FIGHT for a World Without AIDS
Philadelphia FIGHT believes education equals empowerment
by Alina Oswald
Photos by Holly Clark
Truth is that catch-phrases like “AIDS free generation” or “getting to zero” capture a promising vision of a world free of AIDS, by instilling the hope and dedication needed to eradicate this disease, but, at the end of the day, especially looking at the rising numbers of newly diagnosed individuals, especially among the youth, these nicely packaged messages can become just sound bites that, well, sound good and mean well…and nothing more. And that alone can stand in the way of truly putting an end to the epidemic.
And yet, some AIDS service organizations go beyond the sound bite and below the surface of the perceived imminence of an AIDS cure, and do the tough work required to actually make a cure happen in our lifetime. Philadelphia FIGHT, a regional grass-roots ASO, proves that finding a cure is not only in the hands of scientists, researchers and medical experts. It’s in all of our hands.
To find out how exactly Philadelphia FIGHT works, day after day, to realize this goal, I called FIGHT’s Director of Education, Juliet Fink Yates. For the past eight years, Yates has been an intrinsic part of the organization, and of its AIDS Education Month series of events that partners with over seventy different organizations to reach a wider community.
Alina Oswald: How has AIDS Education Month changed over the past two decades?
Juliet Fink Yates: It started out as a one-day conference, combined with [HIV] testing. But, [in time], it has expanded to include several huge conferences. And when I say huge, I mean over a thousand people [attending] each conference. It [also] includes over a hundred different community presentations. We go out into communities that don’t talk much about HIV/AIDS, and do an HIV State of the Union presentation, to make sure that people know about HIV/AIDS. So, over the years, [AIDS Education Month] has become a much larger series of events, [much more than we’ve ever imagined].
Why is June dedicated to AIDS education?
National HIV Testing Day is on June 27. [One] reason we do AIDS Education Month is to get the word out about HIV in the wider public, and make sure that folks know that they can get tested, get linked to care, that there is treatment, and that they can live a normal life with HIV.
This year’s schedule has activities and programs for everyone. There are events targeting the prison population, and also a Faith Leaders Community Summit, with keynote speaker Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright. Why is it important to include these communities?
During AIDS Education Month we work hard to connect communities, especially those who’re not [otherwise] connected, to the AIDS service world. The focus is on marginalized communities in general.
We focus on prison services. So, our Prison Summit brings together a unique group of people—ex-offenders, parole officers, prison guards, and people who are working on reentry with people who have a history of incarceration. The focus is on prison, healthcare, HIV and reentry, but that encompasses a lot of different topics, and it also gets people in the same room talking about HIV, prisons and mass incarcerations, in a way that they don’t get to talk about [otherwise].
That’s the same idea behind faith communities. [They] are so important in ending the epidemic, in providing messages of healing and hope to people living with HIV/AIDS. I don’t think that we can end the epidemic unless people get into the room, and really talk about important messages [regarding] HIV, [like] addressing and reducing stigma in the faith communities.
So both of these conferences [Behind the Walls: Prison Health Care and Reentry Summit, and Faith Leaders and Community Summit] are very much aimed at reaching communities that we don’t get to talk to every day. And that’s entirely the point.
Why focus on those who are or have been incarcerated?
In general, the HIV epidemic is centered on marginalized communities, and that includes folks who are incarcerated and who come back into their communities. And so, [in order to] end this epidemic, it’s critically important to not only make sure that folks who are HIV-positive and in prison get services and healthcare that they need to stay healthy, but it’s also critically important that, when they get out of prison, they are not lost to care.
It’s [also] critically important that those who are HIV-negative and in prison or returning from prison understand the impact of HIV, and how to stay safe and healthy. So, I think that the population who is incarcerated is the same (or similar to the) population that has the highest rates of HIV in Philadelphia, and in the U.S.
I ask because, while many people may understand the role of faith leaders when it comes to HIV/AIDS, they may take a why-should-I-care attitude toward those in prison or who have been incarcerated.
I think that they would say that about anybody potentially impacted by HIV. Why do I care about poor people? Why do I care about gay people? Why do I care about, you know…but the reality is that [HIV] touches so many of us, and we can’t end the epidemic if we don’t address some of the causes of the epidemic, which include poverty, mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and homophobia, for example.
I also noticed events related to AIDS activism. Why is it important to address AIDS activism in this day and age?
We, at Philadelphia FIGHT, have a long history of working closely with the AIDS activism movement in Philadelphia through ACT UP Philly, and a variety of other organizations. Part of what we believe is that [while] HIV is a virus, the epidemic is caused by poverty, stigma and fear, and it requires that we fight for justice in order to end those things.
The early AIDS activists refused to lie down and die. They went out to Wall Street and made noise, and demanded that the government put money into ending the AIDS epidemic, whether providing drugs [or] services. They changed how we access drugs [today]. We believe that the early activists changed the world.
So, every year we focus on a slightly different [activism] movement that is happening right now. In the past we have focused on drug policy, and the war on drugs. We’ve done activism around HIV cure—what are activists demanding, what needs to happen. This year’s Movements for Change event honors Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a gay rights supporter and HIV activist who died of HIV in 2000, [by celebrating activists who continue this work].
This year we’re going to focus on immigration, because there is so much happening right now with the immigration movement, including detention and deportation, access to affordable healthcare through the Affordable Care Act, and access to legal services. If you are undocumented, but also if you are here legally, there are a lot of barriers that immigrants have when accessing HIV care or legal care.
The calendar is chock-full of exciting events. At the opening ceremony, for example, the 2014 Kiyoshi Kuromiya Award for Prevention, Treatment and Justice will be presented to Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, PhD, researcher and Nobel Prize winner for the codiscovery of HIV. And the Hip Hop for Philly free concert (headlined by Grammy nominee and chart-topping hip hop artist Wale) and a fun and free-spirited Community Cookout, a community health fair for consumers, people living with HIV/AIDS and their entire families, will close out the month-long series of events. Says Yates: “It’s one of the last events that we do, so after all the hard work, after going to all these conferences, it’s a way to celebrate the fact that we are alive, having fun, and moving on with our lives.”
For years, it has become a tradition to end AIDS Education Month with a Gospel Concert event that brings faith communities together using music as an inspiration to address the AIDS epidemic. But the work doesn’t stop with the gospel or with June. FIGHT’s ultimate mission is to find an AIDS cure within the lifetime of those living with HIV today. To achieve this goal, this outstanding grass-roots organization tries to empower its target communities by bringing them information about PrEP, testing and getting treatment, and reducing viral load, hence, empowering them to actually end the epidemic.
As for catch-phrases and jingles that imply an impending AIDS-free world, they are all great, Yates says, “but we need to tie them to the real world, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Alina Oswald interviewed Dining Out for Life spokesperson Ted Allen for the April issue.