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Higher Education Modules

Society at Odds: the Evolution of AIDS Outreach and Education in America

About the Module

Emily W. Easton has researched cultural and media representations of AIDS for more than a decade. She began her research as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, writing her BA thesis on newspaper coverage of AIDS in the 1980s as compared New York and Chicago. As her focus shifted to critical theory in her graduate work, her continued interest in the social and cultural legacies of AIDS connected her with this project, where she has helped to write content for the digital galleries and authored this module. Her current research focuses on cultural capital in online spaces, specifically how people learn and consume culture with the new promises (and perils) of the Internet. She has most recently taught courses in the Cultural Studies department at Columbia College Chicago, which focused on introducing students to more critical views of media. Outside of her academic work, she is an accomplished administrator and active in several non-profits, most notably as a founder of Girls Rock! Chicago, which teaches empowerment and self-expression to girls through the writing and playing of their own music.

Suggested Use

The Society at Odds: the Evolution of AIDS Outreach and Educationin America module explores early AIDS outreach and education in a cultural context that stigmatized people instead of behaviors. The module presents perspectives from the activist and government levels, with a focus on the differences and commonalities between each approach. Using primary and secondary sources from a variety of media, students are encouraged to dissect and question the organizational responses to AIDS at several levels in order to better understand AIDS as a public health issue, as well as a social and cultural one. Classes are organized to provide both general perspectives and descriptions, but also case studies that help to explain how organizations and offices applied their understanding of how to best reach Americans. The first class provides a social historical overview of the early 1980s to help students understand the cultural climate at the beginning of the decade. Classes two and three offer insights from the activist organizations that formed and focused on AIDS awareness, advocacy, and education; the third class offers a case study of two activist outreach efforts that attempted to educate two distinct audiences with little support from outside their communities. Classes four and five present the governmental approach to AIDS education and outreach to help students understand the differences and challenges with more national efforts to educate Americans, and to provide a perspective on the political impact on the cultural climate of the 1980s. Class five offers a case study on the national “America Responds to AIDS” campaign. The final, sixth class synthesizes the material from the previous five classes to help students make connections and best understand how the cultural responses to AIDS came to shape policy and action for a more cohesive look at how America responded to AIDS.

For instructors, the complete module has been broken into classes to allow students to focus on the specifics of each type of outreach, while also making connections between them. By the end of the entire module, students should have a deeper sense of the complexities and intersections of each type of outreach and agenda that shaped the evolution of AIDS awareness. They also should understand how various types of support demonstrated deep cultural biases that ultimately helped spread of AIDS and negatively impacted the lives of those living with and dying from it. Students should not see these efforts as unrelated, but rather as both influencing and influenced by actions between conflicting responses in the federal government”s response.

The variety of media included here draws on several types of primary and secondary source material that instructors can tailor to their own academic objectives in order to best engage their students. Classes three and five reference collections from the digital gallery in Surviving and Thriving to offer specific examples of AIDS outreach and education efforts from organizations and groups at local, grassroots levels, as well as the national level. To best supplement these materials, this module provides direction to political speeches, newspaper articles, plays, biographies, oral histories, and additional materials that give a broader context to how Americans responded to AIDS.


At the conclusion of the module, Surviving and Thriving: American Responses to AIDS students are expected to:

  • Demonstrate a basic understanding of how AIDS outreach and education evolved through the 1980s.
  • Understand the simultaneous and interconnected evolution of to AIDS at different levels of American society response.
  • Understand how the social and cultural stigma of risk behaviors impacted the response to AIDS as a public health issue.
  • Recognize the differences and similarities between governmental and non-governmental responses and approaches, as well as their impacts.
  • Be able to compare the different responses to AIDS, including agendas and methods, at various levels of authority and community.
  • Gain a deeper understanding of how to examine and critique primary source media such as speeches, campaigns, oral histories, and news articles.