What I’m Learning in Acupuncture School

Since the early days of starting up POCA Tech, Skip has been periodically reminding me of a quote, “In any classroom, the teacher always learns more than the students.” I’ve never been able to successfully track down the source, but at this point I know that whoever said it, they were right.

So here’s my reflection on what I’ve been learning in the Liberation Acupuncture program.

We identify our role models as the Black Panthers and the Young Lords (creators of Lincoln Detox); the founders of NADA; Miriam Lee; and Ignacio Martin-Baro (founder of Liberation Psychology). I’d add Doc Hay to that list as well.

You know one thing all of those people had in common? They all suffered for their commitments. They all risked things and lost things, often big things. They all paid a price.

The Black Panthers and the Young Lords suffered state violence in many forms, up to and including murder. Dr. Richard Taft of the Lincoln Detox Acupuncture Program, NADA’s precursor, was murdered. NADA as an organization has suffered through decades of opposition from the acupuncture profession in the US. Miriam Lee was arrested, and the importance of her legacy largely ignored by that same acupuncture profession. Doc Hay cared for an entire community while under the constant threat of racist violence as well as state violence in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act; he was also charged with practicing medicine without a license. Ignacio Martin-Baro paid for practicing Liberation Psychology with his life; he and his Jesuit community were murdered by a death squad.

This isn’t a series of unfortunate coincidences. This is what happens to people who make a commitment to liberation.

In Liberation Theology, there is the idea of "crucified peoples": those who are routinely dehumanized by violent and oppressive systems throughout history.  The gospel stories which culminate in the crucifixion and ultimately the resurrection of Jesus represent solidarity with and redemption of a crucified or dehumanized people.  I’m a Christian, and what I’m learning is: I can’t separate Liberation Acupuncture from the cross. I don’t claim to understand the cross, but I’m starting to recognize it when I see it, including in my own life and in the life of the school.

Earlier this month Andrew Zitcer gave a talk about POCA at the school. We got together for lunch right before, and something he said while we were sitting outside, next to a food truck, has stayed with me. We were talking about cooperatives, and wages for punks, and he pointed out that in capitalism there’s a general acceptance that individuals can and should reap the benefits of capitalism while working to make sure someone else absorbs the costs. For example, all of us use cheap plastics manufactured in China, but none of us wants a methanol refinery in our own neighborhood. We’ll organize to resist the refinery, but we won’t offer to give up the cheap plastics -- so some other community ends up with the refinery, and we count that as a victory. He said (I’m paraphrasing here, Andrew’s more eloquent), “The thing about POCA is, the way you’ve chosen to live is not at all convenient for you -- but what you’re not doing is trying to pass the costs on to somebody else. You’re absorbing the costs of injustice yourselves. You’re not trying to make somebody else fix healthcare, you’re doing it yourselves and paying the price that you pay for that effort.”

I’d sum that up as: the point of Liberation Acupuncture is to take the hit, to suffer in solidarity with suffering people.

There are a variety of ways that practitioners of Liberation Acupuncture take the hit: as owners and job creators in clinics where there is no economic reward for creating jobs, only increased responsibility and risk; as punks who earn wages that are in line with the wages of the people we serve (though let’s not kid ourselves about how many patients get by on so much less than we do); as owners and workers and volunteers in clinics who put themselves out there in various ways to make their clinics more accessible to marginalized people; as volunteers in the co-op doing way more than their fair share of the work; as POCA members struggling when the co-op is a struggle (as all co-ops are); and as anyone who has put any form of energy into POCA Tech, knowing that there was no guarantee that our school would succeed or even survive. Anyone who has worked for the future of community acupuncture, while knowing that there’s no assurance we will have a future, is taking the hit of risk and insecurity and vulnerability.

Look at what happened to the Black Panthers and the Young Lords and their vision for acupuncture. This is capitalism, after all.

Many of our patients experience precarity in ways we can barely imagine: caring for them requires that we absorb some precarity ourselves.  It’s only by absorbing the precarity together that we can stand to keep doing it. Only solidarity makes it possible. As individuals, we’re just not strong enough.

For as long as I’ve been writing about community acupuncture, there have been people complaining that I’m too harsh, and couldn’t we please have a kinder, gentler, less demanding version. Now we’re hearing those voices from within the school as well, from students. So I’m going on the record (I really thought I had done this already): we received the vision of community acupuncture from marginalized people who paid a great price for it. To take what they gave and to refuse to reciprocate the risk and the commitment is, from the kindest perspective, ungrateful, and from a less kind perspective, theft. Individual practitioners are going to do what they feel like doing (and how), but the school has a responsibility. It’s a kind of mutualism: being willing to pay a price ourselves, in the same way that the people who gave us community acupuncture paid a price.

by Lisa Rohleder

Lisa needling with hands together
Photo courtesy of
Vanessa Tignanelli