ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, has been fighting for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS and for human rights-based HIV prevention in Philadelphia for 20 years. Longtime member Jose de Marco says, "People at our meetings -- community members living with HIV and our allies -- decide what political issues to work on. Sometimes, our campaigns choose us -- they come to us and bang on the door." One action de Marco is most proud of? Interrupting John Kerry during a campaign speech in 2004, which helped inspire Kerry to double Bush's global AIDS funding promise from $15 billion to $30 billion.
Once ACT UP lays out its basic plans for a campaign, it may plan a demonstration or other type of action. This is where teach-ins come in. ACT UP goes to drug recovery houses, classes for people living with HIV at a local AIDS service organization, and other groups to invite people from the larger community to participate.
Here are de Marco's seven basic steps for a successful teach-in at a homeless shelter:
- Empathize with shelter residents. You have to put yourself in other people's shoes. One time when I went to the shelter to do a teach-in, I had on old jeans with holes in them and a dirty T-shirt, and the staff asked me in a really mean way, "Where are you going?" I didn't like the way they talked to me, so I ignored them. It was horrible -- almost a confrontation. It really gave me insight into how people are treated there. I was just a person that they thought was homeless. Folks in the shelters aren't treated with respect. They're treated like animals. I could imagine having to kiss feet just to stay there.
- Be out and proud. AIDS is a stigmatizing subject in a shelter. A lot of people still think you can get it by taking a shower behind someone. I always tell them that I'm HIV positive right off the bat. They usually respect you because you did that, and HIV positive people in the room will feel more comfortable. Even if they don't come out, they're thinking, "Here's someone from an AIDS group, and he's being really open about it."
- Meet people where they're at. You need to have a great deal of respect for the people there and what they're dealing with. There's a lot going on in their lives. Probably in the back of everyone's mind, they're thinking, "I don't want to be in this shelter anymore." So it can be hard to engage people in conversation. Maybe the last thing they're thinking about is going to an action. But they're probably already angry with the system. You need to find some way to talk about the issue that hits home. If you're not talking about homeless issues, try to relate the issue you're focusing on to something that's happened in their lives. For example, if your demonstration is against higher co-pays for medicines, even if you're homeless, you still have to pay them -- and it'll be even harder for you than for people with more resources.
- Start a real conversation. Depending on the time constraints, I attempt a popular education approach. I usually have everyone in the room talk a little bit. Sometimes people go off on tangents about unrelated stuff. I try to keep the discussion to the topic at hand. We go around the room and get everyone's opinion on the issue. "Why do you think this is happening? What do you think should be done about it?" You don't want anyone to feel excluded. You need to build a feeling of inclusiveness. Let the group know that you want to hear what everyone has to say. And it's really true, you do. You can always learn something that can make your campaigns stronger. People often come out with some real wisdom.
- Take people's concerns seriously. They may think they don't have a right to go to a demonstration. A lot of folks don't have identification, or they may have bench warrants, and they're afraid to come to a demonstration. Tell them that they have every right to complain and every right to be a part of the discourse on the issues. Sometimes you get a full bus. One time we only got about four people to come out. After organizing with ACT UP for more than 11 years, I've learned that if people are getting their checks that day, they don't have time for a demonstration. Make sure the demo isn't set for a day when people need to deal with financial obligations.
- Consider working on an activist campaign around shelter issues. As AIDS activists, we need to be part of movements against poverty and homelessness. One issue to organize around would be nutritious food. If the people who ran the shelters realized that the people forced to live there are human beings as well, they'd make sure that the conditions are sanitary, the food isn't rotten, and the facilities are clean. A guard was selling crack at one of the shelters here in Philly. Often in the shelters, there's no Spanish translation, which makes many people feel even more isolated. The people who run the shelters need to talk to people who live there -- a community advisory board or oversight committee is needed. And stop treating people like animals. I call it the bootstrap mentality; I've seen it a lot with people in recovery. The people who work at shelters need training. It must be overwhelming if you don't have appropriate training. And the shelters need more money. HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS) funding just isn't there anymore.
- Keep giving yourself a reality check. I could end up in a shelter one day. You could. People in shelters probably thought it could never happen to them. I try to remember this when I'm doing a teach-in at a shelter.
Jose de Marco is with ACT UP Philadelphia and Proyecto SOL (Latino AIDS Leadership Organization).