Village Voices

It’s a Tuesday morning in February at the Village of Power, and Josephine is asking the women seated around her in a makeshift circle of chairs what they’ve done this week to turn a negative into a positive. The women, eleven in all, slump back into their sweatshirts and jackets. Although it’s warm indoors, some are still wearing the secondhand winter coats they got from the Columbus House shelter, where many will spend the night. No one speaks. Maybe it’s a little too early in the day, or maybe the question is too difficult for the women to answer just yet. They have come to the VOP, an all-female treatment program run in the basement of the Hill Health Center on Dixwell Avenue, to seek legal, medical, and emotional support as they struggle to overcome the twin hurdles of homelessness
and substance abuse.

Each woman who finds her way to the VOP is at a different step on the road to recovery, but all have certain things in common. All live below the poverty line; many have a history of incarceration, domestic abuse, and trauma; most, though not all, are racial minorities; 98 percent are unemployed. Most of the women suffer from some form of illness, mental or physical, that is often related to their addictions and exacerbated by their poverty: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, HIV, diabetes. Pain of all degrees and all varieties tends to be a recurring problem among the clientele.

Josephine isn’t prepared to accept silence.
As a veteran VOP caseworker, she leads a slew of trauma discussion groups, and she’s anything but shy about getting the ball rolling. “Mary, would you care to tell us one example of what you changed from a negative to a positive this week?” she asks a woman in jeans and a black parka.

Mary responds slowly. “Keeping that right attitude, no matter what happens in my life,” she says. She doesn’t look older than forty, but she’s missing most of her teeth. “I can’t be a good example to my grandchildren and other children in the family if I’m going to be an addict. And I could be sent to jail by my parole officer for using and testing positive time after time.” She pauses, then grows philosophical.
“I could thank my lucky stars that I still have my freedom, and nothing gets better by using.”

“Give her a hand, people,” Josephine calls out, eliciting a round of applause. A woman sitting close to the room’s back wall clears her throat. It’s hard to hear her until Josephine tells her to speak up. Three of her family members have died within days of each other, she says, and she’s struggling with the temptation to turn to alcohol to help her cope with her grief. The woman sitting next to her chimes in. She can understand what it’s like, she says, rubbing her eyes. She still misses her mother, although she died over twenty years before. The anniversary of her death is coming up soon. The women begin to talk at the same time, speaking at once to and over each other.

“You need to write a letter to your mother,” Josephine tells the second woman, cutting through the confusion, and when she replies that she already has, Josephine is ready with an answer: “Write another one, baby, until you feel that peace, ’cause you’re not at peace with that. As time goes on and we get older, we have to come to peace with things in our past,” she explains. “You are judged by your past, and you’re going to have to live with your past some more.”

JOSEPHINE OCCASIONALLY speaks in abstractions,
but her words are grounded in experience. Like many of the VOP’s caseworkers, she herself is a recovered addict, and is intimately acquainted with the irreversible impact that addiction can have on a career and personal life. As she addresses the group, Josephine begins to talk about her own struggle to regain control over her life, to find a new job after her drug-related criminal record made her ineligible for most career tracks. She knows what it’s like to be judged by the past, and she tells it like it is: Recovery is hard, recovery is long, recovery is often lonely. Her voice is sharp and loud, but its sheer persistent force has a relaxing effect over the room. “I know what it is to sit up and cry and be upset about that urge, you know,” she says. “It’s real, something that I fight every day, what is it, seven or eight years?” She pauses, and looks at the circle of women. “And I feel really good about that.”

As Josephine goes on, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish her from a VOP client. She speaks with the authority of a caseworker and the confidence of someone who is sure of her own strength and ability to stay sober. Still, the stories she tells are deeply personal, and she makes no attempt to censor herself, or to pause her own narrative so that others can share theirs. She is nothing like the stereotypical group leader of addiction recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, that warm and fuzzy breed of mentor who speaks only positive platitudes. This, of course, is the point of the VOP’s particular recovery model. The program installs caseworkers who understand their clients’ experiences because they have lived them. Josephine, who wears her enthusiasm for her job at the VOP like a badge of honor, can hold herself up as living proof that it is possible not simply to conquer an addiction, but to go on to lead a fulfilling life. And she’s anything but modest about the achievement.

“Do you mind if I give you a hug?” she asks one of the clients in the group. No one else has spoken for minutes; the proposed hug seems at once a caseworker’s offer of comfort to the women she’s trying to help and a client’s vulnerable appeal for reassurance. “I tell ya, a hug a day keeps the doctor away, it’s better than the apple. And a good smile will brighten a person’s day, too.” People nod. “You know, I feel as though when I walk in here I really add some burst of life to y’all. Get up! Get moving!” The women chuckle, but few move. “No?” Josephine asks.

DESPITE THE FRAUGHT nature of many of its discussion groups, the VOP works hard to cultivate a casual, easy atmosphere. Women will often stop by just to say hello and chat for a minute, and the caseworkers leading discussions and group therapy sessions
call out to them to encourage them to sit and stay for a while, or to join the group and share their own stories. The cinderblock
walls are painted a bright purple, the rooms decorated with clients’ photographs, magazine-cutout collages, paintings, and poems. A large wooden board is cut and painted to look like a woman dressed in African-patterned fabrics. The sign she carries reads: “We are the women of the Village of Power—strong, caring, spiritual, loving, funny, free. Village of Power is the strength for women in recovery learning to overcome in daily battles.”

As the VOP’s founder and director Sue Feldman will tell you, it’s not a fancy place. Even in a normal economic climate, there would hardly be money to spend on things like furniture or décor. The tables and chairs that fill the main room where most of the group meetings take place are strictly utilitarian. But to regular clients, none of that seems to matter. The VOP has a warmth and openness to it that obscures
the windowless modesty of its physical space. It can seem worlds, rather than mere floors, away from the gray sterility of the clinic upstairs.

If there is a model for the VOP, it is the one-room schoolhouse, in which students of all ages and skill levels interact and learn with one another, the more advanced ones nudging the novices along until they become teachers in their own right. The Village of Power purposefully softens the lines between authority figures and clients, the recovered and the recovering. Caseworkers have been patients and talk honestly about the continued challenges of staying sober. As Josephine’s own presence testifies, it’s more than possible for patients to transform, one day, into caseworkers. Even Sue’s office, technically the most official and private room at the VOP, is an open, almost communal space. Clients and caseworkers alike drop by to chat or ask for advice, and the door stays open almost all the time. “Sue does not take a day off,” Josephine says with admiration. “Every time she takes her vacation, she incorporates it into business.”

Talking and listening are important, but doing and making things are equally stressed as practical modes of therapy. Across the hallway from the VOP’s main room is Growing for Sewing, a program devoted entirely to clients’ sewing and crafts projects. Bolts of fabric cover the tables and countertops of the large sewing room, and finished items hang on the walls as showpieces. Colorful wraps and shawls drape next to patterned shirts and pants; a handmade teddy bear or two surveys the scene. Johnnie-Anne and Comelita, two long-time VOP clients, sit at sewing machines,working on new projects and listening to religious songs drifting from the television: I know I don’t deserve him, but I love him anyway. Praise him, praise him, praise him.

Comelita has been coming to the Village of Power since 2006. Although she had known how to sew since she was a child, she hadn’t worked a machine in thirteen years. Sewing, she found, helps to keep her mind occupied and focused on sobriety. She comes to the VOP every day, she says, “so I can get away, and have that free time to myself, instead of being at home with that free time and doing—other things.” True to the VOP’s model of empowerment, she now teaches sewing to other women who come in wanting to learn. Acquiring a skill and being able to teach it, Feldman says, helps women like Comelita believe that there was a point to their suffering—that it has equipped them to understand and aid others like them.

“I just love being in the sewing room,” Johnnie-Anne says. “I just love being here.” Like Comelita, she is a daily presence
at the VOP, and has been coming for eight years. She came in with a drug addiction and a serious violent streak, but she smiles now as she promises that she’ll be here “until Sue tells me I got to go.” If Sue gives her the go-ahead, she plans to start teaching a class in jewelry-making for women who have not yet advanced to the sewing room. The VOP has taught her how to make candles and soaps, and she’s eager to learn more crafts. Johnnie-Anne wants to take her accumulated skills beyond the VOP basement, even beyond the regular crafts sales that the VOP sponsors every Friday, where its clients’ work is sold to fund the purchase of more materials for the crafts-room and any personal items these clients might need, from eyeglasses to bus passes (the women don’t receive hard cash for their work, in case it might trigger a relapse). With the support of the VOP, Johnnie-Anne plans to start her own craft-selling business in the basement of the home that she aspires to buy. Johnnie-Anne realizes that this particular equation rests on a string of maybes, but, she says, the VOP has given her hope that this kind of self-sufficiency may soon be possible.

The sewing room is one of the incentives Feldman has developed to help her clients stay clean. When they first arrive at VOP, many of the women have anger management problems that compound their addictions. But, as they progress toward sobriety, clients who show a great deal of improvement in social skills and professionalism might be invited to work the reception desk. Being asked to monitor the telephone is a sign of competence and responsibility, and Feldman reports that women will often argue with each other over who will get the job. “Rather than focus on illness, like you would do in a traditional therapy situation…our whole approach is, ‘What do you love to do?’” she explains. “Rather than initially focusing on deficits and weaknesses and problems, first we focus on who you are, what are you strengths, what you love to do.”

Feldman refuses to be discouraged by clients who, when they first enter the VOP, claim that they have no passions or skills. She’ll direct them to start stringing beads, something that anyone can do. The modest income that women like Johnnie-Anne and Comelita have begun to earn through the sale of their crafts demonstrates the immediate practical benefits that this kind of creativity can bring, but Feldman points to another, longer-lasting advantage to a work-based approach to recovery. “By finding her own strength and beauty, any woman can grow into age-appropriate tasks: being a parent, being a citizen, being an employee. It’s a developmental process.” She envisions a future for the VOP as a women’s micro-business cooperative, in which each client will eventually be skilled enough to make—and profit from—crafts. “We want to be a movement,” she says with a laugh, comparing the VOP to a company like the Body Shop, which started small and, by marketing a particular kind of natural and eco-friendly product, grew into a massive franchise. “Buy things made by women in recovery who are homeless, because that will make your community a humane place, rather than supporting a big CEO-corporation,” Feldman says. This goal has become a major focus of her organization, which recognizes that even women who have physically recovered from an addiction can’t succeed in today’s world without achieving economic independence. Until about ten years ago, Feldman explains, “the connection between work and recovery was very fuzzy, because programs are always stepped. Policy- makers would say, ‘First get them clean and sober, and address their mental health issues. Then they can go and train and get a job.’ Well, that never made sense to me. What’s the motivation for someone to get well if they’re still poor and can’t support themselves?”

The VOP’s dual approach to recovery is non-negotiable, according to Feldman. Women may come for group therapy sessions
but insist that they don’t want to participate in the crafts making, or vice-versa, but caseworkers will steer them towards both. Even though they have not relapsed recently and describe themselves as stable and happy, Johnnie-Anne and Comelita remain active participants in a variety of groups, from the regular morning meeting,at which clients describe their daily progress, to the spirituality and Bible-reading sessions.

AS SUCCESSFUL AS the VOP’s structure tends to be, there are moments when its sheer flexibility can prove problematic. Women don’t need an official referral to participate in any of its programs, and most come with friends who have told them about the organization. This informality makes the VOP uniquely accessible, but it also means that there are few formal mechanisms in place for ensuring that clients follow through on their intentions to get well. There are no twelve steps here, no regimen of any kind.

The informality and openness of the group sessions also create a complicated dynamic between those who are far along in the recovery process, those who are just beginning, and those who may not have come to the VOP to recover at all. Someone
who has never been addicted to alcohol cannot casually sit in on an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting, but a female visitor who has never suffered from an addiction or from poverty or homelessness will be welcomed into the VOP community with extraordinary hospitality simply by virtue of being a woman. She may be invited to sit in on group sessions without sharing anything personal about herself, and she can even allow herself to be lulled into feeling a degree of comfort there. But barriers inevitably remain. Josephine, friendly and blunt as ever, doesn’t object to the presence of a stranger in most of the sessions she leads, but she takes care to remind all who are present that the only people who can really help each other through addiction and destitution are those who have been there themselves.

“We sit in groups with people who have no idea what it’s like,” she says, her voice rising as she looks me straight in the eyes. “No idea what it’s like to have an addiction.” In a group discussion on recovery skills, a woman flares up at the idea that someone could listen to her personal experiences without sharing any of her own. “I wouldn’t have said none of that if I had known there was a visitor,” she shouts. “It’s not fair.”

Still, the VOP’s flexibility may be its greatest asset. Every woman who visits chooses consciously to do so. Just walking in the door is a deliberate act of empowerment.

“Today is my perfect example of turning a negative into a positive,” says another woman in Josephine’s group, also named Mary. She had come in late, and explains that after missing an important doctor’s appointment earlier in the morning, she thought about going to drink with her cousin afterwards. “But instead, I came right here,” she says. The group applauds.

“Ladies, I think we had a pretty good group today,” Josephine says, jumping out of her seat. “If anybody would like to say the Serenity Prayer with me, please stand.” There is a scraping of chairs, and the women hold hands and recite together: God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. The women applaud again and begin to clear food and papers from the table in the center of the room. Beads are set out in large plastic jars, elastic thread spooled onto plastic plates. The women chat as they begin to bead, designing necklaces and bracelets to sell, keep for themselves, or give as gifts to friends and family. The craft-making has the feel of an informal group session. Someone’s daughter is having trouble in the foster care system. Another is worrying about eviction. A third says that her mother is going into surgery again. She is silent for a moment. “But,” she says emphatically, her voice growing loud, “nothing is wrong with me!” There is laughter, and she continues. “I’m fine,” she says, “I’m fine.”

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