Brink of success

JJLSocial entrepreneur of the year Jacquie Johnston-Lynch talks to DDN about risk, determination and the new challenges facing the recovery movement. 

It was on a personal leadership course in Vancouver that Jacquie Johnston- Lynch got the idea for The Brink, the alcohol-free Liverpool bar and venue that’s seen her named Lloyd’s Bank social entrepreneur of the year. ‘They were asking people their ideas to take back into the world, and that was mine,’ she says.

This was in 2008, and when she came back to the UK she put the idea to her employers, Action on Addiction, who ‘weren’t that keen’, she says. ‘Treatment was what they knew. They didn’t really know about community development or social enterprise, but eventually I just wore them down. I kept saying that if you want to be the trailblazing organisation that leads this new movement then you’ll have to get behind this, and eventually they absolutely did.’

She was given the green light to look at the venues she’d already been secretly visiting, and The Brink finally opened late in 2011, ‘a dream come true’, she says.

‘Everybody loved the venue, and that’s because we’d decided it wouldn’t be what addicts are usually given – backstreet places, church halls, community centres. Why, just because people have stopped drinking and using, should they have less than anyone else, especially when they’re not going to be sick or trash the place? Why can’t they have better? So that’s what we aimed for –a really amazing venue with great quality food and drinks and a great design.’

The Brink now has 18 staff and 11 volunteers, with more than 75 per cent in recovery themselves, and customers are split 50-50 between members of the public ‘who really like the ethos of the place, and recovery folks who really want to be in there’, she says. Services are also offered in the building, ‘so we’ll have people in who are still using and drinking but their behaviour’s impeccable because they’re coming into the building to aspire to be in recovery,’ she says. ‘They want to be part of the community there, so they’re not going to jeopardise that.’

As well as live music several times a week, there’s a film night, an arts and crafts club, open mic sessions and more. ‘There’s loads of stuff,’ she says. ‘We had a chocolate-making workshop, a women-only sleepover where they had a pamper night and watched a chick flick and the staff cooked them breakfast the next morning. Chris Difford from Squeeze has played a few times because he really likes the vibe and he’s out about being in recovery himself.’

So is it doing well as a business in its own right? ‘With all social enterprises there’s a point where you can’t any longer rely on grants or philanthropy,’ she says. ‘The idea is that we move to an 80-20 position, where 80 per cent is trading, sales and contracts and 20 per cent is donation or grant-based. We’re never going to make a huge profit on food or drinks because we try to keep the prices low so that the recovery pound can afford that good quality food, so I think we’ll always need to have an 80-20 principle to our income base.’

After nearly ten years at SHARP and Action on Addiction she’s now moved on to work for two organisations, one of which is Clearmind International, organisers of the training workshop where she first had the idea for The Brink. ‘They’re based in Canada but I’m going to develop their organisation here,’ she says. ‘It just seems like it’s come full circle.’ The other, meanwhile, is something that’s been a well-guarded secret until now.

‘There’s a woman called Paula Gunn who runs abstinence-based accommodation where we’d regularly refer people from SHARP so they wouldn’t have to go back to a using and drinking hostel or anything. We were both seeing returning veterans really not doing very well at all in mainstream treatment projects, so what we’ve decided to do is set up the UK’s first ever veterans-only residential addiction treatment project.’

The project will launch in the spring as Tom Harrison House, named after Gunn’s grandfather, a navy veteran. ‘Paula herself is in recovery and when she was trying to get clean and sober one of the things she’d do was focus on doing that for him to see, so she’s set up this in his honour. It’s going to be a low-level, more sensory-focused programme, rather than cognitive or too much talking therapy that can invoke a lot of anxiety for people who’ve experienced traumatic events. It’s 16 beds, so it’s quite a small rehab but enough for us to be effective for the amount of money. We’ll have mostly beds for Merseyside but we’ll have some beds later around the UK, and people will be able to refer in.’

Leaving Action on Addiction has been difficult, however, especially as she’d set up SHARP and The Brink herself. ‘The actual projects and the people who worked in them were incredible and I found it very difficult to leave them, but I felt like my time in that kind of charity had come to an end,’ she says. 

‘I think sometimes charities that do a lot of very good quality work and a lot of due diligence don’t really understand the need to take risks, and in addiction treatment we’re encouraging people to take new healthy risks,’ she explains. ‘I think it’s bad if we stay stuck. In Liverpool we’d taken an asset-based community development approach to recovery and the charity was a little bit distant from that – we love that whole community development approach and our demographics are different to what you might see in [Wiltshire-based] Clouds House. So while I absolutely think the work of Action on Addiction is fantastic, I also think the culture might need to change in order to be more proactive around social enterprise and asset-based community development approaches to treatment.’

JJL awardAn eating disorder saw her enter a 12-step fellowship herself in 1997, and her first husband also had issues around gambling and alcohol. ‘I remember trying to get him into Gamblers Anonymous but he wasn’t having it, so I had some experience of 12-step from years ago but didn’t really understand it – it was when I went into treatment for an eating disorder that I got more of a 12-step message.’

Working in the field, however, she began to understand the need for choice, she says. ‘I advocated that SHARP Liverpool should change from just 12-step to more ITEP-based as well, so that people could come in and say “this is the modality I’d like to follow and if it doesn’t work I’ll swap and do something else”, and let the client have the power over that, not us telling them what works.

Another powerful motivation for entering the field, however, was the death of her brother 21 years ago, killed by a drink driver. ‘The man who killed him was a repeat offender and I just thought “what did he ever get?”’ she says. ‘He just got punishment, his licence taken off him or whatever, but he wasn’t just somebody who’d got drunk at an office party and tried to sneak home and got caught, he was doing this constantly. He had a problem and no one ever offered him any help. At Clearmind they teach about turning your pain into purpose, and I thought that all that painful grief had to be given some purpose.

‘People aren’t bad and needing punishment,’ she continues. ‘They aren’t very well and need to have a whole new realm put in front of them of “these are the possibilities of getting well”, if that’s what they want. If they don’t want it, that’s a choice too and I’m absolutely happy for people who say, “I don’t want to give up drinking and I’m happy to stay scripted”. If that’s working for them, that’s OK.’

On that note, she’s pleased that the field seems less polarised and entrenched these days – ‘people are absolutely moving towards working together and trying to join up all the dots’ – but the political and economic landscape has created new challenges, she believes.

‘I think that what we’ve got to be really careful of now is the recovery agenda being hijacked so that it becomes a decoy for just getting people off benefits and methadone. Recovery is about what kind of quality of life are people having, and we’ve got to be really careful that the government doesn’t hijack it as a means to a political end, because when that happens those people who are harm reduction advocates aren’t able to see us recovery folks in a well-meaning light.

‘They just see us as being part of the Tory agenda, and we’re absolutely not,’ she states. ‘That’s my concern.’  

Picture top right by Paul Cooper,

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