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Improving Activism

January 25, 2002

AIDS activists continue to be highly effective. But there are not enough people to do the work that needs to be done. Perhaps the most important challenge to AIDS treatment activists today is making it easier for new people to become involved.

Historically, most ACT UP chapters and other treatment activist organizations had no training program to help with the steep learning curve (on treatment information, on learning how to deal with pharmaceutical, government, and other officials, on working with press and the media, and on working with allies and within the organization itself). This is changing; for example, the new national organization ATAC (AIDS Treatment Activist Coalition) is intensely interested in training and mentoring new activists. For more information, see:

Often treatment activists are so involved in the issues that there is little thought to maintenance of the organization -- for example, little outreach to explain to the community what they are doing and why, and to let people know what assistance they need. Several years ago ACT UP Golden Gate (now Survive AIDS) solved several of these problems by getting a weekly column on AIDS treatment in the Bay Area Reporter, a San Francisco gay newspaper. The columns were written by a "writers pool" of five or six members, and most had an action-alert box in addition. It took considerable work from a coordinator to make sure that a volunteer finished an article every week.

ACT UP Philadelphia successfully reaches across race and class barriers, and as a result is probably the largest ACT UP chapter in the world. It can get hundreds of people to demonstrations even outside the city, in Washington or New York. Project TEACH, an excellent education program of Philadelphia FIGHT, has trained hundreds of peer educators in treatment and activism.

A widespread problem retaining people is that AIDS activists have traditionally been too harsh with each other, apparently more so than in most social movements. Most of the disputes have been due to personality differences, accidents, misunderstandings, or escalating "flame wars" where each tries to outdo the other with insults -- rather than substantive disagreements. People needed to give each other more slack, and that is happening now. Everyone knows there is more than enough work to go around, and that nobody can be sure they are right.

If we may mention our own work in conflict prevention, we have developed a kind of education designed to take place in the interaction rituals of everyday life -- not in special classes or settings. The idea is to design "practices" (self-training exercises completely integrated with whatever we are doing anyway) for using routine errands and other throwaway moments to build skills for better communication, personal interaction, and relationship development. For more information, see:

ISSN # 1052-4207

Copyright 2002 by John S. James. Permission granted for noncommercial reproduction, provided that our address and phone number are included if more than short quotations are used.

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