People in Recovery Having a Say

    • August 4, 2008

Position: Senior Policy Associate
Health Systems Research, Inc. An Altarum Company
Washington, D.C.

Tom Hill used his Developing Leadership in Reducing Substance Abuse fellowship to give voice to people recovering from alcohol and drug addictions.

Hill says that people in recovery, who are the ones most affected by addiction, are often not included in discussions about what they and others in recovery most need to keep them sober and healthy. Instead, professionals and policy-makers dominate these discussions.

As a result, discussions are skewed toward the professionals' interest of increasing treatment time, rather than looking more holistically at the community support that people struggling with addiction need.

No Longer Invisible

"The recovery community has been invisible forever," Hill said. "It's mostly issues of anonymity around 12-step programs…[but] there has been a growing organized voice of the recovery community. If you are going to address recovery, you have to ask people on the front lines and in grassroots organizations and not just the top policy people."

Prior to and throughout his fellowship, Hill worked for Health Systems Research (acquired by Altarum Institute in 2006) in Washington where he provided technical assistance for the federal Recovery Community Services Program, an initiative of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.

A Reluctant Leader

It was a job that Hill enjoyed and knew he was good at. He also felt like a reluctant leader.

It wasn't the first time. Earlier in his career, Hill struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and in his recovery began taking leadership roles for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender recovery communities in New York State. As he continued his work with the federal initiative, the fellowship came. Hill says this was at a critical time in his life.

"I found myself in situations where I was expected to be a leader so I was, but I never believed it," he said. "I would walk into a situation and think I was faking it. I don't feel that way anymore. [Today] I feel really grounded in what I'm doing. I have certain skills and talents that serve me. I really think it was the fellowship that helped me realize that. It just needed to be pulled out."

Servant Leadership

Hill used his fellowship to study "servant leadership" with organizations and mentors including the Servant Leadership School in Washington and author Margaret Wheatley, who writes and teaches principles of servant leadership.

Robert Greenleaf, a business executive and essayist coined the term servant leadership in 1970. According to the Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership, Westfield, Ind., servant leadership is a practical philosophy supporting people who choose to serve first and then lead as a way of expanding their service to people and organizations. It encourages collaboration, trust, foresight, listening and the ethical use of power and empowerment.

During his fellowship, Hill explored ways of making connections between servant leadership and recovery through reading, taking classes and working with mentors and coaches.

Common Strength

Hill used part of his fellowship stipend to form CommonStrength: Building Leaders, Transforming Recovery. CommonStrength organizes grassroots recovery communities to critique and change public opinion and policy about addiction and recovery.

CommonStrength's philosophy brings together the concepts of servant leadership and the work of other recovery groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, where people in recovery help one another and learn a way of life that is grounded in service.

During his fellowship, Hill wrote about the connections between servant leadership and recovery in a booklet for the Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership (see the Bibliography for details).

Hill also conducted four trainings including a weekend retreat with college students in recovery at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. While he was pleased with the training, he concluded that a one-time event is not enough to spark an ongoing group.

Washington Group Forms

After attending Hill's last retreat in December 2005, some participants formed a local group that continues to meet twice a month. Members live in tough D.C. neighborhoods and, as Hill describes it, have to walk past drug dealers to go to a 12-step meeting.

Hill and the group are exploring ways to link their personal recovery with the recovery of their community, such as economic development in their neighborhood.

The group has started looking at how to shift the way they and others view themselves.

Among their ideas: rather than being "hidden away in church basement meeting for [Alcoholics Anonymous] and [Narcotics Anonymous]" they would get a storefront building and use it as a recovery resource center. Instead of being seen as a public nuisance, they could be seen as contributing to the public good," Hill said.

"It could be called Recovery in Our Community," Hill says. "They would wear Recovery in Our Community T-shirts and clean up neighborhoods, tutor kids. They have a ton of ideas."

For now, the work of CommonStrength, and the group in Washington is moving slowly. Hill has a full-time job and does not want CommonStrength to become a nonprofit that he would have to oversee.

"I still have a commitment to building them up so they can realize their own leadership and capacity," Hill said. "I've created the group and mother it along. Now I'm trying to pull out."

He described the effect of the fellowship on his leadership abilities as "just huge.…

"The leadership we had from the national program office was so tailored to what we defined as our needs," he said. "I wanted to explore the spiritual side of leadership. I'm not sure it would be encouraged in other leadership programs but it was in this one."



(Current as of date of this report; as provided by grantee organization; not verified by RWJF; items not available from RWJF.)


Hill T. CommonStrength: Building Leaders, Transforming Recovery. Westfield, IN: Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership, 2006.

Grantee Websites (no longer available). Included an overview of the organization, resources and news on upcoming events. Washington: CommonStrength.