What I’m Learning in Acupuncture School: Liberation Acupuncture

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.

Author: lisafer

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Conference Keynote: Breaking the Ceiling

The theme for this conference is “Breaking Barriers”. You know, there are so many barriers to break in acupuncture that it was really hard to choose which ones to talk about for this speech. But since I’ve spent so much time talking about classism as a barrier, I thought it might be fun to shift gears a little and talk about numbers.


  1. “And why does it make you sad to see how everything hangs by such thin and whimsical threads? Because you’re a dreamer, an incredible dreamer, with a tiny spark hidden somewhere inside you which cannot die, which even you cannot kill or quench and which tortures you horribly because all the odds are against its continual burning. In the midst of the foulest decay and putrid savagery, this spark speaks to you of beauty, of human warmth and kindness, of goodness, of greatness, of heroism, of martyrdom, and it speaks to you of love.” – Eldridge Cleaver (early leader of the Black Panthers)
    Thank you for being incredible and for the tremendous sacrifices you have made. Your spark has made a difference in the lives of so many. Thank you for choosing to go on with your vision as you must be taking it one day at a time.
    For those who are complaining, I’d like to quote Cleaver again, “You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” It is even more troubling when you have people who are on the same team who think they are being helpful, but are actually hurting the cause.

  2. Lots of newer arrivals have their take on things and all that fresh faced enthusiasm, which at base, I’m sure is a good thing. I’m not one of the first folks here, but I have been around a while now, and I can tell anyone that asks that Lisa and Skip, as well as a lot of the other early adopters have taken punches for this work that you can’t even imagine at this point. I guess it’s the curse of organizing that the second and third generations always have to second guess the founders, but if you haven’t been here very long, I recommend that you do some serious homework about the road taken to get things to this point. It’ll change your thinking. Much like we’re all trying to do with the predecessors Lisa mentions above. New ideas are crucial, but as Lisa points out above, they can only stand on the shoulders of the badasses who broke the trail. We will ALL do well to remember that with every move we make. Lisa and Skip have done things that very few people in the world have the strength to do. Most who come to POCAtech will have no idea what the acupuncture educational/professional edifice looked like pre-CA and or the hall of mirrors we were ushered into upon graduation and told “Ok, go change the world.” Skip and Lisa would be the first to tell you they’ve made many mistakes and are imperfect, and they will be right, because nothing new or important ever happens any other way. And then I will tell you that until you really understand what they’ve done to get us this far, that doesn’t matter at all, and I advise anyone to move very carefully into criticism until you’ve spent enough time in the fire yourself to know what it looks like from there.

  3. Wow. This piece and the two comments before me are some of the best words I’ve read lately. I don’t cry easily but you three have honestly moved me. Your words are the truth of how I feel every day being a community acupuncturist since 2007 and being a member of POCA. I have been in awe of Lisa, Skip and everyone that has and is part of this organization. We have all sacrificed, some more than others, and in different ways in order to care for other people. Coming up on ten years I can say I would do it all over again as long as I was with all of you.

    Don’t be bothered by the criticism because our peers never thought we’d still be around at this point. Bring it on because this group seems to exceed expectations when criticized the most.

    You are an amazing force for the greater good and I am proud to know all of you.

  4. I’d recommend to anyone newish to go in and mix it up on a few facebook acu groups. Just wait around long enough and a post will happen, and if you make some responses from a “people’s” perspective, from the margins, from the perspective of folks who don’t have a lot of choices, oh the things you will read that come back at you. You will be amazed, and then you will be grossed out, and then you will most likely, get mad. If you weren’t already, of course. I wasn’t skeptical when I first got turned on to what was then CAN of what I was hearing about the rest of the profession, but I was very interested in having my own interactions with the judgmental and oppressive forces out there, that were and still are out there. Any students who haven’t met that face to face should seek it out, because our patients certainly will remain vulnerable to it until we’re much farther down the road of coverage and access for them.

  5. I have also used that Eldridge Cleaver quote, but now I feel very troubled. I didn’t think I was part of the problem (here at POCA Tech), but at least one of my fellow students clearly thinks so.
    i thought i was sacrificing for a worthwhile goal, and that made the task doable. Now i’m beginning to wonder.
    joanne orengo