Because I’m really lucky, four of my best friends came together a few nights ago to hold me a ceremony as I am about to start acupuncture school. They are some of the most important people in my life for lots of different reasons, including playing integral roles in my developing my thinking and practice as a radical healthworker, the intersections of story, healing, and justice that are my life’s work. As I start acupuncture school, which is a big deal step towards making the work of health and healing and collective care central to my life, I’m thinking about lineage and humility. Of honoring where I come from and who and what has shaped where I’m at. It feels like part of a direct challenge to the privilege that is making it possible for me to become an acupuncturist, in a world where holistic health practice and service is reserved for those with access to vast amounts of resources, like me. I know that the healthwork I do in the world and will continue to deepen is intricately linked with the continual undermining of systems of power and privilege that currently barricade the way to collective liberation. Part of that personal work for me, as a white person with class and educational and ability privilege, is honoring, bringing to the forefront, centering where I come from: the people and movements that have struggled before me and opened the space that I now inhabit, complexly, lovingly, always striving towards humility and freedom for us all.
My entry into acupuncture was learning the NADA protocol, a group ear acupuncture treatment with a revolutionary history. When I had graduated from college about seven years ago and was just beginning to acknowledge and pursue the ways that healing and trauma recovery work intersected with the more conventional social justice organizing work I had been engaged in, my dear friend Lee said, “hey, come with me to this training in New York.” And I did and it changed my life. I was trained in the NADA protocol at the Lincoln Recovery Center, primarily by Michael Smith and Carlos Alvarez. In 1970, the Black Panthers and the Young Lords in the South Bronx came together to occupy a wing of the local hospital in order to create a community-based drug detox center, the only service for folks struggling with addiction in the area. Originally, the clinic used methadone in order to support people through withdrawal, but soon started using ear acupuncture, a uniquely innovative approach to supporting people coming off heroin without the use of another addictive substance. The NADA protocol (5 points in each ear) was developed and used in conjunction with political education classes, peer support groups, and workshops in how to advocate for services from medical and social service providers. Something about this community-based holistic model for addiction recovery led by people of color was so threatening to those in power that Lincoln was surveilled by Cointelpro, and raided and shut down by the New York police and accompanying SWAT teams, while the then-Mayor of New York claimed that “Lincoln Detox was a breeding ground for revolutionary cells.”
Lincoln still provides revolutionary client-centered care and support to people struggling with addiction in the South Bronx today, through a daily NADA clinic, 12-step groups, and the first drug detox program for pregnant women and mothers with young children in the country. These days, they more quietly shift the paradigm of recovery by doing the amazing work that they do within the bureaucratic world of detox that has grown since they began.
The NADA protocol is easy to learn and to teach, is often performed by lay people/community members, and can and has been practiced anywhere: in parks, community centers, people’s living rooms, make-shift tents erected in recent disaster areas, refugee camps. It is meant to be given in a group setting: part of the treatment is being around other people also receiving the treatment. Since its development, NADA has been used successfully to aid people struggling with trauma, depression, anxiety, stress, and insomnia, as well as addiction and withdrawal. It’s been described as “community self-help:” healthcare for the people, by the people.
Receiving healthcare in a group setting begins to undermine the conventional power dynamics that inherently exist when a client, a person receiving care, is alone in a room with a practitioner, a care provider. By depending on group healing, NADA becomes a trauma-informed practice, one in which there is minimal touch involved, no moments of privacy with an “expert,” and can be performed by a friend or a comrade just as easily as a licensed acupuncturist. NADA is rooted in a community’s collective response to oppression. Oppression harms everyone in its path, creating stress and trauma, chronic disease and lack of safe and recuperative spaces, compounded by the criminalization of traditional healers and the turning of holistic healthcare into another marketable commodity available only to those with access to wealth. I see NADA and Lincoln as one of the most notable models we have of health and healing justice in action, of the trauma- and oppression-informed healthcare that we need in order to create collective care, collective liberation, resilient communities that can overcome capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, challenging individualism and power and expertise in healthcare. As a practice, NADA is not just accessible or holistic but revolutionary.
Through the work of NADA, I get glimpses of what it is like to be a healthworker in solidarity and alliance with a grassroots movement for collective liberation. I recently watched this video of the late and great Wangari Maathai, about being committed to small acts of change even in the face of overwhelmingly huge catastrophic destruction and oppression, about being a hummingbird. I had a moment of hummingbird insight a few weeks ago, getting to participate in and experience a microcosm of what deeply transformative and politicized health and healing work can look like.
I have had the honor of offering ear acupuncture at two health fairs at the Arizona Worker’s Rights Center, a worker-led organization fighting wage theft and unjust labor practices that harm day laborers and other workers whose human rights are so often trampled. Their health fairs are amazing and inspiring, with people involved with the Worker’s Rights Center and other community members coming together to engage with their health with the support of nurses, doctors, physicians assistants, midwives, community organizers, massage therapists, and health and healing educators. There were dental exams, resources about accessing services, a survey about people’s health needs and priorities, workshops about mindfulness and meditation, people coming together to share a meal, some peace, get their blood pressure checked for the first time in 30 years, some conversation and connection, a chance to recharge in the face of daily violence, criminalization, targeting, oppression, and attempts to dehumanize whole communities of people.
Providing healthcare that is accessible and client-centered is always a political act in this country, where corporations greedy for profit have turned our healthcare system into more about money-making than care-giving. Here in Arizona, it’s downright revolutionary to extend services to everyone regardless of immigration status, given all the blatant hostile racist attacks on people without papers, including an attempt last Spring to turn emergency rooms into immigration checkpoints.
What moves me so much about the health fairs that the Worker’s Rights Centers hosts, though, is something beyond access. Free care that recognizes oppression and that not all people and communities are the same, free integrative care, that includes services other than conventional “western” medicine, is a rarity and we need it, all the time. Health and healing that encourages individual empowerment, informed consent, folks taking charge of their own health needs and learning how to advocate to is also a rarity and we need it, all the time. Health and healing that is both of those things AND based in community, in movement building, in coming together to connect and to struggle against capitalist white supremacist heteropatriarchy, is something we need all the time and something I, for one, have never seen or experienced before in my life. Even though I have been schooled in NADA and its history, I had never before felt in my body the possibilities of moving beyond individual access and empowerment to truly liberatory, transformative, movement-building healthcare. It’s a huge part of what’s made it possible for me to start acupuncture school tomorrow, knowing that I can be of service to movement building, collective care, to tearing down white supremacy culture so often created when white service providers try to show up for communities of color, of actively creating the world we need in which we are all free to be well together. It’s something that Lincoln’s history, the Black Panther’s health programs, have made me dream of it. It’s like Arundhati Roy famously said, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” It’s a real and crucial part of the answer to some of the questions we need to answer, like: What does it mean for health and healing to deeply, intrinsically be a part of movement work? What does it mean for movement work to be deeply, intrinsically a part of health and healing?
I don’t think I ever really got it before, the true depth of what NADA was developed to do, that it is a healing modality that was designed to go beyond accessible holistic care, beyond individual empowerment to health and healing grounded in collective access and transformative, community-building social change work. Health and healing as a site of politicization, of coming together and organizing and unifying and figuring it out, of gathering strength for the struggle, like the way things are supposed to be, like revolutionary movements have slowly built and struggled for, time and again.
And now I know what it is I need to do, and what I can aspire to, and what learning I need to pursue in order to get there. Acupuncture school, here I come, for so many reasons: so that I can teach and support more people practicing NADA in more settings, so that I can support people in their unique individual and collective processes and healing, so the work I do in the world to support myself is in line with what my passion is, for a start. Tomorrow, I begin that process. Tonight, I am thinking of how I got here, on whose shoulders I continue to stand.
We are where we are because of the people that surround us, the ones we know intimately and the ones we have never met. We are here because of each other, always.