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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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"There's a lot more collaboration and working together to offer services to the community than there was in the past," said Swiecicki, who takes part in the Healing Clinic Collective as well.

This year, the organization released a guide to organizing clinics, based on the 12 it's done in the last five years. Perez said groups as far away as Argentina and Canada have reached out for consulting, and their work has directly inspired at least a dozen large- and small-scale healing clinics.

The clinics also offer healers-in-training exposure to different healing modalities. "A lot of volunteers are people who are students and not ready to be practitioners yet but are in that mind," said Perez.

When people see themselves reflected in their classmates and teachers, that helps them feel more comfortable, too, according to Mushim Patricia Ikeda-Nash, community coordinator at the East Bay Meditation Center, based in Oakland.

Since opening its doors in 2007, the East Bay Meditation Center has been offering identity-based meditation groups, a practice rooted in the center's Buddhist-based social justice and anti-oppression philosophy. That includes "Alphabet Sangha," weekly meditation group for the LGBTQ+ community, as well as people of color, teens, and people living with disabilities or chronic illness. People pay by donation, and those who can give more make up for those who can't. About 55 percent of people who register for the center's classes identify as people of color, and about 40 percent identify as LGBTQI. Two-thirds of the teachers are people of color.

"The impact of having groups of identity-based populations is that it has made these wisdom teachings and practices around mindfulness-based meditation available to thousands of people, regardless of their ability to pay," she said.

The meditation center also carves out a special space for activists.

Ikeda-Nash teaches a year-long mindfulness course called "I Vow Not To Burn Out," to help social justice activists live in a more "emotionally and spiritually sustainable way." At the beginning of each class, students take vows not to burn out, and Ikeda-Nash said that some come in so depleted they aren't willing to make that vow until later in the course. But mindfulness gives students the power to reflect on their own states of being without judgment, which can encourage healthier choices, she said.

It's what Tsehai refers to as shifting the paradigm of leadership. "The way they were living their lives was causing havoc because they've been nursed on an idea of leadership that you just give until you have no more to give," she said about her clients. In her work with Black professionals, she leans on prayer, writing exercises, and other spiritual rituals.

That lifestyle is also being addressed at Super Juiced.

"We decided to host these workshops because we noticed that everyone comes through the shop doors except for movement people," said Desouky. "Folks that are in the movement don't have time to come, they're not taking breaks, they're traveling a lot and just eating whatever they can find."

The workshop series brought in an acupuncturist, herbalists (including Orton-Cheung), and a plant-based chef who specializes in Latinx-centric healthy foods. The demand was so great they're looking to expand it.

While the wellness spectrum blossoms in the East Bay, practitioners are facing the challenge of how to balance providing financially accessible services and making a living.

When Swiecicki moved to Oakland in 1992, she was joined by a community of other queer women who put down roots in what was once an affordable place to live.

"I have a lot of concern for people starting practices now," said Swiecicki, adding that it takes time to build a successful practice. The school is running out of space, but finding a new location would likely mean having to raise the rates — an unappealing thought for Swiecicki, who is concerned that the classes, while even below market rate, are already unaffordable for some people.

The cost of degree or certificate programs can deter people, or leave practitioners in serious debt, and holistic medicine often falls out of traditional academic scholarship options. Spenta Kandawalla, an acupuncturist and herbalist, took out loans to attend the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco.

"But it's terrible on the other side, because you're an acupuncturist and not a lawyer," she said. "And school is long — people think it's a year but school is three-and-a-half years, year-round."

For Orton-Cheung, offering services on a sliding-scale system works — for now. "There's a lot of tension right now in the Bay as people are getting displaced and struggling to live here, and there are not any reparations or financial acknowledgement of that," she said. "But I am finding because of my sliding-scale, folks who can are being more generous."

Garcia of the Akonadi Foundation hopes that a larger systematic transition toward different modalities of wellness can help sustain practitioners in the area.

"We would love this work to be invested in as a public good," she said. "We see a little bit of that in terms how these larger systems have been shifting, the way they talk about well-being is really different than before."

In that vein, the challenge continues for the health-care industry, higher education, and local governments to adopt indigenous or culturally appropriate healing practices and make space for leadership from people of color and LGBTQI communities.


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