I think, tribalism is a mental prison…and pride of identity coupled with arrogance is one of the leading factors that limit one’s ability to abandon it. ― Duop Chal Wuol

Activism is as messy as the humans involved, yet all too often there seems to be an expectation that priorities will effortlessly coalesce simply because a group shares one or two common interests. Not only is this naïve, it would be counterproductive were it to be true.

For many years I’ve been involved in AIDS activism. I’m a white, cisgender, queer who is HIV negative, so when I first became active in the movement my initial priority – informed primarily by my own circumstances – was HIV prevention in the gay male community via promotion of safer sex practices. While that’s an important part of the cause, it’s far from the whole picture.

Messaging that promotes safer sex won’t reach men who have sex with men yet don’t identify as gay because their communities heavily stigmatize homosexuality. Likewise, promoting prevention via safer sex practices doesn’t help intravenous drug users who share needles. And while prevention is critical, it does nothing to help those who are already HIV positive. Research and development of effective pharmacological solutions is absolutely necessary, but of little help to those who don’t have the resources to access treatments once they hit the market.

Many of these concerns hardly registered for me when I first joined AIDS activism because what we want to see prioritized in any movement is often shaped by our own experiences – this unsurprising and understandable fact is what makes diversity so critical. Without varying perspectives, it’s too easy for a movement to miss the needs of others, ultimately forming an insular agenda and an alienating approach resulting from a vision that’s a little too shared.

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I’m no expert, but I’ve been active in a lot of causes over the years and have a few guiding principles I take with me into any cause I join; in true activist spirit, I’m open to any of them being challenged:

  1. A plurality of perspectives is non-negotiable; uniformity results in too narrow a vision
  2. A movement that attempts everything often achieves nothing
  3. The balance between these two will likely be an ongoing struggle – that’s okay
  4. Productive, challenging dissension should be welcomed
  5. Sniping, nonproductive discord should be discouraged
  6. The balance between these two will likely be an ongoing struggle – that’s okay
  7. It’s possible to focus on more than one issue at a time; a single priority is not only not a requirement, it can be the sign of an unhealthy movement
  8. You can focus on multiple priorities, but there are a finite number of resources: choose wisely
  9. The balance between these two will likely be an ongoing struggle – that’s okay
  10. Different groups attempting to achieve shared goals can have very different tactics and priorities
  11. Sometimes you may disagree with a group’s tactics and priorities strongly enough that you may need to walk away and find different ways to advocate
  12. The balance between these two will likely be an ongoing struggle – that’s okay

Above all else, in any form of activism respect for those with shared goals is paramount. The vast majority of activists are involved in their respective causes because they want to do good things; if we really take the time to understand another person or group’s perspective, we can likely find common ground – even if doing good is the simple extent of it.

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When I think back on the causes I’ve been involved with I can always find at least one common goal: reducing harm. While that’s hardly enough to focus a movement, it’s certainly a priority we can all agree on.