By Joe C.
My name is Joe and I am an alcoholic. I am the AA General Services Representative for Beyond Belief.
We are part of District 10 (Toronto South-central) which is part of Area 83 (East Ontario). One of my duties at our district is as Public Information (PI) chair.
In my travels I have the opportunity to meet a number of people in service and very recently I enjoyed a long chat with John K. from New York City, who spent eight years in the AA General Services Office and in that time he was responsible for overseeing the launch of AA’s website, worked on the literature desk and attended dozens of regional meetings and Area Assemblies.
One of the fascinating experiences John talked about was what everyone expected the AA website would do, and what actual consequences came from the AA web site.
The expectation was that with a website (1) More people would find AA and get sober because the world-wide-web can reach places that out-reach and PI cannot and (2) the average age of AA would decrease as web-searching, social media engaged youth would be finding out about AA on their terms and find their way to meetings.
Surprisingly, neither of these things happened. The AA membership, which topped out in the early 1990s, has been stagnant, floating around two million members. The average age of AA members remains 47 years old. So what did happen? Well, more AA members assumed that technology is doing the job of Public Information and carrying the message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
Here are two thoughts that John K offered the General Assembly as he rotated out of his job as Trustee:
Every time we develop a new recovery pamphlet, I believe we say “welcome” to a whole group of alcoholics who might otherwise feel our message was not intended for them, or worse, that they would not be welcome. Every time we develop a “how to” guideline or the like, I believe we run the risk of implying that “this is the only way to do things.” In the process we may discourage innovation, or even scare our members off from service by creating the impression that they need vast training before even trying. I believe we need to produce more of the first type of literature, when appropriate, and less of the second.
At every Regional Forum I attend, I notice how eager some of our members are to turn over power to GSO (the AA General Service Office) and the corporate boards. Some seem to want to reduce service, which should involve as much contact as possible with other recovering alcoholics, to as few computer keystrokes as possible. Some are eager to avoid inconvenience in service, even if it results in bypassing the service structure completely. Others want to install ritual and orthodoxy, which by their nature are always authoritative, even at the expense of setting our upside-down triangle seriously a-wobble. To put it directly, while service should not be made unnecessarily difficult, it is not supposed to be easy or convenient – it is supposed to be service. We need to seek a balance.”
How do these two points relate to Public Information in Toronto? On the first point, Public Information in Toronto has some centralized functions. The GTA districts meet monthly to discuss what is going on in their district with out-reach and public information. The PI Committee offers a “Speaking at a Non-AA Meeting” workshop and keeps a list of people who have taken the workshop and are available to speak at schools, trade-shows, professional associations, health-fairs or anywhere that AA is invited to speak.
This is great resource to the members of AA in Toronto and the community we live in. If anyone wants to contact AA from the community at large, we have a central number that the people working the phones can receive and direct to our PI Chair. That’s good isn’t it? Sure it is but the unintended consequence is that AA members in Toronto may feel that:
- If asked to speak to someone about AA they are unqualified.
- PI work is being done and there is nothing left to do at a local level.
- Someone could get in trouble by accepting an invitation to speak about AA in their community.
The GTA PI Committee is a resource to help the groups and to help the community we live in. It isn’t an out-reach enforcement agency. The pamphlet “Speaking at a non-AA meeting” covers almost everything the workshop does and it would guide any of us sufficiently if our doctor asked us, “Can you tell me more about the AA you go to? I have a few patients that I think could use it.”
It is helpful and suggested to attend the PI Speaker Workshop but it isn’t a rule. PI is available to talk to anyone you send our way if you are uncomfortable breaking your anonymity to a professional or organization, or you don’t like addressing groups. But public information is everyone’s concern. It is part of our steps. “We may be the only Big Book someone ever sees.”
The theme of the 2011 General Assembly in April was “Let it begin with me.” For everyone who is sober in AA, Public Information can begin with each of us. In your library, doctors office, community centre or professional association, ask yourself “Is AA known here?” Telling your doctor you are a sober alcoholic is a personal decision. We think first of our needs. But consider that your doctor may not know any sober alcoholic success stories. She or he faces alcoholism in her or his practice and the medical fallout from it, but what do they know about treating alcoholism, beyond the symptoms? You may know more about such matters than your doctor and she or he would be grateful to know about it.
The same question can be asked about professional associations you are a member of, the school your kids go to, or your community centre. How would they know how to contact AA if they wanted to? Do they know AA would be happy to come see them?
If you think outreach is needed, you are not stepping on anyone’s toes by offering some Beginners Pamphlets or AA business cards for display. If you are unsure, talk to your General Service Rep, or talk to you sponsor. Anyone can protect their own anonymity if they wish by saying, “I know a person from AA who looks after Public Information. She coordinates volunteers to speak to groups and provide free literature. Would you like me to have her call you?” Then you can pass the name along.
AA out-reach can be done anonymously and someone else can step in and identify himself or herself as an alcoholic. But the point is that although Toronto is a big city, AA is a small town. In small towns there is no Intergroup and no Intergroup committees, but AA Public Information still reaches out, beginning with the eyes and the ears of AA, which is each and every one of us. We can think about Public Information like a small town and we can all “let it begin with me.” The Public Information Committee is a great resource here in Toronto but some of us may be naïve to what PI is doing on our behalf. It does start some initiatives like getting AA vetted to speak in the Toronto District School Board. But every initiative starts from an AA member identifying a need and speaking up about it.
We are all responsible when someone reaches out to ensure the hand of AA will be there. PI is doing a great job but we are all in this together. Be mindful of where in your community AA may be needed and speak up. PI won’t think you are sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong.
On the contrary, you are “letting it begin with you.”