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Self-Care as a Political Act

In the East Bay, women of color and queer people are making alternative health-care practices accessible and culturally relevant to their communities — as well as a key part of their activism.



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When Swiecicki started teaching classes in 1996, there weren't a lot of options for long-term herbal medicine programs or programs that didn't teach from a Eurocentric perspective, she said. Because of her more political framework, there was a demand from students of color for more classes and longer-term programs. The school now offers short-term classes as well as a nine-month training program for future herbalists, and raised about $8,000 in scholarship money for students of color. As part of that class, students are required to research some aspect of healing from their cultural background. For Swiecicki, learning about both her own Polish and Mexican ancestors helped her face her cultural history and understand that everyone has indigenous medicine they can access.

"I see huge transformations in terms of empowerment and community building when they are able to share these things that they've learned about their histories," she said. Connecting to one's own lineage, Swiecicki said, can also be an antidote to cultural appropriation, which is common in holistic medicine communities.

"We all can learn from different cultures, and yet it also can be a sticking point when folks in those very same communities don't have access to that knowledge or there's someone from a dominant culture that is receiving more money," she said, noting that Ancestral Apothecary only invites teachers who draw from their own cultural traditions. When people aren't aware of their ancestors' indigenous healing practices, she said, there's a flailing-like search for meaning, and people end up grabbing from other cultural practices.

Intentionality and mindfulness about how practitioners use and frame their relationship with "the medicine" is key, agreed Chico, who is Filipinx and studied Chinese medicine. "I always state who I am and where I'm coming from," they said, explaining that getting licensed in Chinese medicine was important because it would enable them to create more access to healing resources for communities who need it.

In the East Bay, there are a number of practitioners who reconnected to their cultural lineage while working through their own healing journeys and are now helping others on theirs.

Sachi Doctor, who offers personalized wellness services and handcrafted Ayurvedic products, began reincorporating Ayurveda into her life after studying economic development at the London School of Economics. Yoga was everywhere in London and triggered her to look deeper into the practices she often learned out of obligation from her first yoga teacher — her mother. It coincided with her own struggles to alleviate chronic pain from ulcerative colitis.

"If you look at the wellness scene on the West Coast, you don't see a lot of Indians practicing yoga or Ayurveda, not in the large swath you see white women," said Doctor. "We can be frustrated about how these things are being reflected back to us, or we can carry the mantle ourselves."

She said that since the 2016 election, her services have been even more in demand. "Never before November was I asked to speak to a political action group," she said. "I've seen a swelling of women's groups, working spaces, and other networks specifically interested in mindfulness and meditative practices."

Adilia Torres, who runs herbal medicine pop-up La Botanica Azul, is a breast cancer survivor. When she decided to incorporate herbal medicine and spiritual practices into her cancer treatment, she said her family and doctors didn't quite get it. Torres was born in Mexico, but her family relied largely on Western medicine. Her experience with cancer and her work in mental health with trauma-impacted immigrant communities underscored her commitment to weave traditional medicine with community health. Eventually, she wants La Botanica Azul to become a house of indigenous medicine in Oakland that centers people of color.

Orton-Cheung grew up with Chinese herbalism in her home. She studied sustainable agriculture and first picked up herbalism from a Western herbalist in 2013. It was after doctors discovered a cyst the size of a football in her ovary that she was called back to study clinical herbalism more seriously — not just to better treat herself but to help others. While she was able to get the surgery she needed, many of her friends with reproductive health issues were uninsured and unable to access the same treatment. The experience fueled her business, Shooting Star Botanicals, which offers consultations on a sliding scale. She also teaches at Ancestral Apothecary.

Having collective healing experiences is an important part of wellness, too, according to practitioners and patients.

At the last For the Love Community Acupuncture & Sound Healing event organized by Chico, attendees gathered at Qulture Collective in Oakland while listening to a DJ and receiving acupuncture treatments on yoga mats. Chico said they wanted to fill a need for queer and trans people of color to gather outside of bars and dance parties.

"A lot of times I experience healing through going to a show, or doing things that make me feel good but are not necessarily good for my body," said Esra. They said it was nice to socialize with like-minded people and to leave feeling like they had a positive collective experience.

A crucial part of the Healing Clinic Collective's work is creating a model for collective healing. Its first clinic in 2013 brought together 16 healers who offered free services for communities "recovering from ancestral and historical trauma, and experience layered and intense forms of systemic oppression." More than 200 people received reiki, massage, womb wellness education, limpias, and yoga classes each day. Ninety percent of the attendees were Black and Brown women or women-identified.


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