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The Barefoot Collective: Solidarity and Love Through Community Acupuncture

NADA treatment training in Juarez, Mexico. Photo submitted by Ryan Bemis.
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This year, Culturs Global Multicultural Magazine is focusing on “community.” I would like to highlight a community acupuncture organization that really takes the idea of community health to heart, especially as we celebrate “love” in this summer issue.

Ryan Bemis has organized an international collective of professional healers to train communities to use the National Acupuncture Detox Association protocol. The Barefoot Acupuncture Movement is on a mission to empower others through community health education and service, and that takes a whole lot of love. 

A trainee practices needle insertion using the NADA protocol on a community member in Juarez, Mexico as Ryan Bemis, DOM observes.
BAM training in Juarez, Mexico. Photo submitted by Ryan Bemis.

Introductions

I first met Ryan Bemis online via an email introduction from my friend, Claudia Voyles. I needed a mentor during my process of becoming a Regional Trainer (RT) for the NADA Acudetox Protocol.

Acudetox developed the 1970’s during the height of the heroin epidemic that was devastating Black and Hispanic communities in the United States. The NADA protocol exists today because of grass roots organizing by the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords in New York (USA) at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx neighborhood (see the film “Dope is Death” on vice.com). Without their contributions, NADA would not be the organization that it is today.

The protocol is a non-verbal approach to healing and involves the placement of sterile acupuncture needles, small seeds/pellets, or ear tacks on five specific points located on the outer ear. It reduces substance cravings, minimizes symptoms of substance withdrawal and decreases stress and pain. A NADA Regional Trainer leads trainings and workshops to certify professionals in NADA so that they can perform Acudetox treatments. Ryan is creator and part of one effort to spread the benefits of this therapy across the globe.

I chatted briefly with Ryan after attending one of the BAM seminars last summer. I found the work that he was doing intriguing, and expressed my admiration for the level of thoughtfulness and care I witnessed in his approach. Ryan invited me to learn more. I interviewed Ryan and three other members of the BAM collective: Nancy Gonzalez Ortiz, Megan Yarberry and Kata Japuncic.

What is the Barefoot Acupuncture Movement?

The BAM model draws from a long tradition of acupuncture-based humanitarian aid that started with the Barefoot Doctor Movement, originally developed in China and expanded by the World Health Organization in the ’70s and ’80s. It builds on the foundation exemplified by modern-day barefoot programs, including Dr. Michael Smith and the NADA (both U.S. and European affiliates) and the Guatemalan Acupuncture and Medical Aid Project. These programs reinforced local autonomy and Ryan has learned a lot from them. By expanding the practices they have pioneered, BAM has, over the past decade in the Americas, innovated a core acupuncture curriculum of basic, simple, and safe techniques, while also creating advanced training modules for students to continue their studies.

BAM partners with people affected by injustice to rebuild resilience using acupuncture. The organization seeks to create a more socially diverse, global acupuncture workforce by mobilizing disaster response and engaging in grassroots community development within underserved regions. By partnering with and offering safe and sustainable models of healthcare, they have found that even the most marginalized and under-resourced communities can use acupuncture to build resilience and self-sufficiency in response to violence, poverty and injustice. 

Trainees observe as a teammate points out acupuncture points on a plastic ear model.
NADA trainees in Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo submitted by Megan Yarberry.

What is community?  

Kata described community as something that is always in the process of becoming. Community is simultaneously a “doing-word” that is revealed in our actions & attitudes; as well as “the spaces we create around & between each other & how we hold that space.”

Megan replied that it is any group that comes together for common purpose or because of common circumstance:

While we may not always be able to choose the community we find ourselves in (family, neighborhood) we can make a conscious effort to go out and find or build something meaningful.

When I asked Ryan what community means to him, this was his response: 

Community is that which breaks me open and gives me the opportunity to grow, move through, take responsibility … and [be] more open to other ways of being. 

A little history…

Ryan was born and raised in Wyoming in an Irish-Catholic household. He described the area where he grew up as “pretty white…without a lot of diversity.”

So how did he end up serving BIPOC communities on the borderlands of New Mexico?

After high school, Ryan felt like something was missing from his perspective. He wanted to get to know other cultures. When he was a teen he would go on youth adventures across the United States in a church van. Chris, a youth minister from the church Ryan attended, would take the youth group on “Spontaneous Adventures.” On one occasion, the group watched a film about Dorothy Day. Later, he read her book.

The book sparked something inside Ryan. He traveled out west to Oakland where he lived in a Catholic worker house and worked with homeless populations.

Ryan found freedom and happiness through being of service to others. It took focus off of his personal problems and helped him realize that there’s a larger world out there, that “our problems connect us with others out in the world.” He learned that even when you have problems you can help others. “Service to others is helpful and part of becoming a better and a healthier person.”

“You must always help others with whatever resources you have to help. It doesn’t matter where they come from.

That’s such a beautiful sentiment. Ryan says this ideology comes from his Catholic upbringing. It’s also what led him to work in Juarez, Mexico. From Oakland, he had traveled to Oregon, New York, and then finally to New Mexico where he currently resides. Every time he encountered a new community he was able to unpack his own cultural baggage and learn more about himself. It made him more self-aware and more able to welcome diversity. Service through the church led him to a parish in Juarez where he offered acupuncture treatments at the end of a church service. This is where Ryan met Nancy Gonzalez Ortiz.

The community acupuncture movement began in Juarez.

several women are pictured applying needles to the ears of participants who receive NADA protocol.
NADA treatment training in Juarez, Mexico. Photo submitted by Ryan Bemis.

Nancy is a psychologist and native resident in Juarez.  Her work has been largely with migrant and refugee camps in Juarez. Nancy’s grandmother worked with migrants as well. When they couldn’t pay for housing, her grandmother would house people and feed them.

“You can’t leave anyone in the street because they can’t pay,” her grandmother would say to her. “You must always help others with whatever resources you have to help. It doesn’t matter where they come from.”

Nancy’s grandmother inspired her because of the work she did. She was always looking for a way to help others. This is why Nancy became a psychologist and why she also works with migrants. She wanted to help in a way that would keep her close to those she supports. Nancy had only ever worked within the Catholic community. “We have one directive in the Catholic Church,” she said, “to help others.” 

A group of acupuncture trainees in Tunisia hold up a banner from the NADA international conference.
Training Red Cross workers in Tunisia. Photo submitted by Megan Yarberry.

When she first saw BAM, the work that Ryan was doing, and how he integrated it into the church, she thought here is a religious person, but the work transcends the church community. He came to their town with such humility, and with no expectation of anything in return.

“We thought, here’s this American coming into the very violent city [Juarez]. If someone comes from outside with an interest in helping our community, why wouldn’t we participate,” she said.

BAM brought to Juarez a different way for community members to care for their health. The small community realized they had been presented with something that they should learn how to replicate. Nancy was inspired, and from there became involved in the movement. She could see the benefits that people were experiencing. People wanted change. There was so much hurt and deficiency.

“No one in Juarez imagined that acupuncture, somethings so accessible, would be so important to us. It helped us so much. Little by little, it helped,” Nancy said.

Nancy Gonzalez Ortiz applying the NADA protocol to a young child during a Barefoot Acupuncture clinic. Photo submitted by Ryan Bemis

Nancy and others in the church realized that they should help all community members, not just those that were part of the Catholic church, but everyone who needed it. She accepted the invitation to go to Nicaragua, without hesitation. The people in that country were also having difficulties; there were complicated conditions and suffering.

“In Nicaragua, whether it was people of different cultures or different religions, we saw how [BAM training] transcends and that we can help,” she said.

Nancy believes that the work of BAM would lose meaning if it remained within one small community — it should be shared.

“There was a call, and we could not leave things as we found them there. If I have a talent, it is a treasure that must be shared with others. In that way it also enriches us,” she said.

Ryan was able to identify those in Juarez that exhibited the talent of leadership. The natural leaders among the Juarez group then looked for the people in the community in Nicaragua who had the same type of leadership qualities. From the two small groups combined, the training and the movement began. 

When we weave our lives together, we are more strengthened and interesting than if we remain individual threads.” 

Megan Yarberry

Community Acupuncture: The foundation is solidarity.

Solidarity is at the heart of the Barefoot Acupuncture Movement and the cultivation of community. The solidarity shared with global partners helps deconstruct the inequality so rampant in acupuncture care.

Ryan says conventional acupuncture has been mostly limited to wealthy people from a certain class and culture. BIPOC acupuncture providers are part of a new paradigm of a diverse acupuncture workforce, and a step forward for promoting a more just and equitable world.

It would be difficult in Nicaragua to send large groups of farmers to medical school, but the Barefoot School teaches them effective safety skills that are cost-effective and can help their people cope better with stress. When people can manage stress better, community wellness rises. BAM works to train people from BIPOC communities how to cultivate a space of sovereignty in health through simple protocols and basic techniques, using this ancient therapy called acupuncture. In this way, they have something new that they can use to help build community. They are connected to something larger than just treating one individual. They can become participants in the recovery of their community.

As Paul Farmer said, “Without solidarity, the noblest of human sentiments will be washed away.” 

A woman inserts acupuncture needles into another woman's ear as class participants observe from their seats in a circle.
NADA ADS training 2015 at Centar M.A.R.E Rovinj, Croatia. Photo submitted by Kata Japuncic.

“You can have a whole lot of people doing a whole lot of things with a whole lot of good intentions and points and needles,” says Ryan, “but to create authentic, conscious, healthy community not based on dependency and colonialism you must have solidarity.”

“When I was working as a counselor with the homeless at a detox clinic in Portland Oregon, every day they would sit everyone in a circle and put acupuncture needles in their ears,” he adds. “And so in this place, I saw all of these random, diverse people going through some intense, earth shattering experiences of unpacking the bags, doing something radically different than I would guess they would normally do: sitting in silence next to strangers and able to remain calm. Letting their guard down. Allowing them the chance to just be in the moment. These can be transient community experiences, but anytime we create space for people to just be present, while at the same time not be isolated, it becomes an opportunity for people to step into a deeper universal connection to humanity. Silence when shared in a safe space is a powerful medium for cultivating solidarity.” 

Growth and partnership.

Internally, the BAM Collective is cultivating a culture of trust, establishing a common language, and sharing in mutual respect between the members of the collective and the communities and organizations with whom they engage. In its international efforts, BAM serves as a platform to share ideas, projects, needs, insights and resources.

Because a main focus of the group is on acupuncture projects around the world, partnering with local stakeholders and other individuals or groups that serve in the same areas of interest as BAM is critical. Each individual project becomes a sort of center of gravity for those the organization trains and the populations they serve.

Kata Japuncic shares, “Using acupuncture as a resilience-building tool in service of community-led responses to social injustice & structural harms embraces practical skill-sharing that’s grounded in anti-oppression principles & an ethic of love.”

This coalescing of intention and attention creates community.

Men are seated on the floor in a large room receiving acupuncture from two persons using the NADA protocol.
Treatment in a prison located in East Africa. Megan Yarberry, center, applying needles to a prisoner. Photo submitted by Megan Yarberry.

So how is BAM an expression of love for community?

Megan Yarberry replied, “If I think about love as the unselfish and benevolent goodwill for one another, BAM’s work is an expression of this. By sharing knowledge and experience with others, we hope they will be more resilient and autonomous, better positioned to navigate their own course into the future. And of course we also are the better for this experience, gaining new perspectives, knowledge of and appreciation for others. When we weave our lives together, we are more strengthened and interesting than if we remain individual threads.”

It’s so refreshing to see a group of people not just helping, but empowering communities to strengthen and maintain independence in their health and wellbeing. To give something that can be passed on is an act of love, to teach communities to fish rather than giving out fish dinners is a demonstration of solidarity. 

BAM continues to grow. There are now members of the collective in the USA, Central America, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

Kata Japuncic delivering NADA in 2020 as part of AcupunctureforCommunity.org (solidarity with First Nations’ people) – Cadi (Cadi is the Aboriginal name for Sydney, Australia). Photo submitted by Kata Japuncic.

Acknowledgements

Megan Yarberry’s upbringing in Hawaii, Micronesia, and Indonesia gave her a deep appreciation for diverse cultures and contextually relevant solutions to community issues. She joined the Peace Corps and served two years in West Africa before returning to the U.S. to pursue a career in healthcare. She has a master’s degree from the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, and has served as an Instructor and Academic Dean of a small college in Hawaii where she also runs a private practice. In 2005, Megan began developing healthcare training and programs for high-needs populations in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.

Kata Japuncic grew up in a migrant settler family in Australia and is committed to anti-oppression principles within which access, healing, justice, collective accountability and solidarity with First Nations and marginalized communities is understood as work that is always imperfect and ongoing. She has traveled across Europe, Turtle Island/North America and Australia in her healthcare studies. She received her degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine at UTC in 2006 and completed NADA training in Croatia in 2015.  

Nancy is a licensed psychologist in Juarez, Mexico and continues her work with BAM.

Ryan Bemis completed his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine at Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in 2011. He is the co-founder of the international Barefoot Acupuncture Schools, offering free education for volunteer health promoters offering care within underserved neighborhoods in the border region, Mexico and Nicaragua. In 2018, he helped establish Crossroads’ Refugee Care Program for immigrants in the border region in collaboration with local churches and shelters.  He leads the Barefoot Collective, a global team of educators, doctors, community organizers, and acupuncturists working to partner with underserved communities to build resiliency in response to violence, poverty and injustice.

To learn more about the Barefoot Acupuncture Movement, go to https://www.barefootacupuncturemovement.com.

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