Many people who are familiar with my work publicly are most acquainted with what I’ve done in the realm of racial justice and white fragility, namely with my zine, A Letter to My White Friends. Those who know me through this lens might be surprised by this pivot towards plant medicine, since it’s not usually something I write about . However, I am very clear about what values I envision upholding through my herbal practice, and they are the same as those I have championed through my writing.
Many herbalists, including a few that I’ve had the pleasure to learn from, do upstanding work. They endeavor to steward the land and be in right relationship to the plants they use, and pay reparations to the Indigenous groups to whom the land they practice on originally belongs. They deconstruct oppressive models of health that are linked to capitalism and patriarchy. They provide care in free clinics and donate medicines to those in crisis. However, like many practices under an oppressive society, there are many ways in which herbalism can be contorted by colonial and profit-motivated tendencies.
Today a friend asked me, “So is there oppressive herbalism?” and my answer was a resounding yes. The ideas of health and wellbeing are subject to the particulars of one’s world view. Many practitioners end up perpetuating models of health that are productivity-based, ableist, fatphobic, transphobic, etc., because they fail to examine their own assumptions about what “healthy” means.
There are also issues of cultural appropriation and environmental degradation to be wary of. Many herbalists continue to act out colonial power dynamics as they tout “superfoods” and exoticized healing practices. The cultivated herb industry, much like the industrial food system, can and does degrade the Earth. Wildcrafting exacerbates these effects by further disintegrating ecosystems. Often, the cultures which originally used the plants as medicine are not acknowledged, or are subject to purposeful erasure, as is the case with groups indigenous to Turtle Island/the US.
Since entering the herbalism world a few years ago, as a beginner, and then a student, I have been surprised by the great variety of practitioners and philosophies out there. There is certainly a spectrum of practices, and I believe no practitioner is perfect. I never intend to chastise practitioners, but instead I write this as a set of guiding principles for my own practice. This is a living document, inviting collaboration from those for whom it resonates. Here are the values I want to embody and strive for in my practice:
Anti-Oppression Herbalism is:
Any model of herbalism that is anti-oppressive must be explicitly against all forms of oppression and domination. Being explicit about this is important for several reasons; it lets those being treated know what values are held by practitioners, gives anti-oppression work and thought a greater platform, and encourages other herbalists and health practitioners to investigate their values and state them clearly. Racism, class oppression, gendered oppression, and all other oppressions are also great factors in our overall health. Anti-oppression herbalism acknowledges that oppressions are often root causes of our health difficulties and individual physiological patterns, and steers away from victim-blaming while seeking to constructively address this truth.
Seasonally and Cyclically Attuned
Herbal treatments that are recommended and procured are sensitive to fluctuations of the seasons. Many herbs are not always available in fresh form, or perhaps not available at all. The anti-oppressive herbalist understands and prepares for this and doesn’t demand something from the Earth that it can’t give at that time.
Similarly, anti-oppressive models of health take these fluctuations into account. Unlike allopathic medicine or traditional psychotherapy, where the primary goal is to “fix what’s wrong” with a person’s body or mental health so that they can continue to adapt to and be a “productive member” of our society as it currently is, anti-oppressive herbalism seeks to support people through their own fluctuations of energy and capacity. It’s understood that health and wellness look different at different times for different people. This model allows for people to be seen and treated as their full selves. It also promotes a transformative view of health, wherein we as a society are pushed to accept everyone’s individual capacities and needs, rather than enforcing an idea of health that pushes people to conform, be productive, and serve a profit motive. Resting is subversive — anti-oppressive herbalism supports this!
Wildcrafting is the principal issue to address when thinking of how an herbalism practice could be earth-stewarding. Many herbalists have taken the stance that wildcrafting should not be engaged in unless you have a long standing relationship with the land and the plants you’re gathering. Wildcrafting can wreak havoc on the population of a species, like we’ve seen with white sage and echinacea , and on the larger ecosystems they reside in. It is in our best interest as anti-oppressive herbalists to care for and preserve these ecosystems. Herbs can be cultivated with regenerative agricultural practices for those who have land access, or gathered from cultivated sites on invitation.
As for wildcrafting, tomes could be written on the subject. There are many plants that are widespread and grow as “weeds” and others that become available as windfall or landscaper’s trimmings. In my personal practice, I continue to gather these and do “weed rescue” in my friends’ gardens. However, I do recognize that even in doing this, being in relationship with the plants is important. It’s important to know how they grow and how your gathering will impact them, ask permission to work with them, and offer them your thanks in the form of care, tending, ritual, etc. The land-tending practices of Indigenous groups need to be revitalized, and as anti-oppressive herbalists, it’s in our best interest to push for this and advocate for the return of the land and its care to Indigenous groups.
Many plants are traditional medicines of Indigenous groups. I think it’s important for herbalists to learn the traditional uses of the plants around them, and respect the fact that some plants are not for everyone. There are many plants that were originally the staple foods and medicines of Indigenous groups that have since become commodified, exploited, and over-harvested, and this has harmed the traditions and livelihoods of the groups that originally used them. This is wrong. As anti-oppressive herbalists, it’s our job to stand against this, rather than profit from it in any way.
Dosage is a key issue to ensuring low-impact herbalism. Lowest effective dosing is practiced by many practitioners for the health of the plant population, and for low impact on the body. Plant essences and spirit doses of tinctures can also be used for this practice.
Sourcing herbs and supplies is another concern when it comes to impact. Using herbs that are locally abundant can be one solution, and ensuring that herbs are sourced from growers who use organic practices is another. Sourcing packaging materials from small businesses and local sources can also reduce impact.
By reparative, I mean paying reparations. Paying reparations to the Indigenous group whose land you’re on is a good start. Donating a portion of your income or service to other marginalized groups on top of this can also be a wonderful addition to your practice. Incorporating a historical understanding of how people have become disenfranchised of their land, resources, and traditions into the mechanics of your business can be a way to slowly repair these harms.
When treating individuals, we can focus on helping the person better understand their body and the bodies of others and their relationship to plants and the earth. Our goal in doing this is to make it possible for them to heal themselves and others, rather than continuing to rely solely on experts. In this way, we can apply a transformative model of service, by providing aid and solidarity and assisting individuals in navigating and changing the health conditions in their lives.
Listening to individuals is of the utmost importance in this process, just as listening to marginalized communities is integral to real social change. Many herbalists come from middle class backgrounds, and with this comes a tendency to sort of “manage” clients, akin to a savior mentality or codependency. As anti-oppression practitioners, we abandon these dynamics in favor of joining those we treat in solidarity, seeking to build their agency with the understanding that their health is our health, too.
Anti-oppressive herbalism is not focused on the movement of herbal products or silver-bullet formulas, but on treating people and empowering them to work on their own health. I believe that in order to really be transformative actors in the face of capitalism, anti-oppressive herbalists need to shift the focus of their businesses away from products and ready-made formulas. Herbs and herbalism are already aggressively commodified by businesses like Herb Pharm and the like. We can help reverse this tide by focusing further on passing on our skills and knowledge.
Supporting ourselves as practitioners can take many forms — there are ways of dispersing knowledge while still making it accessible to people who are low-income. Many herbalists already offer sliding scale and scholarship options in their practices.
Jargon is explained and decoded, and herbalism teaching caters to a variety of learning styles and abilities. Ideally, herbal treatment is widely available in many different locales and at a variety of price brackets, including pay what you can and free clinics.
The historical cultural uses of every plant are known and widely taught. Originating cultures are credited with forming the foundations of our practice and are honored for these reasons. Various herbal traditions from around the world are understood, respected, and acknowledged, but are not appropriated by practitioners outside of that culture. In cases where practitioners are using/teaching healing modalities from other cultures, this is done with explicit permission from a practitioner in that culture, fullest possible understanding of both the spiritual and practical aspects of the practice, and a commitment to stewarding the full breadth of this knowledge by passing it on respectfully.
Supportive in Times and Places of Struggle
Herbal care is made available to those in need at sites of struggle against oppression and in marginalized communities. Whether this is prisons, refugee camps, protest camps, organizing groups, or areas affected by disaster, herbal care is used to shore up the wellbeing of those fighting hegemonic power and those targeted by it.
Herbal care specifically for community organizers, leaders, and bridge-builders is meant to protect the health of these people as they take aim at the current world order and work to create new worlds. By bolstering the health of these people and helping them avoid burnout, they are better able to carry out their work of dismantling prisons, growing gardens, dissolving borders, educating others, and reducing harm against vulnerable populations. Power-building herbalism also seeks to give people skills to survive outside of a fragile, oppressive, and unaffordable medical system.
Anti-oppressive herbalism doesn’t exclude those who need or believe in western medicine. There is a false dichotomy here, because both can work in tandem. A disability justice framework is applied; herbs do not negate the real need some folks have for elements of western medical practice. These needs also need to be prioritized. Practitioners take to care to avoid shaming those they are treating for engaging in western medical practices.
These are the principles of anti-oppressive herbalism that I’m striving to uphold in my own herbal practice. As I wrote above, this is a living document that I expect to change as my practice continues to grow. If this resonates with you, or if you have constructive criticism for me, let’s collaborate! Please reach out — anti-oppression work is a group effort and I’d love to be connected.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge some groups and practitioners that inspired this writing: Bay Area Herbal Response Team, Herbalists Without Borders, Stascha Stahl, La Loba Loca, Solidarity Apothecary, Rise Up! Good Witch, and Blue Otter School of Herbal Medicine all inspire me with their praxis and mission to provide care to others. Thank you for the work that you do!
This essay was originally written for my Patreon supporters, and accompanied by a podcast. If you enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting my work! Anything from $3-$45 helps tremendously and goes to cover my basic living expenses. Patrons receive a range of benefits, from monthly live Q&A’s and resource lists, to workshops and bi-monthly herbal care boxes. You can find my Patreon here.