We started with two primary aims. The first was to develop a network of practitioners ranging from doctors to massage therapists to conflict resolution specialists. The second was to create a network of support for those practitioners, especially those who were doing health and healing work from a radical perspective and very often were overwhelmed or alienated or were unable to practice with the people that they really wanted to be serving. At the beginning we envisioned it maybe more than we do now primarily as support for radical, activist, movement communities. We can talk about how that’s shifted over time. But that’s how we started in March 2006.
Thinking back to those initial conversations where do you think the identification of that need to form a group like that came from?
Most of us who were in that original group shared some things in common. Many people had their own experience of illness or health struggles whether it was mental health or physical health or whatever. Many of us had seen that as a really profound gap in radical organizing. We saw people just burn themselves out and destroy themselves. And we saw that once people were sick, the movement was done. We had lost all these people who we needed and we had a sense that we couldn’t actually afford to form a movement that was comprised entirely of healthy, able-bodied, young, mostly white men. And that that was clearly a profound loss. Many of us understood that the absence of any understanding or focus on health and healing was something that was undermining the ability of the movement to really succeed. Something that we were excluding were areas of work that were typically regarded as being the domain of women. And when you think about your nannies, your housekeepers and all of those, these are very often the domain of women of color.
Also, many of us work in some kind of social service capacity. We have struggled with what it means to be constantly interacting with the state or to be doing work from a radical perspective in an organization that doesn’t do it for the reasons that you do it. We understood that this is a really clear challenge for the healers and health practitioners we wanted to engage and we wanted to commit to supporting them in doing work that we knew would be meaningfully to them and fulfilling to them but that they didn’t have an avenue to do.
Additionally, people were like “can I please have a gynecologist who doesn’t freak out if I don’t want to take birth control because I think it’s toxic? Or if I want to talk to her about whether or not wild carrot seed is really viable option to keep me from having a baby or if I list more than two partners in the last year doesn’t look at me like I’m a slut?” Or “can I please find people who will engage with me in my questions about my health in a way that supports my self-determination and my dignity and my autonomy and the fact that it’s my body?” And that means everything from finding a doctor who is willing to respect your choice to treat your flu with acupuncture to the whole spectrum of what we hope to find in the health care that we can get.
What are the collective’s major purposes and strategies for attaining its goals? What specific activities has the collective been engaged in to work towards these goals?
Our primary goals are to make dignified respectful health care available to as many people as possible. We understand health really broadly. We understand that includes your physical health, your mental health, your spiritual health. It includes toxins in your water, in includes violence in your home and in your neighborhood. It includes things that range from interpersonal dynamics to cavities in your teeth. When we talk about health practitioners and we talk about access to health, we don’t just mean a clean bill of health from your general practitioner. We think much more broadly about what it means to be healthy. We don’t believe that the various ways that we’re taught to divide those various aspects of our health are right or are useful.
We have a few strategies, which are connected to our activities. Our idea is that there are people who provide health services and that there are people who want them and that if we could help bring them together, that would be really be useful. And if we could help bring them together in a way that wasn’t mediated by money all the time, that would be really beautiful. The idea that your health is something that should have a price tag on it is also something that is fundamentally wrong as we see it with how the world works. That it’s not something that should be for sale. One thing that we do is we have a network of practitioners. These are people who share Rock Dove’s basic mission and values. Some of them are very radical, some of them aren’t quite as radical but they share key principals about self-determination, dignity and other things in health and are ready to be respectful of people with radical politics and to support them and their well-being. We connect those practitioners, who we call providers, with service seekers, ideally based on mutual aid. Those providers all either have sliding scale, or free or low cost or are willing to accept mutual aid or barter for their services. That means people clean peoples’ houses and get acupuncture in return. Or they pay a sliding scale that really does reflect their ability to pay not only including their income but also including how many kids they’re supporting, whether they’re supporting their elders, that sort of thing. We coordinate that network, which means we recruit the practitioners, we interview them, we stay in touch with them, we offer skill-shares and events just for the practitioners to get together talk about their own challenges and struggles. Then we get requests from people seeking those services and we make those matches. Some of those matches continue without our ongoing involvement so people meet and they work out their own arrangement and they continue to work together for years and we have nothing to do with it. But we have like a matchmaker function at the beginning.
Another thing that we do is that we’ve compiled a list of free and low cost clinics throughout the city. We developed a set of questions to ask of people about those clinics that have to do with how respected they feel, did they feel listened to, how long did they have to wait, how did they feel in the waiting room, how did they feel in their actual appointment with the doctor, what was the quality of care, was their sexuality respected, were their politics respected, did they feel their race was respected, were other aspects of their identity and their experience respected, if they were drug users was that condemned or were they willing to work with them, if they were resistant to antibiotics how were they treated when they expressed that, were people available in the clinic consistently who spoke their native language. We got groups, including us, who went around to all the major free clinics in the city and asked these questions. First anyone who needed health care went and got an appointment at the clinic and talked about their own experience. Then we also did interviews in the waiting room with people and asked them like “how long do you usually have to wait and how do you feel here?” That’s on our website and we use that as a guide to help us refer people. There are a couple that actually emerged for us as shining stars, as like, clearly if you’re going – they’re all clinics, they all have long waits, they all have drawbacks – but places that we can comfortably say, “there’s a clinic up at a 100-something street where all their staff has been trained in working with transgendered people and that there’s a doctor who specializes in that and if you go on Wednesdays you can see him every time.” That’s incredible to know for a sliding scale clinic in the city. So trying to be realistic that we’re not going to create an entire health infrastructure separate and apart for what already exists especially with things like malpractice insurance and so to the extent that we can help people navigate the free and low costs systems that exist in a way that is more likely to result in them getting the type of care that they deserve, we do that.
One of our operating principles in how we make referrals, because we’ll get referrals from people who have insurance and are just like “my doctor is great,” which is an amazing thing to know. We ask people to access the most exclusive services available to them. That means that if you have health insurance we direct you to a doctor who takes your insurance. And if you are eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, we help you apply for those and then direct you to a doctor who accepts those. If you’re not, we direct you to a free clinic. We’ll get seekers who are like “well, I don’t really feel like blah blah blah” and we’re sorry. But knowing that those resources that are available to anyone, whether you are in this country legally or not, whether you have ID or not, whether you have any of those things are not, whether you are formerly incarcerated, those resources are few and precious. Our goal is not to flood those limited community clinics with a bunch of twenty one year old white anarchists. Not the vision. It means sometimes having hard conversations with peoples about why we actually are encouraging them to apply for public benefits. We respect people’s politics and limitations and why they might not be able to do those things. We don’t just think about costs, but we think about the exclusivity of the services people are accessing. We ask people to really think about their decisions in those terms. Knowing that sending someone with health insurance to a great free clinic is not useful to all the people in line at that clinic.
The last facet — it’s the network, it’s the free clinic information — is these monthly or so skill shares. We’ve done skill shares on everything from mental health crisis intervention to reiki to acupuncture – to all sorts of things. We’re working now on a skill share just for the providers on working with trans folks. We’re working on another one for the providers about sliding scales – how to do them, how to think about them, how to work in a way that you can actually earn a livelihood but also not only be serving wealthy people and helping them talk to each other about that. We do those really regularly and those have been a really center part of our work from the beginning.
Can you describe who does what in your collective, how decisions are made, how activities are coordinated?
We meet regularly and we have a mailing list and we make some decisions over the mailing list. Some we make together in person. We operate kind of de factor by consensus. We’ve never actually said “we’re operating by consensus,” and we never twinkle or block or go around and say “yes,” but we’ve never moved forward with a significant decision about the collective without full consensus. We’re small. There are five of us. We work really, really closely and really intimately with each other. It’s become a place of sanctuary and support for all of us in the collective. Many of us have talked about it as one of the most transformative things we’ve ever been a part of. It’s become a really integral part of our identities of how we think of ourselves in the world, of how we envision the kind of work we want to do in our lives. A number of the collective members have gone from not being in related fields to being in those fields and committing their lives to it in the course of the years of us working together. It’s a big part of all of our lives. It means that the way we make decisions has to do with how you make decisions in what is like a family or whatever you would say, where the option of someone leaving because we disagree is not on the table. We all have to stay together. That means that we’ve engaged in really serious conversations about our racial identity, our class identity, our sexuality, we’ve gone through some really rugged dialogues about those things so that we could clarify how we were going to work together.
Our meetings all start with check-ins, which are sometimes an hour and a half long. We believe over time having at different times shortened the check-ins, that they actually make us more efficient. What that means is that when we get down to business, we have each cleared our heads, we each know where the other person is standing, and so if someone seems negative or seems resistant or seems whatever, we don’t presume that is personal. We don’t presume that’s even necessarily about what’s on the table if they’ve just told us about what’s going and why they’re in that place. So it means we’re able to communicate with each other as people. That means a lot of the tensions, the assumptions, the beef that is so common in organizing does not really happen for us. If it does, it’s really rare and it’s part of a big thing that we have to have a bigger conversation about. So the check-ins don’t seem efficient but at the end we think we probably get more done in every meeting than we otherwise would, because of the clarify it gives to what comes after and because of how it enables us to participate fully and healthily and happily in the collective’s work when we get down to it.
In terms of who does what, we rotate administrative responsibilities. For managing the seeker requests as they come in, each of us have a couple areas of concentration. There is one collective member who handles all of the mental health-related questions, one that handles the alternative therapies, like massage and herbalist stuff, one that handles general practitioners and dentists and those sorts of things. As the requests come in, there is one collective member who distributes those out to everyone. We have an email address and we rotate who is responsible for managing that. There is always one or two of us on at any given time. Either when those people get tired or after a certain period of time, we move that responsibility around. We have one collective member who is our web guru. So there are some things that certain people will stick with. But those responsibilities, we understand, change. As what we’re doing at our work changes, it changes what we want to do in the collective. In the course of the collective, we’ve had people get graduate degrees, we’ve had them go to school upstate for a year and come back, we’ve had one person have two babies in the course of the four years, we’ve had somebody start a major nonprofit, we had two people get masters degrees, and all of us have stayed in the collective through those transitions. But it’s meant that what were reasonable r