Health Autonomy at the End of the World

As we continue to struggle in NYC, many changes have come about since we last wrote of the Woodbine Health Autonomy Center and our thoughts After Occupy. The chaos of the world seems to grow larger, pushing us to further investigate the materiality of autonomy. The growing migrant crisis in Europe, the rise of proto-fascist forces across the world, the election of Trump here in the US. The continual melting of glaciers. The mundanities of crushing debt, the anxiety of our culture, and the everyday loneliness of the city. And for us here at Woodbine, the loss of a dear friend and comrade who was traveling to support the indigenous resistance at Standing Rock.

We don’t bring these up to merely add to the general devastation. But because they are our reality. They exist and to not acknowledge that is to cover ourselves with superficial banalities. The crises that continue to arise are merely symptoms of the disintegration of a way of being in the world that is becoming rapidly untenable. So when we think of care, we must take on the task of being a bridge to a new way of being.

At Woodbine, we are continuing to develop a path toward health autonomy. We are looking to meld many different modalities of health.  We have been experimenting with different projects and finding ways to build community. We’ve had a garage gym with weekly fitness classes, open hours in our Resource Center, and ongoing public workshops. Our series of “skill shares”, has included subjects from acupuncture to foraging urban medicinal plants, to workshops on first aid and large discussions questioning what communal health really requires. Autonomous mental health infrastructure seems to be the most pressing immediate need of our community. This is a key place we are focusing our energies at the moment. We find that the act of sharing responsibilities, allowing for new innovation, and practicing vulnerability with our comrades are the first steps to addressing these larger questions of health and care.

With the proposed health care cuts as well as the general trend our government is taking, we fear that some heightened level of austerity will be upon us. As resources to critical health infrastructure are being threatened, as evidenced by Planned Parenthood cuts, the war on women’s health, and the potentials for immigration officials to use health institutions as a screening tool, we are increasingly seeing a need to provide clinical as well as educational resources. Because of the immense cost and regulatory difficulty of providing clinical care in NYC, we need to seek and develop work-arounds. As we see the needs increasing, cuts being made and draconian measures to make non-violent actions to protect water punishable with prison sentences, we can only imagine a future where care for ourselves and our fellows will become increasingly criminalized. Therefore the steps we make to gain and share skills and develop subterranean practices of care can return some of the agency we’ve lost to the professionalization of medicine and the profitable mystery that is our bodies. As we think about expanding our capacity, we don’t want to just “fill in the gaps” of public health infrastructure. We need to slowly break our dependence on these institutions in all the ways that we can and also look for ways to use them to our advantage. We think this happens through sharing knowledge and skills, an emphasis on preventative care, and finding ways to manipulate existing structures to allow us to move forward on this path of autonomy.

We believe in the utter necessity of revolution, of the development of material lines of power. Questions of care and health autonomy are pivotal to that progression.  From the Greek solidarity clinics to the Zapatistas “healthcare from below” to Black Panther Clinics and GynPunks, there is inspiration for this path all around us.  We begin by finding each other.

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We missed you over here.

We missed you @Woodbinehealth , welcome back. I’m very sorry for your loss, can’t even begin to imagine.

Just this morning I was reading this “manifesto” on aggressive humanism by the artistic-militant group in Berlin called Center for Political Beauty. Even their name, aside from tactics, is just so inspiring. It reminded me of you guys somehow, the grit…

Autonomous mental health infrastructure: that is what I would prioritize as well for your participation at OpenVillage Festival. How would you see an interaction with the opencare community happening in brussels? in an effective way that supports your own mission. From the top of my head, priming the conversation with key questions around which we could gather initial experiences ahead of the event? or…?

For skill sharing and practical activities, @steelweaver was proposing to demonstrate an acupuncture micro clinic at the event - could we add to that something you guys want to share i.e. teaching others, body fitness classes etc?

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Urgency and Agency

Hello all @Woodbinehealth,

I really connect with all you’ve said here and in particular you’re sense of urgency and the imperative of radically different approaches to health and its broader determinants. I have often found myself at well intentioned workshops with rooms full of professionals working hard at designing perfect interventions that will deliver the miraculous ‘product’ of health to our communities. I’m intensely frustrated by the waste of human resources and energy when surely it must be obvious that health is not simply the output of professional ‘interventions’ (even the clinical language makes me recoil). Surely it’s obvious that health is also fundamentally the natural outcome of healthy communities, relationships and systems - including our political and economic systems.

The work I’m involved in at GalGael came out of fires protesting motorways bringing asthma and nature deprivation to communities in Glasgow already hard pressed. We created relative safety admist a housing scheme where there was little. We learnt along the way - by accident - the sense of agency that comes from ‘the act of sharing responsibilities’ within the context of the encampment. We chose to continue to work with that sense of agency and still do so 20 years after the motorway was built. We’ve continued learning and particularly the extent to which that sense of agency is profoundly connected to our health. We’re lucky in Scotland to have had a recent Government Chief Medical Officer who underlined the importance of work on salutogenesis - the importance of studying what makes us healthy rather than disease itself - and the role that our sense of control over our own lives plays in our health; both physical and mental. (Harry Burns - I believe he is regularly in NY)

For a while we were disheartened to see people we’d worked with on issues of addiction appear back at our doors. What were we doing wrong? We were adamant that we did not want to be another revolving door for people stuck in the cogs of a poverty industry or disease factory. Slowly we realised - by classical ‘analysing our own reality’ - that the systems and relationships beyond our doors and beyond our direct influence were considerably more effective at creating disease and dysfunction than we could ever be at resolving it - especially on grant funded (frequently cut) project work, creating environments where people could find greater health and humanity. And now we know the imperative of both - to be there when people need us on the renewed understanding that many diseases and social ills are adaptations to the dysfunction in our wider systems. On its own, this would amount to little more than sticking a finger in a crack in the harbour wall in the face of a tsunami. So now we understand that working to influence system change is also essential to not only the health in individuals but increasingly the survival of our communities. I find what Deborah Frieze refers to as ‘hospicing the dying’ in relation to systems helpful - an important aspect of care work in our times. What is called for as old systems collapse? How do we work to illuminate and support the emergence of the new?

These thoughts led to me proposing a track for the Open Village - see more here. If you are delivering a session - I would love to hear more and stay in touch as the programme shapes up.

@Noemi - happy to come across your link. I love the notion of a Centre for Political Beauty. There seems to be something genuinely powerful and thought provoking when we put two words together that we wouldn’t normally associate at all.

There is much that is quite overwhelming in the world - loss, grief, fear, uncertainty, greed. In standing firm in the face of this, the words of Dr. Cornel West regularly come to mind; ‘I cannot be an optimist - but I am a prisoner of hope’. They seem to hold the tension between current realities and possible futures beautifully.


Agency: working with, against the system, or…?

Yes, I resonated with the association of words as well. However, the Centre for Political Beauty works completely against the system, or parrallel to it at best.

Woodbine as well, from past conversations, seem to be on the revolutionary side - although someone in the collective mentioned working in public hospitals and guiding people through the system, fully aware that at the end of the day the system is failing us all. This past discussion on the Woodbine sustainability and interaction with the system is truly enlightening: “agree that we have to study the idea of both being within the system and out”. What came out was the question of whether teaching prevention, taking on a single point of system failure could be lower hanging fruit for groups like yours who make a real contribution but also risk overburdening or taking on too big a task. Meeting basic survival needs like housing or food, which are traditionally system tasks is more difficult and involve a certain work with the system in order to build that major capacity - i.e. charities or grant funded organisations.  @maymay can confirm if this is a good summary.

Over these 20 years GalGael is surely becoming a repository of learnings and things which work, or dont. How did you work over these years in relation with existing institutions?

This is just one of the many points of congruence we found in opencare community. It all goes back to how we build the infrastructure needed, a point nicely made by @Woodbine .


A revolutionary life

Hey all,

Thanks for the comments.  Always impressed with the level of analysis within the group.  I think our group tries to reflect the larger feeling within the world at the time: that we must act as bridges to something else.  Many of us come from the anarchist model of thinking, and in the US, that comes with a heavy focus on destruction.  Mainly in contrast to the NGO/professionalization model of “bandaids” and objectification.  But how we see the parallels now is that we must no longer allow ourselves to be motivated by a destruction entity.  Rather we must begin building the worlds that we would die for.  A world worth dying for.  Similar to the examples you all used, there is a strong movement to not reject a destructive attitude (revolutions being inherently destructive) but recognizing that our strength now is our potential to offer the world a new vision of life, the “good life/buen vivir” of the Zapatistas.  As such, I work in a public hospital and acknolwedge the needs for institutions at this time.  But always with an eye towards utilizing towards our ends, not becoming dependent on the institutions/NGOs for a way of life.

I look forward to continuing the conversation!  As for practical things, I think a larger question we have is the role of networks in creating autonomy, how to build structures that increase autonomy not just something that replicates Silicon Valley mindsets.  Also for skills, maybe something aroudn the very act of giving skills.  How we plan out our skill shares and what are the main purposes (i.e beyond just passing on knowledge).

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Yes, if we can’t figure out how to build within existing frameworks and instead insist on forcing a clean break, it would be unprecedented and for good reason. Pretty sure all change, even revolutionary change, has to respect current climate and parameters. Instead of shunning the financial system, understand how it sucks money out of us and how compound interest works, instead of rejecting all western medicine, pretty sure there’s lots of gems in there as well, etc etc.

Practical steps to get to where we need to be is less romantic than the insurrection everything narrative, but I’ll be damned if it’s this struggle isn’t protracted as hell.