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Radically kind: how Brave is helping to combat the overdose crisis with CEO & Founder Gordon Casey

From evolution: a podcast by entrepreneurship@UBC

evolution is a podcast shining light on our ecosystem’s stories of innovation, impact and hustle throughout their venture building journey. Join us as we build community and knowledge related to entrepreneurship during the course of COVID-19.

During the past few months, COVID has identified many vulnerable populations in our society, including demographics, business models and general frameworks that are at risk. But, how has it impacted people who were already underserved and in need? On this week’s episode of evolution, entrepreneurship@UBC’s Creative Specialist, MJ Araujo, speaks with Brave Coop Founder and CEO, Gordon Casey. Brave strives to center the voice of the person who uses drugs in everything they do, through a framework called Design Justice. Find out how COVID has impacted people who use drugs and how Brave’s remote supervision app, BeSafe, is helping to keep the community safe from accidental overdose.

About Gordon Casey

A former lawyer and entrepreneur, Gordon Casey is the founder of Brave Coop. After his career in law and finance, Gordon moved to Vancouver determined to use technology to reveal that help is always nearby, as long as you can ask for it. He soon realized that the most pressing need for this kind of tech was in overdose prevention and response. He has been working in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside ever since.

About Brave Coop

Brave is a multi-stakeholder cooperative, working out of Vancouver, BC, and Columbus, Ohio. Their sole focus is preventing overdose death.

Their technology tools have been co-designed with people who use drugs, respond to overdose, and build community resilience in the face of the overdose epidemic. They are designed to connect people at risk of overdose with help they need: an ally they can talk to, a human supporter to help them stay safe, and digital monitoring technology to help them when they’re in danger by connecting them with a community of overdose responders, and professional emergency first responders.

Brave is an alumni of entrepreneurship@UBC's Social Venture Incubator program.

Listen to our sixth episode of evolution

To read a full transcript, see below:


MJ: Gordon, it's great to have you here to chat. Tell us more about when you started your own business and how Brave was born?

Gordon: I ended up starting my own business in 2004, which is 16 years ago now, in Curacao which is an island in the Caribbean. I was building a business out there as a legal consultant in the hedge fund and online gaming industries. So that was fun to build a business and I really enjoyed that, but obviously wasn't getting much satisfaction from the heart side of things.

Around 2010 I started looking at how I could leave that and do work that was more meaningful, and Vancouver was very attractive for a lot of reasons, not least because I'd read about inside the supervised consumption space around the time of the Olympics, and it sounded like something that was so... just so kind. So the phrase I use now is “radically kind” and it felt like a place where radical things could happen for people that often get overlooked. And so, we moved here in 2016, and I started asking around and I thought coming into it that people are overdosing and they need Naloxone...so if we can get Naloxone to them faster, that would probably improve the number of people who don't die of accidental overdose.

I got great feedback from the community that that was something that was needed and people would use it. So I built a thing with some developers that came on board and it didn't get used. That’s the long short of it. I still think there's a need for that in different communities, but not here in Vancouver, necessarily. But in the course of that exploration, which was sort of six months of meeting with hundreds of people here in Vancouver, and chatting with folks elsewhere, I came to understand more fully that the challenge really was people who are using drugs alone, and that if you're alone, then nobody's going to see you overdose.

“...the challenge really was people who are using drugs alone, and that if you're alone, then nobody's going to see you overdose.”

MJ: Tell me more about how the BeSafe app works. How does it prevent an overdose?

Gordon: Right, so when you call and we have a discussion about a bunch of things, but assuming that you were to overdose, I push a button on my end that says that you've become unresponsive...you get something flashing on your side saying that I think that you're in trouble. If you don't deny that, if you don't say, “I'm actually fine”, then within 15 seconds, your location is revealed to me and then I call 911 and I provide them the information. You also can give me other information such as what apartment number you're in, because it's a GPS base location. So on the phone, I would have asked you to check that the address is correct, and enter the apartment number. You can also give us the details of somebody else you'd like us to call instead, or as well as as.

MJ: Yes, I'm curious to know more about the model that Brave was based upon?

Gordon: The model of supervised consumption, which is what was pioneered here in Vancouver by Sarah Blyth (that the overdose prevention society in downtown Vancouver use today) in a tent in the middle of winter, which she just set it up, because there were too many people dying... that model, just opening and creating a space (in our sense of virtual space) for people to just come. And you're really trying to do that one thing, which is to keep them alive. We're definitely not trying to get people into recovery. But we're also not trying to be more than that. We're not trying to get them access to other forms of treatment or social services. We're trying to focus on this one challenge, this one problem with the understanding that if we can start to fix some of that, then maybe we can start to introduce those other things too, but very much about being laser focused on the one impact that we think is achievable, and then hoping to grow from there.

“We're trying to focus on this one challenge, this one problem with the understanding that if we can start to fix some of that, then maybe we can start to introduce those other things too, but very much about being laser focused on the one impact that we think is achievable. And then hoping to grow from there.”

MJ: It's amazing to hear more about the work that has been done in Vancouver before and how you're focusing on one part of the support system, and really getting it right before trying to expand. The work that you do at Brave is so team and community oriented, could you tell us more about your multi stakeholder and cooperative approach?

Gordon: Coops are this amazing thing that have been around for well over 100 years, they have almost always had social justice elements tied into them. They have very frequently been used by people that are underserved, underprivileged and maltreated (to be honest) and have core principles (there are like specific principles of cooperativism) but they require your cooperation amongst coops. They require equality and equity within the membership.

One of the innovations recently in the coop world is to allow external investors to participate as well. So the thinking of the coop movement is to allow people to invest in the coop, but without giving them all of the power. We are just one example, and there are many, many ways you can create this, but for Brave, the coop members can be anyone who uses the technology. So just by downloading the app or using our buttons or the sensors, you are entitled to become a member of the coop. Or you can be somebody who works for Brave. So we'd call that a worker member or labour member. Or you can be somebody who invests in the coop. The idea there is that everybody is contributing in some way. So, end users are contributing by making the network more strong by validating the tool in terms of using it. Obviously, people who work for Brave are contributing with their time, and their professional excellence and expertise and so on. Then people with money are contributing their money, but everybody gets one vote. So I have one vote at Brave and the end user who downloaded the app today and then joins the coop has one vote as well.

MJ: What are some of the challenges people who are at risk of overdosing face right now in light of the current COVID-19 climate?

Gordon: So the main ways in which it's impacted is the same as how other health conditions have been impacted by Coronavirus, by massively reducing the access to healthcare services and other primary care services. Due to social distancing measures and gathering, trying to restrict the amount of people gathering in spaces, that means that people don't have access to supervised consumption services. It means they don't have access to needle exchanges. And we know across the board around the world calls to emergency services have gone down by a huge amount. So people just aren't reaching out, out of an overabundance of caution, I suppose both for themselves and for the healthcare system...which was not the intention, I think, as we’ve tried to flatten the curve. We didn't want people to not reach out because they think they're having a heart attack. But that is what's happening. And I think the same is happening for folks who are at risk of overdose at moments when they might have otherwise reached out for some kind of assistance when they feel that they're struggling or spiralling. They're not doing that because everyone's being told to isolate, being told to stay at home, being told to not sort of bother people because we're dealing with this other crisis. The result has been that overdoses have spiked tremendously. We know that that's happening here. And we're hearing conflicting reports from other parts of North America but we also know that Vancouver has or BC has its finger on the pulse and has much more access to real time alerts than a lot of other places in North America. The second way in which Coronavirus has affected the situation here is it's made the drug supply more dangerous so because supply chain are being disrupted so massively. That means that the regular way in which admittedly illicit substances come into the market here has been disrupted. And that always ends up making it more dangerous. So the same thing happens when a huge bust is made when a huge amount of illicit drugs is seized. It will disrupt to a greater or lesser extent, the illicit drug supply, which usually makes it more dangerous.

"...I think the same is happening for folks who are at risk of overdose at moments when they might have otherwise reached out for some kind of assistance when they feel that they're struggling or spiralling. They're not doing that because everyone's being told to isolate, being told to stay at home, being told to not sort of bother people because we're dealing with this other crisis."

MJ: Wow. So now you've spoken to the challenges that people at risk of an overdose are facing. What impact did COVID-19 have on Brave?

Gordon: There are two things that happened when Coronavirus was coming. The first thing was we opened up our mobile app publicly at the end of March, which was a good few months ahead of when we were intending to do it. And we've been working with communities to give them access to the app on a sort of one to many basis but hadn't started talking about it publicly. It was still available. It's been available publicly for over a year, but we weren't talking about it publicly. It felt like we had a tool in our back closet that was useful to some people, and that we were holding on to it and hiding it. When the more respectful thing and more responsible thing to do would be to put it out into the world, and let people use it, however they saw fit. So that was the one big change. The other thing was that we were invited by one of our partners to put our buttons into quarantine spaces. So this is an organization that's running some of the hotels that are being made available for people from the community in Vancouver, who are who test positive or they think they might be positive, and they're being quarantined for a period of time while they recover. And so those places have our buttons in them, which means that if any of them are using illicit substances in those rooms, they can push the button and somebody will come and check on them in a minute or two to make sure that nothing went wrong.

MJ: So in order to access the app, callers need a smartphone and access to an internet connection. How have you mitigated these requirements given that some of the people who need access to these types of support don't have a smartphone or internet connection?

Gordon: Yeah, the sad reality is, this is the world that we live in. And it's great to see the world in general increasingly acknowledging that access to the internet is a fundamental right, or organizations, or more likely governments, need to be doing more to ensure that everybody has access to it, given the essential services that now only appear online etc. In light of COVID, some of those essential services, at least for this period of time, are also only accessible by online tools.

There's great initiatives happening now with more phones being given out with public access Wi Fi being made available more broadly, but there's always going to be people that don't have access to it. And the two ways in which we sort of tried to mitigate this and saw this as a huge challenge that we want to try and address where we're what resulted in the buttons and our sensors being created. So we know that most folks in supportive housing do not have smartphones. It also doesn't seem like a smart way for them to go about getting help if you're in a building like that, using a phone, whereas a fixed button stuck on your wall that you can push that you know it's there, whenever you are in that room does seem to make more sense. And it's also very low cost for the organization. It's a couple of thousand dollars to get the entire system set up in your building. And that seems like one way to mitigate against it for that particular group of people. We also know that a lot of people overdose in washrooms and publicly accessible washrooms, and possibly as many as one or three per day, we think, are dying across North America in publicly accessible washrooms. So having a cheap system that can just be stuck on the roof of a washroom, alert somebody nearby that someone has stopped moving was also a way in which we thought we could meet that need, because primarily folks using washrooms are not people who have access to other forms of support. So they probably also don't have a phone.

MJ: It's a big challenge, and it's interesting to see other alternatives such as the buttons that you mentioned. Now for our audience, what are some of the ways people can get involved and help support?

Gordon: At the moment we are receiving a lot of applications for people to be supporters on the app.The way that works is you would be someone who answers the call when someone who's using is looking to be supported. 90% of the folks who are supporters now have lived experience with drug use, and most of them also have lived experience or professional experience with monitoring folks who are using a one to one or at overdose prevention sites.

We are receiving calls from folks who have less of that experience but who want to help, which is really beautiful and admirable. We're trying to build out training processes for them, so that they can get on board...it's things like understanding harm reduction, but as well as understanding active listening, or nonviolent communication, tools like that, to ensure you have a framework for working with people through these things. The thing that's coming in the future is a way for anybody on the street to be available to respond to an overdose, if that's happening. And this is like the original idea, the original idea of it is an overdose is happening, and you're nearby, and either you have training or you have Naloxone or even just to go there and be the person who stays with that person while professional help comes and that would be the way that I think the broader public could get involved. As a very sort of low barrier level, anybody could really join that.

Other than that, honestly spreading the word is probably the most important thing at this point in time. Folks who use are not necessarily people that everybody knows is using, and knowing that there's a tool like this, it's hard to get the word out to everybody, because really everybody needs to know that it's out there.

It's really a case of sort of one by one, folks are going to join, they're going to test it. What we get these days on the mobile app is a lot of people testing it, just calling and saying like, hey, okay, somebody answered the phone, and then they hang up or they say thanks and hang up, or they ask questions, and so on. So learning to trust us as the humans on the other end and learning to trust the system, technology, that is not tracking you. It's not taking down your location, all the things that we've taken a lot of time to build into it to make sure that we don't do those things. We try to be as transparent as possible about how we don't do those things.

MJ: Yes, trust is so important in this kind of work. It seems to be the base of the Brave and the Be Safe app platform. So I want to congratulate you, your team and the community for the amazing work that you're doing.

Thank you for joining us. We hope to see you next time. In the meantime, stay safe and stay healthy.

Read Brave’s Snapshot for more information on who they are, why they're doing this work, and their approach.

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