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Seminar encourages people in recovery go public and advocate for legislation

This year, Minnesota Recovery Connection is encouraging supporters to take a closer look at the state’s limitations on the voting rights of felons.

Minnesotans taking part in the 2014 Walk for Recovery, sponsored by the Minnesota Recovery Connection.
Photo by Martin Johnson

Everyone knows what addiction looks like.

“We see it on TV, we see it in the paper, we see it in the movies,” said Julia Parnell, special projects manager for the Minnesota Recovery Connection. “What we don’t see is the other side of addiction, what somebody with 12 or even 30 years of recovery looks like.” The reason for this invisibility is simple, Parnell said: “Generally, when you are in recovery, you live a normal life. It’s hard to tell us apart from anybody else.”

While the reality that people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction live ordinary, everyday lives can be reassuring, it can also be frustrating, Parnell said, because the general public tends to see only the bad side of the addiction journey. She and her colleagues at the Minnesota Recovery Connection, a nonprofit that provides support, resources and advocacy for people in recovery from addiction, want Minnesotans to see that people in recovery play important, vital roles in the community.

With that goal in mind, Minnesota Recovery Connection, Metropolitan State University and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation have come together to organize the third annual Recovery Advocacy Seminar. The seminar is a daylong event designed to help people in the state’s recovery community learn how to organize, advocate and speak out in support of legislation focused on issues key to them. The seminar takes place this Thursday, March 19, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Metropolitan State University.   

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“We are poised to give the recovery community not just a voice but also a face,” Parnell said. “When lawmakers are making decisions that impact the lives of people in recovery, we want them to have a human reference point to refer to. We want them to see the faces of the thousands of ordinary Minnesotans in recovery, not just the guy with his 15th DWI.”

The importance of advocacy

While many people in recovery make their homes in Minnesota, their presence in the state is not always obvious, said Jill Petsel, Minnesota Recovery Connection’s executive director. The shame and secrecy surrounding addiction mean that recovering addicts and alcoholics often keep their pasts in the past.

Part of the idea of the seminar is to encourage participants to speak openly about their recovery and give them a platform to do so.

“We are trying emphasize the idea that people in recovery have remained silent too long,” Petsel said. “We are living, breathing examples that recovery works. Part of what we are trying to do at this seminar is to rally the recovery community to become a constituency of consequence. We are interested in voting, in making our voices heard, being a voice to show that we are a constituency that wants to create positive change.”

Petsel likes to point to an example of successful recovery advocacy from the 2014 legislative session. Last year, members of the recovery community collaborated with legislators to draft Steve’s Law, a Good Samaritan law that allows first responders to carry naloxone, an antidote for opiate overdose. The law also provides limited immunity for people who call law enforcement to report a suspected heroin overdose.

This year, Minnesota Recovery Connection is encouraging supporters to take a closer look at the state’s limitations on the voting rights of felons, who currently cannot vote while on probation or parole. The seminar will pay special attention to the issue.

“We’ve been working with the Voter Rights Coalition on behalf of the 47,000 people in Minnesota who do not have the right to vote due to the fact that they’re on probation or parole,” Petsel said. “The collateral consequences that exist for folks who’ve had a substance abuse disorder and made bad choices in the past are unfair. We believe they shouldn’t have to continue to suffer those consequences. That’s the kind of change we need members of the recovery community to advocate for.”

Event details

This year’s keynote speaker will be Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. Hodges, who has spoken openly about being in long-term recovery, will talk about the importance of having members of the recovery community actively involved in civic life.

“She will also talk about her experience as a woman in recovery running for office,” Parnell said.

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So far, nearly 150 participants are registered for the event, which will also include sessions on recovery advocacy, recovery messaging, and a panel discussion on turning ideas into legislation moderated by Rinal Ray, public policy advocate at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Panelists include Minnesota Sen. Chris Eaton; Lexi Reed Holtum, vice president of the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation; Jane Colford, chair of the Citizens Coalition for Overdose Prevention; Petsel; Parnell; and Jeremiah Gardner, public advocacy professional at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

The move to more open discussions about addiction and recovery is heartening, Petsel said; as the shadow of secrecy fades, opportunities for greater community health increase. Now that the Affordable Care Act includes substance use disorder treatment as an essential healthcare benefit, addiction is being acknowledged as a brain disorder, not a moral failing. Just as with HIV-AIDS and breast cancer in previous decades, addiction is abandoning the shadow of shame and stepping into the light.

This, Petsel said, can only be a good thing: “This is a new way of thinking about recovery, and it’s catching on. Now, I like to see it catch fire.”

The cost to attend the Recovery Advocacy Seminar is $10 for individuals, $5 for students. Space is still available. For more information call 612-584-4158 or email