Onlookers read the narratives of individuals who lost their lives to drug addiction featured in the INTO LIGHT California exhibit in San Bernardino.
Onlookers read the narratives of individuals who lost their lives to drug addiction featured in the INTO LIGHT California exhibit in San Bernardino. Credit: Image courtesy of CSUSB Anthropology Museum

Breanna Reeves |

In 2021, there were 309 fentanyl overdoses in San Bernardino County. 

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is categorized as being 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). Fentanyl is responsible for more overdose deaths than any other illegal drug in the United States. Over 150 people die every day from overdoses related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Theresa Clower lost her 32-year-old son, Devin, as a result of a fentanyl overdose in February 2018. To process her grief, Clower decided to draw a portrait of her son at her daughter’s suggestion.

“I chose an image that was taken of him just five hours before he died. And it was a very, very powerful few days for me,” Clower explained. “It was unbelievably emotional for me when I signed my name to that portrait. It was a total release of my emotion. It was my goodbye to Devin.”

With her new drawing skills, Clower wanted to be useful to others and began searching for support groups of people who lost a loved one to substance addiction. Her initial goal was to create one exhibit that would showcase 41 people who died from addiction because at the time, 41 people died from an addiction every five hours. That rate has since changed.

The reception of the exhibit in Maryland was more than Clower could have imagined. Clower said people began asking about the possibility of having an exhibit in other states. Five years later, the INTO LIGHT Project is now a national non-profit organization that is dedicated to changing the conversation about drug addiction and humanizing victims.

Theresa Clower smiles with her son Devin (Image courtesy of INTO LIGHT Project).

With the INTO LIGHT California exhibit at the Anthropology Museum at the California State University, San Bernardino, California is now the eighth state to have opened an exhibit that features local people who have died as a result of an opioid overdose.

“The interesting thing is that each state has put their own spin on how they want to approach this. For example, in San Bernardino, the curator and director of that museum wanted to include personal items of the individuals. It’s such a beautiful deepening of the whole experience for people,” Clower said.

INTO LIGHT memorializes 41 people through portraits, narrative stories and objects that they left behind. The individuals included in the gallery were nominated by a loved one who was interviewed by students at the university. In the exhibition, eight people identify as female, 32 as male and one as non-binary. The oldest person memorialized in the exhibit was 55 years old and the youngest was 14 years old. 

“What we really hope that people walk away from if they visit one of the exhibitions is that they come away with a deeper understanding of the human side of addiction. We all know the numbers and we are horrified at the numbers, but there’s just unbelievable stigma and shame associated with this disease and any kind of mental illness. And addiction is definitely a disease of the mind,” Clower expressed.

“So, because of that stigma and shame, it’s a disease that isn’t talked about, and therefore people who are suffering from this oftentimes won’t come and ask for help. My son was included in that.”

For the INTO LIGHT California exhibit, Elizabeth Jones, a Pomona-based non-binary artist was selected to create the portraits for the exhibit. Jones said that the process of drawing the portraits was a strange, intense and beautiful process. Jones created portraits using images submitted by family members and also read the narratives written.

People gather in front of a portrait of Daniel Puerta-Johnson, at the INTO LIGHT California exhibit at the CSUSB Anthropology Museum (Image courtesy of CSUSB Anthropology Museum).

“I felt like I knew [the families], because I knew their children, their loved ones’ faces so well. And so seeing different variations of the people that I’ve drawn, coming and talking to me, it was really moving and connecting,” Jones said. “And at the same time, I felt like I wished I could do more, say more, but I just feel really honored to have been part of the process and to be able to give some life to their loved ones in this way.”

As someone who experienced addiction themself, Jones explained that they hope this exhibit and the education surrounding addiction will encourage others to come out of isolation and “move towards love and connection.”

Jones shared that they hope by humanizing this group of people who “often are rejected or condemned by the larger community” will result in humanizing other marginalized groups of people like those who live on the streets or who have been imprisoned and those with different political and cultural experiences.

The exhibition is intended to raise awareness and destigmatize the shame that is associated with addiction. In October, the museum hosted a Fentanyl Awareness Town Hall with Assemblymember James C. Ramos (D-Highland), following the exhibit’s initial opening in September. The town hall sought to bring more attention and education regarding the growing presence of fentanyl as well as the importance of preventative and harm reduction work of local organizations.

Assemblymember James C. Ramos sits in the center of the panel at a Fentanyl Awareness Town Hall hosted at CSUSB. Panel speakers included victims of illicit drugs, a representative of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, a representative from the San Bernardino County Public Health Department and a representative from Inland Empire Harm Reduction (Image courtesy of CSUSB Anthropology Museum).

As part of San Bernardino County’s Opioid (Fentanyl) Response Initiative, several county agencies such as Public Health, Sheriff, District Attorney, Behavioral Health, County Superintendent of Schools and Arrowhead Regional Medical Center are collaborating with community-based organizations, healthcare providers and schools to develop strategies to raise awareness and identify solutions to reduce fentanyl use.

“Deaths related to opioid use, such as fentanyl, are completely preventable,” said San Bernardino  County’s Health Officer Dr. Michael Sequeira in a statement. “Efforts to reduce the effects of opioid overdose and death are a top priority for San Bernardino County.”

Sequeira also warned people to be aware of the emergence of “rainbow fentanyl,” which is a potentially fatal drug found in pills and powders in a variety of bright colors, shapes and sizes.

There are two types of fentanyl, pharmaceutical fentanyl and illicit fentanyl. Both are synthetic opioids. Pharmaceutical fentanyl is prescribed by doctors to treat severe pain like in the case of before or after surgery. Illicit fentanyl is solid through illegal drug markets for its “heroin-like effect.”

In 2021, CDPH reported 5,722 deaths related to fentanyl overdoses. With the growing fentanyl overdose crisis in San Bernardino and across the state, early this year, Assemblymember Ramos introduced two bills to address the opioid crisis: Assembly Bill 1627, which makes Naloxone (Narcan) more available to the public to help prevent deaths during overdose emergencies and Assembly Bill 1628, which would require social media platforms to develop policies to prohibit individuals from using the platform for illegal distribution of controlled substances like fentanyl.

INTO LIGHT, California at the CSUSB Anthropology Museum will be on display until June 10, 2023. Following the conclusion of the exhibit, the families are given the portrait of their loved one in a catalog. 

The exhibit is sponsored by the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health, CSUSB Office of Community Engagement, CSUSB College of Education MS in Counseling Program and CSUSB Department of Ethnic Studies. 

Clower’s goal is to launch an exhibit in each state and change the conversation about drug addiction.

Author

  • Breanna Reeves is a reporter in Riverside, California, and uses data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. Breanna joins Black Voice News as a Report for America Corps member. Previously, Breanna reported on activism and social inequality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, her hometown. Breanna graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Print & Online Journalism. She received her master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. Contact Breanna with tips, comments or concerns at breanna@voicemediaventures.com or via twitter @_breereeves.

Breanna Reeves

Breanna Reeves is a reporter in Riverside, California, and uses data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. Breanna joins Black Voice News as a Report for America Corps member. Previously, Breanna reported on activism and social inequality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, her hometown. Breanna graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Print & Online Journalism. She received her master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. Contact Breanna with tips, comments or concerns at breanna@voicemediaventures.com or via twitter @_breereeves.