Advocacy and Activism | A Time and Place For Both – But It’s Time We Get Angry
I have sort of grown up in the national recovery advocacy movement, having entered into long-term recovery over 11 years ago at the still malleable age of 24 and soon after getting involved in addiction recovery service and advocacy work. Over the past decade, I have had the privilege of working under some of the most extraordinary leaders there are in the movement. I have learned a great deal from each and every one of them, and it is no expression of flattery to say that much of what I know today is a merely a reflection of the greatness that surrounded me. I am only now just beginning to add my own two cents to all of it.
I’ve been taught lessons like “rock the boat, don’t tip it over”, on more than one occasion, by Beverly Haberle of PRO-ACT. I remember hearing Roland Lamb of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services say, at least once a day for a couple of years, “the struggle continues, but victory is certain.” I remember listening to Dr. Arthur C. Evans, leader of the same City of Philadelphia department and a true visionary, explain the difference between “additive, selective and transformative” change. I remember many lessons learned picking Bill White’s brain about the state of the recovery advocacy movement, a hero of mine who early on I decided had laid out footsteps I wanted to follow as a writer. I have listened closely as my current leader, Dr. Ijeoma Achara-Abrahams, brilliantly teaches systems across the country how to transform into recovery oriented systems of care.
I’ve essentially been raised up by some of the most extraordinary thought leaders there are and have grown up quite a bit over the years. I evolved from a young person who had to develop the skills of tact, diplomacy and patience when it came to my advocacy efforts into a more polished, refined, experienced and intentional advocate. Now don’t get me wrong, there is still a good ‘ole rabble rouser within me that has popped its head up for air on more than one occasion over the years, but by in large, I learned that initiating change more often than not requires working with the system rather than fighting against it. I even spent time working within the system and learning how it functions, like an advocate infiltrator on a paid policy practice internship of sorts, and truly came to understand and experience the value of working within the system to make change.
Recently, however, I learned more about the AIDS activist group ACT UP that was instrumental in shifting policies around HIV and AIDS in the late 80’s and early 90’s. This group grew out of a simple need: people of a particular community, the LGBTQ community, were dying left and right at a staggering rate. The LGBTQ community was burying its own in alarming numbers with little to no response from the government. Sadness, helplessness, hopelessness and frustration evolved into anger. The LGBTQ community grew angry at the lack of responsiveness to the public health crisis that was decimating their community. As a result of this anger, ACT UP as an activist organization emerged and would go on to initiate change in one of the most profound ways of our time.
Learning more about ACT UP left me thinking about the state of the recovery advocacy movement and this key component we are missing. We have the sadness, helplessness, at times hopelessness and certainly a widespread frustration, but we’re not quite angry enough yet. We’re not quite collectively fed up enough yet that we are burying our own community members in alarming numbers all across the country. We’re not quite enraged enough yet by the slow response of our government that we’ve become willing to put aside petty differences and unite as one, just as the LGBTQ community did, to not ask for, not plead for, but demand change, and demand it now.
We’ve been rocking the boat, but it hasn’t worked quickly enough. We’ve been struggling, but we haven’t struggled enough to bring us to victory. We have seen change, but it’s been additive and selective – by no means transformative. We have witnessed a tremendous deal of progress in the recovery advocacy movement over the past two decades – but more people are dying today than ever before.
When I reflect upon my own personal journey as an advocate, everything that I have learned along the way, my own personal values and perspectives and the state of the public health crisis of addiction today, I now conclude that there is a time and place for advocacy and a time and place for activism. I think there is a time and place for the patient, gentle and diplomatic approach and then I think there is a time and place to be angry, to be fed up and to let that anger fuel some activism.
I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m angry. I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m fed up. I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m enraged by a government that can respond quicker and more comprehensively to the public health concern of Zika, an illness responsible for one death to date in our country, than to the public health concern of addiction that is killing more people than automobile accidents each day in most communities across the nation.
Perhaps it’s time we got angry. Perhaps it is time that those who feel so called begin to organize and engage in strategic activism while those who feel so called continue to engage in diplomatic advocacy. Perhaps it is time that we truly put aside any differences between pathways to recovery, harm reduction versus abstinence, whether the word recovery fits or not, whether funding should go to prevention or treatment, whether we identify as clean, sober, in long-term recovery or a current substance user, whether we used willpower or believe a higher power saved us, whether we are older or younger…perhaps we just unite as one group of people to demand change. Just as ACT UP taught us some years ago, at a time of a public health crisis, it is possible for a larger community to break down the silos and unite. And just as ACT UP taught us some years ago as well, sometimes getting angry is a good thing. Sometimes it takes being angry to make change.
I don’t know – I’m pretty angry…are you?