July 13, 2007
TRIAL BY FIRE
YAI participants smile for the camera
More than 20 young people gathered in Raleigh, NC, last week for the Campaign to End AIDS' third annual Youth Action Institute (YAI) to learn how to become effective AIDS advocates. Little did they know, that over the course of the five day gathering, they would be faced with a real-life crisis that would teach them how to organize and take action.
The racially diverse group of 16 to 24 year olds from around the country had come to the idyllic campus to gain wisdom from experts about creating grassroots networks and campaigns, share their own frustrations about the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS, and lay the groundwork for new advocacy projects they could initiate in their hometowns later this summer.
But shortly after the conference got underway a disturbing pattern emerged. Attendees were being subjected to homophobic and AIDSphobic slurs by NC State students. "When we walked into a dining hall for a meal, a bunch of guys said, 'Oh, I guess it's sissy day on campus,'" said DeWayne Thomas Jr., 21, an openly gay YAI participant from Cleveland. "And that's not the worst. All weekend people looked at me rudely, and murmured of 'fag' as I passed. But I just handled it like the true diva I am."
In another incident, Quintara Lane, 20, of Miami said that she tried to make friendly chitchat with a student in line for a dining hall meal. As the conversation progressed the student mentioned that he hated gay people because "gay people are the ones who brought AIDS here." Lane, who was infected with HIV prenatally, was outraged. "I took the time to educate him. I told him that African-Americans like himself were actually the most at risk."
The attacks prompted a long, heated group discussion on the couches of a recreation room attached to the dormitory where they stayed. For many YAI participants, this was their first experience they'd had with consensus building. Students and organizers alike eventually agreed that they had an opportunity to educate NC State students about YAI's mission, AIDS and homophobia.
The young people canvassed the campus in groups of three. Philip Blanks, 20, from St. Louis spoke to a youth basketball coach. "I told him about YAI and how AIDS is a huge problem for young people," Blanks said. The coach invited him to speak to his players, and although their schedules didn't match up, the experience made Blanks realize all the good he can achieve with his summer project: an educational video about homophobia. "I know I can do a lot to bring positive change to my community," he said.
HIV-positive YAI organizer Charles Long, 28, was moved and impressed at how his charges responded to the campus homophobia. "As advocates we have to take it to the next step. We want people to think differently about AIDS. It's not just a disease of gay men or African-Americans," he told them. "That's what this Institute is about. We want to move people and change their perspectives. We know that stigma fuels this disease. By going out, you changed the stigma."'We need young people'
One reason YAI youth felt empowered to challenge NC State attitudes about AIDS and sexuality was the lessons they learned from their YAI instructors. Housing Works' president and CEO Charles King inspired them by reminding them that great grassroots movements have historically been led by youth. He told the participants in his keynote address, "AIDS not a public health issue— it's about social and economic justice. We need an activist movement. And for an activist movement to be successful we need young people you hereto provide leadership."
Lane, Rajner, Miller and Brett Calka
Other speakers included Campaign to End AIDS Secretary General Michael Rajner, who helped participants brainstorm effective fundraising techniques; South Carolina's Karen Bates, freshly victorious from an advocacy battle to get her state's legislature to pour millions into a lifesaving ADAP program; nonprofit consultant Jeremy Grandstaff, who spoke about empowering leaders; Health GAP's Kaytee Riek, who led a session on bird-dogging; SEICUS's Max Ciardullo who led a session on advocating for comprehensive sex education; and POZ magazine founder Sean Strub, who gave a first-hand account of the crafting of the Denver Principles, one of the foundations of the AIDS movement. "This is the kind of proactive effort the movement needs, to reach out and recruit and train our activist corps," said Strub. "rather than sit back and wait and see who finds the movement." There were also discussions about various policy issues, grassroots organizing, and getting media attention.
Quintara Lane, who already does HIV peer education, realized that she can influence not just her peers, but her community at large. "I didn't have a choice about getting HIV. Other people do, and I want to make sure they have access to information to make the right decisions." For her YAI project, Lane will try to persuade church leaders to adopt sex education programs. "The church can be so closed-minded," she said. "But it's also one of the keys to preventing HIV."
Of course, YAI is never just about advocacy: Nathan Miller, 22, of Kalamazoo, Mich., said the best part of the get together was realizing he's not alone. Miller is usually half the age of other people in the HIV support groups he goes to. Long was the first young, HIV positive person he's met. Miller appreciated that everyone at YAI—HIV positive and negative—share his commitment to AIDS advocacy. "It's great to be around people who feel as passionately about this issue as I do."
"This week in North Carolina was an amazing experience," said Larry Bryant, who helped organize YAI and attended the first one himself. "Not all, but some of these participants will become frontline activists. But all of them gained confidence to do important work around HIV and AIDS, despite all the barriers they will have to overcome."