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2007 Nuherbs Scholarship Application

“How can the Beauty of Chinese Medicine be introduced widely to America, becoming part of American’s everyday lives?”
A Community Activist Perspective

By Michael Ishii

I came to Chinese Medicine as a patient about 20 years ago. At the time I was in training to become a classical symphonic musician and was also working as a civil rights community organizer. As a patient I realized that Chinese medicine addressed me as a whole person and helped me through a number of very life-changing physical, emotional and spiritual evolutions in my life. I credit this medicine with having saved my life.

In my life’s work as a community organizer, I have trained and helped organize community leadership projects that tackle the roots of racism and other oppressions that are woven into the fabric of our culture and society. I have used a form of peer counseling as a model for leadership development and I have been building one of these projects in NYC for the last 20 years and specifically in Harlem for the last 3 years. What a complement our beautiful medicine is to my work. For the last 18 years I have seen how acupuncture and herbs has helped me (and others) to heal and to reclaim health. The physical effects are clear. What has amazed me is watching this medicine help patients find inner resolution to face challenges in order to live healthy and happy lives. But it goes beyond that- this medicine has the ability to help people reclaim enough of themselves that they can then look out better for the interests of loved ones, neighbors, community and help to transform the society. It has always been my belief from the first time that I received an acupuncture and herbal treatment that this humble medicine was rooted in “community” and that it has the essential ability to help all people of all backgrounds. As a student of the medicine, however, I have had a persistent concern about the development and accessibility of the medicine in this country as it is discovered by more and more people through the media and western medical establishment. I recognize along with my peers, that we are in a very important defining period of the medicine in the United States, and much of what happens in the next period may greatly affect how this medicine is practiced in the West.

I have been studying ways to keep this medicine available and readily affordable to all people who need it, rather than just those who can afford it. Chinese medicine was not created in the context of a system that was based on a free market or profit making. While I take no issue with making a good living as an acupuncturist and herbalist (especially after working as an artist, organizer!), I do think that if we try to shape our profession to fit into a western healthcare model that both the medicine and the prospective patient lose. We risk limiting the scope of what we are able to effect in the US and we also risk limiting the number of practioners who can actually make a professional living at this medicine and most importantly we risk losing our ability to make this a medicine that is available and relevant to those who want and need it. Currently, the two largest groups of patients that we treat are those we see through government funded programs and those with upper middle class disposable incomes. We are not effectively reaching the largest constituent group- working people with no disposable income. We risk being pigeonholed to treating mainly those with privilege or the very poor. I recently was told that less than 50% of the graduates of my school, a highly regarded institution, will actually end up practicing the medicine, and that a large percentage of those practitioners who are able to establish practices will have to work at additional side jobs in order to support themselves. I was heartened to read the book, The Remedy, by Lisa Rohleder. When I read her manifesto on “working class acupuncture” I realized that I had found a kindred spirit who was also trying to tackle the issues of accessibility of medicine and resource inequities in the United States. She had articulated much of what I’ve been grappling with in my studies and with my colleagues and mentors.

My question had been: How is this medicine relevant to the working people (the majority of Users) who are living paycheck to paycheck and who don’t have disposable incomes to pay $75-$100 per week for one treatment? I have also been asking myself: How do I get this medicine into the hands of communities/people that are trying to empower themselves and undo centuries of the effects of race and class oppression? (There are larger questions that we have to face if we are trying to get access to our medicine for every American. How do we address oppression, inequity, and unfair distribution of resources in the society?) And I also wondered: How do we use this medicine to not just heal people but help them function optimally, so they can get their chins up, have some free-attention to think about how they want things to be, to raise and nurture children well, address issues of justice and equality and to have enough attention outside of their own healing issues to make positive steps in helping others? In essence, as Rohleder discussed so eloquently in her book, can we have the audacity to consider how to transform a capitalist system into a Taoist system?

I am convinced that this is actually all possible and there is already a working model that is successful. I plan to open a community-style acupuncture/herbal center when I graduate. (In this style of practice people are treated in group settings and usually while sitting in chairs.) I will likely open it in Harlem, New York City where my other organizing work is centered. I would like to make it accessible first to a neighborhood that has been the target of resource deprivation and also gentrification and rising housing costs. I want to open a clinic near the Harlem Hospital, which stands centrally in the community as a western medical establishment in the neighborhood. It is an institution to which many neighborhood people do not have access. (The Harlem Hospital also has a McDonalds restaurant in its lobby). I want to open a community-style acupuncture/herbal center to offer a different possibility- an option of a way forward for people who have been denied access or workable options. I want to make the medicine available to working people who cannot afford a $75 treatment, but could afford a sliding scale $15- $35 treatment. This is not charity- this is a fair compensation that benefits everyone in the community. This gives people of the community an opportunity for both health and dignity and it gives the practitioner a viable way of treating and making a living wage. This style enables the practitioner to treat effectively as many as 6-8 patients per hour, it is cost effective and allows patients with chronic issues to economically afford treatments more than once per week, and it creates a model and a discussion about alternative options to the corporate insurance medical system in this country. It also makes us available to treat more people.

With a higher volume of patients the practitioner can make a decent living and in return the community is given much needed resources. I plan to work with several of my colleagues, and using a model of reciprocity, we will then try and help other practitioners establish a second community-based acupuncture center in another neighborhood in cooperation with community leaders. And we will offer monetary resource and training to help the second center start-up with the agreement that they will then help establish a third center and so forth. The principle is that you must help others in much the way that you have also been assisted.

We in our medicine have a great opportunity to put forward a new value system in healthcare- one that unifies people and emphasizes community building. It is a model that also addresses the deep isolation people feel, that also destroys health. By using this kind of model- we put forth a new creative, and positive force into the neighborhoods where we will be organizing and treating people. Imagine the potential effect of this ripple on neighborhoods all across the country. I also see using community-style acupuncture/herbs as a fundamental grounding in the practices of the medicine as it has been practiced in China. It is how TCM has been practiced with great success and results. It is deeply practical. It puts faith in the medicine and is not practitioner-centric. It requires and offers the patients to have some connection to the effects of healing energy environments as people are treated in group settings. There is a profound sharing of Qi in this exchange.

Every year, more people are falling out of the western medical system. There need to be more healthcare options for working people and I aim to help make this beautiful medicine available in every neighborhood in this country. It is a human right to have access to medical assistance. It should not be based on privilege. I am planting my feet squarely in the neighborhoods where I work, aligning myself with ordinary folk, and doing what I came to school to learn additional tools for: that is, organizing communities of empowerment where people have opportunities for good lives and relevant help to transform the society for the good of everyone. I believe it possible that one day every neighborhood will have a community-style acupuncture clinic and this beautiful medicine will be an accessible resource to every American.