Rebecca Baird on the Free Clinic Movement

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DSCN1728Rebecca Baird has a B.A. in History from UCLA, an M.A. in History from the University of Connecticut, and is finishing her Ph.D. dissertation, “Shelter From the Storm: The Los Angeles Free Clinic, 1967-1975,” at Arizona State University. She is currently an Assistant Professor of History at Porterville College in California.

Can you tell us a bit about your dissertation?

My research explores the development of the Free Clinic Movement in the United States, with specific focus on the Los Angeles Free Clinic. The free clinics emerged from a long history of social reform movements and, more immediately, out of the 1960s counterculture and New Left, with the first clinic opening in 1967 in San Francisco. While the clinics were free of monetary cost, they were also, more importantly, free of judgment and bureaucratic red tape, offering equitable health care, legal, employment, and mental health services to disadvantaged and marginalized groups of society; this included drug users, runaways, “hippies,” and others who often found mainstream services to be an unviable option.

What drew your attention to this topic?

Growing up, I had a personal connection to the Free Clinic Movement. My mother started a free clinic in my hometown in the Los Angeles suburbs in 1975 and, in many ways, I grew up alongside the clinic. I volunteered there as a young adult and gained an appreciation for the role these types of organizations play in their communities. I knew early on that I wanted a dissertation topic that focused on social justice issues and so free clinics seemed like an ideal choice. I settled on this topic after reading Christine Stansell’s City of Women. In a graduate seminar discussion about the book, a conversation with friends made me think about the connections between middle-class reforming women and the volunteers, mostly women, whom I met during my time at the Conejo Free Clinic. This led me to question the links between the reformers and reform movements of the past and those of the present, specifically the free clinics. I began to question how and why these clinics first appeared, as well as who was volunteering at them and what their ultimate goals and motives were in working at such an institution.

The current issues surrounding both equitable access to health care and reproductive health in America also propelled me towards this topic. While the majority of the free clinics did not provide abortion services, they did provide aspects of reproductive health care for both men and women, including testing for sexually-transmitted infections, birth control, and pregnancy testing and counseling. Similarly, the growing discussions on, and the eventual creation of, the Affordable Care Act helped place my research in a 21st century context and demonstrated that the topic of health care access is still a hot issue in America and one which our nation is still actively seeking to solve.

Although the free clinics began in 1967, they remain an important element of equitable health care in America; the free clinics still exist nationwide (with an estimated 1,200 free and charitable clinics functioning today) and they continue to administer no- or low-cost care and to maintain the original mission of providing non-judgmental services. Despite the development of the Affordable Care Act, the free clinics will remain a necessary aspect of health care. There will always be undeserved and marginalized groups of the population who will find the free clinics a preferable option to mainstream health care services.

What steps did you take after deciding on this topic to begin to explore it?

Haight AshburyAfter deciding on my topic, I read background literature on the history of American health care and then focused on the community health movement of the 1960s, as well as the New Left and the counterculture. From there I began to locate people who had worked at local free clinics and I organized oral interviews with them. Most of my oral interviews were located through sheer detective work—finding a name and then tracking the person down. As I did more interviews, I established a network of contacts, each interviewee providing more names and, occasionally, telephone numbers for others who were involved in the clinics. I also located some source material in archival collections, mostly in California, and made plans to visit them. I applied for grants and fellowships to help fund my research travel.

What particular sources proved the most useful in your work, and did you encounter any difficulties researching your topic? 

I was able to locate a number of people who worked at the free clinics back in the 1960s and 1970s, and their interviews proved vital in establishing the narrative framework for my dissertation. It helped to personalize the story of the free clinics and gave me information that was often not found anywhere else. I found that my personal history as a volunteer and daughter of a clinic founder opened doors for me, too, especially in my interviews.

One of the greatest limitations I faced was locating women who worked in the clinics at their beginnings, as many women had married, moved, and changed their names. Most proved impossible to locate, and many available interviewees had moved, which meant organizing research trips to meet with them. I traveled throughout Los Angeles, as well as to San Francisco, New York, and Las Vegas.

One major drawback in researching such a localized grassroots organization is a lack of written and archived sources relating to them. Most of the clinic documents remained at the clinics and were often either lost or thrown out over the past fifty years. Access to documents such as board meeting minutes or clinic-specific ephemera is thus especially scarce. Since many of the clinics failed early on, or changed locations, their older records have disappeared completely. The generally tenuous existence of the early clinics thus meant a dearth of written source material. I was lucky enough to find records that some individuals held on to throughout the years, often in boxes in their attics! Most of my interviewees were happy to share these documents with me, which has been a tremendous asset in fleshing out my dissertation. Because of a lack of source material, I also expanded my research, looking at archive collections that were tangentially related to the clinics. There I found scattered documents and ephemera, most related to the Free Clinic Movement more broadly.

What future directions do you see for this work? What other questions need to be asked about this topic?

I would love to expand my research beyond 1975 and cover the health issues Los Angeles faced in the 1980s and 1990s, especially during the economic downturns and in relation to the Clinton health care reforms. I think questions need to be asked about the way grassroots social services responded to the Reagan social welfare cuts, including mental health, along with their reactions to the AIDS crisis.

What would someone outside of your field take from your dissertation?

Someone reading my dissertation would take away the knowledge that the counterculture was very active in Los Angeles, and that this activity created long-lasting social welfare organizations. The ideas associated with the counterculture movement of the 1960s did not die at the end of the decade, but rather carried through to the present day in a variety of forms, including free clinics. The focus of the clinics in 1967 are just as relevant today, particularly equal access to health care and non-judgment of patient lifestyles.

One unique feature of the clinics I study is the way they created a space for dialogue between counterculture and mainstream, Establishment and anti-Establishment. They drew volunteers from all walks of life, all socio-economic backgrounds, and all political backgrounds, and the clinics often became a place where people interacted and worked together despite their differences. The clinics worked with mainstream health care while still remaining outside the mainstream.

My dissertation helps create connections between the problems associated with health care in America in the 1960s and today, and shows how these issues have continued to grow and evolve. This includes access to health care for minors without parental consent, birth control and reproductive health rights, and the development of holistic health care. Since the 1960s, equitable access to health care in America has remained an ongoing problem despite several attempts to rectify the system. The free clinics offered an alternative to mainstream medicine, to insurance companies, to HMOs, and to the paperwork bureaucracy often associated with the health care system, and the free clinics remain a viable and important system today.

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