The Art and Science of Procuring Free Shit
by Clay Carter
For one weekend every May the Anaheim Convention centers hosts the California Dental Association (CDA). The BFC Dental section sends volunteers to the convention to run a small booth, collect donations, and cultivate charitable relationships with dental providers and vendors. This year Scott, Anna, Marrina, Tiffany and myself attended. In terms of its goals, aesthetics, and practices the CDA convention is the antithesis of the Berkeley Free Clinic. Examining my discomfort with these elements of the convention helped me recognize how special the BFC really is and also appreciate the moments of humanity and charity we encountered at the event.
First of all, I take the BFC’s mission statement seriously: “Healthcare for people not profit.” There is perhaps nowhere on earth where that mission seems more impossible and naive than CDA Anaheim’s enormous carnival of flashy corporate displays, slick salespeople and beautiful models with fluorescent teeth. Dentistry is big business and the goal of CDA Anaheim is to facilitate that business. Americans spend close to $120 billion on dental care every year and American dental providers spend over $9 billion yearly on equipment and materials. The Anaheim Convention Center was crowded with thousands of dental supply companies showing-off their new products, schmoozing with California’s dentists and defending their share of this massive market. Watching people peddle CT machines like Cadillacs always upsets me, particularly when so many Americans struggle to afford necessary dental work.
Besides a handful of charitable clinics that were located on the furthest aisle, no one discussed accessibility, let alone community control of health services. Most of the charitable clinics focused on Christian missionary trips to the Third World. Almost no one highlighted the plight within our own Californian communities, which is why it is so critical that the BFC attends these events. The big exception to this was the Denti-Cal booth, California’s state-subsidized dental insurance. The booth was attracting new providers by boasting a 40% increase in reimbursement rates, making it more economically feasible for dentists who have to compete in the market. That’s a big deal.
I have long been drawn to how the BFC looks and feels like an authentic remnant of Berkeley’s legendary counterculture. Having attended four CDA conventions, I haven’t outgrown the fantasy that we are a ragtag rebel group stealing materials from rich corporations to give to the poor. The spectacle and artifice of the CDA Convention in Anaheim took me a long time to digest. The Anaheim Convention Center is quite literally in the shadow of Tomorrowland’s Space Mountain and it is caught in the gravitational pull of Disneyland’s kitschy alternative reality. The surrounding avenues are broad and well-maintained and the street signs are ornately styled in a way that I can only think to call fairytale-utilitarian. The Convention Center has a vast gleaming facade of glass and steel draped with towering banners and advertisements. Inside there are three cavernous exhibit halls which house 25 aisles, each of which extends longer than a football field. There are close to one million square feet of exhibit space maintained and operated by people uniformed in a cartoonish style that as far as I know, exists nowhere outside of Disneyland. The bigger companies have impressive displays with gargantuan LCD displays, shiny plastic edifices and dozens of handsome salesmen with thick necks straining against uniform turquoise neckties. That said, for every Crest-OralB representative that brushes off BFC volunteers, telling us to visit the Proctor and Gamble website’s charity tab, there will be three small business owners at modest booths who completely humble me with their generosity.
We spoke to dental laboratories who may donate dentures and met several Bay Area dentists who were interested in volunteering with us. By the time the convention was wrapping up on Saturday afternoon we had secured material donations from about 20 different companies. Most of the supplies we got were low-cost disposable items that are critically important to our operation and that we use a lot of. For years, Glove Club, Beesure and Valumax have been very reliable in their generous donations of gloves, masks, gowns and other disposable supplies. We also received donations of instruments and various restorative materials.
Gathering supplies so far from home comes with logistical challenges. Going to Anaheim requires a large investment of time from our volunteers and can be inconvenient. Marrina and Anna in particular had to race back to the Bay Area as soon as the convention ended in order to take their X-ray certification exams! In previous years we’ve transported the donations with a rented van, but this year I just packed them into the back of my mom’s car.