The First Step in Healing – Robin Spencer Horston of Message Carriers of Western PA

March 10, 2022
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Forward – Robin Horston Spencer, MHS, MS, MBA, OWDS, RCAT is in long term recovery since 1991. She has done so very much for her community. She is well known for her collaborative efforts with churches, agencies, 12 Step communities and even ballroom dancing! Presently, she sits on several advisory boards locally, statewide, and nationally. She is the proud mother of a son, Leigh James, daughter-in-law, Malika, and two beautiful granddaughters, Jazmin and Jordan Horston, all of Columbus, Ohio.

With over twenty years in human services, Ms. Horston Spencer worked for 16 years exclusively in SUD recovery support services. She received her master’s degree of Science in Human Service (MHS) from Lincoln University, the United States’ first degree-granting historically black college and university (HBCU) where she was inducted into the Pi Gamma Mu, International Honor Society in Social Science and was awarded the Rose B. Pinky Award for Outstanding Contribution in the Human Service Field. While attending Lincoln University she wrote “Training Recovering Individuals with Criminal Histories to Become Advocates and Mentors.” Ms. Horston Spencer was one of the first in Pennsylvania to become a Certified Offenders Workforce Development Specialist (OWDS) and is a certified Recovery Coach Trainer (RCAT). In addition, she has a MBA and MS both from Carlow University. Ms. Horston Spencer helped form one of the first recovery community organization in Pennsylvania. She served as Executive Director of Message Carriers of Pennsylvania until it turned the lights out in July 2021.  

I have known Robin for over twenty years. I recall first seeing her at meetings twenty years ago that the state supported to design a recovery-oriented system of care. Robin has long been a passionate and vocal recovery advocate in Pennsylvania. She loves our system so much; she says what is on her mind and the truths of her experiences. Year in and year out, over the years I watched her get marginalized by our system. Her name would come off of workgroups, her organization left in the margins. The things she had to say made some people uncomfortable. She asked difficult questions. She got excluded and sidelined for being candid. Her funding evaporated. It happens to others, and it leads to a system in which people learn only praise is acceptable. Such systems become profoundly impaired. We can’t heal our people until we address these issues, even as raising them makes a person unpopular. We cannot fix the things we hide in the dark.

We should never have lost the first African American run Recovery Community Organization in Pennsylvania. How did this occur in a time when funding and support for other things in our field are so bountiful? By removing the voices of persons and organizations who express constructive criticism, we only guarantee that nothing will change. It will take real courage and self-examination for leaders to fix this. The first step in changing something is acknowledging it, the second step is genuinely supporting its healing. There is a lot to be done if we are to heal these wounds.

During our interview, Robin shared with me a story of how in the early 1960’s, she had a brother who was killed by a drunk driver. The insurance company compensated her family for the loss of this young boy’s life with a $12 check. $12 for the loss of a human being across an entire life span. I have no idea what that kind of pain feels like. I listened and shared with her that I had learned about this kind of anger and hurt by often being the only white person in a room of African American men coming out of our jails and prisons. They did what I had done to get drugs but served sentences for crimes I never even got charged with. They were treated differently because of the color of their skin. Not something I have ever faced. As Robin noted in our conversation, “I wake up black every day, I don’t get a break from this.” This is of course, was not my life experience, but I can listen and support her voice. I can interview her. I can have the courage to also tell the truth about a system I am dedicated to helping fix. We hope our systems have the courage to listen with an open heart nd to work with us collaboratively to fix it.  

I cannot fully understand what Robin feels like having experienced being discounted and excluded, but I have had the experience of being removed from the table. As a person in recovery with hundreds of thousands of hours of professional and decades of lived experience, I have found myself openly discounted or ignored when the things I had to say made people uncomfortable and promised opportunities that shift like a pea under those cups as those cups are moved around on the table. It can be debilitatingly painful. It makes me very angry. It also helps me understand to a small extent what Robin and members of our African American recovery community experience in a myriad of ways that I have never had to face. These voices must be heard. It is the first, but not the final step in healing.

  • Tell us about yourself, your recovery, and your work to support recovery over your lifetime?

In 1989, my journey into recovery started for me by a “nudge from a judge.” I got caught transporting drugs across state lines between New York and New Jersey. I spent four nights and five days in a jail in Hackensack NJ. I had never been in prison before, it felt like a lifetime sentence. I had no prior conviction record. My father was there to support me. I really had no idea what was going on or even the chance I was being afforded by this judge. He handed me the brass ring of a pretrial intervention and he sent me to an outpatient in Pittsburgh near where I lived. I had no idea what an outpatient was. I didn’t figure out what a gift I was handed by that judge until a very long time later.

Readers who do not have lived experience with addiction and recovery may not entirely understand, but I was focused on doing what I was doing. Addiction works like that. I did not want any part of recovery. As we often do, I just rolled with what I was asked to do and started figuring out how to get around the obstacles to using, which was my focus. I had to come in for urine testing and ended up handing in samples that would show negative. I attended the services they offered and the recovery fellowship they sent me to, but I wanted no part of those people. I just sat in the back. Eventually, a counselor did an observed UT and I got caught. I then stopped using cocaine and shifted to drinking, as we often do.

This went on for about two years. I did not see myself as “one of those people.” I was not that bad. I had a car. I had a house. I had a job. My family loved me. I would listen to what people said and pick out the differences and not what we had in common. I was just doing what I need to do to stay out of jail. For a long time, it seemed to work.

Then one day, on June 10th, 1991, I was sitting in a 12-step fellowship meeting, and someone said that alcohol was a drug. It had probably been said a few hundred times before that, but in that moment, I heard it. I had a sponsor (in name only). I made the move and called this woman up and asked if she remembered me. Of course, she did. I talked to her about my drinking and my drug history. I had a bottle of E & J brandy in the house, and she suggested I pour it out. Pouring out a full bottle of booze was not in my head at all. She offered to stay on the phone as I did it. I poured that E & J down the sink drain on that day. We talked for hours. This stranger showed me love. She was so happy! I had always been so guarded. She got through my armor. She was an amazing person. She helped me save my life.

I stated to hope a little. I kept going to these meetings and to that outpatient and listening more. I moved my chair further up towards the front of the room. I had not really figured out that I was in treatment. I just liked hanging out with these people and the activities that were offered, like card playing, dances, and picnics. I started to have fun and let my guard down a little more.

Right around this time, I met another woman in recovery. She invited me out to Wexford to hang out and see a movie. It was like an hour away by bus. I still did not fully trust, and I wondered if she was going to kidnap me or something. Her and her recovering friends took me to a movie and bought me popcorn. They would not let me pay for anything. I had the best time ever!

Things started to click. Two years later, I completed that pretrial intervention. A lot of difficult things happened in those next few years, but I stayed on track. My relationship, which had gravitated around using, ended. I lost a few of my family members who stood next to me through my using days. Many of the people who helped me so much in that era are gone now. Six years ago, I lost that sponsor who stayed on the phone as the booze went down that drain. So many people had loved me into recovery. I am so grateful for all they did for me. I have tried hard to pay that debt forward.

  • You had an instrumental role in forming and running Message Carriers of Western PA.  Looking back what would you want people to know about what brought Message Carriers together?

Keith Giles and Reverend David Else had been involved with Message Carriers before I got there. It was essentially a volunteer organization closely associated with the Center for Spirituality in 12-step Recovery. I ended up getting invited to Virginia as the work with the Recovery Community Support Program (RCSP) grant was getting in gear. Dona Dmitrovic, Denise Holden, Mike Harle, Keith, David, Bev Haberle and Allen McQuarrie were all there from Pennsylvania as well. It was before the focus on recovery really took hold and the slogan, I recall was “Treatment Works,” which was the early slogan of recovery month. It was actually around that time I realized that I had been in treatment. I had not really thought of outpatient in that way. It was more like getting connected to community for me. The slogan became “nothing about us without us” as we all began to come together and focus on recovery.

We were looking at how to establish recovery community affiliates, and Message Carriers became the western affiliate. There were some other people at the time running Message Carriers, one was not in recovery, another one struggled with his recovery. We started organizing rallies and events. One of those events was at city island in Harrisburg. We organized a bus from Pittsburgh and the guy who was supposed to lead it from Message Carriers failed to show up. Dona looked at me and suggested I lead it. At first, I was not sure I could. I was in school and had a lot to juggle. Dona convinced me. She also said she would help. When I had to come out to Harrisburg, she let me sleep at her place. There was a lot of support from within our community and things started to take shape.

  • What did Message Carriers accomplish during its operation?

We organized the first recovery rally in Pittsburgh. It was around 2003 and is now known as Pittsburgh Recovery Walks. PRO-A would support ours; we would support theirs. We started to organize the recovery community of Pittsburgh. Over time, we found that our event became a county event and we found ourselves on the outside looking in. That happened more often than not over the years.

Another major success was our prison reentry program. We connected people coming out of the prison system with the recovery community. Nobody else was doing this back then. It took the recovery community to step up and serve our own people. We even had Jan Pringle of PITT PERU independently evaluate the program. She found what we were reducing recidivism by around 80%. The program we put together was successful, yet over time it too ended up moving away from our RCO. Others were funded to run it and we were not. It seems like we came up with many great ideas. When those ideas took shape, the money to do those things went elsewhere. At one point, someone in a position of authority openly acknowledged that our ideas were being used, but as implemented by others.   

Message Carriers would put together events, like our Tree of Life event. When treatment organizations would put similar events together, their events got shared across the region. They were supported, but not our RCO. We were always told we needed to get more people involved, or some other excuse. We got lip service, not support.

We all came together in that era and put together the CRS training at PRO-A. It was PRO-A, PRO-ACT, RASE Project and Message Carriers who came together in the offices of PRO-A to set up the credential. It was one of the first in the nation and we began to train people, a major goal of the New Recovery Advocacy Movement. That was taken away too.

You helped me with one of those DDAP grant applications last year. We got a letter saying our submission was rejected. It was the last straw. Every door was shut in our face, time in and time out. That is how Message Carriers closed during a time when our state has more resources than at any other time in history. It was not a lack of resources that closed us. Not one dime got to us. How does that happen, exactly? In my heart, I think they really don’t want recovery community organizations to be supported, it scares them. One run by black people scares them even more.

So many meetings that we were asked to be involved in, but never a penny of support for our involvement. Actions speak louder than words. We were not valued. If we had been valued, they would have found a way to fund us. Since we did not fit in their little box we were consistently left out. It is no accident that that our Recovery Community Organization, Pennsylvania first and for a very long time the only African American run RCO was never really supported and struggled for years until it closed. It is happening to other groups as well. Not one single penny of government support for their work either. What do you think that looks look like to our community?

I became known as that angry black woman. It is true, I am angry about what I saw was being done to us, year in and year out. It was like we would pull things together and then a roadblock would appear. We would submit for a project and then be told we did not have a promise number, so we ended up out in the cold. Maybe next year it would be different we were told. It seemed like monies went to programs who were better politically connected in ways we were not.

They talk about stigma, but then marginalize us because they don’t want more than a media campaign by outside groups. They keep us at arm’s length and under control for a reason. What it looks like is that they only want to acknowledge things on the surface, they do not want to actually dig in deep and deal with it. That makes people uncomfortable. It should, but that does not mean we should not look at it. Message Carriers was killed off because that is what the system wants. It looks like they do not want a strong recovery community, they want control. Being in control of an outcome keeps our system comfortable even as our community members die. That is not okay.

It is like Critical Race Theory. We teach kids that there was slavery in this country, but the lite version. We don’t teach kids about how 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered by a group of white men because his presence in a grocery store upset a white woman. They lynched a 14-year-old boy, and those men ended up with no consequences from our justice system. That was 1955, and it still is happening now. We do not teach this because it makes people really uncomfortable. We know that in recovery, being uncomfortable is part of change. Meaningful inclusion can be uncomfortable for the system. Business as usual is killing our community members. That is an uncomfortable truth. We can’t heal in comfort.

Like Don Coyhis of White Bison once said, the system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. It is designed for disparate funding and support for recovery community organizations because they do not really want “those people at the table.” Of course, I am an angry black woman. I am angry about what I have seen happen to us. I am angry that my community gets incarceration instead of treatment and we do not fund recovery support provided through recovery community organizations. I am angry that the deck is stacked against us. I am angry that Message Carriers was killed off, death by a thousand cuts. The question is not why I am angry, the question is who would not be if this is what was done to them?

  • You have been a major contributor to the recovery movement in your region and beyond over your lifetime. What are you most proud of?

Day in and day out, we showed up to help heal our community, despite the barriers put in our path. Message Carriers was good at supporting multiple pathways of recovery. We have a strong faith-based recovery community in Allegheny County, and we pulled them together. We embraced MAT and the use of medication as a pathway to recovery. We embraced and included the 12 step communities. We brought in harm reduction strategies to keep our community members alive until they could find recovery. We helped our community find their way out of the criminal justice system. In the years I kept Message Carriers going, it touched a whole lot of lives. We helped people find hope and connection, and quite often that led to recovery. Despite our sad ending, Message Carriers has left a huge legacy of restored lives in our community. I want people to know that. I am proud of what we did.

  • What would you want young people to know about what you have learned along the way?

It is really important for young people in recovery to study our history. What we have gone through and what we have had to do to accomplish what we have. They need to learn about what happens when we get divided up by those who want to diminish us. They need to learn that we need to focus our systems more on recovery if we want to heal our communities. I want young people to know that we can and do get better, and that the recovery community is vital to that process for so many people.

When one studies our history, there are many difficult times, but we keep moving until things get better. Despite all the barriers, we do get better and then things get better. I would want young people to know that we have to sustain hope for a brighter future. I would want them to know that our systems can and must do better, but for that to happen, we must be at the table in meaningful ways. Anything less is unacceptable.

  • What feedback would you have for policy makers on supporting recovery moving forward?

Policy makers need to take a hard look at the system, acknowledge how broken it is and include us in redesigning that system. It must be acknowledged that not funding us is a form of discrimination, and then it must be fixed. The recovery community must have a meaningful role in where the money goes and what is done to heal our communities. We need to pay attention to where the money goes, because it is not supporting things that we need to heal our communities. And we should not have to do “go fund me” campaigns on social media to sit in rooms and participate by sitting at the end of a process once all the decisions are made on where millions of our tax dollars get allocated.

It feels like a bitter pill to me that we fought so hard to create and elevate recovery, believing that this would mean we would get more focus on healing our communities and then experience what I have experienced. Those kinds of things have to be acknowledged and fixed, and not in the way that it has been historically. They say millions of dollars are being spent on recovery, but we can’t see it.

Far too often these kinds of things get wallpapered over and they just move on, pretending there is not an elephant sitting in the middle of the living room. If I did not care, I would sit down, shut up and go about my life. I do care, and I cannot do that. To do so would be a betrayal of all those who came before me. We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go.   

  • What are your hopes for the next generation of recovery advocates?

It is my hope that they are going to be able to find ways to collaborate together and to not be pitted to fight each other for scraps of funding left on the floor once all the powerful groups get to carve up the lion share of the resources. I would hope that they realize we are being pitted against each other so that we can be kept weak. I want them to know that they have to support each other, or we all lose in the end. It is important for them to understand that we must be united, or we end up with nothing. We must stand together. If the next generation learns that and acts on it, they will accomplish a whole lot.

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