Shaping the Narrative on Substance Use Disorder through Community Action

“Rather than writing war songs about addicts, we should have been writing love songs about them.” — Mallory McEwen, Alumni TIES participant


During the first week of April, 38 alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs gathered in Cleveland, Ohio for an Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminar (Alumni TIES) on the topic of “Building Communities of Hope: Collective Action to Tackle Addiction.” Participants brought diverse perspectives on the topic to Cleveland, representing 15 U.S. states, 2 countries, and 14 exchange programs. Seminar participants work in a variety of different professions, as doctors, pharmacists, therapists, teachers, photographers, musicians, education administrators, actors, policymakers, writers, mathematicians, and poets, or are students who are passionate about the topic. Together they are striving to change the narrative of substance use disorder and implement sustainable and wide-reaching projects in their communities.

Participants network and share knowledge during a session on creating partnerships for community action.

Alumni TIES participants quickly formed a community of hope and action, committed to tackling addiction and building recovery programs across the country. Each participant contributed distinct elements to the conversation on substance use disorder (SUD) and how it is affecting their community in the United States or one overseas where they lived abroad during their exchange programs. In addition to sharing personal stories of loss, addiction, and recovery, participants also discussed the role of community-based organizations in working with those experiencing SUD, the role of healthcare professionals in preventing substance abuse and supporting rehabilitation, integrated care programs for people with mental illness who also have a substance use addiction, substance use disorder in pregnant and postpartum women, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma-informed care, the therapeutic value of the arts, youth education about substance abuse, risk-reduction versus harm-reduction strategies, fundraising and grants management, and public awareness campaigns. This wide array of topics, falling at different points on the spectrum between prevention, intervention, and treatment/recovery, allowed participants to gain insight into the work of their fellow alumni, thereby expanding their view of the seminar theme and cementing the foundation for collective action.

Alumni Bob Kochersberger and Uriel Kim discuss their personalized “trading cards” during the networking reception.

During the seminar week, alumni also traveled to local organizations and government offices to learn more about the programs in Northern Ohio on substance abuse, addiction, and treatment. At Relink, participants learned about how a digital marketplace of health service providers could help reform a system that is confusing, fragmented, and siloed, and therefore ineffective for individuals in need of these services. At the Northeast Ohio Hospital Opioid Consortium at the Center for Health Affairs, participants learned about the initiatives that five hospitals in Northeast Ohio are implementing to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions, provide alternative pain treatment, connect individuals who are working through addiction to peer recovery coaches, and create performance indicators to measure data to increase the funding and advocacy for drug prevention and recovery programming. The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio shared best practices from the community-wide Heroin and Opioid Action Plan. This plan serves as the master plan for Northern Ohio’s attempt to solve the problem and tackle the epidemic by forming a working group of representatives from law enforcement, hospitals, pharmacies, rehabilitation programs, and schools.

Alumnus Will Langford presents spoken word poetry and discusses his work creating safe spaces and building relational dynamics through poetry in Detroit and East Africa.

Participants further developed their skills through a virtual presentation by Esri on the Opioid Epidemic Storymap and how community mapping can be used to identify trends, as well as illustrate a story about how the opioid epidemic is affecting communities across the United States. Participants also met with a U.S. Foreign Service Officer (FSO) to learn about the life of an FSO and the role of public diplomacy in supporting U.S. foreign policy and networked with local exchange alumni during an Alumni Networking Reception in downtown Cleveland. Finally, we had the honor of welcoming Alyson Grunder, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), to the seminar. During a reflection session, participants shared with her the impact U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs have had on their lives and their communities through transformative cross-cultural experiences around the world.

Dr. Elliot Gann, an alumnus of the Next Level Program, showcases how he uses beat making to address trauma in communities in Oakland and abroad.

Entwined throughout the seminar was the opportunity for participants to connect and brainstorm about community projects they would implement through the Alumni TIES small grants program. Participants of this seminar have the opportunity to apply for a grant of up to $10,000 to implement a community project that relates to the seminar topic. While in Cleveland, participants were able to draw on the unique skill sets of their fellow alumni to begin developing innovative projects. Some of the project ideas included implementing a “beat making” workshop for youth in Tennessee to address trauma, a play to flip the script on substance use to be featured at a local festival, and the creation of training workshops on grant writing for health-related grants.

Alumni TIES participants gather for a final group photo after the closing session.

The World Learning Alumni TIES team left Cleveland with a renewed sense of hope and perspective as participants return to their home communities to finalize their projects plans. As one participant stated following the seminar, in understanding the narrative of addiction and its relation to trauma and prescription trends, we need to stop asking “What’s wrong?” but rather “What happened?”

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