Two professors engage communities statewide in the search for healing and a way forward.

Worry shows on the faces of people gathered at Gramercy Books as they listen to Sharon Parsons talk about the death of her son. The crowd has come for an event related to “Not Far From Me: Stories of Opioids and Ohio,” a collection of essays, poems and first-person stories like hers. On a Monday evening in late July, she sits between Dan Skinner and Berkeley Franz, co-editors of the book, which was released in June.

The three moderators turn the conversation toward the subject of stigma, and how one goal of the book is to help reduce it. The problem extends far beyond this particular audience in Bexley, and the editors are hosting a series of conversations around Ohio that are less focused on the book and instead encourage open discussion. The goals of the talks are emerging as more communities meet, but, Skinner says, “The big story is about stigma and bias, and being able to talk about things.”

Skinner and Franz are colleagues at Ohio University, where Skinner is an associate professor of health policy and Franz is an assistant professor of community-based health. With his policy expertise, Skinner was participating in meetings about opioids in Columbus that eventually frustrated him. “I left events feeling like there was a lot of political posturing and photo ops,” he says. “The narratives weren’t transformative. They weren’t first-person.”

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.

“We were interested in how people were talking about facts and figures, but not its impact on the ground—the individuals,” says Franz.

As the two professors contemplated creating a book, Skinner heard Sam Quinones, the author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” speak in Athens. Quinones pointed out how he’d come to Portsmouth, Ohio—the setting for “Dreamland”—as an outsider. “He said, ‘Now is a time where people need to tell their own stories,’” Skinner says. “It gave license for the project. We’d already been talking about it, but that solidified it.”

Dozens of contributors—police officers, health care workers, teachers, people in recovery—shared their stories in “Not Far From Me.” In the case of Parsons, a dentist from Bexley, she detailed how she made it her mission to convince her peers to prescribe fewer opioids after her son’s fatal overdose. Columbus writer Hanif Abdurraqib penned a chapter, and he hopes the book humanizes the struggle. “There are real people living through it, and it brings it back to people instead of one overarching crisis.”

The anthology shows the damage inflicted across all communities—poor to rich, urban to suburban to rural. People may not even realize that neighbors and friends are affected because there are so many barriers to talking about it, Franz says. To help remove them, Franz and Skinner partnered with the nonprofit Ohio Humanities to host the community conversations throughout the state.

“People tend to blame a variety of factors when hearing statistics,” Franz says. “But hearing a personal story, listening to people’s stories, encourages empathy.”

In 2019, they held 12 conversations, each with guided questions and a specific curriculum, and they hope to continue them next year. The events allow participants to connect with one another and exchange ideas, says Skinner.

“We’re all a part of this,” Franz says. “We all have a role to play in making our state more resilient.”

***

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.