Sunday, December 5, 2010

Not New, But Surely Worth Noting: A Week of AIDS Activism

Although this has been a year marked by scores of new things, places and people, there have been a few constants as well.  Because I am an AIDS activist, the week of December 1 is always a very busy and important one for me, because December 1 is World AIDS Day.  I belong to three different groups -- the Saint Michael's College chapter of the Student Global AIDS Campaign (SGAC); the Vermont Global Health Coalition; and the Health Global Access Project (Health GAP) that all use this day, and the week surrounding it, to educate and advocate for the funding, programs and attitude changes necessary to fight AIDS in the United States and around the world.

The Saint Mike's Crew at Vermont CARES' Evening of Reflection

This year, SGAC, together with additional students from my new course on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) decided to organize our World AIDS Day advocacy and education around the MDGs, drawing the connections between them and the global AIDS pandemic.  There were talks and panel discussions, a great turnout in support of Vermont CARES, our local AIDS service organization at their annual night of reflection and remembrance, and a die-in in the school cafeteria to highlight the number of preventable deaths occurring around the world because of lack of access to treatment and prevention services.  But as usual, the largest amount of energy went into the political advocacy with which we ended the week, our annual  rally at the offices of Senators Leahy and Sanders.

Kate and Josh working on rally posters

This year, the focus of the rally was the problem that has emerged in a number of developing countries because of the US government's failure to keep its commitments to scale up the AIDS  treatment programs it has begun in many of the most AIDS-affected countries in the world under President George W. Bush.  These programs have saved the lives of millions of people, but they work because of the promise of continued treatment.  This is the incentive that brings people in for testing and prevention education; this is the way to keep children from being orphaned; and this is the way to start to reverse the devastating impact to families and communities caused by untreated HIV infection.  President Obama had pledged to keep these programs growing when he was campaigning for President, but now both his and Congress' commitment to that pledge appears to be wavering.  Thus, we decided that the theme for this year's rally would be "Keep the Vow" and we dressed in wedding apparel (veils and bow ties, anyway) to drive the message home.

Jerry, Rachel and I getting ready for the rally

In front of Senator Leahy's office

Connor leading some chants while we waited to talk to a staff member from Senator Sander's office
Friday's rally concluded this year's World AIDS Day work at home, but on Saturday I continued it in another way in Washington, DC.  Another of the AIDS advocacy groups I work with, Health GAP, is a national organization, with staff and volunteers based in cities of the East Coast as well as in East Africa.  There are a group of core volunteers that form a sort of national steering committee, and I've been a member of that committee for about ten years. Two Saint Mike's alum, my former students and close friends, Jamila and Siham, are also members of the committee, and a current Saint Mike's student, Emily, who is a member of both a group of activists called IMPACT and the national steering committee for SGAC, was invited as well. Jamila is now a Rhodes scholar, completing a PhD in Public Health at Oxford University, and flew in from England for the meeting.  The rest of the Saint Mike's crew has an easier time, since we only had to fly from Burlington and Boston respectively.
The Saint Mike's Crew -- Emily, Siham, Jamila and I -- at breakfast

We spent Saturday and Sunday meetings at George Washington University with other AIDS activists from all kinds of places and professions.  There were student and grassroots activists, doctors, lawyers, professors, community organizers and staff of advocacy and service organizations.  There was Elizabeth, who currently lives in Maryland, but immigrated from Cameroon.  There were a number of longtime community activists from the vibrant advocacy organization ACT UP Philadelphia. Paul and Jen flew in from Kenya, and there were contingents of students from Harvard, Yale, Columbia and a number of other schools.  Together we spent two days (and a number of people came a day earlier or stayed a day later to lobby in the Hill) strategizing and figuring out what it would take at both the national and international levels to increase the levels of treatment around the world.

As a professor who teaches about and participates in social movements, I sometimes encounter students (and colleagues) who question the value and appropriateness of political activism.  For some, it seems too strident and confrontational; others wonder how it can achieve its aims when it often angers the people it seeks to influence. Still others question the focus on problems outside our borders -- why spend money outside when there are problems at home?  Weeks like this one remind me of my responses to these questions.  Although it is true that it will cost billions of dollars to provide AIDS treatment for all who need it around the world, it's also true that Americans spend 8 billion dollars on pet food every year, and over 30 billion on weight loss products.  Surely, we can and must value the lives of millions of fellow human beings around the world at least this much. As for the tactics of activists, its true that sometimes they are strident, and upsetting to the people on whom demands are made as well as bystanders who might be inconvenienced.  Yet these same tactics have helped level the playing field for Gandhi and King and many, many other activists with less money and power than those they were challenging. 

A brainstorming session

Emily writes up her small group's conclusions
The AIDS pandemic is not in retreat, and it won't be until we address the underlying poverty, discrimination and power inequalities that guarantee that it will be disproportionately felt by the world's poorest and most marginalized people. But there have been exciting medical breakthroughs, from new treatments to new diagnostic tools to new prevention methods, and we actually have the tools available to effectively treat people with AIDS (and the diseases that often come with it) and in many cases, prevent new infections. What we need is the political will to get these tools out to the communities that need them, and it is the activist movements around the world that are creating that will.  That's why I imagine that next December 1, wherever I am, once again I'll be working with students and other activists to try to make that happen.


  1. Awesome post on an awesome week. I had a great time this weekend!

  2. ..So if this entry has moved you, be in touch. We all have something to contribute. And It's guaranteed fun. Thanks Trish.

  3. I'm just glad you're didn't get thrown in jail, again.