MEET LEILANI MAXERA
Leilani serves as HHHRC’s Outreach & Overdose Prevention Manager. She supervises the day-to-day administration of Hawaiʻi’s statewide syringe exchange and naloxone distribution programs and provides overdose prevention training to persons who inject drugs, their family members, social service providers, and others who may be in contact with someone at risk of overdose. Overdose prevention training is now provided via Zoom. She started as a volunteer for The CHOW Project in 2014.
Leilani grew up in Martinez, California, the daughter of a Native Hawaiian mother from Oʻahu. She attended Mills College in Oakland, receiving an undergraduate degree in American Studies. After Mills, she obtained a Master of Public Health from UC Berkeley. She began working in harm reduction in 2007 with Tenderloin Health and Homeless Youth Alliance in San Francisco.
Her two abiding interests are harm reduction and end-of-life issues. In her early 20s she was profoundly shocked by the long-term suffering and poorly managed death of her grandmother, who had dementia and succumbed to undiagnosed cancer without adequate hospice care. Her experiences with poor drug education and family who used drugs chaotically steered her toward harm reduction and how it deeply embodies the values of compassion, respect, choice, and love. She believes that both people near the end of life and people who use drugs often have their autonomy taken away from them and deserve more respect and choices in their care.
She would like to see public policy around drug use driven more by a respect for personal self-determination and dignity, and the understanding that current drug laws disproportionately affect marginalized communities. “We can’t talk about harm reduction and overdose prevention without talking about racism, poverty, transphobia, ableism, and the overcriminalization, overincarceration, and the dispossession of Native Hawaiians. It’s all connected,” she said.
She has also encountered vocal denials that drug use and overdose are problems in Hawaiʻi, even in the Native Hawaiian community, likely due to the shame created by stigma. In her trainings she touches on different aspects of why people use drugs in the first place, including discussing the long-term effects of colonization on the Hawaiian community, as these conversations are major steps in combatting stereotypes.
“It’s important to talk about drug use in a manner that reflects the reality that people use drugs and that overdose is preventable. Hawaiʻi should have realistic drug education that includes harm reduction,” she said. She also believes that Hawaiʻi’s ongoing overdose prevention efforts could greatly benefit from regular testing of street drugs, making overdose prevention sites available, and decriminalizing drug possession and use, among other reforms.
In 2018 Leilani also obtained her Master of Social Work from Hawaiʻi Pacific University. Fun facts about Leilani: she is obsessed with both horror and the long-running TV show Supernatural having seen each episode at least twice (320 episodes over 15 seasons). She is also on the Board of the National Home Funeral Alliance and volunteers with Kokua Mau, where she loves teaching people about advance care planning.