In February 2022, we hosted several Changemakers Alliance conversations about Stigma and Addiction to inform a June issue on the topic. The conversations were deep with connections and details.

It is our belief that if more people had the opportunity to talk with as many different people as reporters do, our ability to understand different sides of stories — multiple perspectives — would be enhanced. Changemakers Alliance (CALL) is our extension of Minnesota Women’s Press that enables members to be part of the story development behind-the-scenes.

Welcome to the conversations.

A warm and open discussion with Amy Sullivan, author of “Opioid Reckoning,” about what she learned in the process of interviewing 60 people about substance use disorders, the role of stigma in limiting the recovery process, and how we could build a stronger educational model

Amy Sullivan’s suggestions, prompted by Changemakers Alliance discussion participants, about community-based solutions we can co-create together.

A deep conversation with three women about the Housing First model of recovery at Solace Apartments, a supportive community housing development in Saint Peter

Why John Burcaw of Finishing Trades Institute is part of building a place that supports people who benefit from supportive mental health environments

As a young man, I was addicted, homeless, and on the streets by 14. Unfortunately, I found myself incarcerated and really going down an unfortunate path as a young man. I found recovery through registered apprenticeship. I had just gotten out, I was living with my father, and he had hired some painters to paint his house. And like a good dad, he was [insisting] they ‘get my flipping kid a job.’

‘Yeah, go down to the apprenticeship school. They are looking for painters.’

The last thing I wanted to do was be a painter. But I went because he made me, so I went to the apprenticeship school, and I came home and I told my father that ‘I did what you asked me to do but there are no jobs.’ Well, there was. I was supposed to go to work the next day.

A week goes by and finally the man calls [the house] and said: ‘Why hasn’t John gone to work?’

My father dragged my butt to the job site for the next four days. And what I found is that the people I worked with, very quickly, for whatever reason, while I was actively in addiction, made a decision to help me mature and become a better person. As I realized that the money was okay, I enjoyed the people I worked with, slowly they transformed me in about a year to somebody who was buying a house, and was getting married, and finding a much better a better way. So my life really changed with entry into the trades and that’s … where my my story lands. That is why this is very important to me and it has been for 31 years now.

As an organization, prior to coming to Minnesota two years ago, I worked for the Painter’s International Union out of Washington D.C. where I was responsible for all the apprenticeship schools in the United States and Canada. And when I was in that role, we had a friend here out of Minneapolis named Bob Swanson, the primary for Swanson & Youngdale painting, and a big advocate, and in the space working with NAMI and others on issues surrounding mental health illness, and death by suicide. After his son tragically passed from suicide, he talks about [how employers tend to] let people go who don’t come to work [instead of asking] ‘what is going on?’

We started a campaign to talk about this out loud in 2016. To try to overcome some of the ‘uncomfortable-ness’ with the conversation. We developed Helping Hand Initiative.

A good example of our approach with our high schoolers:  a couple semester[s] ago we had a young lady who had intensive counseling on Mondays. She needed every Monday off. How many schools were going to give her every Monday off? The simple grace of agreeing to let her have Mondays off to get her counseling allowed this young lady to graduate high school, graduate our program, and most importantly, be in a much better place than she has ever been. She has finally found stability, and housing, food stability, and a better way of life.

We try to lead with that grace. It is common sense to someone like me. If she had been thrown away year after year because of the struggles she faced — all it took was a little bit of grace and understanding in the way we do our scheduling. I think people are starting to learn about our culture here at Finishing Trades Institute, and our beliefs. What we are able to do is take your apprenticeship on-the-job learning, your classroom learning, and parlay that into an associate’s degree.

Everybody on our staff has taken mental health first aid, and we teach mental health first aid to our members, to our workers. On a construction site, you often have a steward that is somebody that folks go to if they have an issue. What we are doing is taking those who are in recovery, those who have a desire to pursue their education, and making them pure advocates. If you are on the job site and you are in crisis, have a question, or have a need, folks at the job site will know who that person is. And that person is trained to be that soft hand-off to benefits, or to the EAP provider — tell them where a meeting is, but also trained if there is a crisis, how to address the crisis.

We are statewide in Minnesota. We are also throughout North Dakota. We just opened a brand new campus in Helena, Montana.

Changemaker Alliance: Next Step

If you are a community member that wants to get involved in this recommended step toward alleviating our gaps in substance use disorder solutions, contact anna@womenspress.com

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