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Changing the Course of AIDS: Peer Education in South Africa and Its Lessons for the Global Crisis

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[Excerpted from the Foreward by Charles Deutsch, Sc.D.] David Dickinson asks the question: How can we inject into the busy, distracted, difficult lives of the least educated and poorest among us the opportunity, and eventually the habit, to think critically about their social norms and behaviors; that is, about how to keep themselves and their loved ones healthy in a terribly dangerous environment? The answer is: Purposefully, persistently, with system and intent, through judicious infiltration of the social networks people live and act in. It requires intensive, sustainable face-to-face social strategies in which trusted people listen to what is being said and believed, and respond with stories that are not only accurate but also memorable and credible, and can compete successfully with the myths and beliefs that support dangerous norms. In some settings, such as schools, churches, mosques, and sports programs, peer education can be structured and scheduled. In other contexts, such as most workplaces, it is more informal and impromptu, but with many predictable opportunities to be prepared for. It is the why, what, and how of these latter contexts that Dickinson so ably addresses. He is especially eloquent about the need to work below the surface and behind the scenes, where peer education has few rivals. He documents aspects of the struggle against AIDS that are not usually subject to disciplined scrutiny. He culls from the experiences and wisdom of hundreds of dedicated adult peer educators across South Africa, reconciling and contrasting their insights with theories that have been the basis of social strategies to contain and control new infection and test and treat those currently infected. This book rests on a confidence in horizontal learning and a respect for what people who don't have much formal education can know and do for one another. Those beliefs are not widely and deeply owned by decision makers in the United States or South Africa. As we cast about for more realistic ways to approach prevention, and settle on strategies that help people think and talk together about what they believe and what they do, these insights into peer education at the workplace will remind us that we have the resources in our midst to change our conversations, our norms, and our behavior.

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The abstract, table of contents, and first twenty-five pages are published with permission from the Cornell University Press. For ordering information, please visit the Cornell University Press at


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AIDS; South Africa; prevention; poverty; education; public policy


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