Holistic Herbalism for Health Justice


I grew up in a largely white, middle-class, suburban community on Long Island, so training at Downstate was a welcomed experience of checking my own privilege, power, and biases. It was there then I learned to see that wealth and health are not random, and neither are poverty or sickness. Race and gender matter, as does the imperialist and capitalist history of medicine in the US. 

I first became disenchanted by medicine during medical school, where I helped organize a student-run free clinic for adults without health insurance regardless of their citizenship status or pre-existing conditions. It was an undeniable and shameful reality that the healthcare system has let soaring expenses determine life and death for the poorest and sickest among us.  

There are independent intellectuals crunching numbers and savvy individuals who care deeply about communicating these matters. However, most of health care reform and policy research is within the academic departments of Public Health schools and governmental research agencies within institutional walls.  Having personally suffered within the academic-industrial-govermental healthcare complex, I was elated to find a growing community inspired by native and indigenous healing traditions who understand nature's central role in our health and healing. Sacred healing was seldom discussed in my medical training despite its power to heal and transform. 

Since leaving my residency program in Obstetrics and Gynecology, I have been researching ways to improve the dominant health care system in the United States. What I've learned is that there is already a community of healers and educators led by BIPOC (Black, Indiginous, People of Color) who are working to create a better, parallel system that can support healing by addressing the colonial roots of sickness. 

I found the following passage by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha to be especially illuminating.

I have been part of what is called the healing justice movement for six years, though I have been engaged in acts of healing for a lot longer than that. Six years is a special birthday in the lifespan of a movement. Six years feels like the time in movements at which some of the people, moments, articles, wishes that birthed us are at risk of being forgotten—especially in low-money, low-time-to-document, brilliant-burnout-femme-of-colour-led movements. This the moment where disability gets forgotten, where class gets forgotten, where white, cis, able-bodied healers can try to slap “healing justice” on their spaces and try to forget that this movement was birthed by Black and brown disabled femme brilliance, in response to all that both mainstream western/biomedical and “alternative” white/cis/abled spaces lack in terms of understanding how colonialism, ableism, cultural theft, and whorephobia affect healing systems. - A Not-So-Brief Personal History of the Healing Justice Movement, 2010–2016

My writing is meant to explore the political and ethical aspects of health and healing  justice in our institutions, communities, and homes so it is important that I acknowledge that this work is ancient and I hope to contribute to the movement in whatever way I can.  

I join the voices who have been demanding a paradigm shift in how we humans view our role in the global ecological landscape. Only when we feel our interconnectedness by de-centering the needs of powerful and privileged white folks can we learn to reframe our relationship to nature, health priorities, prevent disease, and die in peace.  

Currently, Congressional and Senate attention is on controlling healthcare costs and less on increasing physical access to providers. There is very little attention on the quality of therapeutic relationships or social determinants of health. In order to address health care disparities, which result from strutural inequalities as well as individual biases, we need to be thinking upstream of access and affordability. Why do certain groups of people suffer death, disease, and illness more than others? And what can we do to prevent that?

I am sharing the dissertation by Dr. Marja Eloheimo entitled, "Community-Based Herbalism and Relational Approaches to Harm Reduction in Healthcare." Her work emphasizes that working with medicinal plants is an ancient practice, and that the colonizers (of which I am a descendent) created systems in which this intuitive knowledge of nature was diminished, if not made nearly extinct.

She offes opportunities to work alongside Native American communties to protect and honor their wealth of wisdom so that we can begin to rehabilitate an exploitive and fetishized dynamic that prevails in many holistic and spiritual realms today.