Category Archives: health justice

Babies, Birthing Parents, and Midwives Birth Justice and Liberation!

Check out my review of Catching Babies, an incredible movie about birthing justice in action, made by the amazing Barni Qaasim.  Published in make/shift magazine, Fall 2012.  Then you have two more ways to support amazing anti-racist feminist media: subscribe to make/shift, one of the few print magazines left that is worth reading, and organize a screening of Catching Babies in your hometown!

Catching Babies

Directed and Produced by Barni Axmed Qaasim; Produced by Jennifer Lucero

Iftiin Productions

Catching Babies documents birth justice in action.   Filmmakers Qaasim and Lucero share an intimate, honest, and beautiful portrait of four students and four clients at Maternidad La Luz, a birth center and midwifery school in El Paso, TX.  Without commentary, Catching Babies depicts a powerful counter-narrative to the white-dominated natural birth resurgence and racist media portrayals of undocumented women birthing “anchor babies” as a devious attempt to gain citizenship status.  With an artful style that exudes respect for midwives and birthing parents and gentle pacing that mirrors the births portrayed, Catching Babies is a love poem to empowering, women-of-color centered holistic birth.

Viewers are invited to witness a birth model that runs counter to the dominant medicalized system through which the United States has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the Global North and one of the greatest rates of disparity between the healthcare that white parents and parents of color receive.  The people of Catching Babies are reclaiming a world in which birth is a personal, family, and community event, instead of a medical one.   Cemelli de Aztlan, one of the mothers profiled, refused to see a doctor who wanted complete decision-making power about her pregnancy and birth: she says, “In choosing midwifery care I was seeking the healing and the comfort and the care that I knew I would not get in the hospital and that I knew was in my own bloodline as an indigenous woman.”

Some scenes show the complexities of service work existing within a confusing landscape of charity and solidarity, including the white student with minimal Spanish language skills learning to provide healthcare for predominantly monolingual Spanish speakers and the fact that all leadership of the clinic and school shown are white.  While this movie doesn’t explicitly analyze these power dynamics, it highlights the students who are working from a solidarity model, learning to midwife in order to support their own communities.

Kennasha Roberston, one of the student midwives profiled, explains, “My idea is to be able to work with women in my community, African American women, […] to educate them about natural birth and the different options that we have […]That’s why I’m here, for them.”

Catching Babies shows what birth can look like, as part of a system of accessible, empowering, holistic healthcare that lifts up the dignity and liberation of birthworkers, parents, and babies.

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October 24, 2012 · 2:26 am

Healing can bring us together: why I’m going to acupuncture school

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 dayI 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.

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Filed under #nadaprotocol, acupuncture, community care, family, healing justice, health justice, resilience

values and truths, or my chief complaint is oppression

So it all started when I got obsessed with Grey’s Anatomy.    I don’t watch that much TV, but when I do, I can get wrapped up in melodramatic plot lines like the way a cat can get into a ball of yarn.  There are some really smart critiques of it out there already, but what about  the ways that doctors depicted on TV shape how we relate to our own healthcare? As a health worker committed to untangling the lines, lessons, wisdoms, and scars we all carry in our bodies, as well as deciphering the impacts of trauma and oppression on individual and collective illness/wellness, this latest incarnation of The Heroic Doctor Show fascinated me.

Pop culture is a collective story.   It not only reflects dominant culture, but shapes it by embedding its stories, myths, and tales in our individual and collective heads.  Humans love stories, we are social, we like to tell each other what our days were like, we like to share words and names.   We tell each other stories as the basis of interaction, communication, figuring things out together, and just knowing what’s up in each other’s lives.  Stories are a foundation of community and of our selves.  We tell stories in order to understand our experiences.  The telling of stories is a way we actively make sense of our worlds.

The way stories spin out of television is obviously different than the way they come to us out of the mouths of our friends, families, communities.  We don’t get to talk back in any kind of meaningful way.  Sure, we can and do yell at our screens, but… Pop culture presents its stories as definitive: as normal, natural, trumping all of our individual experiences.  It tells us what our world is like, as opposed to asking us how we experience it.  It is the difference between speaking WITH and being spoken TO.  It is the difference between a conversation and a performance of which we are always and only the audience.  So the stories that the racist, sexist, heteronormative, classist, ableist media industry decides are worthy are portrayed on television.  The rest of our stories are invisible.

And we believe it—contrary to everything most of us experience daily, we believe what television tells us: that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that being fat is about a disgusting lack of self-control, that young men of color are just waiting to kill all of us, including those of us who are young men of color ourselves.  Television’s insidious ability to wrap itself around our subconscious and deeply affect how we think is well-known: it is the basis for advertising.  Mainstream media is one of the primary tools that embeds white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism, and capitalism into the cores of us.  It is a huge part of normalizing such an unjust system as the one we live, making invisible the privilege some of us receive at the expense of others, permitting the violence around us to go on.  It tells us which stories are true and which are not, or at least not worth paying attention to.   All of this shapes us, and therefore, the stories we tell about ourselves and each other.

So it’s a small leap to realize that the way hospitals, doctors, and the healthcare industry are depicted on television shapes how we interact with and perceive them.  Meaning medical dramas on TV affect how we think of our own bodies, capacities for healing, what we need in order to get well.  They shape our understandings of ourselves as people who interact with healthcare, creating  a world in which healthcare is done TO us, in which we receive it, in which we passively wait for doctors to cure us, to fix us, in which we give up our own intrinsic wholeness.     Grey’s Anatomy and other shows teach us to value a mainstream medicine that is high-intervention—meaning surgery, elaborate technology over wellness care, prevention, holistic medicines.

When I started watching Grey’s Anatomy, I started thinking about all the ways that we get information and form ourselves, our relationships to our own bodies and the bodies of others, our relationships to healing, to the healthcare system, to those we turn to for advice or authority or expertise or support, or some confusing combination of all those things.   Television is just one way, but it’s big.  We watch these shows, the many medical dramas around us, and we think, oh, it’s a little glamorous.  Patients are objects.  Doctors are just having hot sex and romantic escapades with each other all the time.  They are so sympathetic and sweet and well-intentioned.  We ask dumb questions.   We are moments that are either dull or life-changing in their stories.  The center of the healthcare experience is the doctor, the doctor, the doctor.  It’s not just that doctors star in the world of medical dramas: they star in real, live healthcare as well.

When I worked as a medical assistant at a community clinic, the paperwork I filled out every day included a space for writing the “chief complaint” of whoever was seeking medical care with us.  This terminology is commonly used in medical settings in the United States.    Complaint implies not fact, untruth, something that is subjective.   Everything I wrote down from the “patient’s” perspective was qualified with “patient states…”  Everything that was written by a doctor or nurse practitioner, even a medical assistant or nurse (lower on the hierarchy of knowledge) was stated as fact, as if it were objectively known, indisputable.  This most basic, taken-for-granted word choice matters.  It implicitly sets up a framework in which some people’s stories are more valuable/valued than others.  Some realities are just more real.

This plays out in concrete ways that affect our health and well-being, historically and currently.  Health disparities exist for many different reasons, but evidence and experience tells us that doctors don’t listen to most of us, in large part because of power and privilege differences.    Research has shown over and over again that doctors treat different clients differently based on perceptions and experiences of privilege and oppression. Doctors spend less time with, prescribe life-saving treatments less often, answer fewer questions from, and communicate differently with patients from marginalized communities. (In this link, check out especially the study called  “Physician communication style may depend on characteristics of breast cancer patients”.)

Most of us also know this from shitty doctor’s office experiences, when we haven’t been believed or listened to, when our knowledge of our own bodies has been questioned, when we have been talked down to, when no one has even taken the time to explain to us what is going on, when we have been subjected to things to which we did not consent.  Those of us who do not fit society’s ideal of the perfect body (white, straight, cis, male, rich, able-bodied, etc.) receive different care, different diagnoses, different treatments.  Our “complaints” more often go unheard because they are treated as just that, complaints.  Medicine is not objective: doctors exist in this racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, and ableist society just like the rest of us.  Their enactment of oppression and ignoring of our stories when we turn to them for care has killed and harmed marginalized communities and individuals for centuries.   The medical industry is just one more system that works violence, oppression, and trauma against our communities.

As a white person, I have been taught that I can trust doctors/the healthcare industry, but as a fat person, I avoid going to the doctor because of the ways I know serious things will be attributed to my weight as opposed to what’s really going.  A podiatrist wouldn’t treat me for a disabling foot problem unless I returned twenty pounds lighter.  One time I got a letter from my doctor’s office (ahem, Kaiser) saying that I had all the symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome, a precursor to Type 2 Diabetes.  The symptom set includes elevated blood cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels.  I checked the numbers and saw that both my blood cholesterol and blood pressure were well within the normal limits, low even.  Because of my weight, I got sent a form letter claiming that I had a serious health condition that I didn’t actually have.  These are pretty small examples, compared to legacies and current practices of misdiagnosing, experimenting on, and denying people treatment in really severe and fatal ways, but it proves the same point.  Doctors have been actively taught to not listen to us: our stories have no value as compared with their interpretation of lab numbers, our appearance, what they expect our problems to be based on assumptions and stereotypes manufactured by oppressive systems.  It’s one of the problems with evidence-based medicine, but that’s another post.

This extends to our collective experiences too: the healthcare industry is not accountable to us and our health needs.  Controlled by corporate/pharmaceutical funding, when was the last time a hospital asked the people living around it what they most needed before constructing a new wing or starting some new research?  Someone, tell me please, if you can see any concrete ways in which the mainstream healthcare industry tries to be responsible to the communities it supposedly serves.

There is a new movement in mainstream medicine that has to do with listening more.  I remember an old co-worker telling me that she chose which med school she was going to because they had started having classes in which they teach doctors to listen to their patients.  How novel.  Narrative medicine is the academic discipline related to valuing the stories that patients bring with them into the doctor’s office as real and true and worth listening to.  Sure, that is all great and should be encouraged, but I think it still misses the point.  Even on Grey’s Anatomy they have a lot of conversations about listening to patients, some lip service to valuing our experiences and feelings.   Truly listening, hearing, and respecting stories includes owning up to the ways you have and continue to mess up.  It’s not enough to just start listening today, without unpacking the ways in which your personal experiences of privilege make you literally unable to hear what other people are saying and while still not being accountable to the trauma, violence, and oppression that the mainstream healthcare system has done.  What about the forced sterilization of women of color throughout the U.S. and led by the U.S. around the globe?  What about the invention of the speculum through violent, unconsensual experimentation on women in slavery?  What would it look like for doctors/healthcare providers to be accountable to oppression and violence that has been literally enacted by their own hands?

I want it all.  I want healthcare that meets our needs and I want us to create our own autonomous systems of healing.  Part of health/healing justice looks like those who provide healthcare actually listening to and respecting all of us.  There is no way to actually hear us without being committed to developing a healthcare that is actively struggling against racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, classism, and homophobia.  When we take for granted the framework and language of mainstream healthcare and the oppressive systems intertwined with it, there is no way that we can hear what is really being said or work towards creating safer spaces where we want to start sharing our stories in the first place.

Part of health/healing justice also looks like us learning to trust and value our own stories and experiences, the wisdom in our bodies and minds.  It looks like sharing our truths and listening to others as a way of healing, living more deeply in our bodies, being able to trace the outlines of our own scars.  As the brilliant Adrienne Maree Brown writes,

“in my experience the best storytelling is the best organizing…it’s rooted in a truth people have experienced, has some magic in it and something to long for, and a moment of beauty. but it is co-created as it is lived, no one can see the end of it. that allows people to stay in the present moment, and attend to the work before them with intention, seeing the story unfold with themselves in it, rather than directed, with themselves just outside the frame.

I see truth and magic and beauty in the many medicines we can and do and will create, medicines that are by and for us and our communities, that challenge oppression wherever it exists, that allow us space to truly heal from our trauma and our grief, that support us in building ourselves up, that unfold with our stories, with our lives.

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Filed under accountability, chief complaint, greys anatomy, healing justice, health justice, medical drama, medical psychiatric industrial complex, pop culture, story telling