Bonus Episode: Phil Rutherford
This blog is an edited transcript of the Faces & Voices of Recovery podcast, Recovery Stories have power, which you can listen to here or by searching “Recovery Stories Have Power” on your favorite podcast listening app.
By Oliver Books
On today’s bonus episode of Recovery Stories Have Power, we’re joined by Phil Rutherford, outgoing Chief Operating Officer at Faces & Voices of Recovery. He reflects on his time with our organization and what lies ahead in both his career and the recovery space.
Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Well, I want to thank you, Phil, for joining me and sharing in this time of new beginnings and fond farewells.
Yeah. It’s been a fun ride.
So your first exposure to Faces & Voices was at RLS (Recovery Leadership Summit)?
Prior to my work in the recovery space, I spent a lot of time working in data, and it made sense to me that there should be data [about Substance Use Disorder and recovery].
Kind of coincidentally, at right about that same time, the Surgeon General released a report on recovery and Substance Use Disorder. There’d never been anything like that from a Surgeon General, so I was really excited about it.
I got to the section on recovery and, compared to all the other stuff on treatment and prevention [of addiction], there wasn’t a ton of information on recovery.
So I got involved with some other folks inside of ARCO (The Alliance for Recovery Centered Organizations), and we started talking about a data project that would help people gather information about the people coming into and out of Recovery Community Organizations (RCOs).
I can tell just from the tone of your voice that this is still really energizing to you.
I had started some conversations with Patty McCarthy, the CEO at Faces & Voices, to see what we could do to put together a software platform.
It wasn’t just me. There were other leaders of Recovery Community Organizations around the country weighing in on what we should do.
We looked at plenty of out-of-the box or off-the-shelf types of software, and just came to the conclusion that none of that was going to work for us. We needed something a little bit more customized.
Patty offered me a job at Faces & Voices in 2017. We launched RDP (Recovery Data Platform, Faces & Voices’ proprietary RCO software) that same year and kind of went from there.
Almost immediately after that, we started looking at what we could do to elevate the Faces & Voices brand. We started on that project probably in 2018, launched in 2019, and we got really busy–
We’re still busy there?
Shockingly, yeah. [Laughs.]
I think something else was happening, too. Unfortunately, the opioid crisis was stewing and bubbling, so more and more people were progressively dying. But we were also getting a lot more attention in the recovery space.
And I don’t think that’s only about Faces & Voices. It’s just about the national dialogue around, What do we do to stop the scourge? We have to stop the death.
We see upticks in specific demographics that indicate that we might be addressing the problem in some places – [but] we’re not addressing it everywhere.
That’s been so clear. And what I’ve noticed in my time here is a wildly accepting philosophy on any pathway to get folks better, or get folks well. I’m curious: From 2017 to 2023, in the midst of the opioid epidemic, you mentioned a national shift and opening in dialogue. What does that mean to you? What does that look like? And how have you seen the conversation around these fatal drug poisonings change and grow?
I’ll start with my own experience in that because, as a mutual aid person, I started with a very specific, sort of myopic understanding of what recovery was and what people needed to do to achieve recovery.
And one of the blessings – one of the things that I will treasure about my experience with Faces & Voices – is that I got the opportunity to see a multitude of ways that people find wellness from Substance Use Disorder. Not just the pathway that I had, but lots of different ones.
This concept of multiple pathways to and of recovery, I think, extends even beyond that to wellness. My observation has been that the world in general has become a little bit more accepting of those different pathways.
That has probably saved lives in a way that we can’t really count; someone that didn’t die or that didn’t suffer as a result of it. I think that’s been a very positive thing.
I think, in general, the philosophy of a Recovery Community Organization or Recovery-Centered Organization – the idea that any pathway to recovery is good enough has been instrumental in helping a lot of people find relief.
I won’t speak for everyone, but ultimately I think that what most people are looking for is some measure of relief. That’s certainly what I was looking for.
Same. Big same.
As someone who’s been in this space for a little while, it’s been so energizing to see different people from all over, just looking at the best way to do this thing, the best way to provide help to people, talking to people who have different perspectives than I do.
Moving a little bit closer to home from the national conversation to just your personal interactions at Faces & Voices: What was your favorite part? What have you loved about working at Faces & Voices? What kept you there for so long?
So I really liked watching things I had an initial role in grow and develop and mature. The people, too. I developed some deep and meaningful friendships with the people that work at Faces & Voices, and those relationships exist today.
I think about the things that sort of got me out of bed in the morning. We started getting invited to policy discussions that, previously, we were not invited to.
They were like, Could you come and talk? Could you come and share with us what your experience is? That shift over a period of time… I would like to think that is about the work that we were doing out in the field and people respecting that work and inviting us in.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s amazing. It reminds me of a story that you told me, maybe your first time speaking at the White House, about how you had stayed in a certain hotel room…
The short, PG-version of that story is that I was invited to speak at the White House. I went and checked into the hotel, and when I got situated in my room, it dawned on me that I had been in that same hotel 20 plus years before, not well and not getting ready to go speak at the White House. Just lost.
And so I had that sort of flashback thing, like, Oh, my gosh, my life is so much different now.
It was just interesting to relive that negative experience and reflect on the fact that I was going to the White House to talk about relief from the very problem that was killing me 20 years before.
Yeah. Well, you know, that’s the title of the podcast: Recovery Stories Have Power. I mean, there’s not a whole lot that’s more powerful than two moments in time that mirror each other so perfectly.
I had another kind of out-of-body experience in D.C. at our last Hill Day, where I was in with a rep [that] is absolutely committed to recovery, and during the meeting they got a call from a family friend [whose] kid was experiencing some trouble. They were in a part of Philadelphia called Kensington, which, if any of our listeners know about Kensington, it’s not a vacation spot in Pennsylvania–
Shout out to the Savage Sisters! Doing a lot of good work there.
Absolutely. And the Savage Sisters are part of the story!
So I’d met with this member before and they knew that I was in recovery. [The member] asked everyone else in the room to leave and said, Hey, I’ve got this family friend and their kid is on the phone. Would you talk to him?
So I was able to do, in mutual aid parlance, a “12-step call” or a “recovery-focused call” in a member’s office on Capitol Hill.
And again – just in terms of stuff that you don’t expect on a Hill Day – I was able to have a conversation with this person [without referencing] any particular methodology of recovery. I don’t really talk to people about that anymore. I talk to people about what they want to do.
As a result of that conversation, that person was able to get transported to treatment and get some help.
I actually have no idea how they’re doing today – and that’s not really the point of the story. The opportunities that have come my way as a result of being engaged with Faces & Voices and doing this work have been incredible.
There’s just so much to this wellness thing. They all have different pathways; they all have different outcomes; they all have different goals.
I remember you telling me some years ago, probably, at this point, that [recovery is] just a change in direction or trajectory.
I do talk about trajectory a good bit. That’s what it’s been for me. My life was heading one way, and recovery changed that rather dramatically.
[For example,] I had to do a background check. And in my earlier days, first of all, that was a deal breaker, right?
Oh, yeah. Cold sweat.
That meant that something wasn’t gonna happen. If I had to do a background check for something, it wasn’t gonna happen.
And it’s not like my background disappeared. What happened is, as a result of some policy advocacy here in Minnesota, we have statutory expungement. A lawyer in the [Twin] Cities kind of spearheaded legislation for me and a whole bunch of other people who, for years and years, have been living the right way, but were previously impacted by rules that didn’t allow for a change in behavior. And that’s what I’ve had over the past 20-some years: a change in behavior.
Sure, sure. That trajectory.
Post Faces & Voices, I have a sneaking suspicion you’re going to be up to some big things.
I’ve accepted a role with the National Council for Mental Wellbeing as the Substance Use Strategy Lead. So my purview there will be the continuum of substance use efforts by the National Council. Prevention, treatment, recovery, harm reduction: all of those things and kind of a policy view of that. It’s something I have trained for.
So your friends and associates will be pleased to know that you’re still kind of in the space.
I’m still in the space.
Someone told me, as I was talking to people at Faces & Voices, I can’t imagine you’re going far. And I guess I haven’t.
In fact, I think the National Council Office is not that far from the Faces & Voices office in D.C. So I really just moved a couple blocks.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, maybe.
Yeah, that’s it.
Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for hanging out with us and reflecting on your time at Faces & Voices.
We’re very grateful that you did what you did. I think there’s been a lot of really amazing growth and change nationally – in recovery, of course, but also in this little pocket of advocacy that we’re doing. That’s thanks, in no small part, to you.
Well, I appreciate it. I have a tendency to want to say, Wow, it wasn’t really me.
My recovery mentors tell me: when someone gives you a compliment, say Thank you and You’re welcome.
I also know that there are plenty of people at Faces & Voices that have put in countless hours just like me, making it successful. I appreciate you, and I appreciate them as well.
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