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Organizing in a Time of Anxiety: Taking Inspiration From the Gay Men’s Health Crisis

Deepak Bhargava Stephanie Luce Authors Practical Radicals New Press
Images: Courtesy New Press

For progressive organizers, it can sometimes feel like there is so much to do and so many injustices to fight that it's hard to even know where to begin. Here's how you can start.

We often feel duty-bound to tackle everything from a worsening climate catastrophe to systemic racism, economic inequality, global humanitarian crises, public health emergencies, rampant corporate greed and the potential threat of authoritarianism, just to name a few. It can be not only daunting, but also downright exhausting to face the challenges inherent in fighting for a more just and peaceful world.

At the same time, we’re organizers precisely because we want to make progress on intractable problems, and we know the solutions lie in the communities more directly impacted. In the midst of moments that feel hopeless – where it’s easy to slip into despair or inaction – we can instead use proven tools to spark action.

So, where to begin? It often takes multiple, aligned strategies to win meaningful change, and, as we point out in our book, Practical Radicals, context matters when you’re considering the best strategies to advance your vision. While some organizers may need to stop and take a bigger, long-term view before launching their efforts, others might need to hit the ground running to begin building a deep and diverse base of supporters. Drawing on our combined six decades of experience in movement building and organizing for progressive causes, we wrote our book to offer organizers some guidance in this fraught moment and to help them identify the strategies they need to win. Along the way, we dive into approaches used by dozens of other organizers past and present to show why strategy is vital to building and sustaining any movement for change.

One of the efforts we zeroed in on can be summed up as “how people make change when things are as terrible as they can be.” The Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) was founded in 1982 as the AIDS crisis had begun to devastate gay communities from New York to San Francisco and everywhere in between. GMHC exemplifies the strategy for social change we call collective care: efforts by an oppressed group to meet its own needs for survival and safety, often when the state fails to meet urgent human needs.

GMHC focused on education on HIV and prevention, supportive care for those who were sick and policy advocacy – work that ultimately laid the foundation for the emergence of more militant action later. Volunteers led and created an astonishing array of programs including GMHC’s signature “buddy program” where ten thousand volunteers were placed with total strangers in their homes to provide practical daily help, compassionate care and emotional support.

GMHC built trust, took risks and built care infrastructure with a political goal in mind: ending the AIDS crisis and uprooting homophobia. They rooted their policy advocacy in the experience of the people they were serving, as former volunteer-turned-leader David Hansell told us. GMHC moved the ball forward in ways that the movement’s direct action side couldn’t, but a collective-care group could. An example is how GMHC built bridges to important stakeholders like leaders in the Catholic Church who – despite their appalling hostility toward gay communities during the crisis – were critical to passing policies to support people with AIDS and could be won over on a tactical basis.

As former GMHC executive director Tim Sweeney said, “We bent the arc of the pandemic. We changed it. We didn’t bring an end to it, unfortunately, which is what our goal was, but we definitely saved millions of people.”

Collective care is a vastly underappreciated but essential element for social change movements. It strengthens solidarity by building trust and relationships that can be harnessed for political action. When care is embedded in the culture of an organization, it increases the capacity of ordinary people to engage in struggle and of organizers to stay in the movement for the long term.

Collective care strategies, like disruptive movements, often emerge as a response to crises and tragedies, particularly when governments are failing to meet the moment. When it feels like the world is ending, as it did for queer people in the darkest days of the AIDS crisis, sometimes the only thing you can do is turn toward each other and care for one another. In such circumstances, collective care can be a form of both survival and strategy.

And we know change doesn’t happen overnight. Like so many movements for transformative change, the AIDS crisis presented upsurges of intense activity between slow periods of frustration and even defeat. Landmark AIDS legislation wasn’t passed until 1990, eight years after GMHC’s founding, and there was still important work left to do. Movements need stamina, which is where care becomes not only helpful but also essential to staying in the fight.

This is all why you see elements of collective care strategies present in many different organizing lineages, including parts of the Black radical tradition, mutual aid, feminism, disability justice, labor, environmental, immigrant rights, and Indigenous traditions. And it operates alongside other, important strategies to win, like changing the narrative and engaging in disruptive action.

GMHC is emblematic of many movements for change that show that, even amidst periods of rage and despair, the world is full of generosity and kindness. By looking back, we can find the inspiration to move forward. Our movement ancestors show us that there is always a strategic and humane response available to us, even in the darkest times. They rose to the challenge of taking care of one another and our shared planet in circumstances even more challenging than we face today.

In the spirit of that history, every organizer needs to be rooted in lineage. You can find strength in generations of organizers who left us tools and strategies – including, notably, how to build and care in dark times – that we can renew and adapt to change the world.

Deepak Bhargava and Stephanie Luce are authors of Practical Radicals.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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