The following is a keynote address I gave at the Dandelion Seed Herb Conference in Olympia, WA on Oct 11-13, 2013.
I want to begin by offering gratitude.
I want to offer gratitude to the earth, to the plants, minerals, waters, air and fellow creatures that we owe our very lives to, that gives us the hope and inspiration of growth, sustenance, healing, and beauty in a society that can feel bleak, violent, and overwhelming.
I offer gratitude to the long-time stewards of this land that we stand upon today, the Squaxin First Nations People. We hope that the time that we spend here today honors the many centuries that Squaxin people have looked over this land and worked to sustain one another’s life-may we continue to foster connection with the land and First Nations people as a part of our collective healing.
I offer gratitude to Evergreen State College. I know so many incredible people, heroes and comrades of mine, who are alma mater of this college, people who are social justice leaders, people who are profound healers. So much visioning has happened right here; I am grateful to be invited here to stand in the light of those who have come here before me.
I also offer gratitude to all of the herbalists and health workers that came before us. To my herb teachers, 7Song, Karen Rose, Robin Rose Bennett. To the kitchen herbalists, the mothers, the medicine people embedded and essential to every community, the Eclectic herbal tradition, to the practitioners and institutions of Ayurveda surviving British colonization, the traditional black medical schools that trained the first black doctors (and continue to do so), and made it through the assaults of the AMA, to the women’s health workers like Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, to the Disability Rights and Disability Justice movements that challenge us to value all bodies and cognitive capacities, to ACT UP and other organizations doing work on HIV and AIDS, to the queer community health centers like Callen-Lorde in New York and the Mazzoni Center in Philly. To the Black Panther Party and their many health programs as discussed by Professor Alondra Nelson in her book Body and Soul. We humbly stand in the light today of so many healers and social movements, and I offer up my own life in service and dedication.
I offer gratitude to Emma, Claire, and all of the organizers of this Dandelion Seed Herbal Conference. I am delighted to be invited to speak here, not because of any recognition offered me, but because it is evidence of a shift in values, even within the small world of Western Herbal Medicine. For the past 10 years in which I have practiced herbalism, I have worked so hard and have had so many painful conversations to carve out space for myself and other queer and trans people, space for people of color and immigrant communities with intact herbal traditions, space for dis/abled and fat people, and anyone else cast away, excluded, or not anticipated-in society. The fact that a transman would be invited to give a keynote at an herbal medicine conference is notable-about this host organization, and about herbal medicine. A shift is upon us.
I want to invite you to take a minute to look into your own heart, to offer fresh breath there, and to remember to whom you owe your life. Everyone that helped get you here today, from birthing you to your herbal education, people in your community, offer them genuine thanks. Each breath in, another person, each breath out, your gratitude. Feel free to make that gratitude specific or general, whatever resonates for you.
Thank you. And Welcome, each of you. Take a look around, and see who is here, with you, on this path. And please, notice who is not here as well.
I believe I was invited here to talk about “accessible healthcare”, or at least that’s the instructions that I was given over email. “Accessible healthcare” is integral to my work. With a team of 7, I started a worker-owned cooperative holistic health clinic in Brooklyn 5 years ago, called Third Root Community Health Center. Our mission, put simply, is to offer accessible, empowering, collaborative healthcare to all people. I have a lot to say about my five years of experience in that specific mission, and I will offer tidbits and tales that I hope are useful to you individually, and to all of us gathered here collectively.
“Accessible Healthcare” is a phrase thrown around a lot. I want to take some time to spell out what we’re talking about. Let’s break down the phrase, looking at each word: Accessible, Health, Care.
ASK: How many people in here have received what you believe to be ACCESSIBLE Health Care?
To me, this means that a myriad of people are both clients and providers of the care being offered: dis/abled people, non-native English speakers, people of color, queer people, indigenous people, elders, and youth. In order for all of these people to be clients or students, the organization has to be inviting and actively working on what that means, to be an ally to different groups of people, institutionally, interpersonally, internally. In order for all of humanity to be providers, they have to be empowered to receive the necessary education-so how do we ensure that our herb schools have a diverse staff and a diverse student body, as an integral piece of providing healing to all people? At Third Root, we have a diverse collective of practitioners, both as a way of stating that healers come in all shapes, sizes, abilities, races, genders, ages, and also as a way of inviting in the many communities that we come from.
Accessibility certainly involves finances: not only how to set prices or barter in a way that encourages the exchange, but also in a way that truly sustains the healer and prevents burnout. Third Root has worked on a sliding scale for five years. We set the top of our scale at the standard price for our services in New York City. We set the bottom of our scale at what our providers are willing to accept and not feel resentful of. However, after five years of our sliding scale in NYC, our providers do not make a living wage. We are implementing several measures to change this. A big question for us is the balance between financial accessibility for clients and financial sustainability for providers in a capitalist world.
Accessibility involves looking at the logistics of a clinic or project: what are its hours, where is it located, who works there, can wheelchairs and crutches navigate the space easily. An accessible space needs to be open when people are available to receive healing (after or before work, while their child is in school, etc). It needs to be located at a spot frequented by a variety of people, and accessible by public transportation. It needs to also be beautiful, AS a point of access, with gardens, around trees, aesthetically, a work of art that people look forward to being in. It needs to have an elevator or be on the first floor, so that all people can come into the space physically.
Accessibility means that care is trauma-sensitive, a term taught to me by Tanuja Jagernauth, co-owner of worker-coop Sage Community Health Collective in Chicago, and a collaborator in the Healing Practice Space at the 2010 USSF in Detroit. People that we work with and treat have survived trauma. We all have, to different degrees. We are also incredibly resilient. As healers, we need to understand the backdrop of slavery, genocide, racism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, misogyny, fatphobia, poverty, classism and other oppressions that literally live in our bodies, and that reassert and reproduce themselves if we are not mindful and actively working against that.
Accessibility involves partnership, collaboration, and interdependence. Between provider and client. Between clinic and community (having a community board, knowing and partnering with community leaders (business, political, church, etc). Between clients (support groups for Sickle Cell, or Epilepsy, or Fibroids). Between providers-of different modalities and within the same modality. Between donors and organizations. This can be difficult in our culture that insists on “experts”. In the spirit of Highlander Institute for popular education, we know that WE are the experts on our bodies, and that OUR COMMUNITIES are the experts on the solutions to our problems.
Health is something with some illusion around it in our society. We are sold images of health every day (like a guy with big pecks running on the beach), and are also made to fear images of illness, disease, aging, and disability (like ads on the NYC subway of the disabilities caused by smoking cigarettes). We need to then do the work to recognize the world that we are swimming in, how we internalize it and reproduce it as we give care, to challenge the ways in which our clients, students, coworkers, and donors internalize it. In the oldest health traditions, that have sustained themselves for thousands of years (such as Ayurveda and TCM), health is individual and unique, it is about adaptability and balance.
So, I want to challenge us all to critically examine who we have been taught is UNhealthy. Fat people who kill themselves trying to diet. Disabled people who have been institutionalized, or are currently out on the streets, homeless. Slaves that wanted to run away from slavery were thought to have a mental disease. Queer people have received lobotomies, or been sent away to be “purified”. Female-assigned bodies have been conceived of as dirty when they bleed. Trans people, who are still pathologized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. As health workers, as cultural workers, we need to reframe what we conceive of as healthy, and I would suggest looking to much older models of health and healing for their reference points.
And then I want to also have us examine, if someone is out of balance, or can’t adapt, what is the cultural context of that reality? Surveillance, war, experimentation, sterilization, privatization, exclusion, colonization, slavery, genocide. There’s a connection to environmental racism here, too, right, for who lives on clean land, drinks clean water, breathes clean air, eats nourishing food? Or whose air is filthy, whose land is full of chemicals, whose faucet water can be ignited with a match (and in the current escalation of Water Wars, whose water is stolen), who lives in a food desert? This cultural context is important, because it makes the problem, the imbalance, larger than the client in front of us, and therefore takes the blame out of care. We are trying to create balance, as healers, in an unbalanced world. What a divine and difficult calling.
My friend Lisa Garrett, who is on the board of Stone Circles, an organization in North Carolina offering rejuvenation retreats for seasoned organizers and activists, says that “healthy individuals create a healthy family, healthy families create healthy organizations, healthy organizations create a healthy community, and a healthy community creates a healthy world.” Health and healing is generated, created (or impeded) at every level. And so at Stone Circles, they care for organizers who need to rejuvenate, providing them either with healing services, good food, nature, quiet, and community around issues or identities (such as a men’s retreat), or simply space and time-like a week- or month-long sabbatical. And it’s different than other retreat centers such as Kripalu in Massachusetts or Spirit Rock in California, because the mission is explicitly political as well as healing-Stone Circles believes that our movements need our visionaries to be healthy, as we work to create a healthy society. They also prioritize offering this space to people of color, immigrants, queer people-much, much different than other retreat centers. So they offer the space to heal and recharge, being held by anti-racist and anti-oppressive values.
ASK: Who here has experienced healing through social justice organizing? Who here has had to heal from colonization? Who here has experienced health? Who here feels balanced, but your body has been problematized by a provider?
What is in the room is what is in our classrooms and treatment rooms, and the healing that we do exists 1-on-1, structurally, and culturally. Our work is grand, important, and timely. Remind yourself of that every day, every treatment, with every medicine you make. As Toni Cade Bambara writes in her book The Salt Eaters, “Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”
Oh boy. What is care? I think true CARE is shifting our values. Away from competition toward collaboration and cooperation. Away from profit-driven to people-responsive service. Away from a generalized, one-size fits all pill or dose, to individualized care, that sees, validates the differences of each person, and acknowledges that balance looks different for everyone. And this is not only what herbal medicine, or holistic medicine needs, but all forms of healing. Shifting values is gradual, determined work, so we must also train more leaders to carry on the torch, the legacies that we ourselves in this room draw from.
The American Medical Association was created in 1847 with a goal of increasing profit by decreasing the quantity of practitioners and they have, sadly. We need more workers to provide care. That means for those of us already trained, education has to be a component of our work. Educating our clients and students 1-on-1, yes, but beyond that, contributing to the training of more practitioners. In Cuba, due to their Latin American School of Medicine, they have 1 doctor per 180 inhabitants and 70,000 doctors throughout the world; in the US, it is 1 doctor per 480 inhabitants due to the legacy of the AMA and capitalism. We know here that doctors are not the only healers, so this number is just a reference point. We need a higher ration of healers to clients in order to effectively do our work well, and not get burned out. Education is about empowerment, but it’s also about sustainability. It is about caring for our professions, it is about caring for our communities.
The capitalist model is to limit supply to increase profit, and this is seen not only in medical schools, but acupuncture schools, massage schools, yoga teacher trainings, even herbal medicine schools. We can look around our families and communities to know that this capitalist care model is not working. Is our society indeed healthy? We need more acupuncturists, massage therapists, psychotherapists, sound healers, herbalists, personal care assistants, doctors, reiki practitioners, nurses, yoga teachers, meditation teachers, curanderas, ministers, home healthcare workers, rabbis, chiropractors. And, we not only need more care providers, but care providers representing the vast swath of humanity to create a healthy society, to CARE for our collective future. We need disabled doctors. We need herbalists of color. We need queer nurses. We need low-income reiki practitioners. We need fat acupuncturists.
And we have to create a way of working that ensures that we can continue working for the long haul, just as Bernice Johnson Reagon says about justice work. Nurses often work 12 hour shifts. I know a massage therapist who hasn’t had a day off in 3 months. I know yoga teachers that teach 15 classes per week. This is about caring for ourselves in the work, valuing ourselves, and valuing the work that we do. We need to work now as if we intend to be continuing this work in 50 years.
I am lucky to say that I have experienced true care. Please raise your hand if you have also received quality care.
I have also experienced ineffective, inappropriate, traumatizing care. Please raise your hand if you have also been harmed or traumatized by a treatment or consultation.
I am Buddhist, and in Buddhism, we have a set of desirable characteristics that we are encouraged to cultivate, a list called the Paramitas: generosity, determination, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, lovingkindness, and equanimity. These are all “natural inclinations of our heart” as Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein says, qualities to be examined, and also practices to return to. Generosity, determination, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, lovingkindness, and equanimity. These are ways of behaving in the world that create an awakened heart and a connected, compassionate community.
I want to propose that these qualities become the backbone of our care, qualities of care that we hope to create and practice. Consider, for a moment, what would care look like that is generous? That is patient? That is wise?
Current models of healing/care that I am inspired by that embody these values are dis/ability justice care collectives that are self-sustaining, taking care of each other’s needs (Akemi providing housecare for Park, Park editing the English of Akemi in her papers); by the community acupuncture movement that originated south of here in Portland in 2002; by the Yoga Service Council and its affiliated organizations striving to make yoga accessible to many different communities; by community accountability circles that seek healing and resolution to harm outside of the criminal injustice system; by the Rebellious Nurses conference just held in Philadelphia; by “Ideal Medical Care” as outlined by Pamela Wible and others, creating medical practices that the doctors feel proud of and nourished by; by the Society for Dis/ability Studies Conference, for modeling what an accessible conference and dance floor can look like; by Food Justice organizations like Just Food in NYC that train community gardeners, develop farmer’s markets in food desert areas, and build hives and chicken coops around the city; by the worker-owned cooperative movement that has allowed self-determination of workers all over the world; by Generation5, for striving to end Child Sexual Abuse in 5 generations; by the Challenging Male Supremacy Project and the Brown Boi Project which bring together masculine-identified people to work through and resist misogyny and sexism and as we ally with women, queer people, and transwomen in our homes, communities, and movements.
We don’t have to invent much here, as our people, our ancestors, have been doing this for millennia. We have hundreds of models to draw on, to build upon. I know that even what we have here in the room, what we rely on in our darkest hours, is far more vast than any list I could individually identify. Let us continually look far and wide for more models, for our peoples are amazingly creative and clever. May we continue to share knowledge, successes, challenges with one another in order to create a healthy world.
Having explored the meaning of the phrase “Accessible healthcare”, we hopefully can take refuge in the fact that for most of humanity’s history, this has been the norm, rather than the exception. Just like the Paramitas, accessible healthcare is the natural inclination of our collective human heart. Without that, we wouldn’t be here.