A New Model for a More Equitable and Compassionate Recovery Ecosystem

Original publication date: September 2023

This month, we are honored to feature Elizabeth Burke Beaty, Founder and CEO of the Sea Change Recovery Community Organization in New Jersey, and Founder of the National Sea Change Coalition, a nonprofit organization building power across the United States by joining together two vital forces: boots-on-the-ground harm reduction service providers and community organizers. 

In conversation with Elizabeth, we discuss harm reduction, grassroots organizing and advocacy related to substance use disorder, and what grounds her in this work. While we focus on harm reduction, Elizabeth shares several lessons on advocacy and organizing that are applicable to many organizations no matter their issue area.

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The National Sea Change Coalition (NSCC) is a nonprofit that unites harm reduction focused recovery community organizations and community organizers throughout the United States to share best practices in policy and implementation, develop communications and narrative, and foster compassionate support to identify a path to full harm reduction. 

Founded in 2021 by Elizabeth Burke Beaty, CEO of Sea Change Recovery Community Organization, the NSCC was born out of her work in New Jersey, combining grassroots direct services and community organizing to address the overdose crisis and crush stigma surrounding substance use disorder in rural Southern Ocean County.

Since 2019, Sea Change Recovery Community Organization and the New Jersey Organizing Project have co-led the “Not One More Campaign”, bringing together different grassroots organizations across the state of New Jersey to provide direct services and support to whoever needs it, and fighting to fix the broken recovery systems that people face in their day-to-day lives. 

Learn more about what it means to be a Recovery Community Organization (RCO) by watching this short video by Peer Recovery Center of Excellence

The unique combination of grassroots, direct, recovery services with community organizing has garnered the Not One More Campaign, and its members, tremendous success in both policy wins and impact. For instance, in late December 2022, campaign members, activists, and advocates celebrated when the federal Omnibus bill containing the Mainstreaming Addiction Treatment (MAT) Act was finally signed into law. Before the MAT Act was signed into law, barriers to accessing medication-assisted treatment made it difficult for providers to distribute it and for people in recovery to access life-saving medications. Now, paramedics in New Jersey can administer buprenorphine on the scene of an overdose reversal. Moreover, naloxone, most commonly known as Narcan, became more accessible through pharmacies and other widely available sites like schools, colleges, libraries, and transportation centers. Before the passage of the Bill S. 3491/A. 5457, pharmacists had to request a standing order from the state’s Department of Health to dispense naloxone without requiring a prescription. In all, these policies save lives from preventable overdoses and expand access to evidence-based treatments.

More recently, Not One More Campaign members have been busy publicly testifying and advocating for more equitable practices as it relates to the $16M in opioid settlement funds that an appointed Opioid Settlement Advisory Council in Ocean County, New Jersey is slated to distribute throughout their communities. The Not One More Campaign is leading the fight for affordable access to treatment, evidence-based compassionate care, community resources, transparency, accountability, and oversight as it relates to the Council and its responsibilities to distribute the funds.

On the national level, the NSCC has been at the forefront, with its partners, of creating a Roadmap for opioid settlement funds, and supporting communities to end the overdose crisis.

So as Burke Beaty continues to build out the National Sea Change Coalition with members and peers, creating a platform to support grassroots service providers and community organizers across the country, we recently connected with her to discuss harm reduction, the Coalition, and her vision for the future. In our conversation below, she shares how organizations interested in this work can get involved, what brings her hope, and more.

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In Conversation with Elizabeth Burke Beaty

(Megan, Rx): Can you please explain what harm reduction is and how it could transform our responses to substance use disorder and the overdose epidemic?

(Elizabeth, SCRCO/NSCC): That’s a great question because it touches upon the foundation of my work. 

On the individual level, I believe harm reduction in a nutshell is truly meeting people where they are in their journey – fully accepting their choices and where they are in the process of life in general. It’s about supporting what they want to and are able to change or address at that moment in time. Harm reduction gives everyone full dignity and respect. It’s about helping people understand the resources they have available to them in order to embrace the moment they are in. Harm reduction is also up to the person receiving. I think this gets oversaid, but it’s about feeling seen and heard. But to truly be seen and heard means being given the tools, with patience and compassion to practice them for the first time. And the tool may vary depending on where people are at any given moment. There are no set parameters or prescriptive routines. For instance, in our daily recovery groups that could look like someone talking about substance use for the first time with somebody – why they need it, why they feel the need to use, etc. Just talking about it for the first time is a tool. And people build trust in other people when they are not being judged, and when they feel seen and heard. Maybe that one conversation leaves them feeling like “wow, I could really talk to them”. It’s offering a safe space for people. What I’ve found in my 30+ years of experience in this work and as a peer recovery specialist is that if we provide tools with patience, acceptance, and compassion, each person learns how to use the tools that we suggest by trial and error on their own, and in their own time – people build upon their own strengths and take ownership of the tools when they want to and are able to.

On the macro level, when it comes to ending overdoses and helping people towards individual centered recovery, there are a broad set of needs to be addressed like housing, transportation and support for grassroots organizations providing such services, in addition to comprehensive harm reduction and education. We need evidence-based, medically assisted treatment facilities, compliant supportive housing, and harm reduction measures across under-resourced communities. When it comes to opioid settlement funds, distributed across the nation, we need directly impacted folks and people on the front lines of the overdose crisis on the decision-making councils. These are the experts on what works – and what doesn’t work – when it comes to drug use, substance use disorder, and recovery. People who make policy are often not immersed in this. They don’t know what they don’t know; and what they do know is outdated, or it doesn’t hold up anymore. The drug supply is different and evolving, and will continue to evolve as long as we criminalize it and not accept that people are going to use drugs. That’s why harm reduction is so hard for people to embrace who have been fed the propaganda of the War on Drugs. Harm reductionists accept that people are going to use drugs and not judge them for using them.

Sea Change Recovery Community Organization. Sea Change and New Jersey Organizing Project canvassers in Mystic Island, NJ, talked with folks about how the overdose crisis has impacted their lives.

(Megan, Rx): The National Sea Change Coalition, founded and led by the Sea Change Recovery Community Organization, is joining together two vital forces: boots-on-the-ground harm reduction service providers and community organizers. What about that union is unique? And how does bringing together harm reduction services providers and community organizers strengthen your collective impact?

(Elizabeth, SCRCO/NSCC): Historically speaking, you either do boots-on-the-ground work, working directly with people, and you struggle to find financial support to do that. Or, you are a community organizer, with specific campaigns and issues, and you experience the same financial struggle to do that too. But when you bring both sides together, we can get more funding and share it. For instance, our Not One More Campaign is co-led by our 501c3, Sea Change Recovery Community Organization, and our partner, New Jersey Organizing Project, a 501c4. We also share a data and research team that is now looking into increased penalties for fentanyl and its impact. When we join forces, we are stronger together in more ways than one.

Very concretely, joining forces also builds an organizing base much more organically and quickly. Organizing is another tool of harm reduction, and helps people realize that they matter and they have power. It’s empowering. Direct services strengthen the act of building power, from people who know how to organize. For instance, people who were incarcerated as a result of increased fentanyl penalty bills are becoming organizers and sharing their stories when returning to their communities from prison or jail. Typically, where direct service providers may not have the storytelling skillset, community organizers do and can train people with lived experiences on storytelling and advocacy. That personal testimony moves the needle with policymakers. It becomes a vehicle for change. So now it’s not only peers helping peers recover through our daily recovery services, but peers helping peers create systemic change through organizing and advocacy to save, heal, and empower lives. People who are directly impacted by substance use are informing policy change. And, importantly, this also adds to each individual’s recovery capital while building collective power. The intersection of community services and organized people power offer a new model for a more equitable and compassionate recovery ecosystem.

The national Coalition recognizes there’s so much more you can do as a unified group. We are a platform of support and ideas. And if this has been the case for us in New Jersey, how can it be true for other states? How can we join struggling organizers and direct services providers, who are like-minded, to have a bigger impact? As a collective, we can be stronger. We can work to share best practices in policy and implementation, develop communications and narrative, and foster compassionate support to identify a path to full harm reduction. Our model is about building community, peer support, and collective power to normalize harm reduction.

Sea Change Recovery Community Organization. Sea Change and New Jersey Organizing Project canvassers in Mystic Island, NJ, talked with folks about how the overdose crisis has impacted their lives.

(Megan, Rx): What’s your North Star?

(Elizabeth, SCRCO/NSCC): When you say North Star, what do you mean?

(Megan, Rx): That’s such a great question. I don’t think anyone has asked me to define it before! When you look up in the night sky, the North Star is not only the direction that you are heading in but it’s also an energy or life source that instills hope. I tend to combine the two concepts of directionality and hope because if I’m working towards something, that very thing tends to nourish me on some level too…but you can split it up or answer either/or.

(Elizabeth, SCRCO/NSCC): When you ask me that question, I immediately see the faces of people whose lives have changed for the better or are in that process, through the one-on-one work I do with them. And that’s when I get choked up – (teary:) because I don’t know whether they will live or die. But when I see that this works, it completely feeds my soul and gives me hope. That’s as big as it gets for me – saving lives and impacting people, even if it is just for today. That somebody feels truly cared for without judgment; that I can help move the needle and leave a legacy of that goodness; that’s what it is all about. That’s a deep question, and I take it seriously. When I think about when my day comes, did I do what I was supposed to do? This has always been my calling, even though it has manifested itself in different ways. It has always been about providing connection and the impact of having that with another human being – that’s what I’ve lived for.

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