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Vol. LIX, No. 18
September 7, 2007

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Documenting Social Change
NIH Seminar Details History of ACT UP

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In 2001, Sarah Schulman was driving a rental car in Los Angeles when she heard a radio story recognizing the 20th anniversary of AIDS. "They said, 'At first, America had trouble with people with AIDS, but then they came around,'" Schulman explained in an NIH History of Medicine seminar. "And I just knew I could not continue my life without making sure that no one would ever say something like that again."

The words hit her because, as a writer and activist long involved with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, she had memories of "all of my good friends, and all of the thousands of people who spent their lives-some of them to their deaths-forcing this country to change its policies toward AIDS and people with AIDS," she said. "And to have that naturalized, as though the dominant ulture was so enlightened they just happened to 'get it' one day, we just couldn't let that happen."


  ACT UP demonstrators march at NIH in 1990.  
  ACT UP demonstrators march at NIH in 1990.  
Her solution was to get together with her friend Jim Hubbard, a filmmaker who also worked in ACT UP, and develop a way to document all that the group achieved. The result is the ACT UP Oral History Project, an archive of interviews with surviving members of the group that was formed in 1987 to raise public consciousness about AIDS and that, according to Schulman, "is probably the most recent successful social movement in American history."

With the interviews, 80 of them now completed, and with a documentary film project under way called United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, Schulman and Hubbard hope not only to "present comprehensive, complex, human, collective and individual pictures of the people who have made up ACT UP/New York," according to their web site, but also to "demystify the process of making social change, remind us that change can be made and help us understand how to do it."

Sarah Schulman Jim Hubbard Demonstrators “Storm the NIH” in 1990.

Sarah Schulman (l) and Jim Hubbard (c) discuss the ACT UP Oral History Project. Above, demonstrators "Storm the NIH" in 1990.

Schulman, a novelist, playwright, journalist and professor of English at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, provided an overview of the project for the NIH audience, noting that the last time she was on campus, she participated in the ACT UP "Storm the NIH" action, a demonstration of about 1,000 protesters here on May 21, 1990. She said the oral history project has been fascinating because, as they conduct and film interviews, they're developing a cumulative knowledge of the movement.

It's also interesting due to the "wide spectrum of people" in the interviews. "Let me tell you, it's every kind of person. We go into the richest homes and the poorest. We talk to people who are very accredited and have accomplished a great deal and we go to people who really have not realized in their own lives what they thought their potential was," she said. "We could find no cofactor [among them] except for the fact that at the moment that history asked them to, they rose to the challenge."

Hubbard, a filmmaker since 1974 and film preservationist for the last 15 years, said tapes of the interviews are available at the New York and San Francisco public libraries, but the main source of access is the web site, where 61 interviews can now be seen. So far this year, 23,000 people from around the world have downloaded transcripts of the interviews, he said.

Hubbard showed clips from interviews, then presented a sample reel from the film that included portraits of two activists who died, as well as pieces documenting two ACT UP actions: "Seize Control of the FDA" in 1988 and "Stop the Church," a demonstration at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York in 1989. The film integrates footage from the time with recent interviews "so you can get a sense of continuity and how social change is made," Schulman said.

She said one reason for the project is "we feel there are a lot of people in this country who want social change right now, but they don't know how to do it." When she was growing up, she said, images of the Civil Rights movement made her aware of social action, but now "those images aren't as available." She and Hubbard want younger generations to see that the lesson of ACT UP is "three people can make change if they're persistent." She added that the group operated in a way Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated, which was to "educate yourself so you really understand the issue, make a demand that's reasonable and doable, present that demand to the powers that be who can enact it, and when they refuse, you do civil disobedience until they are forced by pressure to take that action."

She also believes the project offers a view of people with AIDS much different from the way they are often portrayed in the media, as in the story she heard on the radio 6 years ago. "What we have uncovered is that this was a community.who joined together and forced this country-against its will-to change its policies, thereby saving each others' lives," she said. "That's the story we want to tell." NIH Record Icon

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