What If It Were You?

“What if it were you?” That’s the question Madison, Wisconsin-based HIVictorious, Inc., has been posing to area high school students as part of a poster contest and campaign. Now entering its fourth round, the poster contest asks youth to imagine how they might feel if they discovered that they were HIV-positive and to respond through words and art. The entries are judged and winners are awarded with recognition from public officials and gift cards, but the real prize is the opportunity for youth to promote AIDS awareness, compassion, education, and support in their communities.

What If It Were You? is the brainchild of Bob Bowers, founder and president of HIVictorious, who has been speaking to ninth-grade health classes, among other sites, in Madison for the past six years. At the start, he was honing his own sense of empowerment as a person living with HIV/AIDS and learning more about the demographics of the disease. However, the spiking rates among men who have sex with men and among African Americans, in particular, motivated him to fine-tune his curriculum. “I was blown away and I had thought to myself, ‘How are we going to cure AIDS if we’re still calling our brothers and sisters [pejorative names]? We haven’t dealt with racism and homophobia. I really started to appreciate and understand how stigma and people’s judgments would continue to fuel this epidemic,” he relates. During his outreach, he often “gets in students’ faces,” challenging them to reflect on the consequences of using the n-word and f-word in their everyday life.

“Also, around the same time, I was pretty overwhelmed by the lack of everyday awareness about the disease. How can we expect infection rates to be down, particularly among youth not to mention in general, when people aren’t getting the awareness, when we’re not addressing the core issues? I was outraged and disgusted.”

He asked himself how he could be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Over the course of several talks with his wife, Teresa, about the issues of racism and homophobia as forces that contribute to the epidemic, the persistent notion that many think they will not be infected by HIV, and the ubiquity of age-old and often fear-driven prevention messages, Bob became inspired.

What if the messages were fresh and delivered by the youth themselves rather than an ASO or other agency? What if the campaign took compassion as its starting point—and its destination? Bowers knew he loved working with youth and so the poster contest and campaign seemed like a good match.

At first, he didn’t know what the students would cook up after he had prepped them with an HIV 101, shared his own experiences, and directed them to the nonprofit’s Web site for more information. “In my [public] talks, people have said to me, ‘I don’t know how you’ve lived with [the disease] for twenty-seven years, I would have killed myself; I couldn’t have done it.’ Yet these are not the messages we’re getting.”

Instead of mechanical instruction (“wear a condom”), the students responded with human connection.

Instead of sledgehammer-like truisms, the students responded with subtlety and creativity.

Instead of despair, one student responded with hope. Instead of surrender, one student responded with perseverance.

They responded with hand drawn flowers and white flags being snapped in half; with computer-generated art and bold typography. “They responded with such profound messages: ‘I would teach the world to understand.’ ‘I’d refuse to be silenced,’” says Bob.

“I can’t begin to describe my gratitude, and the inspiration and hopefulness [I draw] from their messages. They really get it! They’re not [humdrum], like, ‘Thanks for teaching us about HIV….’ They really get it,” he says, touched that students wholly welcome him with affection and support. “Colin’s light bulb poster was the one that had the message, ‘I would teach the world to understand.’ On the evening news, he said, ‘Understanding goes a long way.’ I was like, ‘Wow!’ I get goosebumps, [this] coming from a high school student instead of a film star who wants to help people with AIDS! They get the broader message and that truly was the original intent of the project.” Along with invoking compassion. On that score, Bob feels the posters are very well done.

“Take, for example, the poster of the girl’s face with the tear: ‘I would smile through the tears.’ A friend of mine, an activist and a person living with AIDS, said, ‘Don’t you think that’s further stigmatizing?’ And I said, ‘What? I think it was one of the most honest and heartfelt responses. I smile through the tears on a regular basis! That’s a very positive message. You want it to say, I drown in my tears?!’”

The design of the campaign was shaped by other concerns. “I was not only discouraged by the lack of awareness but, and I’m sure this speaks to what goes on elsewhere beyond Madison, any time you typically see awareness for AIDS is in walks or rides, when people want money. ‘Let’s raise awareness but at the same time we want your money.’” Compounded with this is the difficulty of bringing different organizations onto the same page—or poster.

“My idea was to keep the awareness out there and to build some unity in our state as far as organizations, not just have the person who’s sponsoring the walk or the ride on the poster but to have all the organizations on there, giving people resources,” notes Bob. Yet an initial foray by the campaign into multi-organization support was felled by ideological differences, so Bob returned to a less institutionalized, more grass-roots approach, even if that meant returning to square-one for funding sources. The first round was actually launched with no funding at all. Funders, such as The Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Johnson and Pabst LGBT Humanity Fund and PAPI, Inc., have stepped forward as the campaign has progressed.

On a shoestring budget, the posters have reached some amazing heights. Some of the winning posters from the contest have appeared on billboards, bus ads, and in malls and restaurants countywide, thanks to an initial grant. Local sponsors have also contributed. And the posters have attracted the interest and support from all corners of the world. Pearson Education, for instance, has reprinted some of them in one of its textbooks. Kaiser Hospitals have displayed them at their locations. Partnerships with the people of Tibet and Macy’s Passport Event have supported the campaign and have given the posters legs to travel to new venues.

The beauty of the supportive response lies in its unity, says Bob. “We brought these posters in without money, without vested interests, without paid use for the posters, though we ask for a small donation…It’s not about us but the students and their message.”

The unity has lately been strengthened by the participation of local lawmakers, Governor Jim Doyle, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and Madison, Wisconsin Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. Their support is not just pat-on-the-back lip service, either. Bob spotlights Congresswoman Baldwin’s heartfelt response to the titular question, now posted on the What If It Were You? Web site. He adds, “I’m so grateful to our mayor, as he has attended the events and presented the winning posters to the students. He’s hands-on. Granted, we’re not New York City, but for a city of only 200,000 people to have our mayor inspired and actively involved is pretty heartening.” The mayor has even hung several posters in his office, underscoring his commitment to awareness. Bob gets verklempt at the thought that the students’ messages have touched the mayor in a profound way. These officials have also invited winning students for a face-to-face visit in their offices.

The fourth round of the poster contest starts in mid-October and will involve two high schools, Edgewood High School and Memorial High School. Says Bob: “I would like to see this campaign continue; the messages are timeless—there’s no date, no fundraiser, they can be out there forever as far as I’m concerned. I hope they are.”

For more information and to lend your support, log on to www.whatifitwereyou.org.

—Chael Needle

September 2010