Tapping into community expertise: stakeholder engagement in the design process
The Connection to Care (C2C) project, a transdisciplinary work-in-progress, employs community-engaged participatory research and design methods at the nexus of policy adaptation and product innovations. C2C aims to advance practices that identify and leverage the critical junctures at which people with substance use disorder (SUD) seek lifesaving services and treatment, utilizing stakeholder input in all stages of design and development. Beginning in the Fall of 2018, members of our research team engaged with those at the forefront of the addiction crisis, including first responders, harm reduction and peer specialists, treatment providers, and individuals in recovery and in active substance use in a community greatly impacted by SUD. Through this engagement, the concept for programs and products representing a connection to care emerged, including the design of a backpack to meet the needs of individuals with SUD and those experiencing homelessness. From 2020 to 2022, more than 1,200 backpacks with lifesaving and self-care supplies have been distributed in local communities, as one component of the overall C2C initiative. The backpack is a recognized symbol of the program and has served as an impetus for further program and policy explorations, including as a lens to better understand the role of ongoing stigma. Though addiction science has evolved significantly in the wake of the opioid epidemic, artifacts of policies and practices that criminalize and stigmatize SUD remain as key challenges. This paper explains the steps that C2C has taken to address these challenges, and to empower a community that cares.