Tell us about your deep immersion in the world of recovery support. How did your life journey lead you to co-found Lost Dreams Awakening (LDA), which specializes in removing barriers to treatment, prevention, and recovery?
I had a very public and horrific addiction and was repeatedly arrested. I was stuck in a pattern with nowhere to turn. No one in my family was like me. I am from a military family, and we were taught not to ask for help. My father was a Vietnam Veteran, and the family attitude was “You handle your business in-house.” My broader community was similar, no one in my neighborhood who looked like me received treatment or talked about it, and I was never offered help for my addiction.
However, I was quite afraid of prison, and though it wasn’t until my seventh criminal justice encounter, I finally asked, “What can I do?” I just surrendered; I was willing to do anything to be free from the cycle. A district judge saw how frightened I was, and something clicked. I found out addiction was a disease, and I wasn’t just a horrible lowlife. It was like the heavens opened. It was such a revelation.
My husband Dr. VonZell Wade and I embarked upon our LDA journey in 2009. LDA is a registered 501(c)3 non-profit recovery community organization (RCO). When we started, there was a men’s halfway house here for men coming out of the state penitentiary. It was a few blocks down from where LDA set up shop, and those fellows made LDA their home base. We met the most beautiful human beings and some of the hardest-working and most grateful people I’ve ever known. LDA is now an active recovery community center that manages over 10,000 visits per year. LDA provides education, support, and socialization for those in recovery and their families. Recently, we were awarded a harm reduction grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
We are also proud members of the Black Faces Black Voices (BFBV) organization. BFBV is its own stand-alone organization of beautiful Black and brown leaders and professionals across the country that come together to amplify Black recovery in America.
Part of your work aims to integrate racial and health equity into prevention, treatment, and recovery practices. What are ways our justice system can address these inequities to better serve individuals who have substance use disorders and mental illness?
I’ll defer to the Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity put forth by the Biden-Harris administration in January 2021. We know that equity has to be the central component of the decision-making framework of every agency and system. Equity has to be at the heart of everything.
First, equity requires a systemic approach. The justice system must recognize and address inequities in policies and programs. Second, in my experience, the higher up you go, the greater the resistance to changing systems to address inequity. If you don’t have buy-in at the top, nothing will work. Therefore, as the Executive Order  states, the justice system must “address the historic failure to invest sufficiently, justly, and equally in underserved communities.”
Equity is not just a set of values. It must also be a tangible outcome with hard evidence. I love how Heather McGhee addresses this in her book, The Sum of Us. She shows how equity-based policies could benefit all Americans.
The African philosophy of Ubuntu informs all the recovery work you do. What is Ubuntu, and how is it incorporated into your work with individuals returning to the community after incarceration?
I’ve become very impassioned about this because it’s my life’s work, and because I am a direct descendant of enslaved people. Ubuntu is based on the ancient spirituality of humanity’s oneness: that we are all connected, that we have an interdependence. My humanity is bound up in yours, and so for us to act as though our brothers and sisters who have tread through criminal justice incarceration are not a part of us is ridiculous. You belong—regardless of your criminal background, you belong. We have a responsibility to care for each other, and that’s the essence of Ubuntu.
The dominant way of operating is to work in silos, but this fragmentation hurts people. A shift is necessary. Based on Ubuntu, we created an inclusive space. It’s a community-based recovery pathway— quite literally, everyone who comes to LDA calls it “home.”
Early in your career, you worked with the family-related program Invitational Interventions and Continuing Care for Families. What are two things most important for a family to understand when an individual in recovery returns home after incarceration?
The first thing I tell families is that you are more resilient than you know. You’re still here. Regardless of all the trauma, regardless of all the muck and mire, you’re still here.
Secondly, we encourage families by helping them understand the process of change, which is not linear. A lot of those families thought we had a magic wand behind those doors, and we were going to tap their loved ones on the head, and they were going to be magically transformed after treatment or incarceration. There’s no timeline attached to community reintegration and recovery, and you will have ups and downs. Sometimes families feel like there’s a stranger coming back to them, and it’s true. You don’t know them, and they don’t know you. Both addiction and incarceration cause this divide, and everyone must be committed to the process to reconcile the family.
We meet with families and go through some family history. For me, my people came from a plantation in Culpeper, Virginia. Look at that fact and see the resiliency. I tell families that the strength in their lineage allows them to be alive here today. We must remind families that their resilience is their strength.
You work tirelessly to support the recovery community. What do you do for yourself to relax, unwind, and enjoy your life?
I’m a performance-driven person, so I really do need to relax. First, I love my family. I love spending time with my kids and six grandsons. We play Scrabble every single night. That’s our wind down.
I like to go to museums. I like the arts. I’m stimulated by aesthetics and beautiful things. I like being in nature. I like to camp and travel. But the most healing and therapeutic thing for me is just being still. Meditation, just stillness, is the most healing agent for me. When I can find time to just be still, that refreshes me more than anything.