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An Ancient Prescription for the New World

Dr. Rupa Marya isn't your typical physician. Neither is her diagnosis for what's ailing society today.

 

For Dr. Rupa Marya, good health starts in the backyard. The UC San Francisco professor of hospital medicine’s home sits on a small urban farm in Oakland’s Laurel District, where it’s hard to believe gritty MacArthur Boulevard is a few blocks away. Walking among rows of summer’s last heirloom tomatoes and gem glass corn, her dark hair is as prolific as the garden itself. At the western end of the yard stands a humble one-room cob structure that would be at home on a prairie. But, in fact, it’s a classroom—part of The Earth School she launched in September. Three days a week, four kindergartners file into the home school co-op, taught by educators, artists, farmers and activists. The mission, as Marya puts it, is to raise children free from the systems of supremacy, systems that are responsible for what ails us. You know, your classic primary school stuff: ABCs, coloring, and pre-colonialism values and native traditions. But, today, it’s quiet with just the sound of chickens clucking in the background.

Very much a work in progress, The Earth School “came out of working with indigenous communities around Standing Rock,” Marya says. “I kept hearing, ‘We don’t want our children to have to unlearn everything they’re getting in school.’ Part of me believes in public education, but when you’ve got 25 kids in a classroom, many of them traumatized by violence, poverty, racism, it’s hard to get to the business of education.”

At this point, it's worth mentioning that Marya has cut an album. Since the 2008 release of the Rupa & the April Fishes debut album, eXtraOrdinary Rendition, an irreverent mix of French chanson, jazz, Latin rhythms and art music sung in four languages, the hospitalist has led a double life as a professor to the next generation of physicians and as an internationally touring artist. But it’s Marya’s third job as a human rights activist on a number of progressive fronts that has made her one of the Bay Area’s most visible new thinkers—particularly around police violence and racism in the medical system. (A video of her speaking on race and medicine at one of UC Berkeley's Social Medicine for Our Times events has been viewed more than 10 million times on Facebook.) Since the birth of her two sons and her involvement in the 2017 anti-Keystone XL pipeline protests at Standing Rock, Marya has turned her attention to the homefront, looking to uproot the legacies of patriarchy, colonialism and exploitative economic systems that she believes are making us sick as a culture.

The Earth School, she says, is her homegrown laboratory for doing just that, beginning with early childhood education. “A central concept in a decolonizing mentality is humility. What happens if you focus your healing on one acre? On one block, in one town? If we correct our way of relating to the Earth, to each other, to the ancestors of this land, to the present-day native people, what are the ripple effects? We don’t really have the answers. We just have our lives, and in that we have our experimentation.”

At that moment, her 5-year-old son, Bija, trots through their old orchard that’s never been paved or developed—though her husband, Benjamin Fahrer, an organic farmer and ecological designer, does tend to it. The property was chosen in part because of its history with the Ohlone tribes that lived and thrived in the area prior to the arrival of the Franciscan fathers who established missions in California almost 250 years ago. Before the couple placed an offer, Marya reached out to modern Ohlone matriarch Corrina Gould to get her blessing and to help inform the curriculum.

The school day starts with Burmese-born Laxman Panthi teaching yoga sessions, followed by farm duties led by “Farmer Ben.” Chicken eggs are collected; some new plants are added to the medicinal herb garden.

By 9:45am the kids sit down together for a snack, which often includes apples or pears harvested from the orchard, before joining their teacher, Sita Davis, an artist and yoga instructor who taught Spanish at Oakland’s Head-Royce School for more than a decade. “Good morning! Here we are in the territory of Huichin!” says Davis at the start of circle time, where the group traces the Earth’s seasonal position in its path around the sun and phase of the moon. Afternoons focus on drawing and writing in journals, as well as sessions with guest teachers such as rhythm classes led by April Fishes drummer Aaron Kierbel. Kids running around eating Play-Doh and testing for hours, this is not.

“What I’m doing is very small,” says Marya, while her youngest son (now 5 months old) snoozes nearby. “I see this as an increment. The question is: How do you raise boys in an environment of toxic masculinity and patriarchal violence? How do you prepare them for the fact that it’s 72 degrees on Nov. 7, for food system failure?” As she describes the school’s activities, Marya’s brown eyes widen with delight. Clearly, this is her jam.

And, yet, as a physician, Marya is utterly pragmatic. The Earth School requires the same vaccinations as standard California public schools. While she didn’t intend the policy to ward off a certain demographic, it has served as a kind of filter, as many families in sync with the school’s far-left ethos are also skeptical of vaccinations. “It becomes this interesting thing,” she says. “I’m a doctor, and we believe in science. I understand the fear, but nonvaccination rates are up, and I’ve seen polio and leprosy in India.”

Back in the house, Bija is busy working with some electronic components, trying to build his version of a phone. When he can’t find a crucial piece he tries to convince his mom to leave immediately for the hardware store to buy a replacement. (Bija is eventually placated with a promise that she’ll help search his room later.) No matter how you raise kids, the lure of electronics is irrepressible, it seems.

 

Marya’s own childhood looked vastly different. Born in San Francisco to Punjabi Indian parents, she spent several years growing up in the south of France before returning to the Bay Area and graduating from Palo Alto’s elite all-girl Castilleja School—which may explain why she has little patience for white privilege and has gone on as an adult to aid and abet efforts like the 2016 hunger strike by the “Frisco Five” to force the ouster of San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr. Leading a medical team to minister to the hunger strikers, Marya helped launch the Do No Harm Coalition that went on to investigate the health outcomes in communities where there’s police violence and little justice. That same year, she joined the efforts at the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota and began raising funds for the Mni Wiconi Health Clinic and Farm with Lakota healers.“What happened is she listened and had respect for the elders,” says Marya’s friend and colleague Dr. Madhavi Dandu, director of UCSF’s Master of Science in Global Health program. “That’s part of what drove her work at Standing Rock. The indigenous grandmothers said we need to create this health clinic, and Rupa started to make it happen. It’s about listening. She’s a profound and wonderful listener, and I think that’s why her path isn’t a straight line.”

In many ways, The Earth School is Marya’s response to trying to preserve idyllic (and possibly idealized) pre-contact worldview. Let’s call it the Indigenous Option. It’s an ethic that infuses her new music—songs she premiered at Yoshi’s last October while offering a preview of her new April Fishes album, Growing Upward. Lyrics speak to police violence and indigenous communities in Mexico, the Dakotas and here in the Bay Area. “They’re in contact with nonhuman voices and nonhuman entities: air, water, Earth, other animals,” she says. “The album will be released with 12 seed packets, one for every song, as an invitation for people to plant their own medicine gardens, awakening the capacity to heal themselves.”

Sowing and reaping metaphors come naturally to Marya, perhaps (at least in part) because she's married to a permaculture expert. “If I wasn’t a farmer’s wife, I don’t know if I’d have this kind of perspective,” she says. “Being with Ben amplified it 100 times. I see the real impact of the work he does and what it means to be connected to the Earth. My husband tends the land. I tend people’s bodies.”

 

For much of the 20th century, physicians held a rarified status in American society as guardians of the temple of health. The sanctification has faded with HMOs and self-diagnosis on the internet, but when Marya talks about medicine, it’s easy to understand the motivation for her work. “Everybody eventually comes to the hospital,” she says. “It’s a great democratizing force. You see all sections of humanity, and it’s impossible not to notice trends, like the lack of equity in social structures and how that impacts human bodies.”

Songs on her second album, 2009’s Este Mundo, were inspired by her experiences caring for undocumented immigrants who ended up in the hospital with dire medical conditions. When probing to find out why these patients had delayed seeking treatment, Marya often heard, “‘I was afraid. I have three children here, and my husband is here, and I didn’t want to be deported.’ Or they said, ‘I came here to work in the fields, and I was afraid that if I told anyone I needed medical help, I would lose my job and I would be kicked out.’ That was the blanket of fear I started to look under.”

Those kinds of persistent questions are what led her to collaborate with Raj Patel, the British-Asian academic, journalist and one of the activists who helped organize the landmark 1999 anti-globalization protests in Seattle. They got to know each other as fellow activists when he was living in the Bay Area about eight years ago, learning of her at first as a musician and, later, a physician. “I saw her opening for Manu Chao at The Independent, and she blew me away,” he says.

They’re in the early stages of a book about “understanding how different cultures approach food and medicine,” Patel says. “What’s fascinating about Rupa is that all her different pursuits seem to flow together. The school is an embodiment of that in another way. She comes at problems with a certain kind of energy that’s incredibly exciting to be around. That’s why we’ve continued to exchange ideas and open new doors together. There’s an openness to exploring behind difficult questions.”

One question hanging over The Earth School is what impact it will ultimately have on its students’ lives. Children are currently measured by all sorts of keystone moments—test scores, graduation, college acceptance. But Marya is also mindful of the way society has abandoned ceremonies that mark other passages into maturity. “We hope to take this cohort through a coming-of-age ceremony around the age of 12,” she says. “Girls have their period, but boys don’t have any kind of ritual. That’s something that’s really been lost. We’ve been invited to erase our past, and that’s done incalculable damage.” In one small corner of Oakland, Dr. Rupa Marya is trying to put the pieces back together, one child at a time.

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco 

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