Lessons Learned and Building Bridges

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)

When we look back on the Civil Rights movement, the formation and rise of the Black Panthers was a critical pressure point in what still exists today as a journey toward true equality for darker skinned Americans.  While much had been gained by the peaceful non-violent approach preceding it, including the dismantling of the discriminatory and heinous Jim Crow system, the Black Panthers movement was founded on an unwillingness to accept anything less than comprehensive equality.  For many, there was an acute awareness that conditions were still far from close to where they needed to be and, in turn, countless individuals, families and communities were suffering.  Led primarily by those most impacted, young black males, the Black Panther stance was a far more assertive and at times aggressive refusal to settle for slow, small gains for equality.  While this approach conflicted with and at times even appeared to undermine the peaceful, non-violent way of doing business, ultimately both approaches were necessary ingredients to facilitating social change.  When looking back, I for one can’t help but wonder: how much more progress could have been made if there had been less division between the two approaches and more of a unified front and greater attempt at working together?

Today we see similar dynamics in the addiction recovery advocacy movement.  For many years, dedicated and passionate leaders in the movement have diplomatically fought the good fight to decrease stigma, increase access to resources and implement effective public policies around substance use disorder and recovery.  The endless hard work of these great leaders scattered throughout recovery community organizations, public offices, advocacy organizations, prevention and treatment provider agencies, private foundations, managed care organizations and more has resulted in significant gains over the past 30 years.  Individuals and families in or seeking recovery have certainly reaped monumental benefits, some of which include hard earned public funding, a surge in community-based recovery support services, a growing base of research driven evidence-based practices, increased access to a more diverse range of resources and pockets of safer spaces to disclose living with a substance use disorder or being a person in recovery.  While the work of our movement’s leadership and boots-on-the-ground soldiers is admirable, commendable and invaluable, some of us find ourselves to feel a growing unrest.  Some of us find ourselves unable to accept anything less than comprehensive equity in resources for individuals and their families living with a substance use disorder.  Some of us find that a far more assertive approach is necessary as we watch more and more of our friends, families and community members dying each day.

As the addiction recovery advocacy movement marches on, I think about our lessons learned from the Civil Rights movement.  I think about how the diplomatic and peaceful approach is necessary and most effective at times, and I also consider how the more assertive, in-your-face, we demand change NOW approach is most necessary and effective at other times.  I think about the wealth of knowledge and insight that can be learned from our movement’s great leaders, and I consider all that our movement’s great leaders can learn from its young army of change agents bubbling up across the country and the world.  Ultimately, I think about how much more progress can be made if we all find ways to minimize any division between the two instrumental social change approaches and seek out ways to build bridges to the other instead.   With great battles to fight in order to ensure that every single individual and their family at risk for or living with a substance use disorder has access to whatever it is they need to initiate and sustain recovery, I think about how our movement needs to find as many ways as possible to unite and move forward.  My hope is that this thinking is embraced by us all, for we truly do have a common goal: making substance use disorder prevention, early intervention, treatment and recovery a reality for all those who need it.

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