C4 Innovations

Challenging Silos in Recovery Services

An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast

Laurie Johnson-Wade shares about the Ubuntu approach to life as a culture shift for recovery services from separateness and isolation to community and connectivity with host Ashley Stewart.

March 7, 2022


Ashley Stewart, Host (00:05): Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Ashley Stewart, a racial equity and inclusion specialist at C4 Innovations. Our topic today is Ubuntu, challenging silos in recovery spaces. I am joined by the Laurie Johnson-Wade, calling in from New Kensington, Pennsylvania. She is the co-founder of Lost Dreams Awakening, an active member of Black Faces, Black Voices, and Laurie is a passionate advocate. She’s a dynamic representative of the recovery community, locally, statewide, and absolutely nationally. Laurie has been with us on Changing the Conversation before, so Laurie, thank you so much for joining us again today.

Laurie Johnson-Wade, Guest (00:44): Oh, Ashley, thank you. It’s my great pleasure to be with you and the other fabulous folks at C4.

Ashley (00:52): Awesome. Laurie, why don’t we get started with identifying what are some of the issues and what have been some of the responses to silos in recovery, and what are the silos in recovery?

Laurie (01:05): Prevention, treatment, recovery, harm reduction, those are the siloed areas. That’s the whole span of the continuum of care. Harm reduction is just recently added. I do like the work that SAMHSA has done around recovery. In 2010, they did some really magnificent work and what we do is grounded in that, and so you’ll see that a lot with anything I do recovery. You’ll hear me talk about that work in 2010, where they convened … Listen, they did an Ubuntu thing. They convened people from everywhere to come and have a conversation.

Laurie (01:46): This is what came out of that conversation in 2010. They came up with a new definition of recovery that spans both substance use disorders and mental health, they came up with the 10 guiding principles of recovery, which number seven is about culture, people ignore that quite a bit, and then the four dimensions that support a life in recovery, which is purpose, home, community, and health, and that happens to be where most of the disparities exist, within those four pillars. You can get into the social determinants of health. Without pillars, without your foundational pieces, you can’t build nothing on top of it. When you look at it, it all makes sense.

Laurie (02:30): But they did a phenomenal thing, they called everybody to the table, people with lived experience, the full continuum of care was present. They did a great work with that, so let’s build on that.

Ashley (02:45): I’m glad that you bring that into the space. You just mentioned Ubuntu. What is an Ubuntu approach to recovery and what is Ubuntu?

Laurie (02:55): Ubuntu basically encompasses our humanity. It is an African philosophy that is part of how they are socialized. In Western civilization, we are socialized more in a separate, essential, fundamentally separate way. Understanding this idea that I am because we are, and that we have an interconnectedness to each other, what I do can impact you and likewise, and that we need to explore this community approach as a way of life. It’s for everybody. Like Nelson Mandela said, this isn’t about Black domination, this is not about White domination, this is about humanity.

Ashley (03:48): Ooh, so good.

Laurie (03:49): When you have that approach, and Mandela, regardless of what people’s ideas about him were, when he had his inauguration, he invited his jailers as his VIPs, the people who held him captive were his VIPs, he lived an Ubuntu way. He lived an Ubuntu way and that allowed him to forgive, to have empathy, kindness, and realize that this is going to advance my people, this is going to advance my … I mean, that blows my mind. It’s a mindblower.

Ashley (04:26): That’s so good, that’s so good. What might that look like in recovery? I mean, recovery spaces are already places that are so committed to community, to collaboration. What does Ubuntu to add to the recovery practices?

Laurie (04:40): It actually gets the participants within the silos that are critical to the continuum of care, to actual care of individuals that are oppressed, suffering, stigmatized, discriminated against, it actually sends out a call, a global call if you will, for everybody to come and gather together to have this dialogue around how best to help each other and our community as part of humanity. You’re sending out this call, people come, they answer the call.

Laurie (05:27): This may be the only circle in which people genuinely have dialogue around what’s happening within their silos. It’s a solution to break down those silos. One of the things that the circles do is use a talking stick, the African talking stick. Only one person has the floor at a time, and then you’re heard. It’s very critical to be heard. Many people are frustrated within the constraints that they have in operating in isolation. We need each other, we need that connectivity.

Ashley (06:10): We do, we absolutely do. The more I listen to you, this is really a paradigm time shift. This is a critical paradigm shift that’s absolutely needed. With your work with Lost Dreams Awakening, what does this paradigm shift look like, and how has it impacted the work that you’ve been doing?

Laurie (06:30): If you could just think about maybe what keeps us in scarcity, what keeps us in these silos, what are the barriers? See, part of our recovery community organization, Lost Dreams Awakening, is to remove barriers. When you look at the fact that the very systems set in place to assist actually become barriers, then you have no choice but to gather together and say, “What can we do?” Okay? These are real communities that are impacted, families that are impacted, human beings that are impacted. These aren’t just objects, this is humanity. We have to invest in the call, in the gathering process, in the dialogue process. The paradigm shift is moving out of that separateness into community, moving out of that isolation into connectivity, then we function as a network together.

Ashley (07:36): I love that, I love that. Are there any examples that you could provide our listeners to help them connect with Ubuntu?

Laurie (07:45): It’s hard to translate it into our Western culture. The word Ubuntu, there is no word in our Western culture to adequately describe it, so I want to be careful not to lose anything into translation here. However, in Africa, it is a way of life. Ubuntu’s considered Africa’s gift to the world, and what a gift it is. An example is a story of an anthropologist who was studying a village in Africa. He had spent some time there exploring their customs and culture, and he was getting ready to leave. He said, “You know what? The kids, I’ve really connected with these children here. I want to do something fun with them.” He got this basket, and he filled it with treats, and he gathered the children, he said, “Listen, this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to have this basket, I’m going to put it under the tree. When I say go, I want you to race under the tree, grab all you can get.” Now, envision, in our culture, a pinata at a party, the kids just go into a frenzy. Once you get the treats, you can have all you can carry.

Laurie (09:04): He was amazed after he drew a line in the dirt with a stick, and he hollered, “Go,” the children didn’t go. They all locked hands, one of them expressed the word, “Ubuntu,” and they all went together to the basket, waited till they all had approached, gathered their treats at the same time. This blew his mind, he was amazed. Why wouldn’t they just get in there and take all they could for themselves? He asked the children, “Why did you do that?” and they said, “How could any one of us be happy while the others are sad?” The paradigm shift is it. You and I may be in our Western civilization, may say, “Oh, treats, I’m going to get all I can carry,” but their way of life, it’s just ingrained in them to say, “I cannot be happy if my brother and sister are sad.”

Laurie (10:07): It’s hard. I continue to look for stories within our Western culture that equate to that, and I’m still searching. The only thing that comes close is what I see exhibited in recovery communities, the idea that you can only keep what you have by giving it away. That whole idea, that whole paradox is somewhat, it touches upon but it cannot adequately capture the essence of Ubuntu. That is what I would say is likened to a practice of Ubuntu.

Ashley (10:48): There’s something in that spirit of connecting with someone else with unifying, with being thoughtful. It’s not just that I’m thinking about what’s best for the group, it’s that I’m also thinking about the group actively while I’m participating. I think that we do see a lot of those values in recovery spaces, and this is also something that is very much translated in the Black community and African and African American community in the US, in acknowledging that there are a lot of gaps in accessing recovery. I really do think that this is a critical lens for us to begin to look at how do people feel seen and heard and valued within recovery spaces. I’m so glad that you’re bringing this conversation to the forefront in introducing these principles and values in recovery spaces.

Laurie (11:39): Yes.

Ashley (11:39): How do the values of Ubuntu elevate and connect in recovery values? What other ways do you see Ubuntu and recovery principles connecting?

Laurie (11:51): I’m trying to bring this philosophy to the recovery space, to the full continuum of care. I start looking at who would be best to be a catalyst to introduce this to the United States, to my state, to my city, to my center. None other than the recovery community, because they embody the different ways to get better. See, at the end of the day, folks want to know what is it that I need to not be tortured by addiction, what are the things that I need not to be oppressed by the decisions that I’m making in a powerless state? There are spiritual aspects to it, things that are not visible to the eye. This is why the gathering part is so critical, because something happens in the atmosphere, there’s a transformation, a metamorphosis if you will, that happens in the space. The recovery community, and those who love them care about them, allies, families, they are the best folks to contain this, to take it then to our nation.

Laurie (13:20): Just like Ubuntu is a gift from Africa to the world, so Ubuntu is a gift to the recovery community to share with our nation. We need this, we need this desperately in the United States. You can see what’s happening. This was a catalyst for me to even start thinking outside of the normal ways to do things in that I saw a lot of suffering, stigma, discrimination. When I am you, you are me, and when you talk about me, you are inevitably mirroring yourself. There’s a great author, Wendell Berry, talks about the hidden wound. We’re trying to heal the hidden wound.

Ashley (14:11): What so resonates with me about what you’re sharing is it’s more than a practice. It’s a lifestyle, it’s a culture change, it’s a dynamic change, it’s a shift in mentality. I’m always thoughtful and mindful about how we can appreciate, adopt, and build in values into our practices while being mindful of not appropriating the beautiful and dynamic cultures that they come from. I think that with the ways in which recovery practices, recovery principles, align with Ubuntu, it is really a dynamic opportunity for us to think about what is the shift that has to happen, or what is the shift that can happen in lifestyle, in appreciation and values of others, of seeing one another, the importance of being seen and heard in communities that have experienced systemic and structural marginalization. This is the embodiment of it. It’s more than a practice, it is an entire culture shift. I just love that so much. I’m so grateful that you’re talking about it in these spaces.

Ashley (15:16): Is there anything else you would like for folks to consider as they think about how do you do that, how do you begin to implement this in a non-performative way?

Laurie (15:24): Well, I would like to reflect on a brief piece that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had penned. It says, “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based on a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs to a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished when others are tortured or oppressed.”

Laurie (16:02): We are definitely our brother and sisters keeper. I would challenge listeners to think about what it would be like to have an Ubuntu way of life and the fact that we can see ourselves in each other. If you hurt, how can I be happy? I think it’s the answer to so many things. I think it’s the answer to so many things, and while it seems like a lofty goal, it’s doable. It’s doable.

Laurie (16:38): Children, children can get it very easily. They already function with many of these attributes, it’s just how they’re socialized. We believe in our elders, we believe that our elders have wisdom to impart to us in the spirit of Sankofa. Looking to the past for what has and has not worked, how we can bring that forward so we can have a better future.

Ashley (17:07): Thinking about Sankofa, thinking about Ubuntu, I think it’s particularly poignant that this podcast is being recorded during Black History Month. I love how you refer to it as Africa’s gift to the world. It really is, and I hope that we can begin to embody it, embrace it, and see it more as it naturally aligns with so much of what we do in recovery spaces.

Laurie (17:31): Just in my final comment, I want to let everybody know that there is something they can do to contribute to our Ubuntu work. We’re going to have a literary publication that we encourage everybody, regardless of your culture, to contribute to. We’re going to use that in our recovery circle. People can actually contribute, we welcome you. You’re part of our family, we’re a part of yours.

Ashley (18:00): That’s so great. We’ll be sure to link information to all of our listeners so that you can get access to that. Laurie, we are so fortunate to have you. We’re so grateful that you joined us today for this conversation. Just thank you, thank you for what you’re doing, thank you for this message that you’re promoting, and thank you for being here with us today.

Laurie (18:21): Oh, it’s my great pleasure, Ashley.

Ashley (18:24): And to our listeners, thank you so much for joining, and we will see you next time on Changing the Conversation.

Erika Simon, Producer (18:29): Visit c4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.


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