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April 26, 2021

Ear Seeds for Racial Health Justice

Two female acupuncturists of color and one white female acupuncturist stand behind a table at a farmers market

Disparities in Healthcare

Of the many things brought to light during the Covid pandemic, U.S. healthcare disparities are among the most disheartening. The virus has made visible the vast inequities that plague our healthcare system, as well as the many other contributing factors that manifest in poor health outcomes that disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and Latino populations.

Racial and ethnic disparities in the healthcare setting gives rise to serious moral and ethical dilemmas – healthcare is simply not available equally to all segments of the population in the United States.

According to CDC data, Indigenous Americans have suffered the highest death rates from the pandemic with 1 out of every 390 people (total population) dying from Covid. One in 555 Black Americans have died, and 1 in 665 White Americans have died (1). Unfortunately this data is the result of inequities that have existed throughout the history of modern America. The life expectancy for Black men and women is nearly one decade less compared to White individuals. Diabetes rates are more than 30% higher among Native Americans and Latinos than among Whites (4). Black Americans suffer poverty at a rate of 26%, compared to White Americans at only 10%. Per 100,000 individuals, 610 White males are incarcerated, next to a staggering 3,611 Black males. The infant mortality rate for Black babies is more than double the rate of White babies (2). And the occurrence of at least one Adverse Childhood Event (ACE) is 61% for Black children, compared to 40% for White children, setting them up for higher rates of disease later in life (3).

The beliefs and ethics of practitioners are also a major concern. African Americans “are more often diagnosed with schizophrenia and less often diagnosed with mood disorder compared to White people with the same symptoms. Additionally, they are offered medication or therapy at lower rates than the general population” (5, 6).

The truth behind this data is undeniable: Black Americans are suffering at the hands of an unjust system, and it all starts before they are even born. It is crucial to be aware of the historical dehumanization, oppression, experimentation, and violence done against Black bodies. This gruesome history of what African Americans had to endure (and STILL do today), contributes to negative beliefs regarding healthcare and lower rates of utilization and help-seeking. In short, these events and lived experiences have cultivated mistrust of the healthcare system (5).

Acupuncture as Health Activism

With this knowledge in mind, we have to ask:

Where does East Asian medicine fit in? How can we implement the tools and wisdom of this medicine to create a more equitable and just world? How can we help foster trust in a healthcare system that has failed vast numbers of the population?

Perhaps one answer lies in the history of the development of acupuncture in America. In the 1970’s, the Black Panther Party implemented Chinese Medicine in a community healthcare model to provide effective care to Black Americans who were (are) overlooked or abused by the mainstream medical system. Heroin addiction was at an all-time high at this time in the inner cities of New York, and many people were dying before they could get into limited methadone treatment programs. The auricular NADA protocol was administered by community practitioners to foster a sense of well-being and ease the symptoms of withdrawal for those attempting to overcome heroin addiction (you can learn more about this incredible story by watching Dope is Death or reading Maya Zitrin’s Acupuncture as Activism Zine). Chinese Medicine was and continues to be an integral part of health justice. It is meant to be practiced by the people, for the people. There should never be gatekeepers to health and wellness, and making this medicine accessible to all who might benefit from it is a revolutionary act.

Volunteering at the Sankofa Market

As aspiring acupuncturists who are passionate about outreach and closing the U.S. racial health disparities gap, we recognize the importance of making Chinese Medicine accessible to communities that might not typically seek it out. We had the incredible honor of connecting with Dr. Tenisha Dandridge L.Ac, DACH, owner of Everyone’s Place mobile acupuncture clinic based out of Sacramento and co-founder of the Black Acupuncturist Association (check out their line of ear seeds that match an array of skin tones here!). Under Dr. Dandridge’s guidance, we organized ongoing Ear Seed Clinics at the Sankofa Market and The African Market Place in Sacramento. These were truly gratifying experiences. Though this was our first time as students participating in outreach and community work, we knew how important it was to provide insight and testimonies regarding the acceptance and efficacy of ear seeds as a form of accessible and non-invasive wellness.

A black woman wearing an orange sweater and a black face mask recieves ear seed acupressure from a white woman wearing a pink sweater and green knit hat at an outdoor farmers marketA black woman wearing colorful beaded earrings applies acupressure ear seeds to a young black girl's right ear. They are under a blue tent at an outdoor farmers market and the little girl wears a colorful coat with horses and stars on it.A black woman wearing a denim jacket, gray hoodie, and facemask applies acupressure ear seeds to a woman of color's left ear

Folks were curious and open, and many felt immediate effects, which left us and them feeling inspired. Some individuals were hesitant and needed more details on how they work, and this was a chance for us to hone our skills in presenting the foundations of Chinese Medicine in a succinct and appealing way. To demonstrate, we would place an ear seed on their hand at HeGu (LI 4 acupuncture point) showing that this form of wellness is painless and only consists of a vaccaria seed and a sticker – Chinese Medicine without the needles (which is primarily what folks associate with Traditional Chinese Medicine).

“I loved both my experiences getting ear seeds while at the Sankofa Market. I instantly felt calm both times, and it really helped me focus. Each time I was fully educated about the benefits and what each pressure point was. I feel everyone should experience ear seeds and receive the benefits from them.” –Angelia, CEO of A. Michelle’s Holistic Wellness Center

Another important way we built rapport with the lovely Sacramento community was by sharing the inspiring story of the Young Lords and Black Panthers – asserting that this medicine is for all people and has an important place in Black History. We hope to continue to provide this accessible form of wellness to all people here in Sacramento every month, and you can follow our journey on Instagram: Marlee – @sheabutteracupuncture_ and Ashli – @earthdragon_ashli.

About the Authors:

Two women wearing professional outfits and face masks stand with their hands folded in front of lush greeneryMarlee Arteta is currently a student at Acupuncture Integrative Medicine College (AIMC) in Berkeley, CA. Marlee currently resides in the city of Sacramento, CA. Upon graduation and licensure as an acupuncturist, she plans to establish a practice in her local area. She previously obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Health and Wellness Promotion from the University of North Carolina in Asheville. She expects to graduate with her Masters of Science in Traditional Chinese Medicine degree in December of 2022. Marlee found her way to Traditional Chinese Medicine as a career path when she realized she was interested in a more integrative approach to the path of health, healing, and wellness as well as, approach to illness. Marlee personally values a preventative approach to wellness as well as making care accessible and affordable to the community being served. She is interested in perinatal care, especially for women of color and the underserved. She is passionate about narrowing the gap of access to quality and affordable health care for people of color and those who have been marginalized in her community. In her free time, Marlee enjoys spending time at the ocean, hiking, time in nature, and sitting under trees. She enjoys dancing and traveling to new places, especially ones with a tropical island flavor and ambiance. Her plant ally is the lotus.

Ashli came to this medicine via a circuitous journey through many disciplines and careers, as most of us do! She is half way through the Masters of Science in Chinese Medicine program at AIMC Berkeley and is deeply humbled by and in deep reverence for this ancient wisdom. Currently her interests include reproductive health justice and healthcare accessibility. When not poking herself with needles, she enjoys polar dips in the Yuba River, gathering and arranging flowers, and cooking fanciful meals for friends.

SOURCES:

  1. Color of Coronavirus: COVID-19 Deaths Analyzed by Race and Ethnicity.” APM Research Lab.
  2. Bailey et al. AMERICA: EQUITY AND EQUALITY IN HEALTH, VOLUME 389, ISSUE 10077, P1453-1463, APRIL 08, 2017. The Lancet.
  3. Sacks, V., & Murphey, D. (n.d.). The prevalence of adverse childhood experiences, nationally, by state, and by race or ethnicity. Retrieved April 14, 2021.
  4. Riley, Wayne J. “Health disparities: gaps in access, quality and affordability of medical care.” Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association vol. 123 (2012): 167-72; discussion 172-4.
  5. Mental Health America. Black & African American Communities and Mental Health. (2017, April 03).
  6. American Psychiatric Association. (2017). Mental Health Disparities: African Americans.
  7. The #getSHARP Ear Seed Project: Implementing TCM for resiliency (2020, June 7).
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