Your peer program EVOLVE works with the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office Behavioral Health Unit and in the Washington County Jail. How did you develop partnerships with your local criminal justice agencies so that peers are able to work with justice-involved community members?
Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon (MHAAO) peers have built and maintained relationships with jail staff, court teams, transition and release counselors, local law enforcement, parole and probation officers, and child welfare. We are people who may have even been involved in those systems, and these system partners have witnessed our journey from client to team member now serving people right alongside them. All this is accomplished while staying true to the core values and principles of peer work.
Many of our peer programs began by our responding to requests for proposals and being awarded the contracts. That was the easy part. Preparing to integrate MHAAO peers into the various criminal justice settings took time and effort. Having champions inside the places we were working was key.
One of the first things we do when implementing peer services in any setting is to start with training the multidisciplinary team members in the systems we are working in. It is important to have a shared understanding of the peers’ scope of practice, how peers can best be used, boundaries and ethics in peer work, and expectations.
In criminal justice settings there are so many players involved with so many different ideas about peers. Sometimes criminal justice community partners are skeptical or have had a negative experience with peer support that has to be undone and overcome. There have been times we just had to let our work speak for itself.
What are some areas where we could do more to better support women reentering the community after incarceration?
I think there is sometimes the expectation and pressure on women, if they have children, to jump right into parenting, running a household, finding a job, and complying with the multiple tasks associated with reentering society from incarceration. These expectations are often so overwhelming a woman can feel defeated right out of the gate regardless of the preparation pre-release.
From my own lived experience, I can share that I struggled with the transition. I was fearful of the choices I would make, even on a good day. I was determined and motivated to do the next right thing, yet there was a part of me ready to just quit when I hit barriers. Shame can rear its ugly head and take us down pretty quickly if we are not careful. This is where peer support is so valuable.
Having someone walk shoulder to shoulder with you through reentry and beyond who has experienced similar things can help validate many of the frustrations that come with all the expectations, cheer you on and celebrate successes with you, and practice appropriate and effective self-advocacy with those in roles of power and authority.
You advocate for women to share their stories to help others change their lives. How have you seen the power of stories change the trajectory of women with mental and substance use disorders who have been involved in the justice system?
I remember the exact moment my life was forever changed by hearing the story of a woman who had been where I was.
While in prison I attended a spirituality-based class facilitated by an outside volunteer. She came in well dressed and looked very successful. She started the group by introducing herself and then she held up a picture of a mugshot and began to share her story. I was blown away that 8 years before she had been in prison too. She had been experiencing homelessness and addiction, in and out of incarceration over and over again.
She shared her accomplishments in the 8 years since being released. She even had a folder of all her certificates, starting with ones she had received in prison. She said all of it mattered. She had even been recognized with a national award.
I remember thinking that I may not be able to accomplish all the things she did but maybe I could do something different when I got out this time. The gift that woman gave me by sharing her story was hope. Having hope that my future could look different than my past was the catalyst for my recovery.
I am happy to say that a few years later I, too, received a national award, and as I walked up on that stage to receive it, I took that woman’s story with me and thanked her in my heart the whole way there.
How does your own history as a person in recovery from addiction and mental health challenges, as well as homelessness and incarceration, guide your day-to-day work?
No matter how long it has been since I have been homeless, addicted, incarcerated, etc., I can still recall what that was like. It was not all bad, otherwise I don’t think people would stay “out there in it” for so long. There was a freedom in being homeless; I had built an identity and a sense of community in my addiction, and I found routine and shelter in incarceration. When I was doing the work of peer support, these experiences and feelings helped me relate to the person I was offering support to.
Relating to them through my lived experience helped build almost an immediate connection. It never ceased to amaze me how the people I was reaching out to looked up at me almost shocked that I had been in a similar situation as they were in and that I was there to simply support them in whatever it was they wanted to do next or work toward.
Now, as an executive director of a peer-run organization, my lived experience continues to guide my day-to-day work with community partners, funders, and social justice advocacy. I ensure that we stay true to the core values and principles of peer support, dedicated to self-direction and honoring the voice of lived experience. This is seen not only in our direct peer support programs but in our state-approved peer trainings, our technical assistance, and our annual peer leadership conference, Peerpocalypse.
What advice do you have for people with mental and substance use disorders who have been incarcerated and are working to reclaim valued roles in their communities?
Surround yourself with people who have “been there, done that” and who are achieving things you would like to achieve. Having examples of what is possible is so important. Also, recovery is an up and down journey. It is not linear or smooth. When times of disappointment and frustration come, and they will, please reach out to someone! You do not have to do this alone. There is someone out there who understands, who wants to see you succeed and who won’t judge you but who will support you through it all the way.
You are proving every day, simply by showing up for all that the day brings, that recovery is real. Look to the goals you have set for yourself. Break those goals down into the tiniest steps so you can see your progress happening. Do not try to “conquer Rome in a day”; accomplishing small steps adds up to huge successes.
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