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Alumni Spotlight- Michael-Devereaux Louis Bertin, Executive Director of the South Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition

Posted by: hutchisonch | October 30, 2018 | No Comment |

While some students start their freshman year with a clear plan for their future, some find a passion during their time in college that shapes the whole trajectory of their life plans. For political science alum, Michael-Deveraux Louis Bertin ’16, a Health Policy class taught by Dr. Archie-Hudson in the fall semester of his senior was the moment that began his journey to becoming executive director of the South Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (SCHRC).

Bertin and his colleagues fundraising for SCHRC

“At the time I was looking to do something in the health policy field,” Bertin explained, “and I ran into a friend of mine in a criminal justice class who ran an on-campus club called Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). I ended up hopping on board with them at a campus level and we got legislation passed through the Student Government Association for a naloxone access bill.” Naloxone is a drug that can be used as a live saving measure against opioid overdose. Bertin and SSDP focused on increasing availability of the drug and providing training so that people were aware of how to use it as a life saving measure. SSDP talked with community groups and students about the drug (commonly known as Narcan) and how it can be used. Bertin said “It became like a job almost. It was a calling, a passion.” Bertin followed his passion and stayed with SSDP after college. “I was made president of the southeast alumni board for the organization and decided to implement the campus model statewide. I started calling legislators and local law enforcement, then reached out to a couple of churches who got me in touch with Charleston City Council members and then policy change started to become a real thing.”

Bertin was an influential part of the lobbying process for the Good Samaritan Act in South Carolina. “Previous to this policy, if someone was drunk or sick or overdosing and they called the cops, the cops would show up and arrest them. We’ve taken the fear out of the phone call. So you will no longer be arrested, you’re granted immunity. The only thing that happens is they show up, save your life and direct you to some kind of recovery or rehabilitation program.”

After the successful passage of that policy, Bertin knew they had laid a framework for harm reduction in the state. Today Bertin is the executive director of the South Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (SCHRC) where he works in lobbying and community outreach. He is often the contact point or face of the organization. “I’m always setting up meetings with non-profits in the area who share our mission,” he noted.

Though there have been many moments over the years that have kept Bertin motivated to continue fighting for harm reduction and sensible drug policy, a conversation with a Mt. Pleasant police officer sticks out to him the most. “I was leaving his office after a conversation about syringe exchanges. I left his office and he said something to me that just stayed with me. He said ‘Mr. Bertin, if you can stop me from knocking on another mother’s door telling them that their son or daughter is dead, you would be doing me and the state of South Carolina a great service.’ There’s nothing more key to harm reduction than to save somebody’s life. There are other things we want to accomplish in our mission, but that’s the main thing. My goal here is to save as many lives as I possibly can.”

Today the South Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition is partnered with organizations across South Carolina who are all working in various aspects of harm reduction. The value in the coalition, according to Bertin is that their reach extends beyond the scope of law enforcement and public health organizations. “We deal with people in sex work, we deal with people who are IV users, people who use drugs, and we also deal with the homeless and VA community. We deal with the people that most organizations write-off.”

The biggest lesson that Bertin has learned during his time working in harm reduction is to trust the people he works with and to learn to detach himself from what the organization does. “It is really easy for me to think that I’m the only person doing this, especially running an organization that’s so new and discussing something that people don’t really want to discuss yet. It’s hard to take yourself out of the equation for the greater good. I have to be honest, the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is trusting others and trusting myself. I have to make sure that I’m taking care of myself before I can do anything else.”

Bertin considers himself lucky to have found his passion in working for the SCHRC, and he encourages those still in college to find that drive. “My advice would be to be of service as much as possible. Invest your own personal time into something that you are interested in. In this day and age we have to find something to be passionate about and the only way to do that is to do it.”

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