Like recovery, addiction is a social issue that cannot be divorced from broader social, economic and political contexts. These are contexts that concern us all and which, for us at Nurture Development, situate issues of addiction and recovery firmly within the bounds of social justice.
I doubt many would disagree. It is rare to find a discussion about these issues without looking to the families and networks that the individual is part of; the economic prosperity of the communities they have come from; the emotional or physical trauma they may have suffered; the opportunities they have for education, training and employment; or an investigation of their wellbeing, physical and mental health. And so on.
It is these issues that reveal the catalysts and journey to addiction for people and will often suggest the likely trajectory of their recovery journey. But they are also the same issues that are pertinent to all of our lives and it is through the mapping of these issues over time that people like Bruce Alexander, as well as our ABCD colleagues, John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, tell a story of ‘the globalisation of addiction’ in a post-modern society that promotes individualism, free market economies, competition and professionalisation.
‘It is the people, caught in this web of counterproductive systems, who must seek survival in the hopeless spaces available. They react in many ways, just as we would. They strike out in anger, as some of us would. They create productive, phoenix-like new ventures and initiatives, as some of us would. They despair and retreat into addictions, as some of us would. They are normal people in an abnormal world, surrounded by expensive, costly helping systems that are the walls that bound their lives. To defy those walls, they must live abnormal lives – often productive sometimes destructive, always creative.’
John McKnight, The Careless Society: Community and its Counterfeits
This may seem like an odd way to start a discussion about Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), which tends to err on the side of strength, positivity, and abundance. But it is an important layer of context to what follows. Because as we’re talking about addiction and recovery as issues of social justice, we propose that we must stop focusing on addiction and recovery, in the same way that we must stop focusing on mental health, rehabilitation of prisoners, domestic violence, or tackling levels of obesity. We must move away from siloed thinking, siloed budgets, siloed cultures and siloed practices and start focusing on how we collectively address the weak communities in which these social ills thrive and build the competencies of communities so that they can reclaim their power in addressing them.
Recovery is only possible in healthy communities, but our communities need to recover too. We need a whole community recovery agenda, not just a whole person recovery one, that doesn’t simply focus on a single issue and offers a radically different approach to the ‘four pillars’ of traditional responses to drug and alcohol addiction (treatment, prevention, law enforcement and harm reduction) that have ultimately failed.
This is where we suggest that an ABCD approach will add the most value. For us, this approach goes beyond traditional strength-based approaches and promotes citizen-led community building that is independent of service provision and single-issue agendas. The things that people in recovery need to live a full life, for example, are no different to what everyone else needs – positive relationships, job/purposeful activity, somewhere safe and secure to live, and they are no different to the things that are needed to address anti-social behaviour and crime, loneliness and depression or obesity and declining mental health.
ABCD focuses on what is strong, not what is wrong, in individuals and communities. It seeks to enable people to become active contributors to their communities, building relationships and connections with the abundance – both potential and actual – that exists in relationships with their neighbours and in the communities around them.
Our approach to community building is a method for individual and whole community transformation. It is not about building ‘recovery communities’. That is not to say that recovery communities are not important: there are some incredible examples around the UK, especially those that have been built by grassroots groups and organisations. But too often these become part of the service landscape. Something happens when they become professionalised, something that means they begin to conform – often without realising it – to the deeply entrenched thinking of the system they are now linked to.
Despite the mountains of data collected about people within the various systems such as benefits, housing and treatment, there is still an incredible lack of evidence about what works, at what points and for whom, when it comes to a number of things including drug and alcohol addiction and recovery. For us, it is not necessarily a question about harm reduction or abstinence. Our money is on healthy, vibrant and hospitable communities that welcome people in from the margins.
It is in community building that individuals in their communities are awakened to their capacity to care for one another, to create safe and hospitable environments, to build resilient local economies and to heal and support people to live fulfilled lives. In doing so, reliance on public services reduces so that their resources are focused only on those things that people and communities cannot do for themselves.
We’re using an ABCD approach in our ‘learning sites’ across the UK to build on the largely American evidence base that demonstrates the power that this approach has across a variety of issues. These learning sites are championed by local leaders who are brave early adopters of an approach that challenges us all to think and behave differently, work in different ways and step into our citizenship.
As part of the development of this evidence base, we’ll shortly be embarking on an exciting programme of work across nine prisons and 15 communities in the North West alongside Mark Gilman, PHE strategic recovery lead, and a range of experienced partners from the criminal justice and recovery fields. ABCD provides the ethical and theoretical framework for this innovative programme in a way that is radical and transformational and corresponds with wider PHE and public service reforms, moving beyond a narrow focus on service or system reform. As such it recognises that it is in strong, connected and inclusive communities that recovery thrives and sets out a community building agenda which reaches into the prisons, through the gates and into the heart of communities.
We share our learning regularly through our website and blogs and invite you all to join our journey and be part of the ABCD movement, contributing to our growing understanding about how we can collectively improve social justice.