Catching up with Mona Bennett, co-founder of Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition

On Christmas Day, 1988, a gift rolled into town by way of southwest Louisiana. The gift was Mona Bennett, who had hitched a ride here with her brother. But why Atlanta?

“Well I had a choice to either become a perpetual student or move on with my life so I had relatives here in the metro Atlanta area,” she says. “I knew I wasn’t going to be sleeping on a bus bench. So I just decided, hey let’s seek my fortune here in Atlanta. Still looking for it but I’ve had a good life nonetheless.”

She’s helped make a good life for others during that time as well, starting as an activist doing work for the AIDS Survival Project and LGBT rights group ACT UP and leading to her co-founding and becoming the executive director of the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, which offers needle exchange, HIV and other tests for sexually transmitted diseases (STD), services for the homeless, outreach to sex workers and so much more. The group, which is celebrating its 20th year as an organization, is based in “The Bluff”—the notorious downtown Atlanta neighborhood known for being the heart of the city’s heroin trade.

But if you tell someone all that about Mona Bennett and they still don’t recognize the name, just mention the buttons. They cover the signature black hat Bennett wears everywhere, and they speak on a variety of issues: “Got condoms?” “Earn what you’re worth.” “Come as you are.” “I’m a woman of color and I vote.” “Action is life.”

We sat down with Bennett, or “Mona Love,” as many call her, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Atlanta to talk about the old days of LGBT activism, the challenges of her current work, what gets her up in the morning, and of course, those buttons.

So how did you get involved in LGBT activism?

I first heard about HIV and AIDS and all the things before that—GRID, the big fight between doctors Luc Montagnier and Anthony Fauci over who discovered the virus—and I was learning a lot about HIV on the sly. And my gut, the seed of my intuition said pay attention to this, this is gonna be big.

In college I had a lot of gay male friends and they were whispering about this thing that was sickening and killing their friends and friends of their friends. So the gut said pay attention to this, this is gonna be big. Lord, I did not know how big. That’s where the seed started in college. It was around concern for my friends.

You decided you wanted to do something with this, so what did you do to get started?

Well I was still learning about this HIV thing and I volunteered for the late, lamented AIDS Survival Project. I was a part of ACT UP Atlanta. I had a lot of friends and that’s what my friends were doing so that’s what I did.

Through ACT UP Atlanta, we had a subcommittee around 1994 that was looking at syringe exchange. We were seeing discarded syringes in Midtown, on Ponce, in Little Five Points. We knew that at the very least that people were disposing of syringes improperly and we correctly guessed that people were sharing syringes, passing HIV and Hep-B, Hep-C, blood-born stuff.

So we looked into it and we decided to start Prevention Point Atlanta, an all-volunteer syringe exchange, in spite of not knowing much if anything about injection drug use or outreach or anything. And it grew from there, from all volunteer to the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition.

Mona Bennett (Photo by Patrick Saunders)
Mona Bennett (Photo by Patrick Saunders)

What were those days like with ACT UP? Were you one of the ones getting arrested?

Well I wasn’t the one getting arrested but I helped with the background work on actions. When the others were getting arrested, we were on the sidelines, chanting, “The whole world is watching,” “You’ll see it on the news, your purse don’t match your shoes,” “Shame, shame, shame, shame.” All that good stuff that we probably need to be chanting today, not only about HIV but about Hepatitis C. In fact, my first action was the sodomy demonstration when the big brass bed with the dolls in a 69 position was carried up the Capitol steps on the Washington Street entrance.

What was the reaction to that?

Oh, it made the news. There was one where activists blocked an intersection at the Capitol by people who were simulating sodomy in the streets. We had fiery speeches by people like Dolores French who reminded us that you could fuck a dead donkey on the Capitol steps, get arrested and do less time (because all of those things are misdemeanors) than being caught up on a sodomy charge which at the time was a felony.

So flashing forward to now, what are the biggest challenges as an activist these days?

Oh my—you name it, it’s there. The racism that’s literally killing black people. Black women as well as black men are succumbing to state violence. There’s still a lot of work to do around HIV. There’s still a lot of ignorance and stigma to deal with. And the same can go for Hepatitis C, that is looking like a medical tsunami crashing ashore.

And being that I’m running the only syringe exchange in Georgia, there are issues around injection drug use, around overdose, especially heroin overdose. Around getting out the word about the 911 Good Samaritan law that allows people limited immunity if they are calling for someone who has [gone] out and overdosed. Distributing Naloxone, the medicine that brings people back from opioid overdoses. Oh God, income inequality. You name it, it’s like pick one, anyone, pick a dozen. They’re there.

So there’s still a lot of work to do.

Still a lot of work to do but we have come very far, but still a lot of work to do.

What is it that motivates you to keep doing this work day after day? What gets you up out of bed in the morning?

The people! The people I serve. Wonderful, smart, beautiful people who are underserved, very underserved. Oh my, and agencies who are doing the right things. But mostly it’s the people I serve.

So when did the buttons start?

I was starting to collect buttons just before I came here to Atlanta, so I think we’re going on 27, 28 years of button collecting. I used to wear them on my shirt but then I had shirts with little holes in them. So I found this old hat and started putting them on the hat and just add condoms and away we went. There’s something to having a look. | @patricksaunders