Living Learning Space: Recognizing Public Pedagogy in a Small Town AIDS Service Organization
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In the early days of HIV/AIDS in North America, those most directly affected by the crisis created a social movement to respond to the virus when no one else would. The legacy of activists’ efforts can be seen in the more than seventy-five AIDS service organizations (ASOs) that provide prevention, support, and education to communities across Ontario today. While these organizations were once an important site of advocacy and resistance for people living with HIV/AIDS (PHAs), ASOs are now often viewed as professionalized, bureaucratic and impersonal spaces. Linking theoretical understandings of public pedagogy and the pedagogical potential of space with HIV/AIDS scholarship, I offer a conception of ASOs as more than simply impersonal service providers, but vibrant spaces of community learning. Drawing on interviews with people who work, volunteer, and use services at a small ASO in Kingston, Ontario called HIV/AIDS Regional Services (HARS), I identify three pedagogical assets within the agency’s space that tend to go unrecognized as such. The agency’s drop-in space, artworks created by PHAs that decorate the walls of the office, and HARS’ storefront design are not usually counted as elements of the kind of formal “HIV/AIDS education” that ASOs provide. However, by exploring the learning experiences that are incited by these assets, I argue that we may broaden our understandings of what counts as HIV/AIDS education and of the value of ASOs in their communities. These unacknowledged assets not only enhance peoples’ understanding of issues related to HIV/AIDS, they also work to develop a sense of community and belonging for visitors to the space. In conclusion, I reiterate that while today’s ASOs are surely different than the organizations that activists created in the 1980s, the learning experiences that arise in agencies like HARS demonstrate that community-building and mutual support can remain as integral aspects of ASOs.