“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” -Albert Camus
Have you ever wanted to start a business but not had the financial resources to do so? Have you ever wanted to make a difference, but felt the motivation leave you just as quickly as it arrived? Have you ever felt an urge to mobilize your community but felt overwhelmed by obstacles and limitations? Well then sit down with your favorite cup of tea, and get ready for your daily dose of inspiration: meet Jacoby Ballard of Third Root Health Center – health visionary, agent for social change, and all round darn good person.
You might think that starting a health clinic from scratch would be a daunting task – one that requires affluent medical professionals with a keen business acumen or seasoned practitioners with an extensive clientele. Well, think again. Fresh out of herb school without anything more than motivation to make a difference and the belief that it was possible, Jacoby Ballard and the founding members behind Third Root Health Center successfully mobilized their community to invest into a sustainable business geared towards social justice. After showcasing Third Root in Revolutionary Herbalism, I became so inspired by this amazing initiative that I set out to discover exactly how this 12 member worker’s coop got their start. And the answers are riveting.
Where did you find the seed money to start third root?
Many of us at Third Root came to healing within a social justice framework, and as part of the social justice movement. Within the movement, there is a lot of dialogue about reframing philanthropy and wealth redistribution. We also knew that Third Root was an innovative new project, and there really wasn’t anything like it, which would be compelling to funders. So we reached out to progressive donors, and have been continually introduced to more and more of the philanthropy and radical donor community. None of us within the collective were in a position to draw on family resources, we didn’t have that privilege. So we relied on the larger social justice community in New York City.
I read that you are a worker-owned co-operative. Can you describe this model and how it’s worked for you?
This model has been successful around the world for centuries. 12 of us currently own Third Root. We also all practice there – yoga, acupuncture, doula services, herbalism, massage, and do administrative tasks. It’s worked really well in many ways because we don’t have a boss, and have the freedom to follow our dreams and our interests. However, it’s also been very challenging because we don’t have a boss and building alternative models of accountability that are non-hierarchical is a lot of work!
We have a horizontal structure, both internally, and shared with our clients and students as well. Our clients and students give us a lot of feedback, which we are grateful for, and which have made profound changes in the Center. Nowhere else in healthcare-holistic or allopathic-is the client included in the discussion on how to make healthcare in the clinic better. Yet, they know best through their experiences there and how to make the Center even more special.
We also provide free healthcare to each other as co-owners. I can get a massage or treatment anytime, and its a way to build intimacy with each other, through our health concerns and bodies. In most clinics, staff are expected to receive healthcare elsewhere, to preserve ‘professionalism’, yet we have found that it deepens our relationships with each other.
What is the difference between your community health center and a free clinic?
Our services are what provide our salary-we are not externally funded by grants, and this is a part-time job that all of us rely on financially. We have a sliding scale for all of our services except yoga, which is extremely cheap in order to enable people of all incomes to access our services. We also have a scholarship program for those who can’t afford the bottom of our scale. Free clinics are largely externally funded or rely on volunteer or student labor, and often are just allopathic medicine, but sometimes integrate services with holistic modalities. We are also very very cognizant of who works at Third Root, and who we are inviting in by having staff that resemble their communities. I don’t believe that Free Clinics are largely that intentional.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to establish a health center such as third root in their community?
Ask the community what they want and need in healthcare first. They know their needs better than anyone. Let that be your first order of business. Get to know the local community in every way that you can-go to senior centers, mosques, churches, doctors’ offices, laundromats. Find out who the oldest and most respected businesses are in a local area. Then, get to know the staff that you will be working with, and open it together, making a few years’ commitment to each other. Make sure that you all resemble and/or represent who you will be serving, and that you train and educate yourselves on the issues both inside the group, and in the surrounding community-what are the biggest health concerns? What’s happening with gentrification and unemployment locally? What are dynamics of race and history of racism locally? What are the class dynamics within your group, your staff? Then, write a business plan and a marketing plan, and set a timeline for the business that you revisit annually.
To say that I’m inspired by this initiative is a massive understatement. It is so profoundly refreshing to see people take it upon themselves to create change from scratch, and then forge ahead and implement this change despite the limitations and setbacks imposed on them by social norms. It’s way too easy to take no for an answer; to believe that in order to succeed you need to fit into a particular demographic; to conform to the familiar status quo and continue to recreate everything that is familiar and “safe.” I believe that living and leading by example is the most powerful way to create social change, and by these standards Third Root is most definitely a powerful example of herbalism as a tool for social change – one whose very existence is a poignant act of rebellion.
If you want to support Third Root through volunteering, sustainable giving, or radical philanthropy, contact Jacoby Ballard at firstname.lastname@example.org.