Monday, November 08, 2010

Identity to one's cause

After hosting the NCADD-NJ 2010 Advocacy Leadership Conference, which was held on October 1st and 2nd, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the different reasons of why this year’s class decided to apply and come together for a weekend of educational value and skill building.
I remember going through the selection process for this year’s leadership class and thinking how impressive this group was on paper, and being eager to meet the 2010 leaders in person. After the conference, getting to know the new leaders was a pleasure and I was even more impressed with everyone.
The diversity in background was tremendous.
Professionals looking to further their education on the issues most affecting the lives in their communities. Nurses, educators, providers, prevention specialists were among the professionals in this year’s class.
Some were there as people in recovery, looking to find a way to give others what they had attained through a life in recovery. Others were family members who lost loved ones to addiction, looking to fill a void and speak for those who are unable to do so themselves.
When introducing myself to this year’s leaders during the welcoming remarks on October 1st, I made a point to talk about looking at this as a growing grassroots advocacy movement.
I reminded this year’s participants that all advocacy movements share two defining characteristics. Leaders involved with civil rights, women’s rights, gay equality rights, voting rights, and environmental rights, for example, share a commonality that each:
1. Took progress and patience while winning step by step, and
2. Required those who were being discriminated against, or socially oppressed to speak out about injustice and inequality.
The 2008-2010 leader classes, who total 80 members, are at the core of the movement for addiction treatment and the fight against stigma.
One of the first things we did at the conference was give the attendees an opportunity to share with the other leaders why they were there. We talked about identity to a cause as I shared a quote from President Woodrow Wilson:
“Absolute identity with one's cause is the first and great condition of successful leadership.”
While the diversity of the conference was impressive, all of these leaders had something in common. They were motivated to be there.
Listening to the leaders’ reasons for why applying to the program, I was reminded of a story from my past that was instrumental in my own work as an advocate for a number of causes over the years.
When I was just 17 years old, I met a woman by the name of Lois Gibb. I met Lois at a conference being held in Elmer, New Jersey. At the time, I had been working for an environmental cause going door to door through rain and winter conditions in New England for several years on environmental issues. The work was tiring, and I needed a reminder of why I chose to do the work I was doing at the time.
Lois Gibb is an environmental activist who gained national attention in the late 70s and early 80s when she discovered that her 7 year old son’s elementary school had been built over a toxic waste dump. Upon further investigation, it was found that her entire community, known as Love Canal, in New York had been built over the toxic dump. The illnesses within the community and rate of learning disabilities in children in her community were staggering.
She talked to the conference I was attending about the challenges she had to overcome. The fear of speaking out, standing up for what is right, and having the courage to knock on her neighbors doors to discuss her concerns and organize her community.
In fact, Lois Gibb explained that the first time she thought she had the courage to go up to that first neighbor’s door she did not have the strength to see it through - she went to go and knock on the door, but fear overcame her, she hesitated and walked away.
She tried again, unsuccessfully.
After a number of failed attempts to make that first step, she brought her son with her to knock on that first door, which was the first step to leading her neighbors into a battle with local, state, and the federal officials that led to 833 families eventually being evacuated and the area beginning to be cleaned up. This led to the creation of the national Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund, which is used to locate and clean up toxic waste sites throughout the country.
Lois Gibb knocked on a door, and then another.
All of this was a result of Lois’s identity with her cause and willingness to stand up for her son, herself, and her community members. This story is one I often think of when I stop to think about why I personally have continued to do work that supports the needs of others.
The initial feeling of being alone in your cause is common in all. That feeling, that something just isn’t right, but what can I really do about it. I can’t possibly have enough impact.
The Advocacy Leadership Program continues to prove that we are not alone in the fight for others.
We know that people continue to die from addiction, crime is committed as a result of addiction that strains communities, non-violent drug offenders are receiving prison sentences with no help for the root cause, putting an enormous burden on tax payers and our prison system, and only 55,000 of the estimated 805,000 residents in New Jersey seeking treatment actually received it. Of the 805,000 residents in need of treatment only 7% we able to get help. The other 93% also need to be fought for, and the Closing the Addiction Treatment Gap-NJ Advocacy Leaders know that.
Nearly 80 leaders have taken part in the Advocacy Leadership Program in the past three years, which now has trained leaders in 33 out of New Jersey’s 40 Legislative Districts. This has been a process that will continue to till the soil for leader and legislative successes in years to come.
It is through the leaders’ collective strength that the Advocacy Leadership Program has been and will continue to be a driving grassroots force to put a face and a voice on New Jersey’s most pressing addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery issues.
Each leader has the same driving passion that Lois Gibb had, and the accomplishments and success of the Advocacy Leadership Program will be the result of this motivation and courage.
Leaders are currently broken down into Regional Advocacy Teams that will meet regularly to educate their communities, elected officials and policy decision makers. For more on the Advocacy Leadership Program, go to the Advocacy Leadership Page on NCADD-NJ’s website linked below.
-Aaron Kucharski is NCADD-NJ’s Advocate Trainer and can be reached at