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President’s Message to the SMART Recovery Community

I bring greetings to our entire community and a special welcome to seven new SMART Recovery USA board members, bringing our total to seventeen. Not since SMART was founded more than a quarter-century ago have we assembled a more talented and dedicated group of people to help lead our organization. They have the diverse skills and vision we need to innovate our services and extend SMART’s reach to every individual and family who needs our help.

The need for SMART Recovery has never been greater as the COVID pandemic has made an already daunting addiction epidemic even worse. Our community will meet these challenges more quickly and more effectively with this infusion of new leadership.

We are fortunate to have Joe Gerstein and Tom Horvath from our original board, along with long-time member and Vice President Brett Saarela, who knows addiction as a peer and a highly regarded professional counselor, and Elaine Appel, a 16-year member with nonprofit expertise. They helped build and sustain this organization for more than a quarter-century and provide us with continuity as we address the critical challenges ahead.

As this year draws to a close, I’d like to share brief thoughts about the latest science that supports us, SMART leadership, our pending two year strategic plan, and how we can create our future together.

The Science Supporting SMART’s Efficacy

A growing body of scientific research supports the efficacy of SMART. Two major longitudinal studies underway funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) should increase our evidence basis:

  • Expanding the Science on Recovery Mutual Aid for Alcohol Use Disorder: An Investigation of SMART Recovery by John F. Kelly, Ph.D., ABPP, Elizabeth R. Spallin Professor of Psychiatry in the Field of Addiction Medicine at Harvard Medical School, the Founder and Director of the Recovery Research Institute.
  • A third study in the Peer Alternatives (PAL) series comparing AA, LifeRing, SMART Recovery, and Women for Sobriety by the Alcohol Research Group, led by Sarah E. Zemore, Ph.D., senior scientist and associate director of the group’s National Alcohol Research Center.
    The first two PAL studies found, among other things, that the four recovery support models are equally effective. In 2019, SMART Recovery USA honored Zemore as the inaugural recipient of the SMART Science Award.

To promote worldwide collaboration on such research, SMART Recovery International recently formed the Global Research Network. Kelly and Zemore serve on the SRI Global Research Advisory Committee, which oversees the network. The committee is chaired by Peter Kelly, Ph.D., associate professor and deputy head of research at the School of Psychology at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and a member of the Australian College of Clinical Psychologists.

Leadership to Support a Growing Organization

The first SMART Recovery board was composed almost entirely of professionals, including medical practitioners, addiction psychiatrists, psychologists, and scientists. Over time, we have evolved to the point that peers occupy most of the board seats, including all the officer positions. I suppose one could say today that “the inmates are running the asylum.”

However, the fact is that diverse skills and perspectives are critical to lead a growing nonprofit. These include essential business or entrepreneurial skills, financial and risk management, education and training, marketing and communications, information technology, fundraising, government relations. The new board members give us more racial, age, and gender diversity. Also, all of them have contributed to our new long-range strategic plan.

The Two-Year Strategic Plan

We started this strategic planning process late last year. We have benefited a great deal from guidance by a team of expert consultants associated with the SAMHSA initiative known as Bringing Recovery Supports to Scale: Technical Assistance Center Strategy (BRSS TACS). This initiative has a long history of helping groups in the recovery field. For example, they have provided significant support to Faces & Voices of Recovery. In fact, Patty McCarthy, FAVOR executive director, served as deputy director, the position that our lead BRSS TACS consultant, Valerie Gold, holds. They put a great deal of work into this undertaking and wrote it up as a model of their best work.

In this planning process, we have made an in-depth, comprehensive, and honest assessment of the state of SMART USA. We have tried hard to recognize the elephants in the room—averting a common mistake that dilutes and undermines strategic planning. It is a telling sign of our maturity that AA is not among the elephants—except perhaps the need to stop thinking of ourselves as an “alternative.” To slay the elephants, we must:

  • Increase diversity in our community, especially people of color, youths, and women.
  • Better support, train, honor, and celebrate our volunteers.
  • Cultivate more, larger, and sustainable funding streams.
  • Undertake aggressive and ongoing marketing and communications programs that target professionals, the broader medical community, and the general public.

The next step is to execute the plan. This will not be easy, but SMART has endowed us with the skills and orientation required. We are empowered, resilient, and open to many solutions. We have boundless passion, energy, and commitment to our cause.

We need to nourish trust, mutual respect, a team orientation, and corresponding values that produce the gestalt effect where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We need this for our staff, our board, and our volunteers. Overwhelmed by the fast pace of growth over the past ten years, we must rebuild our culture. We all need more life balance, relief from compassion fatigue, and a sense that our work is valued, that we are making a difference in the mission that SMART pursues.

Creating Our Future

The best way to predict your future is to create it.

That famous line is often attributed, incorrectly it turns out, to Abraham Lincoln. Whoever created it had a self-empowered mindset. Management guru Peter Drucker used it in strategic planning courses for aspiring business leaders. He contrasts two people on a river, one floating on a raft who drifts aimlessly wherever the current takes him with the other in a kayak who navigates his way toward a desired destination. The kayaker is not entirely creating his future, but he exerts much control, adjusting the speed and the course while avoiding obstacles.

Our effort to execute this strategic plan might be more analogous to white-water rafting in which we’re together in the same craft. Anyone who’s had this adventure knows the peril of careening through roiling waters around massive boulders that can upend the raft and toss everyone overboard. Staying dry requires a highly coordinated team effort. For example, to avoid collisions with a boulder, everyone must paddle furiously in the same direction well before reaching it. Only then can you make the turn to avoid it.

A memory forever imprinted in my brain is encountering a series of boulders speeding down a West Virginia river. After bypassing two boulders, we all felt we had mastered this group maneuver. However, a moment of complacency led to a head-on collision. Instead of turning the raft over, it spun us around, and we were then flowing backwards down the river. This was not a comfortable feeling. After bouncing around another boulder, thankfully, we were saved by an eddy—a patch of calm waters formed where water flowing upstream meets the downstream current—where we righted our raft.

Here we are today, enduring a pandemic-epidemic of addiction and fatal overdoses. This dire situation presents SMART with tremendous opportunities to grow and improve to help a lot more people. Our plan has identified many of the boulders. Working together, paddling in the same direction, we will navigate around them. We will make mistakes, and we will learn from them, as SMART has taught us.

A SMART Meeting for Everyone

I invite anyone in the SMART community to help us take the many action steps associated with this strategic plan. We are finalizing the details and forming numerous task forces and committees in a broad-based creative enterprise to grow and rebuild SMART USA. Our goal is no less than having a SMART Meeting for Everyone.

I am eager to hear your thoughts on any or all of the thoughts above. In the meantime, stay strong and depend on one another.

Together we are SMARTer, together we make a difference.

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