Celebrating an Herbal Activist: An Interview with Mary Blue

This weeks blog is an interview with activist and herbalist, Mary Blue.  She is the founder of Pharmacy Herbs Community Health and Education Center in Providence, Rhode Island and has opened the Sage Clinic, a collaboration with Brown University Integrative Medicine Residency program.  Along with being a farmer, medicine maker and professor, Mary Blue is also a talented rapper.

JB: How did your herbal journey begin?mary-back-cover1

MB: I started using herbs for personal healing in 1998. I was drawn to herbs because I needed to connect to the earth in all aspects of my life, especially self care. It fit with my lifestyle and environmental advocacy work. I was engaged in community organizing and activism while working to detoxify my life and the planet. Herbalism aligned with my natural instinct to help people too. I also saw herbs as a way to passively resist big pharma, and their control over health care.

In 2001, I volunteered at an herb shop in my home town of Providence, RI. The owner, Danielle Cavallacci, eventually hired me. I apprenticed and worked with Danielle for 3 years. After studying at Indigo Herbals, I was hired at Seven Arrows Herb Farm in Southeastern Massachusetts and worked there for 4 years. I worked in the greenhouses, herb shop and organized herbal events (this is where Radherb was born in 2006). This is also where I started offering consultations, classes and herbal products. In early 2008, my best friend, Jessica, died of cancer, and asked our community to donate to building Farmacy Herbs instead of buying flowers. I was able to open the Farmacy Herbs Community Health and Education Center in the summer of 2008….This was a lasting gift to me and the community from a beautiful dying friend.

I was also part of the anti-globalization movement from 1999-2010. We were always fighting against something.  After 10 years, I went from lobbying, to the streets, to the court rooms, to the herbal clinics, and I realized that that high intensity work was not sustainable for me long term. I then decided to pursue community herbalism as a career, and weave my social justice principles into my work. I still occasionally show up to rallies, city hall, and I am still fighting in the courtroom with the Fire Cider battle! I feel lucky that I am able to be an herbalist that can make a living without compromising my social justice principles.

JB: You wear many hats as herbalist, farmer, entrepreneur and professor of Western Herbalism at Brown University Medical School, how did the opportunity to work at Brown University present itself?  

MB: After traveling around in my twenties, I realized if I wanted to affect any positive social change, I needed to stay in one place and focus.  Since 2006, one of my goals has been to affect change in the health care system through working with local doctors. I believe that if doctors are educated on what an herbalist can do to support their patients, this could change health care for a lot of people. As time went on, I built my herbal practice while many of my clients were also working with local doctors. I began developing relationships with doctors through their patients. The patients were having success with my protocols, telling their doctors, and that is how it all started.   In 2010, I was invited to speak at Memorial Hospital by Dr. John McGonigle. He is an integrative family medicine doctor and runs the Brown University Integrative Medicine Residency Program.

Since then we have been collaborating on clients, classes for my herb school and now, teaching at Brown Medical School.  John and I also just became business partners  and opened the Ocean State Holistic Medical Collaborative, Sage Clinic. This clinic is the teaching site for the Brown University Integrative Medicine Residency Program and for my Herbal Residency Program.

JB: Can you speak about the trademark lawsuit over the Fire Cider name that you and two others (Nicole Telkes and Katheryn Langelier ) have been named in? (learn more about trademarking commonly help names at http://freefirecider.comFireCiderRecipe

MB: We have an amazing legal team, which we are so thankful for. They have put a lot of thought into our case, and have completed hundreds of hours of work for little pay. At this point in the case, our lawyers are advising us to not make any statements regarding the details of the case. It is highly stressful for all of us and our families to be in this position.

I hope the herbal community understands that we are juggling a lot right now, and if your email goes unanswered for a week or longer, that we are doing the best we can to keep up with our lives, the case and our businesses. Our group Tradition Not Trademark is committed to seeing this through and fighting for our traditional herbal terms to the bitter end.

UPDATE from Tradition Not Trademark: AMAZING NEWS to report on the lawsuit Shire City brought against the herbalists Mary Blue, Nicole Telkes and Katheryn Langelier!!!! On May 12, 2016, the federal court in Massachusetts dismissed five out of the ten claims that Shire City had brought against the 3 defendants. The claims that were dismissed were all based on the three defendants’ participation in the movement to cancel Shire City’s “Fire Cider” trademark registration. Shire City had claimed that the 3 defendants’ activities had caused Shire City $100,000 in damages.

JB:  Where do you see herbalism going in the future, in terms of education, licensing, and regulation?

MB:  In terms of Western Herbalism education, it seems to be growing fast!  We don’t have national standards for herbal education, so it’s hard for any Western Herbal student to follow a clear path to becoming an herbal practitioner.  I see a lot of my students choosing to be acupuncturists or massage therapists because there is a clear path to a career.

I think it would be helpful to have a community standard that differentiates between educational requirements for a family herbalist, community herbalist or a clinical herbalist. We do have the American Herbalist Guild, but many herbalists (like myself) are not easily accepted into the AHG, and because of this they do not represent a large portion of herbal practitioners.  I would love to see coalition of established herb schools come up with educational standards for Western Herbalists. These standards would not have to be enforced by law… they would be community standards that would help herbal students and the general public understand what it actually means to be a clinical herbalist, community herbalist or master herbalist.

My generation (40 years old) was the last generation that didn’t have access to multiple blogs, podcasts and online learning tools when we were budding herb students in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.  All of my education was in person with teachers, in the clinic or working directly with clients. I feel that that aspect of learning is integral to herbal education, and I hope that the ease of access to internet education doesn’t dilute the traditional way of learning herbs through hands on, in person, education. I also think it is amazing that there are so many more online resources out there for new herbal students!!

Herb schools like Farmacy Herbs and Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism (and many others) are working on training professional herbalists in the art of herbal medicine AND to understand the legal aspects of becoming an herbalist. This includes health justice principles, cultural competency, FDA regulations and more. I think it is integral for all herbal students to understand not just the how-to of herbal medicine, but all of the political and legal aspects of herbalism too.  For more info about health justice principles, check out my webinar hosted by the American Herbalist Guild onMay 17, 2016 at 7pm on Politically Compassionate Herbalism.

The regulations on herbal product companies are extremely hard to comply with. As an herbal product company owner, I had to make the decision whether or not to bring my product to the mass market or stay small. If herbal business owners want to go big or sell online, then they must understand that this could mean a lot of red tape and money. I decided to stay small, selling herbs only to local restaurants, stores and at clinics in Rhode Island.  All herbal companies (small or large) should do due diligence to follow Standard Operating Procedures and follow local health department laws.

There are pros and cons regarding licensure and regulations. On one side, licensure could provide some legitimacy to the field of herbalism in the allopathic setting, and could potentially allow herbalists to take insurance…which would be great.

On the other hand, do we really want to be regulated by a system that does not comprehend all the complexities of herbal work?  I really hope the growing field of herbalism can be defined by the herbal community, not the government.

JB:  What is the most important message about herbalism that you want to share with the readers?

MB: I would like to share that I think it is important for herbalists to understand (at minimum) and be active with the legal and political aspects of herbalism; this includes trademarking of traditional terms, understanding what is happening with the FDA, and understanding health justice principles. I also think that to survive these legal barriers and the growth of our profession and herbal education (without an agreed upon standards in the field) — AND avoid it being co-opted or misrepresented in this process — herbalists must be focused on setting the standard for herbal production, education and clinical work in our local communities and nationally.

Understanding and implementing standard operating procedures and using structure and function language with herbal product and in our consultations are small ways we can all work together to set the standards for what it means to be a professional herbalist.

JB:  Thank you for your passion and activism.  The world is a better place with activists like you working on all of our behalf.  

When energy flows, wellness grows

Abundant Blessings,

JessicaBakerPic

Jessica