This public policy expert has some advice about the power of community involvement - Generocity Philly

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Mar. 21, 2017 12:50 pm

This public policy expert has some advice about the power of community involvement

Lawyer Sterling Johnson on how volunteering made him feel less powerless. "You cannot keep quiet," he writes. "Not now. Not ever."

#BlackLivesMatter.

(Photo by Flickr user Théo Paul, used under a Creative Commons license)

This is a guest post by lawyer Sterling Johnson.
I like to tell people, “You are important and you matter. You cannot keep quiet. Not now. Not ever.”

Having felt helpless about some of the things our society values for my entire adult life, I’ve only recently been finding my voice. I’ve been especially inspired by the activists, such as Black Lives Matter and POWER and the journalists in Philadelphia who insist on speaking their truth.

What can you do to help your community? I will tell you that giving of myself has paid me back in full.

I work at a technology startup called Legal Science and love my job. I conduct research on many public health issues that I care about. However, in the summer of 2015, I was feeling depressed. To help me with this problem, it was suggested that I try to help somebody.

I started by picking a topic that I really cared about. As a person in recovery from mental health and substance abuse issues, it was easy to choose other people in recovery as my target. So, I started researching the organizations here in Philadelphia.

Giving of myself has paid me back in full.

I started at the top and gave the Philadelphia Office of Addiction Services a call to schedule a meeting. The director was able to give me about 20 minutes of his time and then referred me to grassroots recovery organization PRO-ACT — Pennsylvania Recovery Organization Achieving Community Together. From my first meeting with the volunteer coordinator, I felt right at home.

PRO-ACT inspired me mostly because it reminded me of a case from law school, Olmstead v. L.C.. It was a case that stated that a person with a disability had a right to be provided treatment inside of their community. Most of the PRO-ACT staff are in recovery or have some connection to recovery from a mental health issue or a substance use disorder. They provide opportunities for community service and help others in recovery, as well as recovery specialists that can connect people to services. PRO-ACT delivers these services in the community.

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I am the co-chair of PRO-ACT’s public policy committee. I help to organize to fund recovery support programs, attend meetings to bring awareness about the importance of people in recovery and educate the community on local and national policy related to recovery issues, especially access to treatment, housing, harm reduction and poverty.

As a person born with disability, I know the shame that a person can feel on a daily basis and that one of the most revolutionary things you can be is independent, making your bed, feeding yourself and walking down the street with your head high. I also got that feeling of home with my fellow volunteers. You’ll know it when you feel it.

There is much work to be done.

There is much work to be done. I’m energized by the work of local nonprofits like the Black and Brown Workers Collective. They embody the new activism that is intersectional — attacking racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and transphobia. Also, I’m excited to support the work of the city’s new director of LGBT affairs, Amber Hikes.

I am a little person and prefer to keep it that way; bringing attention or enriching myself is not my ultimate goal. I would prefer to support my friends and family and contribute to my community and to this city, Philadelphia, which I love. But every little person can do something. Every individual has a voice and they should be heard. It’s always so good to hear new voices, especially those that offer a new perspective.

So, to those people feeling powerless or hopeless due to some of our country’s policies: I would suggest that they engage locally. Pick one issue and then commit to that group. Support other likeminded groups when they need support. Listen to people who have been involved in these fights for decades. Also, don’t get too high or too low.

Do it for you. Do it because it matters.

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Sterling Johnson

Since 2013, Sterling Johnson, JD, MA, has worked with Temple University’s Public Health Law Program and its spin-out company, Legal Science. There, he works on projects related to policy surveillance and legal mapping of drug abuse policies for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. He also serves as the co-chair of the public policy committee for PRO-ACT, a recovery grassroots organization in Philadelphia where he advocates for criminal justice reform.

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