Accidental Activist

Sprung from the abyss of South Central, Los Angeles

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Sprung from the abyss of South Central, Los Angeles, accidental activist Ruth Westrich passionately contributes toward improving the health of our planet and its populace. Meeting with Ruth at her home in Fairbanks Ranch several months ago, there evolved a fascinating story how a determined youngster was able to clear the hurdles that come with finding oneself within the confines of such an environment and become both successful and passionate about her desire to enrich the planet, and contribute to her community. 

From South Central to San Diego? 
Well, ironically, understanding that my goal was to get far away from South Central, I married a physician whose practice was in Montebello, which is not very far away. As hard as I had worked to get myself West of the interchange, I found myself East again in the city of Downey, albeit under much better conditions. Ultimately, my husband and I divorced, and with my daughter still in school, I wanted her to have a better education than was being offered locally. In short, a friend who lived in San Diego suggested I move here where certain schools provide good schooling. I moved to Carmel Valley, and my daughter did very well here at school in San Diego, and went on to USC, married and has a family.  San Diego is unique in so many different ways, and I truly love it here, yet I straddle this world with my art and activism. I live in a national and global kind of society, and although I have done a lot of my work here in San Diego that I am very proud of, I am better known in far off places.  The people that I work with are all over the globe. It involves cleaning up the environment, dealing with environmental toxicity, and I strongly believe that you cannot have personal health without planetary health. We seriously need to regenerate the soils, the rivers, forests, and oceans back to where Mother Nature intended. 

As a strong advocate for a healthy lifestyle, is proper nutrition the conduit to a healthy body and mind? 
Absolutely essential, with an important caveat.  The quality of the nutrition must be assured. You cannot ingest a food that has been genetically modified and soaked with a toxic substance and think that you are going to be healthy. One’s lifestyle is the critical component to a healthy immune system. When I began the Westreich Foundation some 25 years ago, we tried to introduce integrative medicine (alternative medicine alongside solidly orthodox methods of diagnosis and treatment) into medical school curriculum. Over time, I shifted my focus to functional medicine, which goes beyond diagnosis and treatment to determine the root cause of the illness and address it. 

For those with serious illnesses, I have come to believe that palliative care, the goal of which is to improve quality of life for both the patient and their family while facing the challenges they must endure makes best sense. I do believe that western medicine and its many advances serves a purpose within the framework of medical care, albeit as a choice and an important component of the overall picture. My work really took a turn when I knew of these people who chose the right foods, exercised, maintained a healthy lifestyle, and took their medications, yet still did not seem healthy and began to deal with chronic disease. It is reported that 65% of children under the age of 10 are living with one chronic disease that early in life. There has to be an intervening cause and after all these years of observation and study, I have come to the conclusion that all of these environmental toxins that we are exposed to each and every day are the root source and must be eradicated for us to be truly healthy. 

Arguably, organic crops are the healthiest, yet most farmers find it cost prohibitive and organic foods simply cost more. 
Not necessarily so.  The system simply is not geared to support that method of farming. We have ventured into industrial farming, with the spraying of huge amounts of toxics, which has and will have a disastrous effect on the health of our nation. There are small farmers that make up the bulk of our farms. I just visited a project in Detroit where there is a revitalization program going on  wherein they cleared areas of dilapidated houses and now have some 1,800 plots of organically grown farmland supported by the city and local community. The residents of nearby neighborhoods come over to tend the crops and it has proven to be highly successful. 

Was there any one occurrence that caused you concern about western medicine? 
It wasn’t necessarily any one occurrence that caused concern. The question is are we a healthy society, and I think not. I know for a fact that the average person over 65 suffers from 3 chronic conditions, be it diabetes, cardiac, or osteoporosis issues. How does that happen? I decided long ago that for myself and my children, a proper diet was the key to good health. In all fairness, we do need western medicine, it is the best in the world for immediate and acute kind of care, but unless absolutely necessary, less invasive measures should be the first option. I have what I describe as a therapeutic Order of Healing, which encompasses every single system of medicine, and importantly starts at the bottom. Nature will, if possible, eliminate the cause. I firmly believe that in our society, when seeking care, we start at the top, whereas we should begin at the bottom and choose a natural healing as a  first option. If the illness persists, only then do we climb the ladder to a more intrusive kind of care. I also believe that nutrition and palliative care run up and down the entire spectrum. We need pharmaceuticals, but we should not start there. 

You describe yourself as an ‘Accidental Activist.’ Do you really think that I would choose this path? I have always been an artist, and I did promise to pay it forward so I have always been a philanthropist to whatever degree I could. Once I was positioned where I could do more as a philanthropist, I was selective in where the dollars were contributed, and as such I became somewhat of an activist promoting the causes that I believed would do the most good for individuals and for our planet. A good friend once asked why I kept the three separate and not combine them as one, which was great advice and the artist/activist/ philanthropist in me have become one. 

When did you begin to create meaningful works of art for sale? There came a time when I simply had to support myself, and my art was the conduit whereby I could develop a source of income. I used to sell my art, both in glass and large water media artwork, working with an agent who promoted my pieces. It was fortuitous that we did very well and it allowed me to broaden my horizon. 

“Wherever one may stand in the hourglass of time, the simple truth is that proper nutrition at whatever stage in life will add strength to the body and one’s life will be improved.” 

 Have you strong feelings about how art can assist those in need of care? Absolutely. I have funded and worked with the National Organization for Arts & Health, which I find a very important aspect of palliative care. Research has shown that on average, we cannot focus on two things at the same time. If the patient is focusing on art, clearly it lessens the pain. I have funded an Art Cart program at UCSD Hillcrest where the long term patients actually begin paintings of their own. At Cal State San Marcos, Darlene Shiley and I funded 3 separate programs for the practitioners in palliative and hospice care. 

Aroma therapy, Art of Healing, and Nutrition. All 3 have become the most popular programs. At  first, some questioned the value of a nutrition program for those near death.  The simple answer is that nutrition at any stage of life will add strength to the body and their life will be improved. It turns out that it is a very powerful resource in palliative care and hospice. 

Some years ago, you began to bring people of various professions together within your home in what you describe as Salons for a collaboration of ideas? 
It was a model that I sort of fell into. First of all, I could do it as I lived in a home that could accommodate large groups, yet Covid put a crimp on all of it. I am not certain that we can return to the normalcy that encouraged people to closely unite. We had visitors of various professions that came from across the nation and some internationally. It proved highly successful and opened the door to long term relationships with some very interesting and committed professionals. 

You began a Foundation to inspire collaboration. Has it met with success? I feel so. I did it slowly and methodically, and the impact it has had in a variety of forums has shown positive results. I fund basically for groups and collaboratives where I think it will have the most impact, usually connected with environmental studies, seeking to find the root cause for what is a affecting our health, and similar research. There are a great many people doing discovery research that are not receiving grants or being funded, and should I find interest in their work, I do step in and provide funds. 

You have stated that we are all in this together, yet the country seems well divided, and collaboration on most issues resoundingly moot. 
I think back to our founding fathers who would be rolling over in their graves  could they see what has happened to the great democracy that they created for us, which simply is not in practice today. Politicians that used to vigorously showcase their ideas and proposals during the day, would gather in the evening and share camaraderie. Those days have passed. Opposing sides are now chastised if seen together on friendly turf. I do believe it requires a grass roots effort for any meaningful change. 

Your book cover and photography is beyond eye-catching and its content so moving. 
Each year, Jan Phillips and I pick a region, trying to find places that have not been photographed so much, which usually requires an off road vehicle and often a good deal of map reading. She and I have visited 12 regions of the country, 12 years together. Our first book is titled Finding Ourselves on Sacred Ground, and we now find ourselves working on another nature-photo-essay commentary on how nature looks so pristine, yet shocking what lies beneath. Every state, every region has environmental degradation that is adding to the toxicity our planet is suffering from. 

Being with Jan in nature and seeing all its splendor has helped mold the way I feel about Mother Nature and our planet, still believing that we can’t have personal health without planetary health. I am the artist, desktop publisher and book designer on all books, and all projects Jan and I do together. Jan is the poet. We collaborate on the content. We always put our friendship rst when we start a project, and make a commitment that if we run into a disagreement, our friendship comes first, and we have yet to deviate from that commitment. 

You seem to be energized and gain resilience most from nature? Absolutely. It is so clear to me that I am a part of nature, part of that giant ecosystem. I think that many feel that they are above and superior to nature and are using this planet as a resource to support their goals, and the results are tragically dramatic. 

Have you seen improvement toward an environmentally sound planet? 
There has been a lot of improvement. Awareness helps create improvement. I try to create awareness and collaboration and the improvement will come. Over this past year, during the Covid pandemic, with countries worldwide in lockdown, many improvements in our environment became apparent.  The quality of the air we breathe, water purity, a cleaner ocean. It doesn’t take long for Mother Nature to regenerate at this stage of the journey. It can and must be done with an informed and conscientious populace. 

Of the many programs that you have supported, is there one dear to your heart? 
I have long been a supporter of non-profits as a volunteer and more so in recent years through funding those I feel are doing the most good and and which often unrecognized as such. When I  first came to San Diego, there was so very little information to be found about what non-profits even existed within the County.    I approached the University of San Diego and we came together to form a curriculum under the heading of the Non-Profit Institute with a Doctoral, Masters, and Certificate programs. It has become the darling of USD, graduating more Masters students than all other programs. 

I have been on its Board through 3 Presidents of the University and just signed on for another term. Cal State San Marcos is another, both of which have very good people doing very good work. I cannot nor will I slow down until we find ourselves on a path protecting this wonderful planet, so in need, and so precious to each and everyone one globally. 

Photography by Gilda Adler