When Oxford House COO Kathleen Gibson invited me to attend the 21st NC Oxford House State Convention I jumped at the chance. At 7:30am on Saturday morning I walked in the door, ready to learn. At 9:00pm I went home exhausted. But it was that satisfying exhaustion of meaningful learning and connection to passionate people.

Besides me, almost everyone attending was an Oxford House staff member, volunteer, or resident. That was good news. I didn’t want to sit and listen to professionals. I wanted to learn the real deal about Oxford House straight from the people who live it. 

During breakfast, most of the tables were lively and full. That was a great sign of healthy relationships. I knew I’d learn about them throughout the day. A few tables had individuals who looked weary and unsure. I chose a table where one quiet man was having his coffee, alone. He told me that he lived in a house in DC. He was relatively new and was emerging as a reluctant leader in his house. It was by default; there didn’t seem to be much interaction or communication in his house. He told me that he hoped to learn things that could turn his house around. From that moment on, I added his concerns to my radar. Throughout the day, I wanted to learn everything about Oxford House, including what it might offer that emerging house leader.

Before the day started, all I knew was that:

1. Oxford House is safe, affordable housing for people growing personal recovery from substance use disorder. 

2. People who move into Oxford Houses usually have no where else to go, often because they are leaving incarceration, are unemployed, or have no safe family to live with. 

3. Several local people I know and respect are involved in NC Oxford House, including Kathleen Gibson, Keith Gibson, Karen McKinnon, Paula Harrington, Lynn Williams, and Kurtis Taylor. 

Here are the top 5 things that I learned. 

1. Oxford House is more than housing. 
“You are a part of something so much bigger than just your house.” For me, that sentence summed up the day. People may move into Oxford House to have a roof over their heads. What they can find is friendship and family that can last a lifetime. There were several people who had been friends through Oxford House for ten to twenty years! People had come from Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia, DC, and other states’ Oxford House to be a part of the convention. Learn more and watch the ABC special report.

2. Oxford House is capable of self-examination and accountability.
Panelist Emily Catoe presented the 4 stages of an Oxford House: Struggling, Stable, Successful, Significant. She explained exactly what a struggling house looks like, what people in the audience could do if their house was struggling, and the help that is available. I saw my breakfast companion from DC writing down lots of notes. He was very engaged. I breathed a sigh of relief that, yes, he was going to get the information he needed to help his house. This is a big deal. It can be tempting for panelists to talk only about what is awesome about their programs. This presentation acknowledged that some Oxford Houses are indeed struggling. It takes courage to stand up, name the struggles, and challenge people to address them with accountability. To hear a presentation on the stages of an Oxford House, click here.

3. Oxford House creates meaningful opportunities.
No matter what their current role in Oxford House, many panelists had a similar experience: They entered Oxford Houses during achingly difficult times in their lives. They were welcomed into “successful” and “significant” houses. They made mistakes and got second chances. They had opportunities to be in leadership positions in their house and chapter. They had fellow-resident mentors in their houses who encouraged and supported them. They learned skills and gained confidence. They found meaningful work in Oxford House and beyond. They became mentors and leaders. New batches of Oxford House leaders are learning and growing with their support. This process continues to replicate. That is a solid system of creating a meaningful opportunity for the people who need it most.

4. Oxford House is serious about Medication Assisted Treatment. 
Breaking the stigma around Medication Assisted Treatment is a long process. It is not an easy issue, particularly when it comes to sharing housing. Oxford House is addressing the issue squarely and this convention proved it. Panelists explained Oxford House’s policy of accepting candidates who are using Medication Assisted Treatment. They gave guidelines for integrating MAT into their houses. They gave overdose reversal demonstrations. And they clearly and passionately challenged every house to welcome people using MAT. As someone who advocates, I can tell you that this type of presentation takes courage. There was ambivalence in the audience. But the message from leadership and panelists was clear: Within Oxford House, there is to be no controversy. MAT is accepted and people are welcomed. There are guidelines for allowing MAT in houses. Houses who are struggling with this issue need to seek assistance. It is not going away. Learn more about MAT. Also, read Oxford House’s position on MAT (page 7) and the experience of residents (starting at page 26).

5. Oxford House is building bridges with recovery language.
In SAY IT, we learn that positive language is essential for effective self-advocacy.  Every single panelist during the convention initially introduced themselves using recovery language. Instead of introducing themselves by saying “I’m an alcoholic” or “I’m an addict,” they would introduce themselves by saying “I’m a person in recovery from substance use and what what means for me is…”  Why is this so impressive? Because recovery language is not yet used universally in the recovery world. Some people believe that is just political correctness and goes against tradition. This is particularly true in traditional programs like Twelve Step. Oxford House has a foot in both the Twelve Step world and the recovery movement world. That can be a tricky stance. But, by using recovery language, Oxford House is building a language bridge. This bridge will help Oxford House residents advocate for themselves in day to day situations, building their recovery and their lives.

Thanks to the people of Oxford House for inviting me into their convention. What I learned with stick with me and I will share it.