(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.

(1) The Beginning

Act-Up is a grassroots international organization that advocates for HIV/AIDS prevention and other intersecting social justice struggles related to the epidemic (safe drug use, anti-sexual violence, etc).

I wanted to work with Act-Up for many reasons.  First, I took Prof. Vijayakumar’s course “HIV/AIDS, Society, and Politics” and found an interest in HIV/AIDS activism because it is so intersectional with women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.  I also have volunteered for harm reduction services as a high school student, many of which provided needle exchanges, and taking Prof. Vijayakumar’s course allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the work I had previously done but was too young to understand, and how important the field of harm reduction is at large.  Second, I am a New York native who is also a theater kid.  Inevitably, I am very familiar with all of the performance art that came out of the 80-90s in New York City that centered on HIV/AIDS activism.

The chapter is comprised of members with a lot of experience in harm reduction work, specifically with people who use drugs.  There are also members in medical schools, nonprofit work, and fine art, which makes a group of adults well-versed in how one can advocate for human rights in many mediums.  

Act-Up Boston addresses a lot of social injustices as they intersect with HIV/AIDS activism.  Besides working towards reduce HIV/AIDS transmission, the Boston chapter of Act-Up does a lot of community education on safer drug use, unsafe drug use, and the houselessness crisis in Massachusetts.  This, inevitably, intersects with combating homophobia, racism, transphobia, etc. Strategies include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Rallies and protests
  • Live and virtual panel discussions addressing safer drug use, HIV/AIDS prevention, etc.
  • HIV/AIDS prevention via community education workshops
  • Narcan trainings
  • Creating art projects as a means of prevention

So far, I have been responsible for facilitating or note-taking during our weekly meetings.  I keep track of our action items (upcoming events and projects) for each meeting, along with taking on the multitude of small tasks that need to be completed (emailing, social media updates, checking in with members). I help design promotional fliers for our virtual panels in the Month of May and for Boston Pride events that Act-Up was involved in, and I help think of new events and activities for each month, along with spearheading them. 

I think my eagerness to incorporate more arts activism into Act-Up’s work will inspire the mission to continue to include the arts in their work, especially during community engagement activities as a form of processing emotions and seeking creative solutions as a collective.  Additionally, I am currently starting to outreach with other organizations to host community facilitation courses on safer sex and safer drug use, which are incredibly relevant to the present atrocities occurring in the Supreme Court in regards to reproductive rights.  

In addition to the impact my work will have, I think my personality has allowed me to bring more mindfulness into the organizing space.  Most of my fellow organizers are adults with a bunch of jobs, adult obligations, and life stressors that I am not experiencing yet.  Being the youngest member and being a very extroverted person, I’ve started to make a conscious effort to check in with everyone and create an environment where everyone is getting to know each other a little more each day.  

Change and progress look like a million different things.  Change looks like having difficult, tedious conversations with close friends and family or total strangers.  Change looks like listening to your colleagues/peers when they are discussing their expertise.  Progress looks like consistent public outreach and seeing 2-3 new members at each chapter meeting.  Progress looks like acknowledging your own implicit biases and harmful beliefs that you may have stuffed down, but now have the language to understand and correct.