C4 Innovations

Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change

Embedding Racial Equity in Recovery Services

An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast

Ariel Britt and host Livia Davis discuss ways to have tough conversations, increase internal awareness, and examine privilege as strategies for embedding racial equity in recovery services.

January 25, 2021

[Music]

Livia Davis, Host: [00:05] Hi, hello. And welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Livia Davis. Our topic today is on racial equity in the recovery field, and we are going to focus on initiating progressive conversation strategies. My guest is Ariel Britt. She’s calling in from Denver, Colorado. Ariel is a senior director at the SAFE Project in Washington, DC, and we are very fortunate that she’s also an employee of C4 on an on-call basis. Ariel, thank you for joining us today.

Ariel Britt, Guest: [00:40] Hi, I’m so happy to be here. Thank you so much for having me. How are you?

Livia: [00:44] Very good. Thank you. So Ariel, next month is Black History Month. It’s coming in February. And you and I have had some conversations together and separate with various agencies and systems about how to have conversations around racial equity. And so before we talk about some specific strategies, I’m wondering Ariel, if you could just say a few words about why is this important, why now?

Ariel: [01:13] Sure. So I can kind of go at it from two ways. First and foremost, I’m a Black woman and I’m also a person in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder. And I have been in recovery for over nine years now and that’s just been so stunning. Along my journey, what I’ve noticed is from the very beginning, a lot of the faces that I see represented in the recovery community at different stages, they don’t look like mine, definitely a very isolating experience at some times. I have really struggled to find just that connection, that faith. I’m blessed to have some wonderful allies, recovery allies, White allies in my life and dearest, dearest friends, but there’s definitely something that’s always made me feel really different. And then taking that experience and then coming to the decision that I wanted to make recovery my career, it’s the same thing.

Ariel: [02:12] And so what I really noticed now, in the past, racial equity, diversity, equity, inclusion typically is what it was called is something that most organizations and spaces have added off to the side of programs, right? They’re added on to maybe their organizational structure. And what we’ve seen in 2020 is this movement and this push saying no more. We need to figure out how to embed this deeper into everything that we do. And when I’m noticing that it’s not just people like me and people of color, BIPOC [Black and Indigeneous People of Color] folks that are fighting for this. We’re now seeing folks like you, Livia, other folks as well, who are coming to the forefront in this work and saying like, let’s have these conversations, let’s change systems because people are dying.

Ariel: [03:01] People are not getting the care and the support that they need, and we care and we want to do better. So how can we push this forward? So we’re seeing that a lot. So that’s where I’ll start there. And I just wanted to even ask you from your background as a White ally, somebody that I really admire and appreciate, what are you seeing as some strategies that have even shifted in this framework now?

Livia: [03:25] Yes. So before getting into some specific strategies as well, from my point of view, as a Danish immigrant coming to the US almost 40 years ago now, I have really also noticed this in the last year and a half, two years. This incredible push and wish for White people to learn more, but also having very little idea about where to start. What I’ve also noticed is that there is a tendency for a lot of White people to say, just tell me how to do it, give me the tools so I can “fix this.” And just taking a step back and saying, wait a minute, if you think about that way of thinking, even that is in my mind, a kind of a White dominant way of coming at something.

Livia: [04:20] Where, speaking as a White person, we want to figure out what’s the best way of doing it. Then tell me the how so that I can just do it, right? And really in what I’ve seen which I really appreciated, and it’s also a vulnerability from my own point of view is acknowledging that we really first need to take the time to become aware internally of the work we have to do and not just go to fixing or implementing something. But it’s really this, if you think about a railroad track, it’s both tracks at the same time, but you can’t start with the action without doing the internal work.

Livia: [04:59] And so the internal work, the first realization is that this is going to be uncomfortable and it’s okay. This is going to bring up a lot of emotional charge. And if you think about the charge around racism, you have about 400 plus years of that charge building. And so we need to be ready to be uncomfortable as a very first step. And for a lot of my White buddy colleagues, that is something that has taken some time. But once you name it, I have seen people just saying, okay, we get it. So that for us has been the first step.

Ariel: [05:38] Awesome. Yeah, I was thinking too, even going off that I love stories. I love storytelling. That’s a huge way that I know I learn. And I look at organizational bios, and I think about the folks that have created some really long standing programs. And how did you get started? What happened? And oftentimes it’s folks that have a large capital in some regard or great idea, or they were triggered by something within their own experience, a loss, their own recovery to start something. And it’s these amazing White folks that wanted to create something to support people in recovery. But at that inception, because they’re going off their own personal experience, they were not thinking about everyone. They couldn’t, they didn’t have the capacity.

Ariel: [06:27] And so I often, when I typically talk to folks who want to do well, who want to shift the conversation, who was in the room? Who is in the room when you are creating that program? Who is in the room within that strategic plan? How much power do they have to push back on ideas and ideologies and how things are run? And I think that’s oftentimes where you get some of that level of awareness. I intended to create this organization. This is the story of it. This is who it’s for. But it limits the scope of what you can actually provide.

Ariel: [07:04] And I noticed that a lot of folks are really interested in having those deeper conversations. And then hopefully coming to the table that it’s like, we can progress those conversations all we want to, but then it’s a great gateway to see what we can do. What are some solidified wins? What does our board look like? I think that’s a huge conversation we’re seeing too, doing a lot of board checks. Our colleague, Ashley [Stewart], does great work around that too, just kind of giving an inventory of organizations to see the gaps in their perspective in their capacity too. That’s something that I really think was just a great way to start. And folks are really thinking, how do I get into this?

Livia: [07:44] I agree so much with that. And what I like about what you just said is this notion that both racial equity work and recovery work, they have some values and principles. Some of them are very much the same, so aspirational. In the recovery space, in “nothing about us without us” is a huge kind of value and rallying cry to make sure that when problems are identified, the solutions are developed that the people most impacted, the people with lived experience, need to be part of the solution. And so there are some real, I think, opportunities in openness in the recovery field to look at adding and addressing the racial equity components. And some of that lends well, and some of it, there are some bumps. And so it’s okay.

Livia: [08:34] And so I think one of the things that I have found powerful with having some of the uncomfortable conversations again for White colleagues is to look at the privileges that we have, and also looking at where have we been subjugated? And so Ken Hardy’s work on the Tasks of the Privileged and the Subjugated for me has been very powerful personally, but also with White colleagues to really understand how often have we been privileged even in creating agencies or creating solutions or talking on behalf of people that maybe we shouldn’t be talking. We shouldn’t be framing other people’s experience. White dominant culture has tended to do that a lot and really stopping ourselves in the track and committing to saying, Hey, that awareness again. Where are we? I have found that that tool specifically is really good for initiating progressive conversations. I don’t know if you know that tool or if you want to talk about it a little bit.

Ariel: [09:45] Yeah, no. I don’t really know that tool, but I really appreciate you sharing that. So, I’ve had many incidences at work in spaces where I’ve had racial incidents against me, and I’ve called my mom crying and saying this is so unfair. I’m so lonely; this is so hard. And because I love my mom, and I understand the legacy of my family, I come from sharecroppers and academics. With my substance use disorder, I should not be here. I should not be in the position. I should have not graduated. This shouldn’t happen. So my mom always reminds me, sometimes not at the right times, it’s a privilege for you to be there. Stick it out, stay strong within that. And the times when she says it, sometimes I get really frustrated and upset, and then I take some time out. And then I remember my own privilege as a Black woman to be able to have a seat at the table and what that costs and what the legacy of my experiences of the trauma and historical trauma of that is.

Ariel: [10:51] And so I always find it so interesting when White folks don’t necessarily want to have those conversations. And I’m here to tell you that if a Black woman can look at her privilege and see how far she’s come, we all can. We can all look at the history of our nation and be part of the solution, but we all have to have that framework. And I’m constantly challenged by my Black colleagues in recovery to really look at what that weight is. What does that really look like? Where are we standing? And then how can we use even our privilege to open up these doors?

Ariel: [11:25] But what we’re definitely seeing is I can’t do it in silo. I can’t do it alone. And this momentum has really come from White colleagues waking up and saying “No more. We want to do something. We want to have these tough conversations, and we want to change the systems in which we serve” and how to support that. And so working together and being able to have a seat at that table, that kind of seat at the table, has been so amazing to really feel like we’re moving ahead a real way. This is just an unprecedented time that I’m excited for. It oftentimes gets ugly and feels uncomfortable, but I just know it’s going to burst something out amazing as we go along in this. [Laughter]

Livia: [12:08] I agree. So just one of the Tasks of the Privileged that Ken Hardy talks about, which I think is really important especially for our White colleagues, but for all of us. But it’s this do not frame other people’s experience. And I know that I have written grants in the past. I have put programs in place for all the right intentions, but framing somebody else’s experience in my development of solutions or what I think is the best way to move forward. But without having the people most impacted by that potential solution at the table. And so I just highlight that because I really want to invite our listeners to think about just that one privilege that I have in this instance to do that in my past, in developing programs. It’s such an important point that you brought out, and it’s one that he mentions specifically.

Ariel: [13:02] Oh yeah. That’s a really great one too. I just want to jump in and think about that. Because in my experience too, this idea and this practice of tokenization, oftentimes I’m the only person of color at my level in this space. And the assumption that I speak for all Black folks, it’s tiring, it’s exhausting, and it’s not true. My background and my experience is so limited, and there’s so much that is embedded in racial equity. There’s so much more than that. And as we expand, and I know this is specific, we’re doing this in hopes of connecting with more folks for Black History Month, which is so, so important, but there’s so much within that Black experience. There’s colorism, there’s all of these things that are important. And so you can’t just expect to have one person share their one experience and then create a whole program off of that. That’s not going to work.

Livia: [13:57] Right. No, it’s so true. And then the other tool that I have found very helpful personally, and also humbling and also developing awareness around it. Yeah. And with other White colleagues is Iris Young’s Five Faces of Oppression, and she talked about exploitation. She talks about marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence as five forms of oppression. And I think what’s so powerful about that is that if you look at this tool, and you ask people to say, okay, so can you think about places you’ve exploited or that you see exploitation in society? And most people will say, yes, I can see that, or marginalization or powerlessness.

Livia: [14:45] And then we ask, can you talk about places where you have done that? And especially for White colleagues, they will look at going, Oh, that is hard. That has an emotional charge. There’s work there to be done. Where have I exploited or taken power away from others or not stepped aside to let other people lean in to have power? Those conversations are really powerful. So I just encourage people to also check out that tool because it’s a great way, a strategy to have some of these conversations.

Ariel: [15:23] Absolutely. Livia, even when you were starting the conversation about just the work and the need for some internal awareness, some internal grit work. It’s so important. I think about that too, in my experience, not only recognizing my own privileges, but my own racist tendencies. To even hate my own body, my own self, this thing that we’re up against is so embedded in our culture. And I myself have exploited myself or negated other folk’s experiences just so I can feel a sense of power, just so I can feel a sense of safety. It’s scary. It’s fearful when there’s so many social constructs and meanings behind what that means. And we all just want to feel seen and heard, especially in this field where your goal and your vision is to be of service. That saviorism piece, putting that on your back. It’s like for who, for who? For what? It’s just so tough.

Ariel: [16:26] And so it’s been a constant thing, recognizing my own privilege, recognizing my own biases, racist tendencies, all of that is so important because it’s what we’re up against. I want to be able to have that clear picture. And I know for me, in my recovery journey and my professional journey, if I’m not self-aware, if I’m not willing to see my own triggers and my own behaviors, and then be able to be held accountable for them, I’m not going to feel right. I’m not going to be in integrity. I’m not going to be able to serve as many people that I feel called to serve.

Livia: [17:01] Yeah. That’s saviorism. That’s a huge one also for a lot of White people who go into the helping professions, whatever they may be, and to really understand where that comes from. So I’m hopeful that we’re at a time, it feels like … You touched upon this earlier too, that we’re at a time that something has fundamentally changed around racism and really working towards racial equity and really addressing racism. And it almost, for me, feels like this could be like the Berlin Wall crumbling finally. All of a sudden, it’s been so long coming before the Berlin Wall crumbled. And maybe, maybe, maybe we’re finally there. That’s my hope and that inspires me to keep going. But I’m wondering Ariel, what inspires you to keep doing what you’re doing? What keeps you going?

Ariel: [17:56] Sure. This always makes me emotional when I think about it because I see them. I see my nephews, two little black boys who are just, Oh my gosh, I wish I could show you a picture. Actually, I can. Sorry for our listeners. You can’t see this, but those are my babies. And I often think about this disease of substance use disorder and all the things that run in my family. And I think about their experience and the epigenetics and the genetics of it all. And it’s more than likely that if not both, maybe one of them might struggle with substance use or something in the future. And I think about the barriers to their healing, to the rehabilitation if that’s true. And I remember probably being about, I think I was two years sober, and I had a colleague, a mentor of mine, say “At some point, Ariel, your recovery has to become about somebody other than yourself,” like truly.

Ariel: [19:00] And so I think about them. So when I get on my darkest days, whether it’s work, whether it’s in my professional life or in my personal life and my recovery, I hold them close because I want to be there. And I want to be a part of this movement to create more spaces where they can just be Black little boys, a little bit younger. And when they get to an age and they’re struggling, they can still be seen as Black little humans that need love and support and help. They can make mistakes. They can have consequences and be held accountable, but it doesn’t have to ruin their life if that’s their experience. I want a better world for them.

Ariel: [19:41] And so I think at this point, what I really appreciate, like you were saying, the reason why I see hope in the world, I see hope in the way things are going, I see accountability. I see more of that within organizations with spaces saying, if you’re not for this, if this is not embedded in the work that you’re doing, you need to get out of our way. You need to change something. If your leadership is not talking about this, if they’re not implementing strategies, this is not going to work anymore. And that gives me hope and accountability to create a world for them just to thrive. It hasn’t been easy for me at all, but it’s been easier than the ones before me, and I want to make that road so much easier for them. So I love them so much. [Laughter]

Livia: [20:34] That is just a wonderful reason, my goodness. Ariel, I know you mentioned that storytelling is an important strategy, an important tool, an important activity for you. And I know that you have a podcast. Could you talk to our listeners a little bit about that?

Ariel: [20:51] Sure. So I came up with an idea probably a few years ago to start a podcast, something that could be centered around storytelling that would be great for folks in recovery. The goal of it is to share experience so folks have access to hope. That’s something that I noticed depending upon your socioeconomic status, your race. It’s limited, right? It’s limited in your capacity to find recovery support services. So I started my podcast in 2019 I believe it was. I have one full season. I was able to win an award for a grant through an awesome production company here in Denver, Colorado called House of Pod. And so through that journey, I tell three stories of my own and then other stories from amazing people that I’ve met along my recovery journey that go into their experience and how they are able to find recovery and continue on that journey and give back. So it’s amazing. You should check it out. It’s called Beauty in the Grit.

Livia: [21:50] That sounds awesome. I will definitely be listening to your podcast, Ariel. I feel so fortunate to know you and to do some work with you. And I just want to say Ariel, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ariel: [22:07] Sure. Thank you for having me.

Livia: [22:09] And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

Erika: [22:13] 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.

[Music]

Access additional “Changing the Conversation” podcast episodes.