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Meet Our Grantee Partner — Cambridge HEART

Cambridge HEART team members after an outreach event centering youth. Summer 2023.

Cambridge HEART (Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team) is a community-led alternative safety program meeting public safety needs outside of policing systems. Grounded in transformative and disability justice principles, Cambridge HEART uses a peer-response model to respond to emergency calls prompted by the immediate needs of people in conflict or crisis, including those with mental illness and/or substance use disorders. Cambridge HEART also engages in conflict resolution processes, coordinates mutual aid to support material needs, and works to address the root causes of harm.

Cambridge HEART is a recipient of BWF's 2023 Momentum grant. Corinne Espinoza, Co-Director at Cambridge HEART, spoke with us about what their work looks like in practice, how the organization is supporting the safety of women, girls, and gender-expansive individuals in their community and the upcoming launch of their new peer-to-peer support line. 

What led you to create this organization or take this leadership role? Can you tell us more about your connection to the work and the specific need you saw?

Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team (Cambridge HEART) was created in 2021 by The Black Response (TBR) as an alternative to policing. TBR did powerful advocacy work to push the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to invest in alternatives. Faced with inaction by the City, TBR decided to build something with the community. TBR did Participatory Action Research, and, with that guidance from the community, designed and built Cambridge HEART. We are grateful to the community and to the Black women who founded and built HEART including Stephanie Guirand, Queen-Cheyenne Wade, Dara Bayer, and many others. We are grateful to the hundreds of volunteers and donors who supported those early efforts and who still form such an important part of our organization today. 

We knew that the community expressed a need to receive help from an unarmed person when in crisis. We knew that people wanted to be able to ask for help without being worried that the help itself would cause harm. Community members’ words guide us: “What if, when you called for help, you received help? What if a call for help didn’t make things worse?”

Can you share more about how Cambridge HEART’s work is fostering greater safety for women, girls, and gender-expansive individuals in the communities you serve? 

Cambridge HEART’s work fosters greater safety for women, girls, and gender-expansive individuals in our communities by offering support aligned with our values of care, healing, transformative accountability, self-determination, and community. 

To share an example, if a gender-expansive person experiences harm in an intimate relationship, they may not feel comfortable talking to police or other systems about that situation due to transphobia and other systemic discrimination. A gender-expansive person who dares to confide in a Cambridge HEART responder about harm in a relationship is met with respect, kindness, and love. We center their autonomy and offer to accompany them on the journey they want to take. They may want to stay in the relationship. We can offer a person to talk to, safety planning, and harm reduction. We can also offer support around the other stressors in the person’s life. Often people are facing multiple challenges at the same time, and addressing one issue only is not sufficient. Sometimes, people do not feel they have a choice about leaving a relationship if the relationship is the only way other needs (like housing, health, and food security) are met. Addressing the holistic situation opens up true options to a person as they consider what they might want for their life. 

Another example of how Cambridge HEART supports safety for women and girls is related to our approach to mandated reporting. Currently, if a woman or girl tells certain people that she is having thoughts of hurting herself, teachers, doctors, or therapists may be required to take certain actions. These actions can result in unwanted outcomes like DCF involvement with any children in the home, forced hospitalization, and more.  With a Cambridge HEART peer responder, the person will be met with care. We focus on what the person needs to make it through the day and pay attention to root causes that are a part of the stressful situation. If a woman is feeling like she can’t make it any longer — if her fridge is empty and she has an eviction notice on the door — Cambridge HEART would connect her to longer-term resources and mutual aid as well as provide emotional support. Supporting a person’s stable housing and food security is an integral part of their mental health — they are all intertwined. 

What’s one thing people might not know about your organization?

One logistics detail: People have been surprised to learn how much of our funding comes from individual donors. Some government agencies and foundations are still nervous when it comes to innovative projects like ours. Some funding sources feel nervous about abolition and ideas for projects that support our community in the ways we do. We are so grateful that individual donors have stepped up in a major way to support us. More than 50% of our funding comes from individual donors!

One programmatic thing: People may not know that everyone at Cambridge HEART is deeply rooted in our community and deeply rooted in lived experience. Our team has lived experience with: incarceration, mental health diagnoses, disabilities, growing up in domestic violence homes, navigating relationships where someone used violence against us, financial difficulties like food insecurity, housing insecurity, and more. These experiences help us connect with our community and deeply understand the context in which their crisis is unfolding.

What’s next for you? What project or goal is Cambridge HEART working on right now?

Cambridge HEART is entering a new stage of our work. We have been working hard to get to this point, where we can serve people in the moment. We plan to launch our “warm” line soon, and two months after that, we will launch our mobile crisis response.  

For the warm line, a person who needs someone to talk to will be able to call us and get peer-to-peer support over the telephone in the moment. They will also be offered the opportunity for follow-up support and care if they are interested. With mobile crisis response, we can travel to the person to support their needs and offer follow-up support if the community member would like that.

What does liberation look like to you?

No one is free until everyone is free, so it looks like fighting for and imagining liberation until every single person is free. To me, liberation is true peace and self-determination. Liberation looks like the freedom to bring your body where it wants to be (regardless of borders and other colonial constructs), to be able to exist in peace in the world, to be able to connect with others, or to have solitude. 

Liberation looks like everyone’s belly being full, and everyone, especially children, being surrounded by love and joy and playfulness. It looks like people’s needs being met whether or not they are able to participate in the workforce. It looks like a safe roof over everyone’s head, a warm place to sleep. It looks like having a true choice to pursue as much education as a person wants (without debt or cost). It looks like having a true voice in our policies and laws. Liberation to me would be a return to our ancestral ways of caring for each other, community, love, generosity, and responsibility toward the earth, other beings, and each other. 


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