Are Communities of Care a Possible Site of Struggle?

BY Gayge Operatista

Raising the question of whether intentional communities of care can be a site of struggle, rather than just a place of support. The original post is located here.
*Used with permission*

I have personal experiences in creating and expanding communities of care, street medicing, radical mental health, as an herbalist initially trained through an informal apprenticeship, and in radical clinics. One thing that occurs to me is that I, and others, have talked a lot about communities of care, how we create them, how we get them to grow, but, as revolutionaries, it seems to be that our only focus is how they serve as a support system for other struggles, never as a site of struggle themselves. I want to raise the dual question here of both how they serve as a site of struggle, and what potential there is for broadening those struggles.

First of all, any time we’re talking about caregiving, we’re talking about reproductive labor. The projects I have seen grouped under communities of care have either been a way to collectivize unwaged reproductive labor, or giving people who are denied access to paid reproductive labor (generally health care) that care. One of the ways in which reproductive labor being work is obscured is the way that it is both isolated and naturalized as part of “what women do”. By coming together and doing it collectively, we not only reduce the overall workload, but we struggle against the structure of capitalist society and individual men in our lives who do not view our reproductive labor as work. Creating collectivized reproductive work as its first step necessitates recognizing that as work.

The first step communities of care often take is reviving the practices we have lost through our increasing atomization and isolation, and creating counterinstitutions where we can collectively ensure that those useful practices, such as watching each other’s children, visiting each other when sick, bringing meals to the ill or elderly – all functions that more functional communities did as a matter of course – occur. Of course, the real challenge is to go beyond these more limited practices to ensure that elders do not have to be isolated away from the rest of their communities in nursing homes, that all parents can support their families and organize knowing their children are safe and cared for, and to both provide members of our communities who have no or limited access to the formal health care system with health care, both western allopathic and from alternative systems.

The struggle aspect is perhaps most obvious in advocacy, and this is also the place where it is most obvious on how our community struggles link up with potential avenues of struggle inside the workplace. Many groups are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment by the health care system (trans and gender non-conforming people, queer people in general, people with disabilities, people with uncertain immigration status or lacking papers), and often times the presence, even of a layperson, advocating for them can make worlds of difference in the care they receive. An effort to organize ourselves to make sure no vulnerable person has to go into a hospital or medical appointment alone, could, as it grows, quickly turn into a campaign to change how both health care institutions treat members of vulnerable groups, and by making strong connections with people working in those institutions, how workers are treated in those institutions. Clearly, a great deal of potential solidarity and expansion of struggles can arise out of these projects.

I’ll hopefully have more formed thoughts on this by the time I finish my much longer reflection piece, but, many of us whose path into formal, waged health care work grows out of our desire to have more caregiving skills to give back to our community and in an attempt to get paid while we develop those skills eventually work our way on to health care roles in our work lives that require extensive education and training and have the corresponding high levels of debt. While these often give us a lot of skills and knowledge to put at the service of our communities, we end up limited to supply those skills in alienated ways. The do-gooder option state capitalism presents us with are non-profit community clinics that exist to serve underserved communities, but are in no way controlled by those communities. Not only do our high debt loads force us into working long hours, but, legal concerns with the licensing system can often make us wary of participating in counterinstitutions. While there is a lot that lay community members can do, if we truly wish for our communities of care to expand to the point that they destabilize the isolation and atomization of the reproduction of daily life in our society, we need to be able to offer more than dedicated lay people and short workshops.