, I discovered what an uphill battle that would be and that so much of that resistance was top-down.

So in early 2021, I arrived at the New Hampshire Harm Reduction Coalition, initially performing outreach and care coordination at syringe exchanges. It was a long and winding road that led me to harm reduction, but I knew I was in the right place once I arrived. The feeling of making such a difference for some of the most vulnerable community members, even if it’s just passing along some wound care supplies, bus passes, or Narcan, was exactly what I had wanted to do. I am now the Director of Operations for NHHRC, and I truly love the organization I work for.

I have not lost my bug for LGBTQ advocacy, however. In my spare hours here and there, I have been working to help start 603 Equality, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization, and previously helped start the Affirming Spaces Project, which provides a visible network of spaces and services for trans and gender non-conforming Granite Staters.

If you would like to get in contact with Palana, please email her at:

Here is a list of the resources mentioned by Palana. Check them out and share them with your contacts!

603 Equality

Affirming Spaces Project

New Hampshire Harm Reduction Coalition

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