Lessons to Learn from Proyecto ContraSIDA Por Vida

American social organizations, meant to help individuals in society, generally take two approaches to dealing with their clients. The first method of dealing with clients is by classifying them (such as jail and the United States funded social services programs), and the second type of social organization is that which allows the individuals/clientele to classify themselves. What I have found is that organizations that classify individuals usually have to force people to go, whereas, organizations that allow the clientele to classify themselves usually have people naturally come. It’s quite simple: if you were to walk into a restaurant and someone immediately came up to you with a clipboard and a pen, asking you to fill out a form – listing your gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, drug habits, list of misdemeanors, educational background, etc. – you would probably immediately leave the restaurant. However, if one were to create a space where people could come together and classify themselves with artistic expression and friendships, people would feel natural and at home and thus fill the place. In formed communities where people can identify themselves, people will take on identities, but instead of an outsider creating their identity, they will keep their sense of humanity and not become just another number.

Juana Maria Rodriguez introduced me to an activist group that serves as an inspiration to me and should be an example of how to successfully organize a community group looking to help people. Formed in San Francisco this group, called Proyecto ContraSIDA Por Vida, showed the complexities and importance of allowing one’s clientele to form their identity themselves. And as Rodriguez shows Proyecto was extremely skilled in doing this:

“Sex workers come in to pick up free condoms before running off to work, newly arrived immigrants come to find out about the intricacies of creating green cards and social security numbers, multihued transgenders and intravenous drug users stop by for information on needle exchanges for drugs and hormones, the queer neighborhood homeboys and girls come by to flirt or hang out with familiar faces” (Queer Latinidad 50, Rodriguez).

“Sandra Ruiz, Proyecto’s youth health educator, comments, “all kinds of people stop and look in our windows, including grandmothers, cops, and kids…They ask, ‘What is this place?’ Well, this is a place where I can be everything I am” (50, Rodriguez)

The way in which Rodriguez shows that Proyecto does this is by first recognizing the fact that we as humans are complex, not necessarily boiled down to binaries (man, woman) (white, black) (straight, gay) but as Proyecto stated in its mission statement

Multigender because we believe as the gay poet Carl Morse states, “…I want at least 121 different words to describe gender. Because there are at least that many ways of having, practicing, or experiencing gender. Different nombres, different cuerpos, different deseos, different culturas coming together to form a community” (51 Queer Latinidad, Rodriguez)

In addition to creating a welcoming environment that embraced human differences and similarities Proyecto involved the community in the formation of its very organization. Members of the community pooled their artistic, interpretive, and physical skills to create pamphlets, posters, community forum series, multilingual rap groups, organized retreats, soccer teams (i.e. Las Diablitas for young women), etc. (Rodriguez, 55) Thus as any group looking to help the community should do, Proyecto let the community transform and add to the work of the staff.

A third way that Proyecto was successful as a community activist group is the ways in which their ideologies matched the ideologies of the people that they were serving. Many AIDs awareness groups in the United States focus on prevention of AIDs through celibacy and anti-sexuality. Proyecto went against this model by “having a commitment to providing sex positive programming and having a commitment to harm reduction as a model for prevention and treatment” (Rodriguez, 49). In this way people in the community could express their sexual desires while at the same time talking about intelligent ways to prevent the spread and difficulties associated with HIV/AIDs.

Although Proyecto, which began in 1993 and shut down in the August of 2005, could be seen as an organization that would only work in the confines of its specific demographic, time, and place, I would argue that the example shown by Proyecto is one that should be brought to all avenues of community activism and services. By allowing people to have a free space instead of one confined by outsider labels, allowing the client to shape and improve his community as much as the worker does, and the staff sharing the ideologies of the people they are speaking to, I think an organization like Proyecto can truly be by the people and for the people!

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2 thoughts on “Lessons to Learn from Proyecto ContraSIDA Por Vida

  1. I think this post makes an interesting point about the value of self-identification. You point out that Rodriguez shows how Proyecto ContraSIDA Por Vida was successful in creating an open environment for its clientele because it didn’t force outsider categories of gender and sexuality upon them. It seems to me that this is generally a good practice. But I wonder if this emphasis on the right to self-identify that I constantly hear about in these sorts of accounts can tend to efface the ways that society’s imposition of identity categories on people really does matter a whole lot.

    For example, I tend to identify myself as queer, pomosexual, a faggot, and a whole lot of other labels that many people find confusing or offensive. But not only are these self-chosen identities themselves formed by an existing vocabulary that comes from hegemonic society, but they are often totally illegible by that society when I use them in the ways that I do. When I use these labels for myself when talking to people outside the queer community, they can be misinterpreted. For that reason it often makes sense for me to use identity labels that are more recognizable in mainstream society, such as gay, even though I don’t personally identify with that term. I might have my own ideas about who I am, but in a sociological context these self-identified categories don’t matter that much because the society I live in interprets me through its own dominant lens, and those interpretations have a lot more power behind them than ones I choose for myself.

  2. I thought the ideas you presented on the problems associated with self-identification such as misinterpretation by the listener (confusion/offensive) was a really excellent critique of my original post that made me think about it in a new light. For example, the point you posed on the difficulty of defining your sexuality because of people’s misinterpretations or just complete ignorance of certain words brought up a much needed idea that identification in general is impossible if the listener is not willing to broaden his/her own understandings of identity. Your example really illustrated the point as it seems like some people are forced into self-identifying as gay so that other people can understand. When you might have wanted to really identify as queer, pomosexual, faggot you were left with no other choice other then to just say your gay.
    This reminded me of the discussion we had in class on Marxist theory and how the state not only has a repressive state apparatus but also how it has an ideological state apparatus. The state works in two ways, one by directly cracking down (by force: i.e. imprisonment) , and the other by creating a consciousness in the people as what is normal and what is outside the norm. Thus in this case the state only acknowledges gay as legitimate and identities like pomosexual, faggot, queer are pushed away by the state by not being acknowledged. The state doesn’t do this directly by saying what’s not ok, but they do it indirectly by breeding the society to have a certain social consciousness (i.e. through education).

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