Recovery Representation Revisited

Effective recovery community organizations (RCOs) seek meaningful representation of people in personal/family recovery within the decision-making venues that affect their lives. RCOs also try to prevent cultural appropriation/exploitation of the recovery experience. (See Bill Stauffer’s recent blog.) Including the voices of people in recovery is an essential but oft-neglected element within systems of care seeking to help people experiencing AOD problems. As Bill Stauffer suggests, “Systems that value flourishing will insist on recovery representation, even when the feedback provided by us is uncomfortable, perhaps even most when it is uncomfortable.” In recent years, I have tried to call attention to this issue in my writings and presentations. Here’s a reminder of some of the complex issues involved in achieving recovery representation at policy and practice levels.   

Locus of Representation What are the most important national, state, and local decision-making venues related to alcohol and other drug problems? What institutional bodies address the intersection of AOD problems and policy/legislation, media, health care, housing, education, employment, criminal justice, child welfare, religion, leisure, and entertainment? Are the voices of recovery representatives present at these decision-making tables? A long-term goal of the RCO is to expand the range of recovery representation across spheres of community influence and to expand the menu of representation activities (from one-time activities such as speaking at a town hall meeting or legislative hearing; sustained membership on governing boards, advisory councils, and commissions: to staff or consultant positions within key organizations). 

Representative(s) Level of Influence This dimension involves the question of table position. Do we have a voice in this venue? Do those present respect our voices? Do we hold positions of influence at this table? Do we have a vote in key decisions?

Authenticity of Representation Do those charged with addressing our needs and aspirations represent the lived experience of recovery? Are they free of conflicts of interest? The goal here is to avoid problems of “double agentry”—individuals purported to represent the lived experience of recovery who actually represent other personal or institutional interests. This also involves the question of who selected the representative(s): were they chosen by authentic RCOs or by other institutions (e.g., alcohol or pharmaceutical industries, treatment institutions, criminal justice authorities, etc.) whose interest they will be expected to protect and promote?

Adequacy and Depth of Representation Token representation of marginalized populations is always a risk in the early stages of social change movements. Beyond the question of authenticity of representation is the question of the adequacy of such representation. Are we represented in proportionate numbers within each decision-making body? Let’s take for example a new 21-member community task force appointed by a Mayor to address a local epidemic of opioid overdose deaths. In assessing this task force, how many represent: 1) knowledge of the problem, 2) proposed interventions into the problem, 3) lived experience of having experienced and resolved the problem, 4) political or financial influence that could help resolve the problem, or 5) none of the above. The RCO goal is to assure proportional representation of the third group.      

Scope (diversity) of Representation Given the multiple pathways and styles through which people initiate and sustain recovery from AOD problems, it is virtually impossible for one person to speak for the recovery experience across diverse populations and cultural contexts. Considering scope of representation via multiple recovery representatives and rotating representation assures the representation of the diversity of the recovery experience. The goal, in particular, is to have representatives who represent and respect such diversity.  

Protection of Recovery Representatives Recovery representation within public and professional venues can be deeply fulfilling, but such activity also entails personal risks. (For a series of brief essays exploring such risks, see HERE). It is the responsibility of the RCO to prepare people in recovery for this public role. This involves briefing each candidate on potential benefits and risks of recovery representation and preparing them via messaging/leadership training and coaching. The goal is to assure that a public advocacy role is a good personal fit and to assure a good fit between each individual and the platform in which they serve.      

The plea of all marginalized peoples is for representation within the decision-making venues that affect their lives. This has never been more eloquently stated than it was on March 16, 1827 within the first editorial of Freedom’s Journal, the first African American newspaper (quoted by Pamela Newkirk in Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain).

“We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly. Our vices and our degradation are ever arrayed against us, but our Virtues are passed by unnoticed. From the press and the pulpit we have suffered much by being incorrectly represented. Men whom we equally love and admire have not hesitated to represent us disadvantageously, without becoming personally acquainted with the true state of things, nor discerning between virtue and vice among us.”

We advocate for representation not just to change our present personal and collective predicament. We advocate to restore the names of misunderstood and mistreated ancestors. We advocate for future generations of people whose aspirations will be possible because of what our voices do at this time in these decision-making venues. We advocate to hold accountable the individuals and organizations who have exploited and profited from addiction and whose practices constitute obstacles to recovery. We who have so often not “fitted in” extend our voices to create a world in which we do fit. We can speak for ourselves; no others can truly speak for us.