Spearheading Culture Change with Plant Traditions
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2012 issue of Plant Healer Magazine. If you haven’t subscribed to this eclectic, thoughtful, extremely original publication, I highly recommend it. Subscriptions are affordable and support the Anima Lifeways & Herbal School, one which I proudly attend. Enjoy.
I absolutely love writing outside in the Summer. In the Pacific Northwest, clear, open skies can be rare. When it’s sunny and pleasant, we are like solar panels, soaking up every available ray, letting our spirits be infused by the blooming Nootka roses, the ripening salmonberries, and the glaring, spectacular foxglove stalks. In this exalted light and heat of Summer, I have some special things I want to share with you. (And you can bet I’m writing it outside!)
In June, I completed my Master’s thesis—a culmination of a 10-month ethnography exploring the role of plant traditions in diabetes prevention and addiction treatment in Salish tribal communities. Additionally, over the last year and a half, I’ve been collaboratively running the Olympia Free Herbal Clinic (OFHC) as a member of a collective of 7 herbalists. We are presently forming a nonprofit called The Dandelion Seed Community Health Project, which will feature the free herbal clinic as one of its programs. This type of endeavor is a complex labor-of-love and juggling act, involving obtaining business licensure, organizing and recruiting a Board of Directors, managing volunteers, organizing a conference, teaching workshops, maintaining apothecary inventory, organizing a host of outreach and fundraising activities, and the list goes on. As a collective, each of us wears many hats. But we all definitely bear the title of Manager of Chaos. So I finished my thesis, graduated, and now have a bit of space to sit back, gaze at the flowers, and reflect. Specifically, I’m reflecting on the last few years of working with plant traditions to inspire social change in collaborative and community settings. It’s my desire to share these musings with you and the herbal community as a whole. I’ve learned so much from those who have walked before me, as well as those who walk with me now on this path of plants and healing.
The world of plants has inspired me since childhood, being an endless source of fascination, enchantment, and wonder. In following this allure and heeding their call, my passions have broadened. Currently, I’ve been intrigued by how plants affect social and ecological identity, and have come to understand that plant traditions are indeed an inextricable aspect of it. The network of symbiotic relationships and connections between humans and other life forms orient us in our habitat and in the cosmos. I’ve also noticed that this connection is an overlooked one in mainstream American social change and innovation practices. And that’s unfortunate, because revitalizing and creating herbal traditions and ethnobotanical practices can spur authentic and systemic social change through a variety of ways, by:
- Broadening perception of place,
- Inspiring self, family, and community care,
- Orienting our selves as humans in time and in habitat.
Working with plant traditions (in their revitalization as well as creation) are fascinatingly paradoxical. They are simultaneously old and new, ancient and innovative. These traditions carry knowledge so ancient, vast, and are the foundation of our species biological and cultural evolution. They are also new, innovative, and deeply pertinent to the challenges of a contemporary, global society.
Plants traditions are also simultaneously simplex and complex. They can be as simple as passing down a grandmother’s cold remedy or gathering dandelions in the backyard; And yet can be as complex as articulating cultural contexts of plant practices, assessing constitution, or learning phytochemistry and pharmacology. The relationships between plants and people are so profound, complex, and encompassing. And they’re fundamental in building culture. And if we can help or facilitate the emergence of a culture of health, diversity, and resilience, countless lives can be all the more nurtured.
I got to grasp this relationship all the more while working on my thesis with a Salish ethnobotanical program at Northwest Indian Treatment Center (NWITC)1 near the Squaxin Island reservation in Elma, WA. The center features traditional plants education as the cornerstone of healing generational trauma, treating addiction, and preventing diabetes. June O’Brien, founder and director of the Native Plant Nutrition Program (NPNP), conveyed the transformation observed in patients:
And the patients wake up. There is something that happens between the patients and the plants that wakes them up in a way like nothing else does. You could say it wakes up their blood, or it wakes up their DNA, that their ancestors arrive on the scene. That the relationship between their place, their home, where they come from, what they’ve related to for tens of thousands of years, wakes up in them. And you can feel their spirit just climb up and shine through their eyes.
Both June and Elise Krohn, community herbalist and director of NPNP, see the potential of plant traditions to heal social and cultural wounds. While their program is specific to Northwest tribal communities, they remind us that plant traditions are an important part of all of our cultural heritages, and carry important medicine for these changing times.
Plant traditions reach far back into Earth’s history, and are considered to be our oldest form of healing and medicine. However, we do not have a template with how to wield this work in our global, highly mobile, technological age. That leaves room for experimentation, creativity, and collaboration in the ever-evolving movement to reconnect people with Nature, cultivate authentic presence, and build a culture of health. In developing the Dandelion Seed mission and vision statement, one of our key points is the potential of herbal traditions to build a culture of health in our community.
There are so many ways to inspire social change through herbal practice: education, policy and legal advocacy, clinical work and outreach, and more! That’s one thing I find so exciting as a community herbalist—learning and experiencing how different pracitioners, educators or communities connect with plants and their ecological communities. This is not in an effort to adopt or copy what another individual or community does. Rather, we can be inspired to deepen and broaden our connection and participation with community, place, and cosmos. In doing so, we can create something that is appropriate and effective for our communities.
One thing that continues to arise in observations of my projects (as well as others), which I want to present to you as crucial, is the importance of documenting your work. It is vital to have a track record for a project and the changes it potentially caused. To communicate with other factions and institutions of society (who may or may not share your worldview and approach), documentation and evidence adds credibility and support to your approach. It also helps develop critical thinking and analysis, and assists in determining if a change in course is necessary.
We are then confronted with a challenge. What should one measure and document? We live in a reductionist, mechanistic society, with a philosophy of reality based in the Scientific Revolution and Cartesian dualism. The culture of American herbalists, however, deviates from those philosophical values and orientation. It acknowledges adaptations and fluxes unseen, favors holism and diverse lifeworlds. So what’s important to measure? The answer to this will vary among every organization, project, and initiative. There are no easy answers or one-approach fits all for program evaluations and outcomes measures. But it’s something to consider as members of a movement and facilitators of change.
Having one’s work documented makes a significant difference. To name one example, for my own research, I would have loved to have more supporting material of other programs that facilitate and revitalize local and cultural plant traditions. Documentation helps to build a foundation upon which to support the vision of a diverse, resilient, and sustainable world.
At OFHC, for example, we keep track of clients seen on a weekly, monthly and annual basis. We also track of students who have been able to attend our classes as the result of donations and other forms of support. We keep experimenting with different ways to understand how we are affecting the community, and figuring that out takes a little creativity and patience. At NPNP, the staff understood that the important things to document were the patient’s stories. A program evaluation tool is now being developed that is appropriate for this culture and traditional plants program.
So this is my encouragement: experiment to creatively and positively affect culture through plant-people relationships, and document this so that you can make an argument for your approach (and so your colleagues and comrades can also learn!).
With that, I’d like to share what I’ve learned with you all. Throughout my experiences with community projects and organizations, some salient personal lessons have presented themselves—tokens of wisdom earned through dedication to building social and ecological community. It’s my intention to pass along something that can hopefully help you along your path in affecting change in the larger social sphere; to support your initiatives, collaborations & conspiracies to help make this world a better place.
- Examination of Personal Constructs, Mental Models, & Problem Frameworks: I can’t recall how many times I’ve gone into a meeting, started a project, or made a suggestion that fell flat because it was too disconnected from the situation at hand. There have been countless times where I thought I knew what’s going on, when, in fact, my mental model of the situation was pretty far off from the reality. This is something we all continually practice: You have to know your own mental frameworks, perceptual filters, and constructs before you can realistically assess a situation and subsequently act on it. This gets especially important in multicultural settings. ‘Know thyself’ is wise advice.
- Consistency with Local Constructs of Health: Similarly, initiatives aimed at serving a community should be grounded in the knowledge and ways of that place. You’ve seen those ‘top-down’ approaches to community work, where an organization arrives on the scene and delivers a prescribed, pre-determined initiative. It’s ultimately ineffective and disrespectful to what’s there. This point stuck out like a sore thumb when researching tribal conceptions, beliefs and constructs of diabetes in comparison to those of Western biomedicine. Many diabetes prevention programs are designed by teams of doctors and public health officials with often no grounding in that community’s health constructs. As a result, they fail. And programs built by tribal leaders for tribal communities are effective.
- Community Engagement and Input: There is a powerful saying by Richard Beckhard, “People support what they create.” Co-creation with people in the community ensures groundedness, authentic action, creative presence, and diversity in a project. At OFHC, we regularly solicit input from others through community forums and other informal means. In putting together a Board of Directors, we will have 3 people that are current or former patients of the clinic (or represent another consituency in the community). A board space allows space for these voices, as well as community forums, surveys, meet-and-greet events, etc.
- Diplomacy with Disruptive Innovations: Disruptive innovations refer to changes that, true to their label, disrupt the way the way things typically work. Genuine social change is disruptive to the status quo. And systems have protective mechanisms and can often interpret disruptive changes as threatening (these are known as balancing mechanisms in general systems theory). If provoked, the system will take steps toward equilibrium and attempt to neutralize the disruption. You’ve seen this kind of pushback and backfire many times. Push someone too far and they push back. Riot police round up and arrest protestors. The immune system will produce immune cytokines once an antigen is detected.
Some of the systems of control in place anticipate and plan for this, and are thus able to swiftly deal with dissenters when they follow a learned pattern. This is why it’s wise to strategize social change in the most grounded, present, and organic way possible as opposed to following others’ models or tactics.
That said, progress with the awareness of the balancing mechanisms or pushbacks potentially at play in the system in which you’re working. Plan for it. Be diplomatic and tactful when creating alliances and communicating your message. In terms of the Dandelion Seed organization and OFHC, as our project grows, so do we get more attention–wanted, and otherwise. We are planning for this by proactively building alliances with a variety of healthcare professionals, and even an attorney or two.
- Patience, Perseverance, & Steadfastness: Change can take a long time. Community organizing and development also takes a long time. The more entrenched a system is in its ways, the more difficult it can be to shift. You might feel discouraged, doubtful, frustrated. It happens to everybody. Perseverance becomes a key character trait in this kind of work. OFHC has been operating for 4 years; NPNP has been going for 8. Change takes time, and projects can take years to gain real traction.
- Developing Common Ground through Values Orientation & Shared Vision: When collaborating with others, a myriad of conflicts and disagreements can arise. It often behooves the group to have a shared mission and vision, as well as agreements regarding common values. If the group is rooted in these basic understandings, the heart of the project can be nurtured and further developed in the wake of surface conflicts. At OFHC, we run into this consistently, as we operate as a collective of 7 on informal consensus. When disagreements arise, we go back a step and revisit the purpose of our organization and program, and that usually clears up disagreements about the form of an initative.
- Nurture Diversity & Resilience: Above all, nurturing diversity in resilience in our collaborative groups and communities contributes to the evolution and progression of this movement. It can, however, be personally uncomfortable. We want people to agree with us, to be right, validated, satisfied. If we want to nurture diversity, it also means allowing diverging perspectives, methods, and approaches. Because we live in such an individualistic culture, it can be often difficult to set aside the desire to control and apply ownership over something. But it’s worth practice, as the best kind of change happens collaboratively when grounded in community.
Of course, I don’t have the answers. I’m a total newb, a youngun’, beginning to walk the path and just helping how I can along the way. It’s not an easy path to walk—the obstacles can be unclear, the opposition formidable. Bu the more we can support one another and share knowledge, we grow all the more. Among us, there’s tremendous diversity as well as shared ground. The more we can share our stories and the lessons gleaned, the more we can develop a movement worth spreading!
 Thinking and working in linear cause/effect terms is ultimately dichotomous and abstract given the inherent complexity of the natural world. In nature, a phenomenon has can have many causes, false causes, or many effects may come from a cause. However, to be able to communicate with others who do adopt this mechanistic language is a skill well worth acquiring.