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When I was thinking about what to write for this blog, I went through a list of the usual suspects – the state of peer recovery, the role of Faces & Voices in the recovery community, the scourge of stigma, and a host of worthy topics.
You know, …… “staying in my lane.”
I suspect there are many who could do a better job covering those topics, so instead, I’d rather talk about the journey I’ve experienced as a relative newcomer (less than 20 years of experience) to the peer and recovery world. More specifically, I’d like to highlight some recent changes in tone and tenor of discussion about what it means to be a “Recovery Advocate.”
When I washed up on the shores of recovery island, I was informed about the importance of keeping a relatively narrow focus on the types of policy issues we support, funding we pursued, etc. Coming from the private sector, this made a certain type of sense to me, as mission and scope creep can be deadly in a for-profit environment. My recovery DNA also reminded me to “Keep It Simple Sweetheart,” so the approach dovetailed nicely with that ethos. To borrow a phrase, “All went well for a time,” but I began to notice some things about the national recovery movement. My life experience as a black man (albeit with the benefit of parents who achieved advanced degrees and the financial benefit that accompanies that) has been one of professional isolation from people who look like me. In the tech/marketing sector where I came from, I was frequently the only black senior management type in the room. This is in no way an exclusive experience for black men, but a common observation.
I heard robust dialogue about health parity and discrimination against people with substance use disorder, and while these terms were valid, they rubbed against something in the back of my head. This culminated one day in me seeing a document that demanded reparations from pharmaceutical companies for harms from the opioid overdose crisis. To be clear, these items are relevant. They speak to what advocacy and a demand for justice are all about. Unfortunately, this advocacy and demand for justice seemed to go silent when other issues of social injustice came up. As I examined even some of the internal processes of Faces & Voices, it became clear that there had been an egregious oversight regarding matters of culture. Many of our processes made no mention of culture, diversity or anything of the sort. We weren’t alone. As we looked around, we saw many organizations, doing great work, but with no explicit attention to this issue. Confounding matters, there was also a contingent of those who insisted that cultural issues were somehow, outside the scope of what recovery advocates do. All of this against the backdrop of the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks.
To steal another phrase from literature I love… “How dark it is before the dawn.” I can only describe what I experienced in that period as a crisis of faith in the recovery movement, humanity, and general rules of fair play. Suddenly, some things came into view. I had known them for a while, but this experience gave them voice in a way that nothing else had previously. I cannot separate my blackness from my recovery anymore that I can separate my gender identity from my sexuality from my ability from my body size from my socioeconomic position. I’m not 6 people, I’m one person. The business of being able to focus only on recovery is a matter of privilege. At no time in my journey have I or any other person of color been able to exist outside of that intersectionality.
Shortly after all that epiphany, that same recovery DNA I mentioned earlier also began to reframe the discussion around what to do, rather than what to think. I won’t bore you with all the details of what I did individually, or what we did as an organization. Some of that is on our website/Facebook/Twitter.
So here’s the point (if you’re still reading). I don’t get to pick recovery justice outside of the frame of social justice because recovery justice is social justice. This doesn’t mean I need to be an expert on all social justice issues, but I don’t get to stay on the sidelines. Infringement of civil rights regarding recovery is no different than the infringement of civil rights based on race, religion, gender identity, sexuality, or ability. To act like we stand for one but not the other is at a minimum disingenuous, and worst-case scenario, supportive of systemic oppression.
While this might seem to some like a course change, I would argue that we’ve always been social justice warriors. The passion and energy I have seen regarding recovery issues is truly something to behold. We’re just widening the road a bit.
This is our lane!
Today, matter has a new meaning. By definition, a matter is important and significant. For many, their recovery matters most, as does mine. In years past, I have had the opportunity to go to Washington, DC and attend a conference and meet and mingle with friends and associates in recovery—with hugs and handshakes. I arrived with expectation and motivation to gain wisdom and fellowship. I was never disappointed. This year, Washington D.C came to me. The Faces & Voices of Recovery virtual Recovery Leadership Summit was filled with expectation, anticipation, and curiosity. I was prepared to Zoom into the virtual world of conferencing in a new and expansive way. I made my bed, showered, and dressed presentably for viewing and being viewed. The only travel required was to the frig and the necessary room. Bed and board were at hand. I settled in my comfortable chair and put my best face forward. I launched into what turned out to be a most ‘wonder—full’ experience. All was handled expertly by presenters, technicians, and participants. It took only a short time to go with the magical flow. I became quite pleased with myself as a process navigator. Meeting and greeting were easy. I broke in to break-outs like a burglar. I saw familiar faces and was glad to be one. It was an A+ experience.
Words have meaning and power. I listened to the presenters, picking out the pearls of power in words. As we were being educated, I captured these words. “We have to show we care before they care about what we know,” “A movement changes hearts and minds” and “It takes time and experience to adapt, heal, and change.” It was a factor in the discussion about Virtual Recovery Support Services (VRSS) a way of the future. It is about maintaining hope, purpose, authenticity, and connection. For me, PC is not about the wasteful use of political correctness, but promoting, preserving, and prolonging connection with those being served for a period of years. In the process, developing recovery community authenticity for the community.
The keynoters were great. I particularly appreciated Leslie Crutchfield sharing her knowledge of the manner and means by which movements succeed. She has many examples. I noted the movement to reduce the use of tobacco. She outlined message, messenger, and motivation. Holy hairballs! Who knew cats were affected by second-hand smoke? They made a mighty meow. There were other examples with evident success such as MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The science of addiction tells us why people continued to drink and drive regardless of the consequences. Mother’s are not to be messed with, so repetition, recognition, persistence, and patience in the matter of the message made substantial safety and economic impact.
Of course, there is a message for us in advancing the recovery movement. The impact of the Pandemic, mitigation and economic free-fall has created a major set-back for the country. Incidentally, at a different pace and time. I heard the word “set-back” used in place of relapse. I like it much better. Within the scope of it all, is the data about the increased use and misuse of alcohol and other drugs. Understandable and very unfortunate. It is said that crisis provides opportunity. Incidentally, it also provides opportunists, good ones and bad ones. There was never a more important requirement for the presence and provision of recovery–ready communities. The Association of Recovery Community Organizations (ARCO) can be a primary benefactor through its blend of services including peer support, providing economical but impactful outcomes. We can build a constituency of consequence and a collective of consequence. Obvious from our Leadership Summit, our wealth is in our knowledge and experience. What we see in the ARCO membership is noble, servant leadership: “A noble leader answers not to the trumpet calls of self-promotion, but to the hushed whispers of necessity.” — Mollie Marti. Servant leadership is a model of leadership that focuses on the growth and well-being of the communities that are served. I’m filled with gratitude at being a participant and receiver of so much knowledge in the Recovery Leadership Summit. Congratulations to Faces & Voices of Recovery and all who contributed to this wonder-full event.
Belonging and empowerment have been some of the most powerful factors in both my personal recovery and professional work for the past 30 years. The sense of belonging within a peer group, a family, a community, or a movement, contributes to my sense of purpose and meaning in life. This is certainly not unique to recovery; it’s what helps us thrive and survive as human beings. Without it many of us will experience feeling lost, disconnected and hopeless. In the recovery movement, while many are outspoken and visible, not everyone wants to be visible or vocal in advocacy and activism. We not only need to acknowledge that, but we need to be better at providing meaningful ways for all people to engage at the level they are comfortable with, if and when they choose to engage. However, most importantly, we need to ensure that everyone feels that they belong and that the recovery movement is for everyone.
Recently, author and social change expert, Leslie Crutchfield was one of the keynote speakers at the 2020 Recovery Leadership Summit hosted by Faces & Voices of Recovery. Leslie’s book, How Change Happens; Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t, is a must read for movement leaders. It’s basically a framework based on the winning organizing strategies of movements like marriage equality, anti-tobacco, anti-drunk driving and gun rights. In the recovery advocacy movement, we know that almost everyone is impacted by substance use disorders in some way and know someone who is in recovery. We’ve come a long way towards putting a face and a voice on recovery over the past twenty years. However, as Leslie explains in her book, the transformative effect of creating a sense of belonging and empowerment is one of the most critical factors of movements that successfully impact social policy. There is so much more to be done to ensure that the movement is reflective of those who are most impacted and empowering new leadership whether in local communities, states or nationally. As a woman in a leadership role who values a servant leadership philosophy, my commitment is to remain open to new ideas and the positive contributions of the incredibly diverse and passionate people of the recovery community. I encourage everyone to reach out to myself and our team at Faces & Voices of Recovery to share your interests and enthusiasm for change in the recovery advocacy movement.