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Building Healthy Communities & Movements

This interview with the Rock Dove Collective was conducted in Brooklyn, New York on August 15, 2010 by Ben Holtzman with Kevin Van Meter.

rockdovelogoCan you briefly discuss when, how, and the reasoning behind forming the collective?  Can you mention any precursors or previous organizing that influenced the formation of this endeavor?

Rock Dove has a really clear birthday and birthplace. We met at the first New York Metro Alliance of Anarchists meeting. In the meeting, people broke out by groups about what might evolve into working groups and one of those was called “Alternative Therapies.” We met by the food table. We always joke that it makes a lot of sense that Rock Dove met by the food at the beginning because we – unlike most groups we work with and we know – are really committed to having our health and our well-being and our sustenance at the center of how we do our work. We had a second meeting with a subset of the people who had taken part in that breakout group within a few weeks and really from there set the main structure of the collective.


We started with two primary aims. The first was to develop a network of practitioners ranging from doctors to massage therapists to conflict resolution specialists. The second was to create a network of support for those practitioners, especially those who were doing health and healing work from a radical perspective and very often were overwhelmed or alienated or were unable to practice with the people that they really wanted to be serving. At the beginning we envisioned it maybe more than we do now primarily as support for radical, activist, movement communities. We can talk about how that’s shifted over time. But that’s how we started in March 2006.

Thinking back to those initial conversations where do you think the identification of that need to form a group like that came from?

Most of us who were in that original group shared some things in common. Many people had their own experience of illness or health struggles whether it was mental health or physical health or whatever. Many of us had seen that as a really profound gap in radical organizing. We saw people just burn themselves out and destroy themselves. And we saw that once people were sick, the movement was done. We had lost all these people who we needed and we had a sense that we couldn’t actually afford to form a movement that was comprised entirely of healthy, able-bodied, young, mostly white men. And that that was clearly a profound loss. Many of us understood that the absence of any understanding or focus on health and healing was something that was undermining the ability of the movement to really succeed. Something that we were excluding were areas of work that were typically regarded as being the domain of women. And when you think about your nannies, your housekeepers and all of those, these are very often the domain of women of color.

Also, many of us work in some kind of social service capacity. We have struggled with what it means to be constantly interacting with the state or to be doing work from a radical perspective in an organization that doesn’t do it for the reasons that you do it. We understood that this is a really clear challenge for the healers and health practitioners we wanted to engage and we wanted to commit to supporting them in doing work that we knew would be meaningfully to them and fulfilling to them but that they didn’t have an avenue to do.

Additionally, people were like “can I please have a gynecologist who doesn’t freak out if I don’t want to take birth control because I think it’s toxic? Or if I want to talk to her about whether or not wild carrot seed is really viable option to keep me from having a baby or if I list more than two partners in the last year doesn’t look at me like I’m a slut?” Or “can I please find people who will engage with me in my questions about my health in a way that supports my self-determination and my dignity and my autonomy and the fact that it’s my body?” And that means everything from finding a doctor who is willing to respect your choice to treat your flu with acupuncture to the whole spectrum of what we hope to find in the health care that we can get.

What are the collective’s major purposes and strategies for attaining its goals? What specific activities has the collective been engaged in to work towards these goals?

Our primary goals are to make dignified respectful health care available to as many people as possible. We understand health really broadly. We understand that includes your physical health, your mental health, your spiritual health. It includes toxins in your water, in includes violence in your home and in your neighborhood. It includes things that range from interpersonal dynamics to cavities in your teeth. When we talk about health practitioners and we talk about access to health, we don’t just mean a clean bill of health from your general practitioner. We think much more broadly about what it means to be healthy. We don’t believe that the various ways that we’re taught to divide those various aspects of our health are right or are useful.

We have a few strategies, which are connected to our activities. Our idea is that there are people who provide health services and that there are people who want them and that if we could help bring them together, that would be really be useful. And if we could help bring them together in a way that wasn’t mediated by money all the time, that would be really beautiful. The idea that your health is something that should have a price tag on it is also something that is fundamentally wrong as we see it with how the world works. That it’s not something that should be for sale. One thing that we do is we have a network of practitioners. These are people who share Rock Dove’s basic mission and values. Some of them are very radical, some of them aren’t quite as radical but they share key principals about self-determination, dignity and other things in health and are ready to be respectful of people with radical politics and to support them and their well-being. We connect those practitioners, who we call providers, with service seekers, ideally based on mutual aid. Those providers all either have sliding scale, or free or low cost or are willing to accept mutual aid or barter for their services. That means people clean peoples’ houses and get acupuncture in return. Or they pay a sliding scale that really does reflect their ability to pay not only including their income but also including how many kids they’re supporting, whether they’re supporting their elders, that sort of thing. We coordinate that network, which means we recruit the practitioners, we interview them, we stay in touch with them, we offer skill-shares and events just for the practitioners to get together talk about their own challenges and struggles. Then we get requests from people seeking those services and we make those matches. Some of those matches continue without our ongoing involvement so people meet and they work out their own arrangement and they continue to work together for years and we have nothing to do with it. But we have like a matchmaker function at the beginning.

Another thing that we do is that we’ve compiled a list of free and low cost clinics throughout the city. We developed a set of questions to ask of people about those clinics that have to do with how respected they feel, did they feel listened to, how long did they have to wait, how did they feel in the waiting room, how did they feel in their actual appointment with the doctor, what was the quality of care, was their sexuality respected, were their politics respected, did they feel their race was respected, were other aspects of their identity and their experience respected, if they were drug users was that condemned or were they willing to work with them, if they were resistant to antibiotics how were they treated when they expressed that, were people available in the clinic consistently who spoke their native language. We got groups, including us, who went around to all the major free clinics in the city and asked these questions. First anyone who needed health care went and got an appointment at the clinic and talked about their own experience. Then we also did interviews in the waiting room with people and asked them like “how long do you usually have to wait and how do you feel here?” That’s on our website and we use that as a guide to help us refer people. There are a couple that actually emerged for us as shining stars, as like, clearly if you’re going – they’re all clinics, they all have long waits, they all have drawbacks – but places that we can comfortably say, “there’s a clinic up at a 100-something street where all their staff has been trained in working with transgendered people and that there’s a doctor who specializes in that and if you go on Wednesdays you can see him every time.” That’s incredible to know for a sliding scale clinic in the city. So trying to be realistic that we’re not going to create an entire health infrastructure separate and apart for what already exists especially with things like malpractice insurance and so to the extent that we can help people navigate the free and low costs systems that exist in a way that is more likely to result in them getting the type of care that they deserve, we do that.

One of our operating principles in how we make referrals, because we’ll get referrals from people who have insurance and are just like “my doctor is great,” which is an amazing thing to know. We ask people to access the most exclusive services available to them. That means that if you have health insurance we direct you to a doctor who takes your insurance. And if you are eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, we help you apply for those and then direct you to a doctor who accepts those. If you’re not, we direct you to a free clinic. We’ll get seekers who are like “well, I don’t really feel like blah blah blah” and we’re sorry. But knowing that those resources that are available to anyone, whether you are in this country legally or not, whether you have ID or not, whether you have any of those things are not, whether you are formerly incarcerated, those resources are few and precious. Our goal is not to flood those limited community clinics with a bunch of twenty one year old white anarchists. Not the vision. It means sometimes having hard conversations with peoples about why we actually are encouraging them to apply for public benefits. We respect people’s politics and limitations and why they might not be able to do those things. We don’t just think about costs, but we think about the exclusivity of the services people are accessing. We ask people to really think about their decisions in those terms. Knowing that sending someone with health insurance to a great free clinic is not useful to all the people in line at that clinic.

The last facet  -- it’s the network, it’s the free clinic information -- is these monthly or so skill shares. We’ve done skill shares on everything from mental health crisis intervention to reiki to acupuncture – to all sorts of things. We’re working now on a skill share just for the providers on working with trans folks. We’re working on another one for the providers about sliding scales – how to do them, how to think about them, how to work in a way that you can actually earn a livelihood but also not only be serving wealthy people and helping them talk to each other about that. We do those really regularly and those have been a really center part of our work from the beginning.


Can you describe who does what in your collective, how decisions are made, how activities are coordinated?

We meet regularly and we have a mailing list and we make some decisions over the mailing list. Some we make together in person. We operate kind of de factor by consensus. We’ve never actually said “we’re operating by consensus,” and we never twinkle or block or go around and say “yes,” but we’ve never moved forward with a significant decision about the collective without full consensus. We’re small. There are five of us. We work really, really closely and really intimately with each other. It’s become a place of sanctuary and support for all of us in the collective. Many of us have talked about it as one of the most transformative things we’ve ever been a part of. It’s become a really integral part of our identities of how we think of ourselves in the world, of how we envision the kind of work we want to do in our lives. A number of the collective members have gone from not being in related fields to being in those fields and committing their lives to it in the course of the years of us working together.  It’s a big part of all of our lives. It means that the way we make decisions has to do with how you make decisions in what is like a family or whatever you would say, where the option of someone leaving because we disagree is not on the table. We all have to stay together. That means that we’ve engaged in really serious conversations about our racial identity, our class identity, our sexuality, we’ve gone through some really rugged dialogues about those things so that we could clarify how we were going to work together.

Our meetings all start with check-ins, which are sometimes an hour and a half long. We believe over time having at different times shortened the check-ins, that they actually make us more efficient. What that means is that when we get down to business, we have each cleared our heads, we each know where the other person is standing, and so if someone seems negative or seems resistant or seems whatever, we don’t presume that is personal. We don’t presume that’s even necessarily about what’s on the table if they’ve just told us about what’s going and why they’re in that place. So it means we’re able to communicate with each other as people. That means a lot of the tensions, the assumptions, the beef that is so common in organizing does not really happen for us. If it does, it’s really rare and it’s part of a big thing that we have to have a bigger conversation about. So the check-ins don’t seem efficient but at the end we think we probably get more done in every meeting than we otherwise would, because of the clarify it gives to what comes after and because of how it enables us to participate fully and healthily and happily in the collective’s work when we get down to it.

In terms of who does what, we rotate administrative responsibilities. For managing the seeker requests as they come in, each of us have a couple areas of concentration. There is one collective member who handles all of the mental health-related questions, one that handles the alternative therapies, like massage and herbalist stuff, one that handles general practitioners and dentists and those sorts of things. As the requests come in, there is one collective member who distributes those out to everyone. We have an email address and we rotate who is responsible for managing that. There is always one or two of us on at any given time. Either when those people get tired or after a certain period of time, we move that responsibility around. We have one collective member who is our web guru. So there are some things that certain people will stick with. But those responsibilities, we understand, change. As what we’re doing at our work changes, it changes what we want to do in the collective. In the course of the collective, we’ve had people get graduate degrees, we’ve had them go to school upstate for a year and come back, we’ve had one person have two babies in the course of the four years, we’ve had somebody start a major nonprofit, we had two people get masters degrees, and all of us have stayed in the collective through those transitions. But it’s meant that what were reasonable responsibilities for us to hold under one set of circumstances often change as the surrounding circumstances in our lives change. We work with each other to redistribute responsibilities so that it remains sustainable and fair to people and also so that nobody gets stuck with crap work for too long. We try and minimize the amount of grunt work and then we try to distribute it fairly.


What role do you believe Rock Dove is currently fulfilling in New York City?

We’ve become more and more Brooklyn. At the beginning, we expected to get bigger and bigger geographically and have gotten smaller and smaller. We’ve become more and more interested in local work and in really supporting not just individuals but communities. Some of that has come from a shift from supporting activists to supporting movements. That might not sound entirely different but it means not just the people who are at the front or who are loudest and who identify as activists, but people who are engaged in transforming things as they are. And that doesn’t mean those are people who are tied to explicitly activist projects. It means we know that supporting movements means supporting people who aren’t in movements because they’re not healthy because they don’t have child care because they don’t have support, because they don’t have access. In thinking about movement building, that it’s not thinking about the people who are already carrying whatever flag or banner but the people who aren’t and what they would need to express fully their participation and their potential in whatever culture they want to create, which may or may not be the same thing that we’re trying to create. That’s become a greater and greater priority over time for the collective and not exactly at the expense of supporting activists because we still do a lot of that. But in terms of where our attention goes, where we’re building, where we envision new projects, it’s moving much more towards really envisioning a way of creating equitable access to health in all its forms for everybody.

We are New York City wide and we do have practitioners and seekers in all five boroughs. But we’ve become more and more connected to Brooklyn. Recently we started a community acupuncture project in partnership with the Si Se Puede workers cooperative that works out of the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park. Si Se Puede is a group of just formidable organizers: Latina women who do housekeeping work and have organized together because they found that they were giving a huge portion of their wages to whatever company they were working for and decided to work together and then actually keep all their wages and organize together and they pay some dues and are able to support each other through hard times and to organize and effect change collectively. We did an acupuncture skill share that they loved and we loved working with them. And we went back and did another massage one. Then we started talking with them about doing some more ongoing work and set up this community acupuncture clinic. It operates every Saturday from 10AM to 1PM. It’s a sliding scale. The Si Se Puede members set the sliding scale based on what they thought was possible for them to pay. There’s a lower sliding scale for children and then the acupuncturists are drawn from our network of providers. The structure is such that as long as there are enough people who come, the acupuncturists can make as much money as they would have made treating a rich person. And the women can pay what’s actually affordable to them. For example, if each person pays $15 an hour, but the acupuncturists can treat four people together, the acupuncturists is making $60 an hour and the women are only paying $15 each. In addition, there is a community space in which healing is happening. It breaks down so many of the taboos about talking about what’s wrong with us, about talking about what’s wrong with us, about talking about what we’re going through, about being isolated in our pain, isolated in our illness as people come together in this space. Not for a support group but to get treatment. But then it means that they’re with each other throughout these processes and check in with each other and care for each other. That has been an incredibly exciting project for us. We’re just incredibly strong believers in Si Se Puede’s work. Incredibly respectful of how they organize with each other in their community. We have learned a lot from them as organizers. The acupuncturists are just exceptional. They’re amazing practitioners. And this has been really fulfilling and exciting for them to do. And so everyone is always thanking each other. Everyone is like “thank you! Rock Dove is so amazing.” And we’re like “we’re barely doing anything.” And then the acupuncturists are like “we’re barely doing anything. You’re doing it all.” And so the load feels very light. The Si Se Puede women are like “thank you so much,” and we’re like “you did it.” So the load feels very light because it’s a structure that’s not based on charity, that’s not based on any kind of deficit, it’s a structure that everyone benefits from.

We’re going forward thinking more and more about whether it’s for acupuncture or something else about replicating that king of work in partnership with community based groups, organizations, movements, to really support their work, which also means supporting their families, supporting their neighbors, supporting everybody around them. And being accountable to them so bringing what they ask for, not what we think they should have. As we think about going forward, we think we’ll have stronger and stronger connections to particular neighborhoods, not just citywide.

What limitations has the collective faced and how have you attempted to address those limitations?

Capitalism sucks. That makes it a lot harder to do what we want to do. If someone wants to handle that for us, we’d be good to go! We need more people to do the work. We all need more time. Everybody has other obligations and that constrains how much we can do and how quickly. We’re also constrained by the fact that we’re committed to not burning ourselves out or burning ourselves in the course of the work. We’ve been working together for four years, which we joke is eighty in anarchist years. And we’ve been working together healthily and happily and in a way that has transformed each of us in our lives. But that slows us down. That’s a limitation we embrace. But we could use some more people to do the work. We think that will happen in the next several months.

Insurance and malpractice insurance and those kinds of thing are huge for us.  There are a lot of doctors who would love to just do home visits and treat folks and help out and connect us and give advise and do all sorts of things who are so totally constrained by the terror of lawsuits, by losing their licensees, by being sued for a ‘gabillion’ dollars. It’s part of why we’ve engaged all these clinics over time. At the outset we envisioned being able to engage more doctors and have realized just how totally constrained they are by how that profession functions and how it’s regulated. The limitations they experience are really clear limitations for us. It makes it very hard to find people who can do the things that they would be willing to do. That’s something we struggle with all the time. It’s like, we struggle with finding space for the community acupuncture clinic, not because there aren’t spaces, but because those spaces aren’t insured for any kind of health service to happen and they’re terrified. There are wide-open spaces in organizations connected to the women we’re working with who just can’t let us do it there. They’re so afraid someone is going to slip and fall or get sick and sue. All of those structures come back around to constrain things about our work. In New York City, space is a huge challenge. Just having a place to work from that doesn’t cost a million dollars is a huge challenge to how we do our work. We’re thinking about worker cooperative models that would allow us to support a space, we’re thinking about working with local churches for a particular project in Sunset Park. So we’re thinking through solutions but it’s a challenge we face more acutely than many of the places many of us have organized before, because it’s such a premium here. And then we’re very connected to the limitations of what is and isn’t available in terms of supporting people in their health. Just like how little really good care there is and how hard it is to really get what you need and how hard the systems are to navigate. But we knew about those before we started.


Liability and malpractice issues are one of the additional questions that we have but since you brought it up, we think it is really relevant for people who are doing health related work in ways that people who are maybe starting out and thinking about this don’t really realize. It can become such a huge barrier. Can you in a very practical way, explain why those are limitations, how the medical industry is set up, and how those legal and liability issues become so relevant?

As we understand it, doctors’ licenses to practice depend on them practicing within certain limitations. The insurance that insures them against malpractice, so if someone sues them for wrongdoing that protects them, only extends if they practice in certain ways. Those ways are almost always ones that fit really soundly within the infrastructure built and maintained by the private insurance companies. It means that they are very, very clearly punished for practicing outside of that.  So a doctor practicing outside of that who even doesn’t do any harm can lose his or her license and be unable to practice. That’s a huge risk to ask someone to take!  They went to medical school and they’re a doctor and you’re like “please come give antibiotics to somebody” and never practice again? Their politics are very, very rarely going to support them taking that kind of action, understandably. It’s something that for many of the doctors we talk to is devastating for them in their work because they have this skill set that they worked very hard to build and the ones who share our vision for how the world should be know that they have something that people need that they could readily and easily give and that they’re constrained from doing that without facing enormous risks that are insurmountable for them. Then there’s the litigious culture of anything that goes wrong, people get sued and so people are really worried about somebody gets hurt and then they sue the place where it happened and that person comes after the doctor and because they were practicing outside of their official practice or their official hospital they’re not covered and they’re looking at $6,000,000 or $10,000,000 in damages, no matter what their intentions were going into it. A lot of it is real. And then there is a culture of fear about litigation that is obviously grounded in some very real things about how the medical industry functions, but there is also just is also a culture of distrust, there is also a culture of disconnection between patients and doctors that pit them as enemies of one another. That disconnect is so damaging for people who are going to get medical care and also really damaging for the people who are giving it and totally inflects how MDs, nurses, physicians assistants, everybody, can participate in anything outside of their day job. Most of us, if we have a skill set that we practice at work during the day can offer that up in our communities, in our neighborhoods, in our homes safely and that’s not true for MDs.

Going back to the work of the collective, you spoke a little bit about limitations but what about the actual resources -- and that can be really broadly defined (such as money, donations, time, medical equipment, people, space, which you mentioned) -- are actually necessary for the collective to pursue its work?

We have a few people, we use the internet, sometimes we use a printer but not very often. That’s about it, which is awesome. We spend $24 a year for Rock Dove dot org, dot com, and dot net, our licenses. So we’ve never had money. We for the first time raised some money for this community acupuncture project, which was a big decision for us because we’ve never done it before. We raised some start up money just for their costs and supplies so that it wouldn’t have to come out of the acupuncturists’ wages, because we were finding that when the acupuncturists were also paying for supplies, it was tilting the balance enough that the project became charitable rather than mutual. They were not making a living wage if they were paying for supplies in ways they would be if they weren’t. That was shifting the dynamic of what the work really was. That was important enough to us that we wrote to people and within a couple emails had $450 in the bank for the project.

So much of our work is about connecting people with things that exist, There is something that really is about recognizing abundance in the world. About not being in this constant scarcity mentality of there’s not enough, there’s not enough. There is so much! Especially when we recognize that the people who have things to give also have needs that can be met by the people who need the things that they have to give, it’s not nearly so limited as something that is a charitable model or something that is a capitalist model. Because with charity you run out of energy, with capitalism you run out of money. When it’s really about barter it means all of our human capacities, like our ability to cook dinner for something, to walk their dogs, to babysit their kids, to accompany them to the doctor, to build them a bookshelf, to go food shopping for them, to do whatever, all those things become resources that we can bring to bear to create a better healthcare system. Rock Dove doesn’t operate from a place or a principle of scarcity. We operate with a very clear understanding of the realities of oppression, of the realities of access and exclusion, and the enormous disparities, particularly along racial lines in our country. We’re very clear about those things. But that’s not the same as believing that there doesn’t exist enough to meet the need. And we believe that there does. What generates that principle of scarcity is how things are organized. When we organize them differently, that scarcity evaporates, at least to a certain extent.

What about the resource of time both in terms of when the collective was actually starting in order to get the collective up and running to now with respect to the five collective members?

We’ve struggled because each of us has become busier and busier. We generally meet every couple weeks for an evening. We do a lot over email if it’s smaller. And we pace ourselves. There are times when we are moving really quickly as a collective and times that we are moving slowly, where we’re just handling the seeker requests that come in and we’re not doing much more than that. So it varies. It’s hard to answer because rather than the work dictating how much time it takes, it’s more that how much time we have dictates what the work is, which is a really different way of organizing than most projects many of us have been in. That means us sitting down and saying “okay, if we can only do so many things, which things are we going to prioritize?” In many ways it’s been a blessing because of the greater clarity we’ve gotten in terms of our mission. This came out of times when we didn’t have enough time to do everything that we had set out to do and we had to decide which of those things we were going to do. Those conversations about which things we were going to prioritize forced us to really consistently reevaluate our mission. When we’d get really time-constrained we’d have a visioning meeting and we’d spend all day in the room talking about where we saw the collective in one year, in five years. Rather than being like “We have no time, we’re going to buckle down,” it’s like “we have no time, we’re going to have a visioning meeting.” Which seems counterintuitive but it’s about if what we have is less where do we really want to put it? Allowing the work to be constrained by what is actually possible for us has in many ways contributed to our evolution in terms of the development, the focus, the goals of the work together. Not that all of us wouldn’t like to have five more hours a week to give to Rock Dove, but we think we’ve all managed to really learn a lot from those times we have to decide.



How has the collective attempted to make health information, care, and resources accessible across barriers of income, power, legal status, race, ethnicity, age, sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc? How has the collective succeeded in this respect and what difficulties have it faced?

We’ve gotten more and more bilingual, that’s a good thing. We’ve always been a mixed race group and that’s a good thing. We’ve always had, whether we explicitly talk about it as a commitment to racial justice or not, which has varied, we’ve always understood that as a core guiding principal of where our resources should go and why. We’ve framed that in terms of equity of access. The structure of the project is to try and eradicate some of those disparities. The three tiered strategies – the network, the clinics, and the skill-shares — are each designed to break down different barriers to access. That’s in this broader context of understanding health disparities as not just being about access to medical care. Understanding what child care means to peoples’ health, understanding what foods means to peoples’ health, understanding that if you are experiencing violence in your own home all the time, the likelihood that your immune system is in tip top shape is about nothing. If we can help people who are trying to transform the dynamics in their own lives, that that’s part of what will keep them as healthy as they can be going forward.

One of the things that we’ve starting doing is we have our skill shares in Sunset Park, instead of having them in Judson Church which is a beautiful space in Manhattan. Instead, we have them in Sunset Park or we have them in the South Bronx or we have them in Bushwick. They’re still open to everyone. It turns out that the white folks with means do actually still travel to those places, so it doesn’t mean that are excluding anybody but that we made a decision that if we’re going to have an acupuncture skill share, if either the twenty-three year old college educated white person with a part time job or the Latino mother of five working two full time jobs, if one of them is going to have to travel, guess who’s getting on the train? It also means that those skill shares take place in the communities where people live so people don’t have to leave where they’re from in order to be cared for, in order to access different ways of thinking about their health. Little things like where you have your workshop matter enormously in terms of what it signals and who shows up and what the dynamics are among the people who show up. It’s harder because the free spaces we know and have access to are very often in wherever in Brooklyn or they’re in the Lower East Side, so we’ve committed to that despite the challenges that it poises in terms of where we do our work.

We’ve also begun working much more collaboratively with community-based movements and making sure that we’re just being responsible to their needs. If the Si Se Puede women had wanted a massage skill share thing or they’d wanted a massage clinic, that’s what we would have had. If they had wanted a food coop, that’s what we would have done with them. Making sure that we are not showing up with our vision and being like “do you want this or not?” but showing up being able to accurately reflect what we are and aren’t able to offer and among those things seeing what people want and rising to that. So building in greater and greater accountability to people of color, especially people of color who are organizing in their own communities, who are accountable to other members of their communities, who have figured out what that looks like and so can legitimately make statements about what their communities need not by virtue of being black or brown and living in a certain place by virtue of how they’re working, where they live, that in partnering with people who are doing the real work on the ground all the time and responding to their needs.

Then there are the practitioners we work with. We only work with practitioners who share certain values about disparities in race and class and gender and sexuality and all those things. Age, ability, everything. The group of people we work with are people who share an understanding that none of those things should ever be a barrier to someone getting health care and the kind of care they deserve. That’s been embedded from the beginning as an entrance criteria for a practitioner. We’ve rejected practitioners on those grounds and will again. Then we’ve also supported practitioners; we’ve had practitioners who just like don’t have experience working with trans people and in principle they’re not like hateful but don’t know what they’re doing and don’t have whatever exposure and insight that they need in order to be able to work in the way that they should with someone who is transgendered. We build out these skill shares or we build out mentoring relationships between practitioners to help move those practitioners forward across these kinds of disparities and these limitations in how they’re able to see the world, whom they are able to respect and work with best.

Most of the work around care and support is often channeled through, or directly related to non-profit social service organizations. A number of groups have leveraged substantial critiques against the “non-profit industrial complex” (NPIC), largely because of how the NPIC has served to channel and control social movements. How does Rock Dove understand the NPIC? How does the collective view its work in relation to the NPIC?

We’re not a non-profit. There are always times where people are like “we don’t we just be a 501c(3) and get a grant and we can just all do this together full time.” And those of us who have worked in non-profits longer are always the ones who are like “if that happens, I’m out.” But it’s a complicated question because it means if we were to decide to do that, that we could all devote our lives fully to this work in ways that we’re not able to. But it comes with all this shit. It comes with where you get your money from and what you owe to those people and how your goals and deliverables are shaped by what money is available. We’ve really distinctly decided not to participate in it in the sense of not being one ourselves. That’s been really good for us. It gives us an enormous amount of freedom. We can say whatever we want to whoever we want. We don’t answer to anyone but each other ever in anyway, except to the communities we’re working with or the people we’re collaborating with. But that’s different. That’s a lateral accountability, not a hierarchical one. That said, we’re not purists. If a non-profit is giving services that will be useful to someone, we’ll send somebody there. If a non-profit can give us free space or can connect us with a community or is doing good work, we’ll work with them. Most of us work with non-profits, fully aware of the limitations, just like most of us buy food fully aware of the limitations. Rock Dove isn’t really big on high horses.

We also really clearly believe in our practitioners and our seekers’ right to self-determination and deciding about the resources they want to access. We don’t believe that we have any right to be the gatekeepers based on whatever principles we may have between someone and the care that they could receive. Our job is to know as much as we can know, to communicate that as fully as we can, with all of its benefits and liabilities, to make as many options as possible available to somebody, to explore as many options as there possibly could be, including ones most people wouldn’t think of and then to allow people to choose from that array of options. We’ve in many ways made a lot of decisions not to exclude certain resources, certain practitioners, basically being like if someone came looking for this service, rather than saying well we have this one with limitations, we’re going to say we don’t have any? Because – what? – we have some principally objection? Other than principally objections that are like this organization is participating in actively racist destructive practices, fine, get off the list. But beyond that, like this organization is not radical enough? To have an objection that rises to the level that we would not share information about the existence of that organization to someone who is seeking the things that if offered? We recognize that as more authoritarian than what that person could ever have possibly experience in that nonprofit because it says that by virtue of what we know and by virtue of our position we are going to make decisions on your behalf about what you can and can’t access. That’s not something that any of us believes that we have a right to do ever. But we’ve very distinctly have decided not to be a 501c(3), not to have grants, not to answer to anyone else.

Could you talk briefly about the providers in terms of how many there are, how you found them, if there’s been difficulties working with them or resistance to mutual aid (other than issues related to liability, which you spoke about)?

We have more than sixty, which is so many. We had like five for a long time. A lot of them are acupuncturists, herbalists, massage therapists, that sort of thing. Some are mental health providers, some other modalities, some are closer to the MDs, nurses, physicians’ assistants and they have varying degrees of participation. They can choose whether they want to be a public provider and have their information on the website all the time, whether they want to be more limited where we give their information out or we give them the seekers information or whether they want to be very guarded. Like we have some people who are like “look, if you really need it, I can take one person a year, call me.” Who do it as a favor because they believe in the mission and whose resources we use really conscientiously for people who we can’t possibly find anything else.

One of the things we are talking about doing is instituting a common standard for what the low end of what somebody’s sliding scale has to be in order to participate in Rock Dove. We didn’t do that in the beginning and in retrospect have regretted it. As we’ve grown we’ve become clearer and clearer about our principles about access. It means in looking at new providers we’ve been like “wow, that’s really expensive.” A sliding scale that starts at $80 is not actually a sliding scale. Moving forward we’re going to talk to all of the providers about everyone has to either accept mutual aid or have a sliding scale that goes down to “x” amount. That’s not been true and so what it means is what accessible means is really different for different providers. Some people who have come in throughout the way and like have a sliding scale and the sliding scale is not because they’re trying to be billionaires, it’s because they’re trying to make a living wage in New York. They’re not doing it out of selfishness or spite or greed, they’re doing it to support themselves. And that’s one of the hardest dynamics is that the reality of what somebody has to earn in order to subsist in New York puts such a constrain on what they’re able to do. So that’s been one of our challenges, the conversations about sliding scales, about mutual aid, about what they’re able to accept.

We’ve had providers who practice really very, very non-traditional modalities, which especially when those are very expensive we’ve had some resistance to. Once something is accessible we’re fine. If it comes down to $20, you can do anything. But like very, very expensive energy healing work and that kind of thing, we’re sensitive to because we know especially people who are struggling with really serious illness can be so vulnerable to anything that promises them any reason to feel hope. The notion of somebody paying an enormous amount of money in the hopes that something will help them survive and paying money that they don’t have for something that is unlikely to help them survive is really serious to us. But then at the same time being like who are we to judge what heals what? And there isn’t a single healing modality out there that someone can’t swear by.  So one of our challenges is figuring out the boundaries to the types of practices that we welcome and the principle we’ve come up with that is a really decent and fair principle is to organize it by access. It’s not about do we think your healing modality is too “woo woo.” We have reiki practitioners and herbalists and all sorts of healers among us. We’re pretty open people. We met at an alternative therapies table at an anarchist event! We’re not people who are like if it’s not antibiotics it’s trash. We understand that as an authoritarian decision to decide that based on our values or our views we’re going to limit access to a particular service. We don’t do that. But we’re also really weary of things that are potentially exploitative. And so that’s been one of the balances that’s been harder for us to strike. We’ve had to negotiate a lot more tactically and strategically and thoughtfully. Being like, look if you’ll do it for $15, have a go. But if it’s going to be at least $150 for your distance healing, that makes me nervous. Because we encounter seekers who have really tried so many things and are suffering so much and are so afraid.

It’s hard because we recognize and each of us from our own experiences of times we’ve been unwell understand that sense of vulnerability and desperation but at the same time also we respect fully that people who are ill are still totally capable of making decisions and aren’t just delicate flowers who need to be protected from the malicious marauders of the world. They have their autonomy and their self-determination and all of those things and have a right to choose whatever healing modality seem consistent with their hopes. So that struggle --  our worry about exploitative practices and on the other hand our disinclination to be authoritarian and judgmental – has been a harder balance to strike than a lot of others. But most of our providers are fabulous.  They run the whole range in terms of age and race and class and all sorts of other experiences, sexuality, identity in all sorts of ways.

What about seekers? We are wondering about a few things. One is if you have a rough idea of how many people have actually come to Rock Dove over the years and have actually received services and the other end of that is spreading the word and how you actually get information out to people.

It’s hard to know the number of people, because so much of the information is just on the website. Someone can go to the website, search for a certain modality, find the person and call them and we never really know that that happened. Our hope is that it’s tens of thousands! We probably have ten requests a month that we manage directly. The clinic information is also on the website, so people in theory are accessing it without asking for our help to do that. But we probably get about ten a month. It varies we have some months where there are many more and some months where it’s really quiet.

In terms of getting the world out, that’s connected to our question about who we want to be accountable to and where is our focus is. It would be very easy to flood Rock Dove with requests from young white radicals to the exclusion of anybody else. We could do this and that’s just the math. We have not wanted to do that so we have shifted in terms of where and how we announce things. A slight shift is that the first place we used to announce things is the on the New York City anarchists lists and now the first place we announce things is like through our own list of people who has ever come to a Rock Dove event and their networks, community organizations we’ve worked with or are interested in working with. We do that maybe a week or a week and half before putting it out on those other lists. We still put it on those other lists but we put it out on those other lists first so that those are the first RSVPs to come in so that if we fill up, we fill up there. It means the composition of the attendees at our skill shares and the seekers that we hear from has shifted as a result. We haven’t turned our backs on the radical community. An enormous portion of the requests we get still come from that community and probably a lot of the use of the website that’s behind our backs. We’re known as a resource. So it means that our outreach is really designed now to ensure that the demographics of our seekers look like the demographics of New York City and that means reaching out to people who don’t already know. And we’ve done more of that. That means doing more fliers instead of just emails and that sort of thing. It’s always been a challenge to be building the provider network and our outreach in tandem. There are like three of us handling requests right now, so we can’t get 700 a week and manage it, so we’ve also been trying to balance the pace of our outreach and what our actual capacity is. So we’ve always been working within those confines and are trying to think of ways we could structure the work that we could actually handle that kind of increase and still be meeting the needs of everyone who came to us and functioning as sane people.

How does Rock Dove see its work fitting within the larger currents of social movements and political struggles within the United States?

We believe a couple things about any revolution or major social transformation that is going to take place. One is that that will require our whole selves, it will require more of us, it will require more people and it will require that each of us show up not with 30% or 50% of who were are but with all of that. In order for that to happen, that we need to be healthier than we are. We need to be healthier in mind and body and spirit. We need to be treating each other better. That also means that the site of that social transformation is not just in the streets. Everyone knows it’s not just in the legislature but it’s also not just in the streets.  It’s not just in our insurrection. It’s about what happens in our homes, what happens in our families, what happens at our work places, what happens when we’re sick, what happens when we get well again. We understand that any major effort that doesn’t have at its core, an understanding of the importance of our well-being is unlikely to succeed. We think about all the movements that have existed that have fallen apart because the people within them have fallen apart in some way. Whether that’s internal conflict, even if that was fomented by outside forces, but internal conflict, people burning out, people harming each another, all of those things. If all of these movements were still functioning, we might be done. We might just be on a nice ecologically sustainable beach somewhere. And so recognizing that we are building unsustainable movements unstainablly. And that that’s not very promising for the long haul. We really see the work that we do as an essential part of any other work.

That happens really explicitly in someone who is doing really important work, comes to Rock Dove, gets the support they need and therefore is able to continue to do that work. It happens when a neighborhood of people get access to a certain resource because of our work and as a result of that there is more room for people in that neighborhood to advocate on their own behalves and to bring about the kind of change that they want to bring about. But it’s also about really asking for a shift in how we think about what this kind of change is going to be and look like that includes wellness as part of how we envision it. It’s something that is so notably missing from so many conversations about what that needs to look like. But if you ask anyone how they’re doing, what’s going on in their lives, there are very few people where the answer doesn’t include something about their well-being and the well-being of the people that they love. We believe that the daily answer to the question “how are you?” is connected to this bigger question of “how is your movement?” “what chance does the world have of making it?” We believe that the practices that we see of just burning ourselves out, burning each other out, operating at maximum speed, without even necessarily a clear goal in mind except just going forward as fast as possible is a pattern that we see in other things that we don’t like so much like. Global capitalism, for example, embodies those principles of just growth for the sake of growth and speed for the sake of speed and size for the sake of size and it doesn’t matter how you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what you want, it doesn’t matter how you feel because we have to just go. So many of those dynamics seem to be replicated in so much organizing and so many social movements in ways that don’t actually work. If they worked, fine, maybe every war loses some soldiers. But they don’t work. We would have gotten there if they worked. So really thinking about participating in envisioning a  different kind of social transformation that allows us to  bring about the kind of change we’re trying to bring about in a way that doesn’t by the very structure of it entail destroying ourselves and each other.

What frameworks and lessons can you provide to others looking to create a similar project in their community?

We did this workshop at the Social Forum and have a document that asks a lot of the questions that we’ve had to ask like “where are you? How big is your geographical region you want to impact? Do you have a space or not? Do you want to use money or not? Do you want to be a non-profit or not? What area of life are you hoping to transform? Are you talking about health, are you talking about education, are you talking about prisons? How do you want to work with each other? What’s your relationship to the people who your work is going to impact?” Those questions have been guiding questions for us that we’ve answered in different ways in different points over the course of the collective’s evolution.

The biggest thing for Rock Dove is that working sustainably is such a big deal. We’ve outlasted every other group that started in that room in March 2006 by a couple years. We were last group standing two years ago. And we have outlasted major changes in each of the collective members’ lives. Ideally a movement is something that you can stay part of even as you change and evolve and even as things in your life change and evolve. A movement that you have to drop out of because you have a kid? Not a great movement. A movement you have to drop out of because you become more educated or because you become sick or because another opportunity arises? Not fabulous. A movement that can incorporate those things and become stronger because of them is one that we think shows an enormous amount of promise. We think in our iddy biddy minute way we experienced that to be true and it strengthened our work in the collective and all of our individual work outside of it too. How you work together matters so the fact that we have internal conversations about race, and power and privilege and how we communicate with each other matters. We believe that it is efficient. The myth is that it’s not. We believe that if you measure a given meeting, it might not be. But if you measure a given month, it is. And certainly if you measure a decade it is beyond efficient, as opposed to starting up new projects every two years because everybody had so much beef and left the movement or at least left each other. So really that attention to individual dynamics.

Another lesson for us is allowing the mission and the vision to evolve so really learning from our experiences in doing the work and figuring out the places that we are really experiencing what we set out to do. Or places of opportunity that we didn’t even expect that are clearly where we want to go and allowing ourselves to constantly be revisiting that. And redirecting slightly without that being a calamity, without that being a problem. But allowing the work to teach us so that we can get better at it we think we’ve done a lot and that that’s been really good. And figuring out who you want to be accountable to is really important. Some of that is you answer to your own conscious ideally should be part of it and for each of us, we know it is. It’s that we can go to bed at night proud of who we are in Rock Dove and what Rock Dove is doing. But also are we answering to a funder, are we answering to an activist community from a particular ideological strain, are we answering to the residents of a particular neighborhood, are we answering to the members of a workers cooperative? Who are we accountable to for doing what we’re doing in the way that we said that we would? And how are we accountable to each other as we do the work? And as we’ve devolved greater clarity about that, that’s given us greater clarity in our mission and in what we should be doing with the limited resources available to us.

Benjamin Holtzman's work has appeared in Upping the Anti, Left History, Space and Culture, Radical Society, and the collections Constituent Imagination and Uses of a Whirlwind. He is the editor of Sick: A Compilation Zine on Physical Illness (Microcosm Publishing, 2009).

Kevin Van Meter is a community organizer and researcher currently based in the Pacific Northwest.  Van Meter appears in the collection Constituent Imagination; co-edited with Team Colors the AK Press collection Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States; and co-authored with Team Colors Wind(s) from below.

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