A Powerful Revolution
Our Executive Director, S. Mary Scullion, gave the keynote address at the April 17 Graduation Ceremony of the Philadelphia Peer Leadership Academy. PPLA is a 13-week training designed to promote the leadership skills of those people in recovery who have an earnest desire to help continue to shape and refine the behavioral health care system, as part of the ongoing system transformation movement. PPLA was conceived of and initiated by the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Mental Retardation Services and is supported by the work of PRO-ACT (Pennsylvania Recovery Organization – Achieving Community Together) and the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania (MHASPA). Three of our community members, Zarah Teachey, Eunid Mann, and Myron Page, were among this year’s graduates.
I am frequently invited to give talks to many different groups. But in all honesty, I can say that this gathering with you today is of special meaning for me. And I don’t know if any words I can say will have as much meaning as simply hearing your many stories, which I know would be profoundly inspiring and empowering.
It is an honor and blessing to share with you this special day. Philadelphia Peer Leadership Academy is a model program, and one of the signs of great hope and good news in our community. The many organizations and communities who have collaborated to develop PPLA are among the brightest lights in Philadelphia: The Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Mental Health and Mental Retardation Services; PRO-ACT; and the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania. We at Project HOME are proud to have partnered with all these tremendous groups over the years to help make this a more just and compassionate city for all our sisters and brothers.
Each one of you has worked hard for these past several months to develop your leadership skills. Each of you has important and vital gifts to share, which I know will plants seeds of hope and recovery in thousands of lives you touch, and will foster greater hope and recovery in our community as a whole. You are my heroes.
I hardly have to tell you how for many, many years persons struggling with mental illness or addiction have been marginalized, dehumanized, blamed for their own pain and for being causes of broader social ills. At Project HOME we know all too well how powerful those stigmas can be, as we have had to struggle for fair housing rights against community opposition rooted in negative stereotypes of persons with histories of mental health issues. In 2013, prejudices and discrimination persist – as we see in the current debate on gun violence in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy: all too often, the media is fostering skewed and dangerous connections between mental illness and violence, re-stoking old fears.
In many ways, I believe the recovery movement among those who live with behavioral health issues is nothing short of a powerful revolution in our society. It represents a powerful shift in paradigms, and it is truly coming from the grass roots. And as ambassadors of that movement, you are communicating a critically important message: It is rooted in the honest truth that behavioral health issues can be daunting and diminishing of our lives, but they don’t have to be. We can courageously face these issues in our lives, and, with support from peers and allies, we can engage in the hard but beautiful work of recovery. Each one of you is a living testimony to the fact that even out of deeply painful struggles, it is possible to live lives of quality, meaning, community, relationships, vocation, and love.
But even more deeply, the miracle in this room, the miracle that you all live, is that true transformation happens precisely when we have the courage to face our own brokenness. And in facing that brokenness, we surrender to God’s grace. And we take on the radical humility and fierce patience of compassion for self that becomes compassion for others. In community with others, we embark on the long, beautiful journey that is recovery. But we do so having tapped into a power that we would not know without that surrender. And as a result, our brokenness becomes blessings, our pain becomes gifts, our struggles become hope for others.
Most of you will go on from here to work in situations of peer support. And that work is infinitely valuable, because you will empower others to find the courage, strength, and hope needed for the journey of recovery. You will literally save many lives. But you also have to offer something to the broader community as well. This message of recovery is ultimately one that all persons needs to hear. It is a vision that our whole society needs to hear.
My colleague at Project HOME, Will O’Brien, recently shared his experience of living with mental illness in a blog post. He wrote: “We live in a society that promulgates a great and terrible lie: that our worth and dignity as persons depends on our productivity and our success. We idolize the rich and famous and powerful. We put them on magazine covers and television shows. We aspire to be like them, because, we assume, they have great worth and value. Meanwhile, our society denigrates those who are in any way weak, unproductive, unsuccessful.
“These values dehumanize all of us. Obviously, they dehumanize those who are poor, struggling, addicted, mentally ill, or somehow otherwise broken in obvious ways. But they also dehumanize those who are successful and powerful, by seducing them into believing that their worth is based on things that are false, things that are not lasting or eternal, things that could easily be stripped away.”
He goes on to say: “At Project HOME I have begun to experience and envision something close to my conception of what church ought to be: a place where we gather to remind each other that we are all God’s precious, beloved children. It is to be a place where we accept and embrace each other’s brokenness. It is a place where we proclaim that the social values outside are a lie. God loves us in all our flaws and defects and shortcomings. God doesn’t care whether we are a CEO or a drug dealer, whether we reside in a mansion or a mental health hospital. Grace embraces all of us. In fact, the mystery is that it is precisely in the acceptance of our brokenness that we can know this amazing grace.”
I am thrilled that you have all had the opportunity to develop your gifts and leadership through the Academy. And I am excited about all that you will accomplish in the coming years, from offering one-on-one peer support to sisters and brothers in need; to sharing your stories to educate the public; to advocating for more just and humane public policies. I thank you for your courage, your strength, and your commitment.
At Project HOME, for almost 25 years now, we have found special insight in the words of Aboriginal activist Lila Watson: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” As you experience your own liberation, may you bring liberation to many others.