Cross-Posted from the POCA Tech Blog: the Little Red Hen

Dear Prospective POCA Tech student,

You are getting this email because you have expressed interest in POCA Tech. Possibly you asked a question, which this email might or might not answer. (But let’s get this out of the way first — our target date to start classes is still between January and March of 2014. Almost everybody asked about that.)  The purpose of this email is to answer some questions that you might not have thought to ask yet.

A lot of people are excited to hear that an affordable acupuncture school is in the works — which makes sense, because a lot of people want to go to acupuncture school. A couple of thousand new students do go, every year. And from my perspective, most of them have no idea what they’re really getting into. I don’t want that to be the case with you. This email might tell you more than you think you want to know right now.  But I was miserable when I was in acupuncture school, and I was miserable for quite a few years afterwards, and one thing I’m not going to do with POCA Tech is to build an acupuncture school that makes its students and graduates miserable. So bear with me, OK?

These are some of the questions I wished I had asked when I was a prospective student, which might have prevented a lot of my misery:

Why is this school here? What is its purpose? The people who made it, what do they want? (And how do I feel about that? Do I want what they want?) What is this school’s relationship to the rest of the acupuncture profession? Am I really in alignment with the values and culture of this school? What’s it like to be an acupuncturist?  And most importantly: what am I going to do after I graduate? Is anybody going to help me?

Just in case you’re thinking: but I don’t really care about those things! I just want to learn acupuncture! Let me give you a heads-up. We are planning to film all of POCA Tech’s classes and post them online, along with class notes, so that people who just want to learn about acupuncture can watch the videos and read the notes. If you just want to learn about acupuncture and you really don’t care about all those things,  you should consider a video subscription to POCA Tech. (You should also consider going to a different acupuncture school.) However, if you want to apply to POCA Tech, go through the program and get an acupuncture license, we are going to make sure in the admissions process that you have thoroughly considered each of the questions above. So let’s start working through them.

Why is this school here? What is its purpose? The people who made it, what do they want?

These days, many acupuncturists consider “community acupuncture” to be one style of practice, a valid choice among many other valid choices like Japanese acupuncture or Five Element acupuncture or TCM. And so it’s natural to think, well, if I’m interested in Japanese acupuncture, I should go to a school that teaches Japanese acupuncture, like NESA. If I’m interested in Five Element acupuncture, I should find an acupuncture school that teaches Five Element, like Tai Sophia. Herbs and TCM? OCOM or PCOM.  And if I’m interested in community acupuncture, well, there’s POCA Tech.  Makes sense, right? However, that’s not how we think about it at all. Let me give you a short history lesson.

Eleven years ago, back in 2002, there was Japanese acupuncture and Five Element acupuncture and TCM and there were all the schools that taught them. However, there was no such thing as community acupuncture. (There was NADA, of course, but that’s a different animal altogether.) There was just me and my partner trying to figure out how to make a living as acupuncturists in a way that didn’t make us miserable. We had rented a big shabby space in a marginal neighborhood in a city that was already “saturated” with acupuncturists, and we were doing something that virtually everybody who knew anything about acupuncture thought was crazy. And doomed to fail. And also, bad for the acupuncture profession as a whole. (Plenty of people still believe that last bit.) So on one level, you could say it’s a sign of tremendous progress that now, community acupuncture is right up there as a style of practice with Japanese acupuncture and Five Element and TCM. Doesn’t that make us feel successful and happy?

On good days, it makes us amused. On bad days, it makes us grind our teeth with rage.

This is POCA Tech’s mission statement:  to serve patients from diverse communities, through the POCA Cooperative (hereinafter known as POCA), by training members to become acupuncturists with capable hearts, hands, and heads.It took me a decade or so to learn that for many acupuncturists in America, serving patients — let alone patients from diverse communities — is not really a priority. If you were to listen to a lot of acupuncturists having conversations, online or in person, you would get the strong impression that patients — if they exist at all — are chiefly an obstacle to acupuncturists doing one of three things: contemplating the beauties of Chinese medicine, having a leisurely, enlightened lifestyle, and getting the respect we think we deserve from the healthcare system. Seriously: many acupuncturists in America have no interest at all in patients. Becoming an acupuncturist, for them, was entirely a personal decision, and being an acupuncturist is all about them — it has nothing to do with addressing patients’ needs.

Directly or indirectly, I helped develop most of the systems that make up the practice of community acupuncture (as defined by POCA). I did this because I come from a lower-class family that is full of people with chronic mental and physical illness. I identify with patients, especially lower-class patients. For the most part, I don’t identify with acupuncturists; if I did, community acupuncture wouldn’t exist in its current form at all. Plenty of other acupuncturists have tried to adopt community acupuncture as a style of practice without identifying with lower-class patients. Sometimes they have successful practices,  more often they don’t. In general, I think anything resembling affordable acupuncture is better than nothing. But POCA and POCA Tech aim to be much more than “better than nothing”. 

For most acupuncturists, their practice is all about what they want as individuals, especially, what style of acupuncture do they find interesting? Because acupuncturists are so individualistic, the acupuncture profession as a whole is fragmented and lacking in infrastructure. Most acupuncturists don’t really care about what happens to other acupuncturists, whether they succeed or fail — unless they have branched out into practice management consulting, and they need positive testimonials. Not surprisingly, the failure rate for new acupuncturists is something like 50-80% in five years.

Very shortly after finding that our new approach to acupuncture worked — and around the time that we christened it “community acupuncture” — we discovered some concerns that were much bigger than our individual practices. As we were treating patients who needed affordable acupuncture, they began telling us about their friends and family members in other parts of the country who also needed affordable acupuncture. Some of the stories were heart-rending: situations where access to acupuncture could have made a huge positive difference in someone’s life. But it wasn’t going to happen, because the acupuncturists who lived near our patients’ friends and families were all charging $75-$100 per treatment. And so we started trying to get other acupuncturists to consider our model.

In 2006, we put on our first workshop. We immediately got advice from some acupuncturists and other business types that we should trademark or franchise our model and figure out how to get some individual capitalist success out of our innovation. For a lot of reasons, that seemed neither practical nor appealing, and what we chose to do instead of focusing on our individual business was to build a collective structure. The first collective structure we built was the Community Acupuncture Network. It was designed to be a kind of ongoing support group for acupuncturists who were trying to make acupuncture more accessible by using our model.

After a few years, we realized that CAN as a structure had some limitations. At that point, the “we” in question was much, much bigger: many acupuncturists around the country had become devoted to the vision of accessible, affordable acupuncture. And so we built another collective structure:a multi-stakeholder cooperative, the People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture. Not only is POCA capable of doing all sorts of interesting things like providing microloans to start up new community acupuncture clinics and including patients in leadership roles, but the structure of a multi-stakeholder cooperative itself embodies the recognition that patients and acupuncturists depend on each other to get their needs met.

Cool, right? But remember, neither POCA nor CAN before it would ever have existed if the people involved were as individualistic as most acupuncturists are.

The most important thing about POCA Tech is not that it’s an affordable education for acupuncturists, or even that it teaches community acupuncture. The most important thing about it is that it is part of a collective structure: a cooperative that includes patients, genuinely supportive acupuncturists, and future employers and mentors for graduates. The only people we want as students for POCA Tech are people who are willing to be as collectively minded as those of us who started CAN and POCA. We realize that’s a tall order. We realize that it might mean a lot fewer applicants.

You know the folk tale about the Little Red Hen, right? She finds some grains of wheat and turns them into bread. At each stage she asks the other animals in the barnyard for help, but everyone turns her down — until the bread is baked and ready to eat, when everybody suddenly wants to help.  Almost everybody in the acupuncture profession — as well as thousands or millions of potential patients who need acupuncture but can’t get it — are suffering because of the lack of infrastructure for acupuncturists. Everybody wants the benefits of more infrastructure, but most acupuncturists don’t want to do the hard work to build it.  They especially don’t want to think about acupuncture as anything other than an exclusively personal, individual experience.  In order to help as many patients as possible, POCA is devoted to building real infrastructure for community acupuncturists. We’re not going to squander our hard-won social capital on educating people who don’t care about the collective, or who only care about it as far as it benefits them personally. The acupuncture profession has more than enough selfish people in it already. The purpose of POCA Tech is to grow the next generation of acupuncturists who will pitch in with the hard work.

And so the POCA Tech Board of Directors has adopted a statement which you can read in its entirety here ( But here are two important nuggets:

Admission to POCA Tech shall be limited to applicants who have been members of

the POCA Cooperative for at least 3 months. Applicants shall provide evidence

that they have used those 3 months to familiarize themselves with the structure

and function of the POCA Cooperative, especially its online forums.

Once accepted to POCA Tech, a condition of enrollment shall be that students

sign an agreement that they will upon graduation:

1) obtain a license to practice acupuncture;

2) work for at least three years after obtaining their license either as an

acupuncturist employee of an existing POCA clinic, or work to open a new POCA

clinic as an acupuncturist owner.

Yeah, we are totally going to be the Little Red Hen about this. We have learned the hard way that people who say that they love “community acupuncture” will redefine it however it suits them, including sliding scales of $80-$100. The reason that POCA has standards for its clinics is that we want to make acupuncture accessible to as many people as possible while remaining financially self-sustaining. If you go to POCA’s school, we’re going to insist that you use what you learn in a clinical setting that has been vetted by POCA.

What is this school’s relationship to the rest of the acupuncture profession? Am I really in alignment with the values and culture of this school?

The culture of POCA Tech is the culture of the POCA Coop. A lot of members of POCA join it solely for the culture. Community acupunks, as we call ourselves, rely on each other for support and transparency and cooperation rather than competition. Also, fun. In our experience, acupuncturists who care about helping as many people as possible are a lot more fun to be around than acupuncturists who don’t. Our annual POCAfests are legendary.

However, a lot of people who like acupuncture — and who like the idea of acupuncture school — don’t like the culture of POCA.  You could say that we have embraced the yin/yang polarity of “comfort the afflicted/afflict the comfortable”.  If you are comfortable with the characteristics of the acupuncture profession outside of POCA, you are likely to feel that we are an affliction.  (And we are likely to feel the same way about you.) This is one big reason why we are insisting that prospective students of POCA Tech become members of POCA.

One of the major characteristics of acupuncture professional culture outside of POCA is that personal freedom for individual acupuncturists is more valuable than anything else. Acupuncturists hate being told what to do, or having limits of any kind imposed on them. That’s why there are so many acupuncturists who redefine “community acupuncture” however it suits them in the moment – regardless of how their redefinition impacts the patients that POCA is trying to serve. They don’t really care about the fallout that happens when a patient who has been gratefully receiving acupuncture at $15 per treatment tries to refer her  elderly mother to a “community acupuncture” clinic that – surprise! – charges $80 for the first visit. Maximum personal freedom is not particularly compatible with building infrastructure, or with any other endeavor that requires real commitment and cooperation. And so we are deliberately screening applicants to POCA Tech by asking them to make a commitment to the POCA cooperative, where patients’ needs are a priority and where there are definitions and limits around the term “community acupuncture”.

What’s it like to be an acupuncturist?

Please watch these three videos, in their entirety.

From the POCA Tech Board of Directors’ statement:

Applicants to POCA Tech shall provide evidence that they clearly understand the responsibilities, obligations, and expected compensation of the position for which they are training: licensed acupuncturist in a POCA clinic.

 Many acupuncture schools emphasize in their marketing that there are endless possibilities for how you might use your acupuncture degree. What that really means is that they don’t know what you’re going to do after you graduate, and they don’t care. It would be fine with them if your acupuncture degree enriched your experience of being a cashier at Whole Foods for the rest of your life. At POCA Tech, we are not interested in endless possibilities. Our goal is to train people to serve patients by practicing acupuncture in a very specific clinical setting. We want you to have a clear idea of what that’s like before you even apply – and you’ll learn plenty if you spend three months hanging out on the POCA forums.

Being an acupuncturist in a POCA clinic is so different from being an acupuncturist in a conventional clinic, it’s almost as if POCA represents an entirely separate profession. So if you’re interested in acupuncture school in general, you might not be at all interested in POCA Tech specifically. Please make sure.

 And most importantly: what am I going to do after I graduate? Is anybody going to help me?

Well-known integrative medicine blogger John Weeks ( once compared graduating from natural medicine school to being pushed out onto an ice floe.  Many of us in POCA had that experience, before CAN and POCA came along. Remember the part about no infrastructure? The individualistic nature of the acupuncture profession means that most acupuncturists see each other as competition, and even when they don’t, they have little tangible support to offer each other. Acupuncture professional organizations are notoriously weak, internally divided, poorly funded, and unable to get anything done.

POCA and POCA Tech’s goal is to be the opposite of all that, which is why the Board stated:

 Students shall be required, as part of their clinical training, to find an

experienced POCA acupuncturist member to consult with. If possible, this mentor

shall live in the region where the student ultimately plans to practice.

A condition of graduation from POCA Tech shall be that students produce a

business plan either for an existing POCA clinic that describes how they will be

employed, or for a new POCA clinic which they will open. Each student's business

plan shall be reviewed by a committee of POCA members drawn from the region in

which they plan to work. Students shall graduate only when the committee has

approved their business plan.

The goal of POCA Tech is not to offer a cheaper acupuncture education that focuses on community acupuncture as one of many possible styles of practice. We are training workers for the Revolution. If that doesn’t thrill you, you shouldn’t apply. And if it does thrill you, don’t wait. Join POCA right now. I’ll look forward to seeing you on the forums, and maybe even in person at POCAfest. Come be collective with us.

In solidarity,






Author: lisafer

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  1. “It took me a decade or so to learn that for many acupuncturists in America, serving patients — let alone patients from diverse communities — is not really a priority. If you were to listen to a lot of acupuncturists having conversations, online or in person, you would get the strong impression that patients — if they exist at all — are chiefly an obstacle to acupuncturists doing one of three things: contemplating the beauties of Chinese medicine, having a leisurely, enlightened lifestyle, and getting the respect we think we deserve from the healthcare system.”

    It took me a decade too! The sad part for me is that most practitioners and students are unable to see this rather sad truth.

  2. When I first went to school, I had not had any experience with acupuncture. The first acupuncturist I had seen did reflexology on my feet, the second prescribed herbs for me. I was in school for nearly 6 weeks before having acupuncture for the first time.

    My point? Don’t wait for school to start. Go to your nearest POCA clinic, get treated, join POCA, become a volunteer for your clinic or for POCA. POCA is a grassroots organization, so get out there and chip in. We aren’t just building it FOR you, we’re inviting you to join us in building and maintaining POCA Tech, and by extension, that means POCA.

  3. Not to be too corny, but another story that POCA reminds me of is Stone Soup. Little by little, more and more is being added to this soup, and if you become a part of POCA, you get to see your own talents transformed into something much bigger than yourself.