“Can it help with knee pain and insomnia?” Most folks don’t have their first acupuncture consult in the middle of the woods surrounded by the cabins of teenagers “sentenced” to be there for 6-9 months for juvenile offenses. Chief Harvest was a Buddhist, complete with belly and everything. He was also Black. As a fellow camp counselor, mentor, and now a holistic doctor, he got the 23 year-old version of myself pointed down the path of natural healing. His flavor of healing, along with Chief Free’s cookbook of Black consciousness, and Chief Malcom’s utensils for behavior change and cabin construction made for a recipe of community health that nourished those kids, and ourselves, on all levels. I’ve been searching for those rare ingredients ever since. Two years later I showed up at Tai Sophia searching for the great wisdom infused in the institution’s name. I was spiritually lost after leaving the woods of Camp E-Tu-Nake, so I gobbled up the acupuncture program’s “connection to nature” approach like a trout at a fat worm. But man I wish Cool Breeze had been in my corner telling me to “watch for the hook” - the emotional healing process yanked me right out of the small pond principles I had been living by. Like a fish gasping for air, I just tried to keep breathing while I lost my car, my friendships, my source of income, and honestly quite a bit of my sanity. Or maybe it was insanity I was shedding. Painful shards of psychological insanity passed onto us by our parents and pressed into us by this society.
Of the myriad of micro and macro lessons I gathered between humble meals of rice and beans and acupuncture treatments, two in particular helped me spark OurSpace World: 1) Everybody needs a cosmology - that’s what TAI founder Bob Duggan called it. I now understand it as Culture: the lessons, stories, principles, and values a group of people create and preserve to ensure their survival. Cultures thrive when they are rooted in nature and accept the fundamental truth that we are not separate from each other, and we are a part of nature. 2) Acupuncture is somewhat unique in the healing arts as its fundamental intervention creates microtraumas just under the skin. I like to think of them as tiny reset buttons, the pain triggering an opportunity for a person to forget how they have had to contort themselves in order to survive, and remember all of the flexibility and resilience of their youth.
This concept really stuck with me from one of my pain treatment lectures in acupuncture school. One theory of how acupuncture works is that a needle inserted near a pain or injury site triggers the body to send blood and other healing resources to the site. This promotes healing. It reminds me of how homeopathy works - according to the principle of “like treats like”. For example, Apis Mellifica is a homeopathic treatment for bee stings. It’s made from (get ready) a crushed up honey bee that’s then diluted so many times a single dose only has traces of the original bee in it.
So back to acupuncture, sometimes it works homeopathic-like; causing a tiny bit of pain with a needle can help alleviate a much larger pain like a headache. I’ve even treated people who have had analogous emotional reactions. Needles go in, they briefly remember old childhood trauma, then the needles come out along with the emotional baggage from that event. Since discovering this, we’ve been searching for the needle that can treat a whole community.
We believe cooperative land stewardship is the homeopathic microtrauma that can heal communities and land at the same time. Today many folks whose ancestors toiled in the soil unconsciously run towards the seemingly safe places of HVAC, iPhone screens and little cubicles. Yet a much fuller source of security can be born if we return to the land. Voluntarily facing mosquitos and summer heat, in solidarity with each other and the food we grow, engenders a healed relationship with the original source of every bit of carbon, calcium, and water in our bodies: Mama Earth.
Every time I get ready to make some real money, the ancestors give me a choice between getting paid or getting closer to my purpose. Not the kind of purpose that just keeps you busy, the kind that’s like a homemade chocolate chip cookie for your heart. I was starting to dig the contrast of the white labcoat on my dark skin. I was still 4 months from graduating, and yet clients were paying me $55 per treatment to help them with their issues in the student clinic. You can charge double that in private practice in DC! Then Nick had to go mess it all up for me with “Acupuncture Is Like Noodles”. You see, a pack of needles costs $0.25 if you buy them in bulk, so armed with a few reclining chairs you can feed an army of hard-working folks hungry for healing. The book outlined that model. It also introduced me to the concept of co-ops, which I thought was the proverbial cherry on top. It turns out that it was actually the bed prep for a much larger crop of knowledge and power I’d have to wait 9 years to reap.
Anyway, back to 2011, Aita helped me set up OurSpace Acupuncture that Fall after returning from her nursing internship in South Africa. She thought she was helping her boyfriend of 6 months just start a community acupuncture clinic, but she missed the fine print about eventually joining the board and working for OurSpace and all that. Pulling straight from the “Noodles”, we got 4 reclining chairs, and treated people using basic points on the arms and legs for, on average $20 per treatment. For the first two years I was the only practitioner. Over the last 4 years of the project a few other acupuncturists joined the team, and together we treated hundreds of people from the DMV community and beyond. Over the last 9 months of the project alone, we provided 2,697 acupuncture treatments. We even won Best of Fenton and got to meet Mr. Ike, the county executive. We were killing the game!
So what happened? I used to say I burned out. I was tired - doing up to 25 treatments a shift (which was as much as 50/day some days) and managing the books was tough for me. I used to get down on myself because I saw other acupuncturists managing the high volume. I even tried to restructure the clinic to lower costs and thus reduce the number of clients we had to see to keep the lights on. The rent was just too high in Downtown Silver Spring. Even if I had gotten the math to work out, having to raise prices or turn people away would have been tough for us. No matter what I decided, I was going to let people down. So I let it go...
Now looking back, I realize that I had just finished that course in my life curriculum. Or as my ma would say, that season was over. We had gotten really good at using the non-profit to help working class and lower-middle class people manage their day-to-day issues with stress and pain. One client who specialized in non-profit development praised us for our work; he said that for a small non-profit to generate $90K in revenue from its programming alone in its 4th year was rare. Still, I was not an interchangeable piece - without me the clinic couldn’t run, and that lack of true sustainability wasn’t good enough. Instead of giving people in the community fish, I wanted to learn how to help turn a community into a self-sustaining fishing village. For Community Building 201, I had to travel far away from the little life I had made for myself on Metro’s Red Line. I had to travel wide, across the gaps in my knowledge to arrive at a fuller understanding of the history and culture of my people.
Just before closing the acupuncture clinic in 2017, I took a trip to Taos, New Mexico. I spent a month at the Earthship Academy learning about these beautifully curious, self-sustaining homes made from recycled materials that catch their own rainwater and grow their own food. I left with my hands blistered and dirty from pounding dirt into tires, but my mind clear: people need these! But how can we make them affordable? My experience with community acupuncture taught me that the expensive parts of any system only seem inextricable because they are already baked in. Over the next three years I searched for the raw ingredients; I wanted to make the magic of Earthships from scratch, without the costly additives.
Farming came first. As a child, I remember helping my grandmother pull weeds in her garden. I was unaware then that such a menial task was an act of defiance and liberation for a former sharecropper who worked hard enough to eventually buy 3 acres of land for a home in rural Georgia. Without her here in the flesh any longer, I turned to volunteering at a UMD aquaponics facility, working my 10’x10’ community garden plot, and enrolling in a year-long beginner farmer training program at ECO City Farms to re-learn how to tend the soil. It was a productive, yet lonely year of learning - harvesting rows of itchy okra solo is a great mental muscle builder! The reflection and planning time was valuable, but I couldn’t imagine farming alone for decades like some of our elder farmers have had to.
Framing was next. The following year after 10 years of being a public transit purist, bought a car and began commuting down to southern Maryland to work and train with Earth-Bound Building. Fine carpentry with heavy timbers is like climbing a mountain; you toil bit by bit. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like you are making much progress, but then in one brief moment everything comes together and you reach your goal… only to walk away and allow the next person to enjoy it.
I learned a lot about building. Did you know that building with green (i.e., commercially unprocessed) lumber is a huge carbon sink? I also helped shape the budding worker-owned cooperative. Still, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the universe had me pack my tool bag and move on just as the prospects of bigger contracts and higher wages were on the horizon. Again, I had forgotten this was just another part of the core curriculum; I had other classes and teachers waiting for me.
By 2016, clients were gathering in the lobby to pick up their organic CSA produce shares in the lobby of our new clinic location. Aita and I had been members of Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative for two seasons, and we were excited to build community by having OurSpace join the co-op’s effort by becoming a produce pick-up site. (We were also excited because we had just gotten married!) Together with the clients, we pondered how to cook sunchokes, and cheered each other on as folks added daily smoothies with fresh kale to their routine of twice a week acupuncture. The number of CSA members grew for awhile, plateaued, then actually started to fall.
Instead of trying to hold onto the struggling produce pick-up project, we merged with another location a few miles away. To my knowledge that site is still rocking today. Sometimes you have to go with the flow, as they say. This flow was like a mysterious community tribe-tide though. As we let go of our somewhat surface-level conversations with some clients, the tide brought in deeper and timely connections with others. Akosua opened my eyes to Ghanian culture and other forms of traditional healing. Adjoa invited me to teach a few classes at her Afrikan homeschool community. I spent time after the clinic closed exchanging traditions and pouring libation with Kemi.
At first I was confused about what was happening. This richness was manifesting at the same time the clinic was closing. Of course it turns out that all of this change was part of the master plan. The bridges I was building helped me understand how Aita, who’s father is Nigerian, was immune to the traps of civilization like eating too many Chick-fil-A waffle fries or going nuts on Amazon I would occasionally fall prey to. Thanks to her mom’s Tawainese heritage, she grew up eating mostly steamed green vegetables and using herbal medicine. Her cultural cosmology sustains her, acting as a North Star to keep her on track. As I continued widening my circle, I was able to begin bridging the gaps in my cultural consciousness. And thankfully, just in time to help our baby girl avoid some of my struggles! Years later she is actually attending the very same Afrikan homeschool collective that we had begun communing with during OurSpace’s transition period.
Where to Next?
As we broadened our scope of community health work after closing OurSpace Acupuncture, teaching people how to grow food for the community became central. I call 2018-2019 “The Lean Years” for OurSpace. It’s almost like we were fasting while waiting for the community seedling relationships we sowed in 2017 to mature. Watching our revenue plummet to a few thousand dollars each year was tough. We used to need our intake survey system and treatments database to track the number of people we served; now my fingers and toes were more than enough. What a humbling experience! Instead of the immediate satisfaction of helping 10 people with stress, 7 with back pain, and 2 with fertility challenges, a typical day might be helping one farmer down the road weed a couple rows of kale and collards in the morning, while studying to learn more about farm instructure or co-op technical support in the afternoon.
But this trend had a different sort of momentum, its growth less like buckets full of bright red strawberries and instead more like the intricately expansive networks of roots and mycelia. Aita began transitioning from the board to the field. Some days it was just me and her harvesting a surplus of collards and spinach from our first partner farm and driving them 30 miles up the road for a few families in our homeschool collective to pick up. We helped some of these same families a year later officially form a cooperative on Juneteenth that stewards land at our second satellite farm, providing food for 7 families and counting. Other days we hosted “pick your owns”. Watching kids dig up their own carrots is a joy everyone should have. And the man who bought 30 pounds of cucumbers for his juice cleanse couldn’t have been happier.
Back to Basics
Impact is a little harder to measure these days, but the pix “herb roasted potato this” and “garlicky kale salad that” shared on our community food chat is way more satisfying than graphs tracking our treatment numbers. I feel like I’m living that “Be Healthy” Dead Prez track I used to play on repeat back in the day. Our work is still hard, but it’s fun and in partnership with folks that live down the road from us. We are all in it together. In fact, if OurSpace World ended today, JR would still have the carpentry basics we taught him, and he’d be helping Baba next week continue to work on the tool shed. The food buying club we helped launch earlier this week has a strong blueprint to work from. Members from the farming cooperative who now better understand Ujamaa in action, so I’m sure they would still put in their first bulk food order. We haven’t checked in with the collective we helped secure grant funding for their 25 acre land purchase lately, but they know we are there for them if they need us.
Fortunately we’ve still got a lot to look forward to. Our cooperative farming study circles start up here in a couple of months. We are excited to see what we can create with some brand new community partners. Our second co-op squad is reshuffling itself before convening again before taking next steps toward cooperative formation. It’s such a blessing to watch, learn from, and support their organic, non-linear development. And who knows what will come of our recent first visits to a small Black-women owned farm in Georgia, and to the Federation Rural Training Center in Alabama. Once upon a time I would have been upset with myself for taking this long to connect despite being born in Alabama and raised in Georgia. But hey, things take time to come full circle.
We have plans to work with our homeschool collective to begin training the next generation of Black acupuncturists. With any luck, this will launch right around our upcoming 10 year anniversary of healing with homeopathic micro-traumas. We are hopefully because for generations, the way we’ve made it is working with each other, and for each other. And we are thankful to still be standing and planting on the soil-fully supportive cheeks of Asase Yaa, whose Earthy Black richness reminds us that we are whole, healed, and held with love.