My interview with Acupuncturist, LGBTQ and Civil Rights Activist, and Entrepreneur, Jewel Thais Williams
by Elizabeth Ropp and edited by Eric Zulaski
originally posted on the Manchester Acupuncture Studio Blog
We almost never see acupuncture in movies or on TV, so a movie about an acupuncturist is worth celebrating. When I learned about Jewel Thais Williams’ life through the documentary, Jewel’s Catch One, I was humbled to see such a brilliant, awesome, force of nature would dedicate herself to bringing affordable acupuncture to “the hood” of Los Angeles. I am even more humbled by the opportunity to interview Jewel Thais Williams.
A great synopsis of the documentary, taken from the film’s website follows:
“Jewel’s Catch One’s documents the oldest Black-owned disco in America and establishes the legacy of businesswoman, activist, and healer, Jewel Thais-Williams, who stood up against hate and discrimination for 42 years. The story of Jewel and “The Catch” celebrates four decades of music, fashion, celebrity, and activism that helped change the course of our country by breaking down racial, social, and cultural barriers. One of the original safe spaces for both the LGBT and Black communities, The Catch also served as a refuge for many during the AIDS crisis. As her club grew to become known as the “unofficial Studio 54 of the West Coast,” Jewel became a national role model for how to fight discrimination and serve the less fortunate.“
Filmmaker C.Fitz teamed up with Jewel originally to make a three-minute video for an awards ceremony honoring Jewel as Woman of the Year. They realized quickly that they needed a full-length documentary. The film covers eight years of interviews with Jewel, Rue, close friends, patrons of The Catch One, and her acupuncture patients. This movie also features US Representative Maxine Waters, Grammy-Award winning singer, Thelma Houston, and Actress Sharon Stone.
Just like the filmmaker had to make a full-length movie about Jewel, I needed to write over 2,000 words about our conversation.
I stumbled onto Jewel’s documentary purely by accident. I asked if her acupuncture school or any acupuncture associations know about the film, Jewel’s Catch One, and helped to promote it.
Unfortunately, the answer is No.
I am disappointed, but not surprised. Even though the acupuncture profession in the US is small, many things divide us: geography, competition, practice styles, language barriers, business philosophies, apathy, and interpersonal conflicts.
I enjoyed the film so much that I watched it twice. I was dying to ask Jewel what patients ask me all the time: “What made you become an acupuncturist?”
Jewel is 81 years old. She has worn a lot of hats in her life. Before she became her own boss, she worked at several grocery stores, including the supermarket across the street from what became The Catch One. She even did a brief stint working in corrections at a women’s jail.
“It didn’t suit my personality at all to order people around,” says Jewel.
She said many of the women who came to the jail were arrested for being homeless or drunk on the street. After 30 days they were given fifteen dollars and released. “And of course in the next two or three weeks, they’d be back. At the time I was in my early 20’s and some of the women were old enough to be my grandmother. So no feel-goods there.”
Jewel is a natural entrepreneur. She opened a women’s boutique with her sister. This allowed her the flexibility to set her own hours and complete her college degree, majoring in history.
“I thought eventually I would teach high school or maybe even college-level history. American history.”
Instead, Jewel made history. American history.
Jewel had no bartending experience prior to owning a bar and a night club. She had to learn on the job because of a regressive state law in California that prohibited women from tending bar unless they owned the bar. I did some research and learned that this is not that unusual. In the 20th century, several states and cities had laws or ordinances that excluded women from the bartending profession. In the 1950s, Black women in Chicago fought against the City Council for their rights to tend bars. White women bartenders did not stand with them. They all lost their jobs as a result. The moral of that story is to listen to the Sistahs.
During the 1970s, Jewel had to deal with cops arresting her bar patrons for being gay in public. In the 1980s, The Catch One was destroyed by fire. The local fire department refused to investigate. This is part of a pattern in our country’s shameful history of destroying Black-owned businesses. A particularly devastating example of this happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Nonetheless, Jewel persisted. It took her two years to bring back the Catch. She re-opened in 1987 and ran it for another two decades.
Again, this brings me back to “Why acupuncture?” Why not politics? Jewel was well known and loved for The Catch and for her advocacy during the AIDS epidemic. Jewel entertained the idea of running for local office. She would have won. She even considered running for US Congress in her district, until her friend, Karen Bass stepped up. She ultimately decided that running for office wasn’t what she wanted to do.
In the 1990s, Jewel’s therapist, the renowned Gay-Rights Activist and mental health expert, Dr. Donald Kilhefner, suggested that she go to acupuncture school.
Jewel was a good fit in her acupuncture school. Once again, Jewel used her skills to advocate for marginalized people, in this case, it was her teachers. Many acupuncture schools in the US hire Asian doctors who bring a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience. However, tensions arise between instructors and students when instructors are still building English language proficiency.
“I spent a lot of my time when I was in acupuncture school interpreting for my Chinese professors. Some students organized a little group and went to the Dean and said they wanted that [teacher] gone. My objection had to do with English speaking instructors who had just graduated from school are now teaching…I felt like we’d be missing out.”
Acupuncture school was a good fit for Jewel. She has always been interested in natural remedies and supplements.
Jewel seeks out opportunities to learn from traditional medicine practitioners when she travels. She has spent time learning from folk healers in The Bahamas, Bali, and South Africa. Her family used folk medicines and natural over-the-counter remedies.
“We grew up with traditional African medicine being translated from slavery times.”
Many of the remedies that Jewel described are common folk remedies used around the world, some of which are still used in over-the-counter remedies today. Camphor is used in ointments today for chest colds and muscle rubs. She also mentioned Musterole, an ointment that works like a mustard plaster to relieve a cough and chest congestions. Her family used castor oil to relieve constipation.
“There were seven of us kids. I think we all had perfect attendance at school.” No one wanted to have to be subjected to natural remedies.
Jewel is proud of her track record of rarely getting sick. She never missed school due to being sick. She got the flu in 1978 and then again 20 years later in 1998.
“By the time 2018 came, I just loaded down with all the vitamin C and jin yin hua (Japanese Honeysuckle), and Herbal Resistance Formula.”
In 2005, Jewel went to New Orleans to provide acupuncture to communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina. This is where she got trained to use NADA’s Ear Acupuncture Protocol. NADA is a five-point ear treatment originally developed during a heroin epidemic to treat withdrawal from heroin and methadone. NADA is practiced in the US and all over the world by acupuncturists and lay practitioners for all stages of addiction recovery, behavioral health, and to support resilience and emotional well being after a traumatic event like a natural disaster. “Not only did we treat the survivors. We treated the rescue workers. We were in the shelters and in the schools that were converted into sleeping quarters for rescue workers.”
Jewel’s non-profit clinic, The Village Health Foundation, makes acupuncture treatment affordable in her Los Angeles neighborhood. Representative Maxine Waters praises Jewel’s acupuncture clinic. Waters says “It has been said that Jewel could be in Beverly Hills charging a lot of money for acupuncture.”
I asked Jewel why it’s so unusual for acupuncturists to make treatments affordable. Jewel agrees that affordable acupuncture is rare. “The people who can afford it will go to Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. They’re not coming to the hood for a treatment. And those folks in the hood that come to the hood clinic can’t afford to pay Beverly Hills prices.”
Jewel wants to share her gift with her local community. She explains that people of color, particularly Black and Brown people, have negative experiences in conventional Western medicine health settings due to bias from doctors who are not trained to be culturally competent. She described her own negative experience when seeing a cardiologist.
“They don’t look at you.” she says “With people of color, they just load them down with medication. ‘[A doctor might say] You’re blood pressure isn’t high, but it probably will be, so here, take this statin medication.’”
Jewel and her immediate community are staying healthy during the pandemic. Earlier in our conversation, we talked about how COVID has disproportionately affected people and communities of color.
Jewel also remarks “For us, for Black folks, Asians are just as racist as white people can be towards us.”
Like most Community Acupuncturists, I subscribe to the concept of Liberation Acupuncture, which basically boils down to the fact that the only way that acupuncture works is if patients can afford it. Jewel was not familiar with this term before we spoke. But she connected with the concept immediately. She sees herself as a liberation acupuncturist.
Acupuncturists are wondering what we can do to make our clinics welcome to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) patients. Jewel has spent her life creating inclusive spaces for everyone, which makes her a great person to ask for advice.
“Go to where they are. Go to their festivals and churches.” When Jewel first got started as an acupuncturist she had a mobile clinic with a colleague. They would treat patients for several hours at an AIDS prevention clinic and they ran a weekly pop-up clinic at an outdoor market.
Jewel explains that “there is such a high degree of needle phobia among Black folk and Brown folk. Big time. I have to talk to a lot of folks. I praise them for having the courage to even try it.” Jewel spends a lot of time educating and starting with some of the least sensitive points like Large Intestine 11, in the fleshy area of the elbow. “It’s a big deal. But once they get it, it’s like ‘Oh my God.’”
Jewel describes the Each One, Teach One approach to providing healthcare for her patients.
“Try to meet the people where they are. With each person that we enlighten then there is a possibility of them enlightening other people.”
The Village Health Foundation is closed temporarily due to the pandemic. Jewel provides care to her patients using telemedicine and her staff mails out herbs and supplements. Jewel plans to start a blog to stay in touch with patients and share health tips. I am not alone in saying that I wish all the best to Jewel and the staff at the Village Health Foundation. May you reopen as soon as it is safe to return to work.
If you would like to make a donation to support the Village Health Foundation, you can do so at this link.