(2) Intersectionality in Grassroots Organizing

Kimberlé Crenshaw (photo credit: Columbia Law School

A social theory that I have found to be relevant to my work with Act-Up is the theory of intersectionality. Intersectionality was coined by the Black feminist scholar and lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw when discussing the nuanced experience with discrimination that Black women face in the United States along the lines of race and gender. By definition, intersectionality is “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” The theory of intersectionality allows those who observe the social order to understand that all social constructions affect one another and, often times, rely on one another to function. With grassroots organizing, specifically, intersectionality is a concept that is ever present in the work.

If intersectionality is not applied to your activism, you will not be able to work towards equity for all marginalized groups of people. Personally, as a Jewish queer person, intersectionality has allowed me to examine and better understand the nuances of my identity and how systems of oppression both harm and benefit my existence. I believe this self introspection is needed when involved in social justice work. You must understand your own positionality to adequately and ethically help others.

HIV/AIDS activism is an intersectional sector of health care activism and health care prevention. Many different aspects of identity determine who is at a greater risk of contracting the disease. For example, low income folks of color are at a greater risk of contracting HIV/AIDS than their middle to upper class white counterparts, since resources like comprehensive sexual education and contraceptives are not as accessible. If you do not consider the relationship between financial and racial discrimination, you will not be able to acknowledge the nuanced struggles this community faces.

In regards to the theory of intersectionality and its importance within the Boston chapter of Act-Up, I believe that the lack of racial diversity informs my thinking about our work and the image Act-Up Boston is creating for itself. Act-Up has a history of not being an inclusive space for HIV positive people of color. Many documentaries showcasing HIV/AIDS activism in New York City in the eighties and nineties highlight this in the demographics of folks involved in their work and interviews with certain Black members of Act-Up.

I still see remnants of this exclusivity present in how our chapter functions. For example, an organizer who is much older and more experienced than me suggested collaborating on projects and events with organizations of color across the northeast. This would be a step towards gaining more racial diversity for our chapter and creating a space where decolonizing racism is an integral part to bettering HIV/AIDS prevention. I suggested partnering with specific student organizing groups in the Boston area as a way to work towards this goal and giving student organizers the chance to work with a very well-known international organization. Unfortunately, after sharing this idea, the fellow organizer did not respond enthusiastically or even follow up with me to discuss further steps. I found this very interesting, as this person spoke at great lengths about why this supposedly bothered her, but when I took time to think of solutions and be proactive, they did not take part.

I have tried reaching out to student organizations like the Brandeis Leftist Union to collaborate on events for this summer. My close friend who runs our leftist union is very excited for the collaboration of our safer sex ed workshop for college age students that will center HIV/AIDS prevention in its curriculum. However, when it comes to being proactive, I find that I am one of few who follow through with the logistics that are necessary to making these creations and connections with folks possible.