To Advocate or Not to Advocate?




To Advocate or Not to Advocate?
By John O. Whitaker, Jr., CATC II

September is National Recovery Month, when federal, state, and local county and city governments are invited to celebrate the efforts of those of us in substance abuse treatment and recovery.

When, how, and who will share this information with them? “If not now, when?” “If not me, who?” Here are a few guidelines on how anyone can become involved and advocate for change on a large or small scale educating family, friends, and, most importantly, your community leaders about our significant issues.

Advocacy is the art of pleading or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy. From the earliest of times, change has only happened when a situation got so difficult that it initiated a change in the status quo. An example of this would be Moses, who knew the Egyptian leaders and culture and insisted that Pharaoh “let my people go”. He claimed the rule of law should prevail — and not the subjugation of others because of their heritage or cultural differences.

Martin Luther, Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Caesar Chavez were advocates for positive change. They were personal witnesses to injustice or prejudicial action and took it upon themselves to right the wrongs of the status quo. This timeline of recognition shows what progress has been made:

  • The 1950s and 1960s were the heightened years of the Equal Rights Movement. African Americans and minorities were empowered to vote.

  • The 1970s and 1980s were a time when Latinos, through the help of Cesar Chavez, moved toward more equality for farm workers and the Latin Community at large.

  • The 1990s and 2000s: The LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender & Questioning) community started moving toward more equality and recognition for better understanding.

I truly believe that the 2010s and 2020s will be the time for mental health and substance use disorder communities to join together and create a power base for a better tomorrow for those of us who have suffered and for those who are still suffering because of stigma, lack of resources, and education.

The 12-Step adage, nothing changes if nothing changes, is another perfect example that someone or something must make the change.

Who is going to make the change? How can we make the change?

Our first goal in advocacy: “Educate ourselves on our situation.”

Many of us working in the profession of addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery have worked through our own demons and know firsthand the prejudices and distrust of others. Even though we lived through it, we need be educated about our disease and help others learn cost-effective ways and means to make treatment and recovery long lasting with positive outcomes.

Our 2nd goal: “Educate others about our situation.”

We can no longer stay silent while others continue to die due to overdose deaths, lack of proper detox, treatment resources, funds, and plain ignorance and fear. We must educate families, friends, first responders, emergency medical personnel, and others that stigma and ignorance can kill.

Our 3rd goal: “Mobilize and collaborate with others with similar goals.”

We can no longer shun any effective or medically prudent methods of treatment and recovery. Working with, learning from, and sharing others’ positive outcomes benefit all who have similar goals. Those first responders and medical personnel whose budgets continue to get thinner don’t want repeat offenders and can avoid such when they are dealt with properly.

Our 4th goal: “Educate policy makers.”

Regarding budgetary restraints: Get to know your policy makers. Who can you go to for help and support? Who are your federal, state, county, and local leaders who make the policies that you live by? Once we find out who they are, we need to get to know them. Go to a local meet-and-greet with your city council person, state senator or government representative. Ask them their feelings and how they plan to vote on our issues.

Our 5th Goal: “Get support from policy makers.”

One of the most important ways to get their support is by sharing the personal stories and experiences of others who are their constituents. For those who were incarcerated, inform your leaders that you are no longer revenue-costing but now a tax-paying citizen instead. Ask them to join your causes.

If they can’t give you a positive response, remember the 6th goal…

Our 6th Goal: “Make the change or change the policy makers.”

Make sure that you are registered to vote. Remember that even if you or a patient has had a felony in the past, if you are off probation and/or parole, you can vote. If we work together and strengthen our overall position and get enough of us registered to vote, and help others to do so, we can have a voting block that can be very powerful. Unfortunately, too many of us are complacent and expect others to do the job.

We don’t want the entire burden placed on the policy makers; we must remember that legislators need to know everything, from the cost of a school lunch to the intricacies of a nuclear power plant, and everything in between. Their goal is to make the best decision possible for everyone. It is our job to make sure they get concise, informative, documented, and positive proof of plans and goals for the future.

How can we get our message to the masses? Taken from a 1966 leader in the equal rights movement, I believe we can take heed by:

  1. Stop being ashamed of our disease (addiction/alcoholism)!

  1. As a group, move into a position where we can 
    define the terms of how we want to be perceived.

  1. Move to a position of strength and unity.

  1. Build a power base of supporters that is so strong that we will make the policy makers sit up and listen and take us seriously.

Occasionally, people in long-term recovery who are also supporters of the 12-Step Movement may ask, “What about anonymity? Aren’t we supposed to anonymous?” Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics’ Anonymous, addressed this:

“One important aspect of anonymity: It is the spiritual foundation of our program, but please, never, if you can, allow it to come between you and your ability to help another human being. Don’t be too anonymous”. .

.How can I get involved and better informed? You can do the following:

  1. Become a member of and/or support an advocacy group.

  2. Register to vote! Encourage others to vote.

  3. Find out how to join coalitions, community advisory boards, local neighborhood councils, chambers of commerce, and the like.

  4. Develop relationships with your local state and federal legislators.

  5. Get involved in actions and movements that understand our message.

Take Action:

  1. When asked about or informed of important actions, send emails to local, state, and federal officials (get on their e-mail list).

  1. When asked about or informed of important actions, help with a letter-writing campaign. Tell your story or use personal examples or patients’ stories (where appropriate) as advocacy tools.

  1. Make phone calls, fax letters.

  1. When possible, make visits to legislators at their office; set up appointments.

  2. Attend neighborhood councils or community events and talk to legislators there.

  1. Inform others in your support groups.

  1. Invite other friends and family members to join coalitions.

  1. Invite officials to coalition meetings, board meetings, or special events your program conducts.

Remember: If you can’t personally do the work, then support these organizations financially by donating to their causes. Most of them are 501(c)3 organizations, and your donations are tax deductible.

We must make sure that we educate and inform the public that people in recovery are not bad people with a bad way of living. We are good people with a bad disease which, without help, education, and understanding, can be the cause for many of us to act with bad behaviors. My hope would be that each of us who are fully or partially involved with addiction prevention, treatment, healing, and recovery would become active in your own way and help to make our voices heard. It is my sincere belief that we need to stand up now and let the stigmas of the past stay in the past, and work together to build a future filled with hope, recovery, and healing.

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