Connecting Health and Politics


With the news filled with political unrest and inspiring resistance, here and abroad, I wanted to take the time to talk about herbalism and health care as political action. I view any step toward taking our health care into our own hands, taking responsibility for our own health, as a political act. A political act is that which challenges the status quo and with the state of our health care system this idea becomes even more obvious.

Everything is connected. Everyone is connected. With the current marches to protest the police killings of African American men, women and children in our country, now is a time, past time, for everyone to take a good hard look at the society we live in. This isn’t just an issue of ‘oh, those bad police officers’. This lack of accountability wouldn’t be happening if our society didn’t have racism built into its institutions and woven into the fabric of our society.

I often find myself very disheartened (literally) when I look back in history and see how little progress we have made in terms of racial equality. When people are being killed for the color of their skin, how can we even begin to think that we live in a just society?

Let me finish connecting the dots. To live in a society where you are targeted because of the color of your skin means that your day to day stress level rises exponentially. And stress is also a killer. The high rate of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and shorter life expectancy among African Americans is not due to genes, it is due to racism. Living under the stress of racism undermines the health of individuals. This holds true for all people of color. All people who do not fit into the dominant paradigm likewise have increased stress in their lives. All of the -isms; racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, to name a few. You get the picture.

Whatever your political affiliation or views, I think most people can get behind the idea that we need to change the current state of our nation’s health. For an ‘industrialized nation’ we are supposed to be ahead in the health of our citizens compared to countries with fewer resources. This, alarmingly, is not true in all areas that such health is measured. Our maternal mortality rate is higher than Canada, most of Europe and Australia (WHO, 2008). Life expectency is lower than in Canada, western Europe and Scandinavia, Japan and Australia (WHO, 2009). The systems themselves are breaking down and what services that remain are difficult to impossible for many of us to access.

So, when you might be feeling disheartened, take heart. Remember the people who are doing good work. bleeding heartRemember the people who are creating change. Remember that you can be one of those people.

I wanted to let you know about people who are taking their healing skills to their communities and the streets, literally, and working as herbalists supporting people who are participating in demonstrations. Street medics. Any of you who have participated in a demonstration, whether it was in the heyday of the sixties or yesterday, know that you can easily get hurt and you often cannot get access to emergency medicine in that context. There is that word access again.

What is also really  exciting about these movements, of taking herbalism to the streets, is that it can spread to longer term services. For example, Occupy Oakland had a Suitcase Apothecary for street medics to work from not just during demos but also to support people living on the streets.

Common Ground Health Clinic  in New Orleans is an inspiring example of this work spreading as well. Common Ground grew out of people responding to Katrina and those who stayed on and established this great health care resource in the community. They no longer have the herbal component, but the clinic is still running.

The community of people who have been supporting the Dine in Black Mesa, Arizona in their stand against Peabody Coal also offer a twice yearly herbal clinic to the people there who have limited access to health resources.

The MASHH Collective (Medicine for All Seeking Herbal Healing) is an all volunteer grassroots collective of hebalists and medics based in Northern California and Oregon comprised mainly of Street and Forest Medics. They volunteer their skills and help get medical supplies & clinical support to a variety of off-grid events, base clinics at social justice movements, as well as disaster zones around the world.

Herbalists Without Borders works with community-based chapters to create educational, clinical, advocacy and grassroots model projects to fill the gaps in health and wellness social justice internationally.  This volunteer organization is a web of diverse herbalists, traditional and natural medicine practitioners, folk healers, farmers, educators, writers, activists and many others.

Flying Needle Project is a free acupuncture clinic in South Africa serving all people who come and focused on people with HIV/AIDS.

Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic in Oakland and San Francisco offers free alternative health care to low income women with cancer.

These are just a few examples that I know about. Because these are often small groups of people doing work in their community, the larger society often doesn’t hear about their good work. What I also know, is that there are people all over this country, and the world, serving the health needs of their community with herbal medicine.

I am grateful for all of you who are working in service to your communities. Thank you for your hard work and dedication.

I urge you to consider your own acts of bravery and compassion. How, in your life, you are making change and if you have any room to expand that care? Our world needs each one of us to show up in whatever form that takes.

Be well.