Herren Project announced today that its board voted unanimously to adopt the National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) in Health and Health Care. The National CLAS Standards are intended to advance health equity, improve quality, and help eliminate health care disparities. In adopting the standards, the organization hopes to demonstrate its commitment to a process of organizational change that will position it to help its more vulnerable constituents better.

“The Herren organization intends to send a message that it stands with marginalized communities in the fight against addiction and aims to be a trusted ally. We embrace Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as a mission-centric core value,” stated Ryan Connolly, Herren Project Board President.

United Against Addiction

“We are united in the fight against addiction which affects us all, but especially vulnerable segments with trauma and poverty in the mix,” remarked Bonnie Sawyer, Executive Director of Herren Project. We fight stigma, as we understand the stigma of addiction and stand against discrimination of all kinds,” she continued.

National events have been traumatic to the BIPOC community, which identifies with the experience of systemic racism. Exacerbating this factor is disparate access to health services caused by poverty and the high cost of quality addiction treatment and aftercare. CDC data show higher rates of overdoses among black men that are disproportionate to their representation, highlighting their unique vulnerabilities and the failure of healthcare measures to reach them effectively. For LGBTQIA+ communities, discrimination and bullying create unique vulnerability to suicide and higher rates of substance use.

“Addiction can affect anyone, but the solution isn’t uniform. If we are to serve all people affected by substance use disorder, we must understand their specific issues and barriers to wellness,” stated Herren Project Clinical Director Kristin Young. “Stigma and discrimination, bullying, violence, and intolerance are all risk factors for substance use disorder, and so we stand for radical acceptance, tolerance, and understanding.”

“We believe access to affordable, quality treatment should be available to every human,” Ms. Young stated. “As a health and human service organization, we are mindful of barriers to access — trust, language, cultural bias, and financial costs can set up unintended barriers to segments of people that may be in need of services.” Herren Project provides services typically available in the marketplace at a significant fee and only to those in a position to afford them. Free services could substantially remove a financial barrier to benefit underserved communities.

Ms. Young is credited with bringing diversity issues to the forefront within the organization. A licensed therapist and addiction counselor with a degree from Smith College, she started with an informal task force to listen to outside voices, read up and learn about privilege and implicit bias. The organization launched a process of internal change last year, building on a solid foundation of core values. It expects further organizational change as it adopts the CLAS standards and progresses toward its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) goals. The task force Ms. Young initiated evolved into a formal staff committee that worked throughout the year with the guidance of consultants Sean Rose and Stacey Forrest from Rose and Forrest Consultation to train staff and formulate a set of goals and strategic priorities for the organization. The CLAS standards will provide a blueprint for further organizational change.

“If we are to walk as trusted allies, we must first look within. After a year of self-reflection, considering our own internal biases, and undergoing personal change, we are ready to embark on a formal plan to become a welcoming human service organization that all people can trust. We aim to serve more BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ individuals and families in need. We hope to walk with them as friends and allies on their recovery journey,” Sawyer said.

Building on a Foundation of Respect for Human Dignity

Herren Project was established as a nonprofit organization in 2011 with the mission to support, inspire and empower those affected by substance use disorder. “Since the beginning, our core value embraced the dignity of the individual, regardless of race, creed, gender, or any other status. It just so happens that our first client was a woman of color, but we recognized we had a way to go if we were to walk the walk as a true ally,” Sawyer added.  “Over the past year, we have gone through a strategic planning review and made DEI a top priority. This is consistent with our vision of a supportive, well-connected community where all people thrive.”

The Importance of Supportive Community in Wellness

In addition to providing treatment and recovery services to individuals and families, Herren Project recognizes peer support as a critical factor in prevention and wellness. The organization’s prevention model, now serving over 240 schools, will benefit from the DEI training. Jillian Moriarty, the program coordinator for Herren Project Clubs, who served on the DEI committee, states: “Our founder, Chris Herren, has a motto. He tells kids to “Be You.” His message is one of acceptance and affirmation of self-worth.” states Moriarty.

Tricia Mansfield, another DEI committee member, serves the organization as Director of Programs and Partnerships. She has been working to build partnerships with youth organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs to make Herren Project’s services more accessible to marginalized communities. Fellow committee member Pam Rickard, Herren Project’s Director of Active Engagement, believes community is foundational to wellness: “We aim to build inclusive communities where individuals in their many varieties can support each other.”

Building a Supportive Community for All

“Addiction cuts through issues of racism, hatred, religion, politics, and division,” Executive Director Sawyer resounded. “We are uniquely positioned to unite people as a true humanitarian organization, blind to religion and politics but not to principles, in a time of divisiveness and need. We recognize our common ground in fighting addiction and hope to help bring about the necessary changes for people to thrive. We want to promote civil dialogue, connection, mutual understanding, and support. Love all, serve all — that is what we are about.”

Sawyer continued: “It comes down to values. We are one humanity and celebrate our many different colors and variations. We love our neighbor as ourselves. We believe we can model change — one mind at a time. It starts from within and grows from there, and we believe our voice can make a difference.”

— Written by Development and Communications Specialist and fellow DEI committee member Teresa Cobleigh