April 4, 2008
Virginia Shubert Courage Award honorees Davis and Russell
Before he became the liberal Messiah, Al Gore was the vice president who energetically supported a Clinton administration policy imposing trade sanctions against countries producing generic versions of AIDS medications. When a handful of activists began repeatedly interrupting his presidential campaign in 1999 to draw attention to this morally indefensible position, Gore agreed to meet with the group —and then convinced Clinton to relax the patent sanctions. The price of medication in Sub-Saharan Africa dropped from $10,000 a year per patient in 1998 to $45 a year per patient today.
Two core members of that activist gang were Health GAP founders Paul Davis and Asia Russell, who say the Clinton-Gore turnaround is one of the achievements of which they are proudest. As, respectively, Health GAP's director of international advocacy and director of U.S. governmental affairs, Davis and Russell continue to work towards Health GAP's goal of eliminating barriers to affordable life-sustaining medicines for people living with HIV/AIDS around the world. Housing Works will honor these two trailblazers in the global AIDS movement with a Virginia Shubert Courage Award at the Fourth Annual Keith D. Cylar Activist Awards on April 17. For tickets to the awards gala click here.
"AIDS activism is tough, but it's incredibly rewarding and more vital now to me than ever before, so it's an intense gratification to receive an award for work that is really essential to me," Russell said. "What only compounds that gratification is that the award is in the name of true AIDS warriors."
Davis agreed. “Before he left us, it was my privilege to work with Keith from time to time on his project to build a new society in the vacant lots of the old. To receive this award in his name, and to be recognized by his beloved community is a profound honor."
When they helped found Health GAP, Davis, 39, and Russell, 31, were both passionate ACT UP/Philadelphia members. "ACT UP was just the smartest, best activist organization in the world," Davis said. Both already had activist experience: Davis had been a tenant organizer in Seattle and got involved with ACT UP through AIDS housing. Russell, who was arrested for the first time at age 15 protesting the first Gulf War, had been involved with AIDS activism since volunteering in Washington D.C. providing housing and services for men living with AIDS. "All of them died too soon," Russell said. "This human impact of the refusal by people with power to mount an aggressive response to AIDS radicalized me."
Russell and Davis were among those in ACT UP who realized that the same tactics used to increase access to AIDS meds in the U.S. could be applied to combating the global AIDS pandemic. Initially, there was some resistance. Many wondered how Philadelphians living with HIV/AIDS and their communities would respond to taking on global AIDS, given the real needs of people in the U.S.
"But during teach-ins, and planning meetings and endless preparation, it became clear: People felt genuine solidarity with HIV-positive people in developing countries, even though they were an ocean away. The struggle for access to affordable, life-extending treatment was an issue that electrified people. It wasn't a sense of charity, but a sense of a shared struggle for social justice," Russell said. "I felt extraordinarily proud to be a part of that movement—one that rejected the urge to divide domestic AIDS issues from global AIDS issues, or to pit the two against each other, artificially."
The magic of bird-dogging
"Bird-dogging is the magic bullet of grassroots tactics," said Paul Davis. "As activists, we spend a lot of time talking to people who don't have the power to do anything. On the stump is one of the only places where we have face-to-face interaction with the people in power." Health GAP is known for exploiting bird-dogging-confronting politicians seeking election at all manner of public appearances-to its fullest. The relative success of the reauthorization of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), owes much to Health GAP bird-dogging in 2008.
Presidential candidate after candidate was asked to pledge $50 billion for global AIDS, and by World AIDS Day, all of the Democratic candidates at least, agreed, putting pressure on Democrats in Congress to do the same during PEPFAR reauthorization. "Once the candidates, said yes to this, Congress didn't feel they could say no," Davis said. On Wednesday, the House approved the PEPFAR reauthorization with a $50 billion budget by a vote of 308 to 116, and is awaiting a vote in the Senate.
What's next for Russell and Davis? Russell, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, plans to work on identifying the best strategies to combat those diseases in small communities worldwide. Davis plans to sail with his partner Jennifer Cohn (who he met at an ACT UP meeting) and settle in a place where they can "attempt to be useful."
Davis and Russell will be honored at the Cylar Awards along with Esther Boucicault (International AIDS Activist Award), who was the first person in Haiti to publicly discuss living with HIV/AIDS and who built a pioneering AIDS organization in the rural Bas-Artibonite region; Gloria Gonzalez (U.S. AIDS Activist Award), an HIV-positive former drug user fighting for treatment, prevention and housing for HIV-positive injection drug users in Puerto Rico; and Diane Williams (Housing Works AIDS Activist Award), one of Housing Works' fiercest of grassroots activists.