Toward Seven Generations of Recovery Advocacy (Bill White & Don Coyhis)

In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations. –The Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy

That’s all it takes—pressure and time.—Red (Shawshank Redemption)

There is a tradition within many Native American tribes of using ancestral history to inform current decision-making and weighing the potential impact of present actions seven generations into the future. Leaders of successful social movements similarly understand the value of inherited wisdom and that fundamental social change requires sustained advocacy across generations of time. As a result, such leaders have articulated visions of a transformed world beyond their own lifetimes (e.g., from the Code of Handsome Lake to “I have a dream…”) and inspired children, youth, adults, and elders to devote their lives to the fulfillment of such visions.

Recovery advocacy in the United States can similarly best be thought of in intergenerational terms. We now find ourselves in the middle of what may well be a seven-generational change process. The first waves of recovery advocacy organized by and on behalf of people seeking and in recovery can be traced to late 18th and early 19th century abstinence-based Native American cultural revitalization movements  and to Euro-American temperance advocates. The former drew on their recovery experience to challenge the use of alcohol as a weapon of genocide and called for the rejection of alcohol and other trappings of European culture and a return to Native traditions. The latter used their personal stories of addiction and recovery to castigate alcohol, invite others to sign a pledge of abstinence, and, in some cases, advocate the legal prohibition of alcohol.

The rise of alcohol problems following repeal of prohibition stirred a second wave of recovery advocacy launched by Marty Mann in 1944 via the establishment of the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism (NCEA). NCEA sought changes in public attitudes toward persons addicted to alcohol and a commitment of public resources to support alcoholism-focused public and professional education and community-based alcoholism treatment. NCEA evolved into the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), expanding its focus to all drug dependencies.

A third wave of recovery advocacy efforts unfolded in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the founding of the National Alliance of Methadone Advocates (NAMA, 1988—presently the National Alliance for Medication Assisted Recovery, NAMA-R) and the Society of Americans for Recovery (SOAR, 1991). NAMA-R has sustained its advocacy activities, but SOAR under the leadership of former Senator Harold Hughes was only active for a few years.

A fourth wave of recovery advocacy culminated in the 2001 Recovery Summit and the founding of Faces and Voices of Recovery. In a process similar to that experience within the civil rights and other social movements, the success of Faces and Voices spawned complementary and more specialized organizations, including the Association of Recovery Community Organizations (ARCO), Young People in Recovery (YPR), Facing Addiction with NCADD, the Association of Recovery Schools (ARS), the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE), and the National Alliance for Recovery Residences (NARR), to name just a few.  

Other waves of recovery advocacy will likely follow. It will take a long time to destroy the cultural misrepresentation of people experiencing and recovering from substance use disorders and the harm to individuals, families, and communities that flow from such caricatures, but make no mistake, that process of change has deep roots that are now accelerating. The present era contains its own unique vulnerabilities, but, compared to earlier generations, the advocacy movement of today portends a much more sustainable movement due to stronger organizational infrastructures, greater cultural and philosophical diversity, greater attention to leadership development and succession planning, greater involvement of women, people of color, and young people in recovery, and boundary expansion to include all those affected by addiction (including the families of the more than 72,000 individuals now dying each year in the U.S. from drug overdoses).

It is a profound blessing to be part of something so much greater than ourselves—to contribute to a movement with full knowledge that its greatest fruits will be harvested by generations to come. If you have been graced with the promises of recovery or have lost someone to addiction, come join us in creating a world in which a message of hope is extended to all who still suffer and in altering the community landscapes in which such suffering flourishes. Addiction has long been marked by intergenerational legacies of pain and despair; personal/family recovery and recovery advocacy offer opportunities to replace such traumatic inheritances with legacies of hope, resilience, and active resistance. Join us. Let’s Go Make Some History.