This past year has been extremely difficult for all of us: individually, in the community, and as a global society. A deadly pandemic rages on and still, we see a seemingly constant onslaught of racial injustices, police brutality, mass shootings, sexual assault, discrimination against trans folks, increasing environmental crises. That is not an exhaustive list. The harm we cause one another is devastating.
However, of course, the sun continues shining; the flowers come up in Spring; we find hope, comfort, and inspiration in each other. For the hurt in the world, there’s healing. During all this, in reaction to all this, there’s been resiliency, activism, community organizing, and education. Let’s celebrate these bright spots. We know what’s best for our communities.
Herbalism & Mutual Aid
When we practice mutual aid, when we take care of ourselves, we create a balm for our collective wounds. Herbal medicine, the medicine of our world, is interwoven with this network of care.
Herbalism and Mutual Aid have always gone hand in hand, born of the same instinct—to care for one’s community, to facilitate collective healing, and to ensure survival. Both practices, herbal medicine, and mutual aid are arguably as ancient as life on this planet. People, animals, and plants, and fungi in every society throughout time have worked together for communal survival. Yes, there’s always been warring, violence, and competition. But the idea of rugged individualism—every person or being for themselves—is flawed and dangerous. No one organism can survive, much less thrive, on its own.
A Brief Overview
Communities (of all varieties) with the strongest networks of support are the ones that make it. In the non-human world, we see this in every biological community, from lions to ants, from plants to fungi. In the world of people, mutual aid has been practiced as long as humans and their ancestors have existed. From the tribes and clans of prehistoric times to many modern-day communities, notably marginalized BIPOC communities, working-class neighborhoods, migrant groups, LGBTQIA+ communities, and others. Only in the past 50 or so years has the Western focus shifted away from tight-knit neighborhood communities to the isolated nuclear family.
Similarly, animals, insects, and even plants (for example: bears, cats, bees, trees, people, etc!) practice herbal medicine as a way to increase resilience and help heal themselves and their communities. For millennia, herbal medicine was the only medicine. Naturally, providing herbal support for your community is a wonderful way to get involved in mutual aid and engage in reciprocity. As Indigenous author and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, “Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them…An integral part of a human’s education is to know those duties and how to perform them.”
Practical Ways to Practice Herbal Mutual Aid
Educate Yourself, But Don’t Get Overwhelmed
There’s so much hurt in our world; you aren’t (no one is) able to shoulder it all. Don’t let this fact get you feeling overwhelmed or discouraged! Like all changes, mutual aid starts out on a granular level. Think about, read up on, or talk over some different options and avenues you could take.
The Black Panther Party’s ‘Service to the People Programs’ is a great place to start, and I’ve also linked some great herbalism-specific mutual aid resources at the bottom of this article. Then, narrow your focus and clarify your objectives. Is there a particular issue you feel passionate about? Who will you engage within your community, and why? Where is there a need, and what is that need? In what ways are you able, willing, and wanting to show up? If we’re thinking in terms of herbal medicine, focus (at first at least) on simple, inexpensive services or products that are safe, widely useful, and have an impact. What remedies or accessible practices address common complaints or imbalances?
Look in Your Backyard
What grows there? Literally, and figuratively. What resources do you already have access to? What can you offer around? Lots of Plantain growing around your un-sprayed yard? Dirt you don’t know what to do with? Tons of veggies in your garden? Seeds you saved from last season? Extra equipment or compost bins? Ever-growing sourdough starter? Do you have an herbal education (or other skills?) and could offer free classes or write up some zines?
Do you save all your tomato sauce jars and now you’re drowning in them? Cardboard and markers to make signs? Do you have a safe space for gathering, storage, organizing, or interim housing? It will be helpful to communicate with other folks doing or wanting to do similar work. What do you have when you pool your resources? Reach out to friends, other herbalists, and community organizers.
Make an Offering
Even if it’s imperfect. In fact, it will be imperfect. But don’t let that stop you! Your offering could be as simple as bringing some extra groceries to a community fridge or pantry or participating in a community clean-up day. Or printing out some helpful DIY herbal zines and leaving stacks at willing book stores, libraries, or coffee shops. Or bringing a case of water bottles (or thermos of iced herbal tea) to hand out to houseless folks in the city on a hot day.
You could make a batch of hot tea, or herbal salves, lozenges, or Elderberry syrup to hand out on cold days. If you do make offerings like these, make sure you’re using safe, gentle herbs that won’t interfere with pharmaceuticals. I also recommend staying away from alcohol-based preparations and sometimes even glass bottles. It can be helpful to look for events, organizations, soup kitchens, protests, and other already established hubs that draw a large crowd of people or specifically cater to underserved populations. Often, street medics and first aid tents are happy to collaborate with herbalists, especially if you’re well versed in herbal first aid!
Mutual Aid is all about community! So getting involved in community goings-on and collaborating is the name of the game. The ‘Stone Soup’ model really works here. Remember, mutual aid is about solidarity, not charity. When we participate, it’s for everyone’s good. Think about ways to collaborate with like-minded individuals. Where could you offer a free salve-making class that teaches folks a new skill while providing medicine to later distribute in the community? Who might have tons of medicinal weeds growing in fields that need mowing? What places might allow you to set up an herbal self-care station in their venue? Where could you start a community herb plot?
Reaching out to the community or private gardens, local farms, community health centers, community acupuncture places, local event venues, schools, co-ops, libraries, cafes, breweries, and the like widens your scope, adds new flavor to your soup, and gets others involved. Like the mycorrhizal network (underground webs of fungi that connect plants and communicate the beneficial transfer of water, nutrients, and minerals) we’re all better when we work together.
Prioritize Self Care
Burnout is a big issue in both the activism and herbalism worlds. Because there’s so much need, often folks neglect themselves in the service of others. However, to fill another’s cup, we must first nourish ourselves. This might look like having boundaries around the time you spend working or participating in mutual aid. It definitely includes sleeping and resting enough, eating enough and well, and drinking water.
Self-care also might look like limiting time-consuming news media or certain types of social media that cause you to feel stressed out. Perhaps you supplement with herbs as well (as herbalists, let’s not forget to use herbs on ourselves!). Importantly, self-care also includes practicing gratitude and giving yourself permission to experience joy. To quote Robin Wall Kimmerer yet again, “Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”
http://hman.love/ – Grass roots organization providing free plant-based care for Black folks due to the ongoing crisis of racial violence & injustice
https://www.indigenousmutualaid.org/medicine/ – Indigenous-centered information and support network with an anti-colonial and anti-capitalist framework. Exists to inspire and empower autonomous Indigenous relief organizing in response to COVID-19. So many thoughtful & helpful resources here.
https://mutualaiddisasterrelief.org/ – Decentralized grassroots disaster relief network based on the principles of solidarity, mutual aid, and autonomous direct action – lots of great resources here
https://solidarityapothecary.org/directory/ – Mutual Aid directory of herbalists that are offering free or sliding-scale herbal medicines to support people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Solidarity Apothecary also provides herbal care & support for incarcerated folks in the UK & Europe. They have lots of great resources for purchase that support this cause.
https://www.hwbglobal.org/community-supported-herbalism.html – Herbalists Without Borders Community Outreach promotes community grassroots, cost-effective, plant-based health and wellness that is accessible to all people. Lots of projects and models and resources to help get you started!
https://herbalista.org/ – Mobile free clinic project serving mainly Atlanta, GA and surrounding areas (with a hub in Dublin, IRL). Lots of wonderful resources and ideas here, too!
https://www.welldeepremedies.com/resources – Herbalist-created detailed list of herbal care and other great resources
https://caringlabor.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/hilliard-ed-the-black-panther-party-service-to-the-people-programs.pdf – Black Panther Party’s Service to the People Programs
https://online.commonwealthherbs.com/courses/herbal-community-care-toolkit – Online Workshop & Resources on Herbal Mutual Aid (sliding scale)