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!