In this project I’m studying how people think and talk about engagement, through case studies involving emerging initiatives that have what I’m calling an interstitial quality. What does that mean? It means they are operating in gaps or spaces left vacant by more established organisations and agencies, often due to funding and policy constraints.
My first case study is an organisation called Unharm, which has the vision of making drug use as positive, ethical and safe as it can be in a world where drugs exist. Unharm is a grassroots organisation that mobilises communities, and it’s also a network of committed, experienced policy advocates and political strategists. I’m involved with Unharm both as a researcher and, to a more limited extent, as a participant – drawing on skills developed in my work as a communications strategist.
Working with Unharm has helped me to refine the focus of my PhD project. In my previous work as project officer for the What Works and Why (W3) project at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, we drew on systems thinking methods and complex systems theory to describe peer-based programs as mediating between two complex systems: the community and the policy system.
The key thing about engaging with complex systems is that you are constantly working under conditions of uncertainty; you never have a complete picture of what they’re doing. As Unharm develops its own characteristic way of doing things, I’m learning how emerging movements are working to create a network in order to influence a system.
Pretty soon I’ll begin my second case study, the U=U movement led by Bruce Richman and the Prevention Access Coalition. U=U is a simple message with revolutionary consequences: it means Undetectable = Untransmittable. If you’re living with HIV and you’re on effective treatment, undetectable viral load means you cannot transmit HIV.
The U=U movement is a global community of people living with HIV and their allies. The movement offers members a highly effective coordinating platform for advocacy initiatives. Sometimes this takes the form of a rapid strike in response to outdated and stigmatising messages and policy decisions, however the U=U movement has also established relationships with respected scientists and influential policy-makers.
So far, the U=U community has demonstrated the possibilities of social media in bringing together what Zizi Papacharissi has called affective publics. U=U is both effective and affective – as a movement it encourages and coordinates advocacy, but it also mobilises feelings and emotions like urgency and commitment, caring and warmth.
Photo credit: Ed Sijmons (Flickr, 2014).