Erin Wilkins, Founder of Herb Folk, Shares How Her Heritage and Drive to Help Others Fuels Her Small Business
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In one of America's most storied wine regions, Erin Wilkins honors her Asian heritage with a profound love for healing others. "I was always drawn to this type of work," says Wilkins, owner of Herb Folk in Petaluma, California, an Asian-American herbal shop and acupuncture clinic retailing organic-tea blends and organic broth herbs (for soups, such as Reishi mushroom for immune-boosting qualities) through its website. "Learning to heal my own issues—physical and mental—I found yoga, acupuncture, and herbalism to be really healing."
Wilkins—the daughter of a Japanese mother and white father—has deep roots in the local land. "Our Japanese family has lived in Sonoma County for five generations except for the one and a half generations when the family was displaced as a result of the Japanese-American internment," she says. But it wasn't until Wilkins enrolled at Acupuncture & Integrative Medicine College in Berkeley, California, after studying women's studies and political science at the University of California-Santa Cruz, that she felt deeply connected to her culture in a professional sense. "That was the first time I had teachers that looked like my family and felt like my family," she says. "That instilled in me a sense of pride in Asian-American medicine." Previously, she'd hit a road block: discomfort and shame that her culture's medicine "had been exotified and commodified in America" and living "a disconnect between how we present at home and in public."
When Wilkins began practicing acupuncture 10 years ago, she vowed to make services affordable. "I saw a real lack of accessibility in my community that I was serving," she says. "Having grown up in a working-class Asian-American family, I know firsthand what it's like." What's more, she adds, "Asian-American herbalism is really rooted in wellness at home. Oftentimes that work is [done by] the grandmothers, mothers and aunts." But in some Asian families, those traditions have been lost. By teaching herbalism-basics workshops, and working with customers to develop personalized herbalism techniques, she hopes to empower people at home, regardless of their background, to be armed with these new tools.
In Japanese, yaku zen (which means "medicine meal") teaches that "what we put into our bodies can be our greatest source of energy," says Wilkins. In sourcing foraged herbs or other products sold through Herb Folk, "I support women-owned businesses, also BIPOC- and queer-owned. It does take intention and some thought to cultivate this diversity," she says. Because it wasn't until a few years ago labels such as these were more prominent in their packaging and marketing, finding them was an exhaustive search. But by opting for locally grown, fresh herbs from Bay Area foragers—instead of those from overseas—the quality is much better. "You can see it in the way the herbs look, feel, and taste," she says, especially in chamomile, chrysanthemum, and huo xiang (Korean mint). "When they're imported—through the industrialized process, including storage—they can really break down and lose some of their volatile oils and their chi, their energy."
The struggle of disclosing—and embracing—one's identity is something Wilkins can relate to. She recently shifted the way she markets Herb Folk. While initially it was as Eastern Medicine, "Asian American herbalism" more accurately represents her personal journey to embrace her dual identities, as both Asian and American. "There's such a farm-to-table culture in Sonoma County so I feel I'm really a part of that culture but speaking to Asian-American herbal medicine," she says. "The need and the energy of the community informs everything I do."
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