“Mending Our History” – Acu Detox Group Engages Its Black Panther and Young Lord Roots in the Time of George Floyd

“Mending Our History” – Acu Detox Group Engages Its Black Panther and Young Lord Roots in the Time of George Floyd

The dominant origin story of the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) – known for their certified providers of the 5-point ear acupuncture protocol – begins with the association’s formation in 1985. It is a story featuring a remarkable white male medical doctor who was a breakthrough clinician in recognizing the value of group delivered services. Yet the development of the acupuncture protocol itself has an earlier, also powerful story. These origins are traced to a community health uprising in the South Bronx of New York in 1970. The action was led by the Black Panthers and the Nuyorican activist group, the Young Lords.  Now the murder of George Floyd and a new documentary earlier activism, Dope is Death, have dovetailed to produce a rich re-examination among NADA leaders. One Puerto Rican practitioner trained by a one of the earliest leaders suggests that what is under way is a call to “mend our history.”

For most in NADA, the origin goes to the organization’s founder, Lincoln Hospital physician Michael Smith, MD. I attended a Health Forum/American Hospital Association conference on complementary medicine in 2000 in which Smith shared wisdom from his work there. One of his points may be the most under-appreciated advice in health care, given the importance of personal engagement in health creation. “If you want to empower people,” said Smith to the small group of us who chose the informal give-and-take that was his breakout session, “put more patients than providers in the room.” He made the medium the message, engaging us as a group. Then he added – I roughly paraphrase: “As soon as you are one-on-one, and I don’t care if you have the most brilliant and caring integrative physician there as the practitioner, all that transference stuff kicks in.”  The patient gives up their power rather than enhancing it, as one can learn to do as both giver and receiver in the group setting.

Smith’s respect for the power of community in the healing process- versus the modality without context – informed the humor in the acronym for the organization he would found in 1985. The certified practitioners of “NADA” have spread their impact from drug courts and community centers through integrative practices and disaster spots around the country and globe. Smith died in 2018. My obit honoring him is here.

An earlier history

I had the opportunity to speak at NADA’s annual conference not long after his death. Perhaps it was that it was the moment of his passing, yet it was clear that Smith is venerated by many current NADA members in what can feel an almost cult-like following. The sense of something not quite right was all the stronger for me in that I had been educated three years earlier by New York public health activist Bob Lederer about a different origin story for NADA in which Smith figured only as a bit player. Lederer’s poster session based on his master’s thesis at the 2015 American Public Health Association’s Integrative, Complementary and Traditional Health Practices section was also a story of community-based healing. Only here the healing method was a militant activism to provide public health and addiction services at a safety net hospital that was essentially forgotten and grossly underfunded by the mainly while male policy makers

The new documentary, directed by Canadian filmmaker Mia Donovan, tells the story of these activists whose devotion to community services would surprise many.  The dominant (white) media portrayals of Black Panthers and Young Lords portrayed a bellicose radicalism. It did not teach one to associate these groups with things like the Black Panther Breakfasts that they organized in many communities. Included among these was a breakfast program in a public housing project in West Seattle where my mother volunteered on Wednesdays.

In the South Bronx, the late 1960s and early 1970s was a time of heavy heroin use, abuse, and overdose. The activists documented by Donovan in Dope is Death practiced a form of organizing that included re-education about the nature of power, of systemic oppression, and of racism.  The grossly uneven playing field needed no more evidence than the disregard that New York’s elected officials had for Lincoln, the area’s torn up safety net hospital. The didactic content of their change making was infused with activism. They wanted an alternative to heroin and the continuing crippling of their community through legal treatment via methadone. What might they offer?

A rare article in the New York Times on acupuncture’s potential in addiction treatment caught their attention. Among the activists was Mutulu Shakur, the step-father of the deceased rapper Tupac Shakur – a Rolling Stone Top 100 musician. They eventually connected with a Montreal acupuncturist and educator who offered scholarships to a handful of the South Bronx activists, including Shakur, to train with him to become acupuncturists. They opened the detox clinic to a line of hundreds that spread around the block. As interest grew, so did the need for more practitioners. A more limited form of practice began to be offered, often by former addicts who had been through the program. As one said on the NADA call: “Anyone could practice the protocol at Lincoln.” (Smith had shared in his Health Forum presentation that they could do whatever we wanted, “no one cared, it was the South Bronx.”) Different practitioners would try different points. They would share outcomes. The story shared was that the acupuncture points most utilized in the treatment were “community sourced.”

Eventually, the NADA 5-point protocol emerged. Years later, Smith took the visionary lead in helping create the organizational base, the educational program and certification standards that would allow such services to be readily transferred from community to community and state-to-state, and eventually to other nations.

NADA’s mending history webinar

The NADA membership webinar included multiple people of color who were featured in Donovan’s documentary. Yet the mission of the NADA event was less to feature the film than to inform those gathered about this other, black and brown origin story. I was there as an observer rather than reporter, so I will only share some of the statements, rather than providing attribution:

“NADA came out of community empowerment.”

Of former addicts becoming providers: “When people heal, they want to help. That’s the natural order of things.”

“I have struggled a little bit, because Dr. Smith gave me the opportunity [to provide the NADA protocol and serve] but I also had a strong connection with the roots of it. There was this animosity between Dr. Smith and the activists. I’d like to see it mended.”

“We should take pride that this movement is from a collective – Young Lords, Black Panthers. The collective wouldn’t have started without the activists. It wouldn’t have moved around the world without Dr. Smith.”

“It was almost like a caterpillar that as years went by became a butterfly, treating not just locally but nationally and internationally.”

“”What can we do to bridge [the two histories]? The first step is for people in NADA to have access to this history. We’re having this conversation.   That’s the next step.”

Another step toward mending was already underway. Said a NADA activist:  “We are re-writing the teaching materials – re-writing the history people are taught.” One result can be seen on the current NADA website.  The history tab presently includes excerpts from a 1995 book by Ellinor Mitchell called Fighting Drug Abuse with Acupuncture in which she documents the early history. The change was made only recently. In addition, an obituary for Mitchell will be featured in the next NADA newsletter. The mending is under way.

Two inspiring stories

These are inspiring stories – both the community action of the Black Panthers, the Young Lords and their allies for their public health in the South Bronx, and the way NADA is creating steps to mend its history. They are of a kind in their healing intent.

The broader integrative medicine field has an origin story from the mid-1990s that is principally white male academic medical doctors serving upper income white people rather than black and brown acupuncturists embedded in community empowerment. For the dominant integrative medicine story, this Black Panthers and Young Lords story from the South Bronx in the early 1970s merits elevation, celebration, and inclusion as a part of the field’s origins.

Above all, however, the story in an opportunity to consider inclusion of a new dimension in integrative health. To Lincoln Hospital’s early ear acupuncture providers, the power of group was not just that of the healing circle and the needles. Part of healing was education as a public health intervention: re-teaching those served about their lives. This medicine was transformative education about the nature of the unhealthy power relations, about racism, about laws and how to become engaged to change them. The post George Floyd era has reminded us that the need remains strong to address dis-empowering relationships. What role can integrative practices have in providing this medicine?

Meantime, the broader medical industry is only now on the very first edges of acknowledging the abhorrent outcomes of gross over-investment in and prioritization of tertiary care services and virtual dismissal of the far more powerful social determinants of health. In this, the Black Panthers and Young Lords who birthed the NADA movement deserve respect as visionary guides. Healing social determinants requires empowerment. The healing requires not just individual health action but an engaged collective.

Additional resource: Another resource on that time that was celebrated on the call was a film from that era by Jenna Dini Bliss entitled The People’s Detox that includes an impactful trailer.

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