Mayfair native Brooke Feldman has seen drug addiction at a personal and professional level — and she’s using her knowledge to advocate for change.
From working on behavioral health systems across the country to being in long-term recovery herself, Brooke Feldman has seen addiction from a personal and professional level.
The Mayfair native has become a prominent figure in advocacy and action in Philadelphia. Her advocacy largely revolves around making sure long-term recovery is accessible for everyone who needs it, regardless of their circumstances.
Feldman said she grew up in the “just say no” to drugs era, where she was taught that addiction was a choice. She grew up without her mother, who struggled with addiction.
“I very much struggled with understanding why my mom would choose drugs over being a mom,” she said. She had retained the hope that her mother would “one day stop choosing drugs” and return.
When Feldman turned 13, she demanded her mom’s address from her dad. She thought she could convince her to choose being a mom over drugs. Her mother had died from a heroin overdose the previous year, and he hadn’t told Feldman to protect her.
“It was like I lost my mom not once but twice,” she said.
The incident sent Feldman down a path of drug use and suicide attempts. From age 13 to 17, she was “in and out” of hospitals and mental institutions. When she was around 15 she attempted to escape a residential treatment facility by stealing a staff member’s car.
She found joy in playing basketball and softball at Northeast High School, and was able to secure a scholarship to Manor College for basketball despite being away much of her junior year.
“I got the second chance many of my peers weren’t afforded,” she said. She said people of color would have been “sent to boot camp” for acting the same way she did and getting into college was a miracle. Even so, she quickly fell back to her old habits.
“My coach said you need to get it together or you’re off the team,” she said. The coach was well aware of her struggles, and she didn’t last a full semester before returning to drug use and dropping out.
She called her life from 18 to 24 “a downward spiral.” During this time, she came to understand addiction wasn’t a choice. She sought treatment at PATH Treatment and Healing and found recovery at a recovery house in Kensington at age 24, and was able to go back to school and turn her life around.
Feldman credits her recovery to luck and privilege. She questioned why she was able to find recovery but others, like her mom, didn’t.
“The answer I landed on, although it’s subject to change, is that people need access to whatever it is they need, when they need it and for how long they need it,” she said. The reality of the situation isn’t as simple, because the path to recovery looks different for every person.
“Everybody has a unique path that led them to addiction and there’s a unique path to lead them out of it,” she said. “My advocacy centers around making whatever resources are needed available to everybody. It shouldn’t be about luck or privilege.”
Her advocacy journey has seen her work at a recovery house, a recovery community center and a women and children treatment program. She worked at PRO-ACT, a grassroots movement for the Council of Southeast Pennsylvania. She later worked for the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disabilities Services, where she got firsthand experience learning about policies and why things function the way they do.
“I look back at that time as having sort of popped into the ivory tower to learn how things work and then took it back out into the community,” she said. “It’s really given me a multi-tiered view of what the system looks like.”
Her work also took her to Achara Consulting, a firm that supports behavioral health systems with knowledge and resources across the country.
“My work over 10 years now within Philadelphia’s behavioral health system and then across the country has shown me the limitations that folks have within those systems, and it really is elected officials who make policy who have the most influence,” she said.
Feldman will be joining Democratic 170th District candidate Michael Doyle in his campaign. Her consulting firm, Sparking Solutions LLC, will provide policy advising about the opioid overdose death crisis and other issues.
“I’ve seen him [Doyle] involved and engaged in the issues, which really attracted me to his team. It’s one thing to talk about having a concern about these issues, but to be out there really engaging in action is a different story,” she said.
In the 170th District, there was a 130.8 percent increase in overdose deaths last year.
Feldman said a shortcoming she sees in elected officials is focusing on opioids only when it comes to addiction support. She said there needs to be more people in Harrisburg who are passionate and educated about the topic.
“Addiction is about so much more than one drug and one population of people being impacted,” she said.
Sparking Solutions is a new endeavor of Feldman’s that will allow her to focus on behavioral health care and larger social justice issues. She said after working in consulting across the country, she decided to settle in one place and focus in on the work she’s doing.
“There’s sort of this false narrative of the opioid epidemic that this whole thing came to be because people were prescribed opioids for pain then, oops, became addicted,” she said. “For me and the experience of nearly everyone I’ve met in my personal and professional journey, that is a very rare tale.”
Having seen other systems around the country, Feldman said Philadelphia is behind the curve in certain areas.
“Philadelphia is a city that was really hit hard by the war on drugs,” she said. “There are still people in the city being targeted and paying the price for being targeted in the war on drugs. For instance, people of color have been arrested at a disproportionate rate for their drug use.”
Feldman pointed to her own experience as an example.
“If I was caught smoking weed I was told to go home by police,” she said. “Had I been a person of color I would likely not have been told to go home.”
She believes Philadelphia has a robust system of treatment services, but its ease of access has a long way to go.
“I’d love to see Philadelphia really take concrete action to repair the harms of the war on drugs as it offers this compassionate response to everybody,” she said. ••