The founding of Fireside Project, the nation’s first psychedelic peer-support hotline, began with an ayahuasca trip—and a chance meeting at Burning Man.
In 2019, Hanifa Nayo Washington, an entrepreneur, activist and reiki master, was living in New Haven, Connecticut when she decided to finally attend the famed Black Rock Desert event after years of declining invitations.
This time, however, she was primed to say yes. A recent ayahuasca journey had left her with the certainty that she needed to say yes to more that year—yes to life, yes to the things that scared her. It prompted her to read Shonda Rhimes’ The Year of Yes, a book a mentor had gifted her that she’d just finished.
“I was out to dinner with my friend when Burning Man came up again,” Nayo remembers, “and I said, ‘OK, I’m going to say yes. Who knows what will come of this?’”
A lot, as it turns out.
It was at Burning Man that she met Joshua White, a crisis counselor and attorney from San Francisco. “We are an unlikely pair, but we work really well together and have amazing synergy,” she says.
The two met in a mutual friend’s bell tent while they were both tripping. “We ended up leaving the camp and riding our bikes, and then we realized that wasn’t a good choice,” she says. “We rode back together. Back at the tent, we held space for each other while we were having some deep and intensely emotional psychedelic experiences.”
Their meeting was, essentially, a scenario of peer-to-peer support while tripping. And it went on to become the foundation of the nonprofit they’d build together.
Just a Phone Call Away
Motivated by their Burning Man encounter, White reached out to Nayo in June of 2020 to help conceptualize a new project: a free peer-to-peer call-in line that would provide support for people everywhere during and after psychedelic experiences. By April 2021, Fireside Project was live. With Nayo as its co-founder and chief of strategy and White as the founder and executive director, the org works to create change in the psychedelics field in three areas: safety, diversity and equitable access.
That first piece, safety, is where the Psychedelic Peer Support Line comes in. It’s fielded thousands of callers since its launch, via voice call, text and the Fireside app, which has been downloaded 8,500 times.
“We support people who are actively tripping, as well as those who have had a [previous] psychedelic experience—that could have been yesterday or that could have been 20 years ago,” Nayo says, “but they’re seeking processing support—how to make sense of and explore what came up during a trip.”
Fireside emphasizes, however, that this is non-clinical peer support, and that they don’t provide medical care, psychotherapy, psychiatric care or any other professional service. “The support line is not a substitute for professional healthcare, mental health treatment, psychiatric care or therapy,” their website advises. The organization urges people with clinical and ongoing issues to seek professional help.
Building Community and Pursuing Equity
To further the diversity and equitable access components of their mission, Fireside’s inaugural Equity Initiative kicks off on June 23, 2022. The initiative is two-pronged, Nayo explains: “Providing attuned cultural care and support on the support line, and creating pathways into the psychedelic field.”
Phase one entails establishing an Affinity Peer Volunteer Service, which will give a choice to callers from marginalized groups to be paired with someone who shares a similar identity. A cohort of BIPOC, transgender and military veteran volunteers will be on-call on the support line, and will also lead free processing and integration sessions.
“We understand that integrating can be a really vulnerable place to be—there can be very trauma-heavy or sensitive things that come up,” says Nayo. “Wanting to give our callers a choice of whom to speak to feels important to us. Being able to offer deeper levels of peer support is critical. With different lived experiences, there could be things coming up in a psychedelic experience that you [don’t] want to process with just anyone.”
After a year of volunteering, this cohort will have Fireside Project’s support in pursuing opportunities and advancement in the psychedelics field. “We want to see more people in these spaces who are coming from these communities,” says Nayo.
“I think how equity looks in the psychedelic space is a pretty pressing issue,” she adds. “How do we make sure there’s power-sharing, so that these medicines and practices aren’t just, consciously or unconsciously, siphoned off for those that have great economic standing or access?”
Nayo’s values are being put into practice beyond Fireside, too. She’s also the co-founder of One Village Healing, a BIPOC-centered healing, resilience and psychedelic wellness space that launched in April 2019 in New Haven, where she lived at the time, before going virtual in the pandemic. (Nayo has since relocated to Portland, Oregon, where there is a burgeoning psychedelic movement.)
“I’m constantly seeking to create spaces of healing and wellness for myself and for others—particularly, for those who have been left out of the narratives or are underrepresented,” she says. “One Village is really about integrative care and support: practicing mindfulness, having group discussions, doing reiki and yoga. These practices can help keep you healthy and well and resilient, as well as support moving through learnings that come up during a psychedelic experience.”
A Wonderful Tool—Not a Magic Wand
Unsurprisingly, psychedelics have had a big impact on Nayo’s personal life, influencing her creativity as well as her leadership.
“Any time that I’ve sat with plant medicine I feel that I get a clearer sense of my power and possibility,” she says. “I get a beautiful sense of clearing out old thought patterns—or at least getting awareness that those patterns are there. Psychedelics are a wonderful tool and I’m happy to have them in my life. I also know that they’re not a magic wand.”
She’s careful to point out that psychedelics aren’t for everybody—and that different plant medicines affect people in very different ways. “You might have a really powerful and clear experience with one plant and then another one perhaps doesn’t really work with your body,” she notes, highlighting the importance of practices like Fireside’s 10 Safety Principles for Psychedelic Experiences—particularly for newcomers.
Like many people, Nayo came into an awareness of psychedelics when she was younger and “without a lot of reverence for or understanding of their power,” she explains. “But about 10 years ago I sunk into a plant medicine and integration community and began to work with psychedelic substances in a more ceremonial setting. I began a deep relationship of reverence and healing and appreciation. And so much has come of that.”
These medicines have even inspired her as a musical artist. “A whole album was inspired by an ayahuasca experience,” she notes.
“Microdosing over the last couple of years has provided me with a baseline of both creativity and discipline,” she goes on. “I do a lot of writing after psychedelic experiences. Then I realize it’s time to activate a particular thing—whether it’s a daily practice for myself, a difficult conversation I might need to have with someone or a forgiveness practice that would be helpful.”
Wherever she goes, Nayo believes in using all the tools at her disposal to seek out and create a feeling of belonging. “When it comes to community, we’re hungry for it as people,” she says. “Folks are wanting to belong and feel like they’re a part of something that’s doing good in the world.
“I feel like I’ve gotten to bring all of my gifts and passions to Fireside Project,” she continues, “and ask, ‘How can we offer choice? How can we offer power and be in power-sharing? How can we lift up in motion what equity and diversity look like?’ We don’t want it to be just words that we’re throwing around, but rather making them come to life. We see this vision of creating a more beloved and safe psychedelic space. And we’re just getting started.”
Gina Tomaine is a writer based in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter.
Profile photo of Hanifa Nayo Washington by Rachel Liu Photography.
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