I was once lucky enough to live for a short time on a bluff, in a rusty trailer parked on cinder blocks overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was a temporary abode at a teaching farm where I worked for a year just after college. It was an idyllic place with eucalyptus trees and goats and chickens, narrow paths through wild fennel and hemlock that ended up at most amazing tide pools nestled in amongst a rocky shoreline. Part of my job when I lived there was to take groups of people, often from the city, to the tide pools to see the variety of sea creatures who lived there, clinging to rocks, pounded by waves. Down there on the rocks we would talk about how these miraculous creatures had adapted to their harsh habitat. Barnacles live in clumps to make it easier to find a mate, even though many of them have sex organs with both eggs and sperm ( they actually can’t reproduce with themselves) and they are able to make their own shelter around their bodies that they can enlarge as they eat and grow. These shelters have doors that open when the tide comes in, and closes to conserve moisture when the water goes out in low tide. But this post is not really about barnacles, it’s about acupuncture.
Acupuncture, we know, is like noodles, and noodles are good in soup, so acupuncture is also like soup, which generally is salty, so it follows that acupuncture is also like the ocean. It is vast and unknowable, teeming with life, and capable of making great changes to our physical world; that world mainly being our bodies. Like the ocean, acupuncture cannot be claimed to belong to anyone, but that doesn’t mean that people won’t try to claim it as their own, or forget to acknowledge that community acupuncture in the US continues the work of the Young Lords and Black Panthers, who through their fight to bring justice, partly through healthcare, in the ‘70’s to their communities, provided acupuncture, and acupuncture training.
Our clinics, and our Co-op experience tidal influences grounded in cycles like seasons and moon-phases that are knowable, but ultimately beyond our control. To deal with this unpredictability we’ve learned, taught ourselves and each other how to be more like barnacles. We’ve banded together and figured out ways to hunker down when the tide is out. Like calcified outer shells glued to rocks our clinic and organizational structures give form and function to our individual and group work. Our collective efforts have proven a useful adaptation and POCA and other community acupuncture clinics now deliver over a million treatments annually across North America. Working together, sharing resources, values and goals, over almost 20 years, continues to drive a mission that serves the people of our communities through almost 200 clinics, a multi-stakeholder cooperative with thousands of members, and a school that has already graduated dozens of new punks, and reached the goal of accreditation all with in its first few years of existence .
We don’t know the how of why acupuncture works but we do know that it stimulates energy to move around and do stuff in our bodies. Outside of the body acupuncture has the power to move too; it’s a bit like gravity, a force that brings things together. People whose lives might not otherwise intersect come together in our clinics. Organizations and alliances develop as our clinics grow and become institutions in our communities. Like tides, community acupuncture is a force that has the power to shape things, and like gravity it has the power to attract and pull people in. This is how we have a movement that has accomplished so much in a short time, making so much from nothing. Like the Earth’s rotation exerts influence on tides, wind and weather patterns, the axis of community acupuncture being of course in Portland, OR, has meant that Working Class Acupuncture has been a source of power generation in the movement. A global shift in the acupuncture profession started with a couple of punks with an idea, some urgency and drive to serve and survive and then spread out from there, shaping, directing, coalescing resources, bringing together punks and people to collectively envision the acupuncture profession we wanted for ourselves and our communities. Many waves of new punks and clinics have continued to come from this locus that spawned the creation of so much, including so many contributions to our knowledge commons. Without Lisa and Skip and Working Class Acupuncture and all the many people and punks that make up WCA taking so many first steps we would not be where we are today. They have been a core force in get things to move and happen. Of course there’s “the entity”, but that’s more like the ocean.
The desire to create our very own community acupuncture school has been a massive effort, a painstaking process, and the result of an outpouring of both financial support from Co-op members and people connected to the Co-op through our clinics. It’s difficult to count just how many people have participated in this effort, but we know that it’s in the thousands: ranging from circle and board volunteers, away faculty,and the many, many patients who participate in bi-annual membership drives, and of course the students, facutly, staff and adiministrators of POCA Tech. Working Class Acupuncture and the Community Acupuncture Network, started and seeded a mission and vision that has manifest as POCA/POCA Tech and all of the many clinics of the movement and beyond. This force, bigger than all of us, has steadily emanated change, reshaping our work and the lives of our patients, and of course the acupuncture profession. All of these actions have involved some level of risk; at one extreme people have staked their savings, their homes, their partnerships, have uprooted and moved to be part of this movement. For anyone still reading, my guess is that community acupuncture has not just shaped or changed your ability to earn an income from acupuncture, or your health, or your career, but your life. Acupuncture has that power and it reminds us that we also have that power.
Power needs channels to divert effort into useful action and that channel can come from so many people who like rocks by the sea that shelter and create tidepools, or rocks that can be made into soup, have pitched in to create shelter and habitat. POCA Tech was conceived of as a seed-bed of the movement, and it requires careful and constant tending to sustain it. Since 2014 POCA Co-op has shared in the commitment to seeing POCA Tech realized by donating well over $100,000 to POCA Tech (in increments of ~$20K per year over the past 5 years.) The volunteer work that made raising this amount of money possible, while keeping the rest POCA’s work/projects happening is often unseen: circle work to plan and execute membership drives twice a year, many weeks of teaching by volunteer faculty, boxes of books shipped to Portland to make an accreditable library possible, board meetings, advisory committees, and so many hours of un-paid work donated by POCA and POCA Tech’s modestly paid employees.Then there’s WCA’s contribution of its clinics for practical training, including taking the risks to open clinics expressly for this purpose. Power without direction is a swirling eddy, with direction the Grand Canyon.
A common theme in volunteer driven organizations (POCA has just 4 part-time employees) is the need to continually attract and onboard volunteers, and in the instance of POCA, all of that work is also done through and by other volunteers, which creates a mechanism by which the effort can at times begin to swirl like water around a drain when this constant effort to recruit outsizes retention. Jeff Levin referred to this in his recent POCA Fest Keynote address. Jeff said:
I’ll let you in on a little secret about your coop. POCA people are burnt out. The ones wearing the masks are tired of it. We are stalled in succession planning, because the effort to create the infrastructure for succession, like the effort for every extra thing we need to do, has to be scavenged from the actual running of our clinics and people running clinics are burnt out too. You need to step up and get involved. This is your coop. You are the succession. You are the next keynote speaker. You are the next pocafest coordinator. You are the next teacher for an online CEU. And one of you out there is going to step in and help organize a solid governance structure for POCA. Another of you has the solution to our dwindling membership and revenues. This is YOUR coop and if you want it to thrive and not just survive, you ALL need to step up.
Jeff’s not kidding; it’s hard to keep forward movement in Circle work with only 2 or three active members. And it’s been challenging to attract and engage new Circle volunteers because we all have busy lives, and busy (hopefully) clinics to attend to. POCA was conceived of to work with lots of people participating as both producers and consumers. The basic operations of POCA requires volunteers to create membership drive materials, administer micro-loans, create an annual budget, run an annual BOD nomination and election process, generate a monthly newsletter, and to work with the 4 paid POCA staff who oversee Finance,Tech, CEUs and Membership functions to insure that there’s enough revenue flowing into POCA to keep it functioning. Beyond basic operations we need member participation like attending a POCA Fests, organizing a regional node gathering, writing blogs, creating new CEU content, doing a membership drive, organizing a legislative effort, or creating a new circle to keep an endless need for ideas, projects, and resources flowing and vital.
Recently the Ear Circle and Movement Building Circles have been central to new and energizing work happening around the POCA-verse. POCA needs both operational and productive Circle work to keep things fresh and engaging for members; it’s hard to compete with the lure of engagement on other platforms and to counter the onslaught of the daily news cycle. POCA’s circles and structures are meant to be flexible enough to allow what interests people, in the service of the mission, to create and do all kinds of things, and when Co-op members feel excited and engaged they create new things that excite and engage other members. This helps keep POCA alive.
But as Jeff mentions above many of the folks who have been volunteering for some time are feeling done, burnt out, or for various reasons need to step-back and attend to other areas of their lives, including focusing on their clinics. Finding punks to hire is still difficult, low clinic numbers is something that many are experiencing. Business costs have increased and so has a general and pervasive sense of anxiety in many communities and families that continue to face hardships, some levied by political, economic, and social currents. POCA Tech is a bright spot in all this: enrollment is up! New punklings continue to enter the workforce. We need a strong Co-op to help insure that clinics can weather low-tides, and to help buoy new practitioners and clinics, the way CAN did when so many of the first CA clinics started. We need to do more than change the LOC guidelines or raise our prices for the first time in decades. And contractions to operational budgets only whether at a clinic or organizational level, makes sense for the future of the community acupuncture movement, if those can eventually expand again. Sticking together is how we do that. It always has been.
Recently Working Class Acupuncture launched the WCA Builders Project in order open more clinics that serve both their community but also the needs for clinical training sites for POCA Tech’s students. Along with the POCA Tech Sustainers Program, and ongoing and increasing enrollment, POCA Tech has a plan for its continued existence. This shift in focus and fundraising strategy creates a chance for POCA to shift modes as well. For example, long overdue updates to POCA’s website require tens of thousands of dollars in both labor and updates/upgrades to functionality, which could help with member retention (auto-renew anyone?) and engagement of more members. We need tools and resources that bring us together because this work is best done together. But we also need to look at what that work is, and how it is shaped, and directed. Our decline in Circle volunteers and membership overall, is an opportunity for not only new bodies, and new ideas, but also new leadership. A recent proposal from the Movement Building Circle to do an organizational equity audit, as part of groundwork to re-energizing governance and participation has been hotly debated by the General Circle and so a survey has just been launched to ask you, yes YOU! What are the projects and work that you want to see done by POCA? Is an equity audit one of them?
To continue the force of our movement we need to be clear on direction. POCA’s focus is shifting away from the necessity and urgency of getting POCA Tech off the ground, though both the Builders and Sustainers programs still need POCA members to contribute! Concurrently, leadership and core volunteership has shifted. To continue to have a co-op, we need and want more people to wade in and get wet. We need to know what work will inspire and motivate people. We need to consider how our structures help or hinder this flow. We need to know how do you want to get involved to sustain and shape POCA in whatever comes next? How has POCA been helpful to you, your clinic, your healthcare, your work, your life? What new projects do you want to see seeded? Which of these can you commit to tending? Whether you have volunteered with POCA before, or never been sure of how to begin, if you value POCA as a resource we need you as a member, we need you as a volunteer, we need you as producer of POCA resources, and we need you to be part of directing the flow. Please comment below on what you want to see and do- and please fill out the survey!