Nearly 200 people living with HIV/AIDS and their supporters gathered in Washington, D.C., this week for a tearful, galvanizing five-year anniversary celebration of the national grassroots AIDS coalition the Campaign to End AIDS (C2EA).
Founded by AIDS activists in 2005 after the dispiriting re-election of Pres. Bush, C2EA now has a 5,000 member list and active members in all 50 states, as well as global partners in South Africa, China, and South America. Anniversary participants hailed from all over the U.S. and as far away as Uganda and Nepal.
On Monday, attendees participated in a series of identity and issue-based work groups, which resulted in the rough draft of a series of new goals for C2EA.
Those goals, which will be published in full later this month on www.C2EA.org
Today, the activists, including dozens of Housing Works staff and clients, will fan out across Capitol Hill, asking their representatives to embrace local and national initiatives around housing, stigma, access to treatment, and the need for a National AIDS Strategy, among others.
“If we are together, we can do anything”
One of C2EA’s strengths is bringing together grassroots activists from disparate, often disadvantaged communities in order to learn from and inspire each other. Aruna Shrestha of the Center for Pan Asian Community Services, is in the U.S. to get a master’s in public health in hopes of returning to her native Nepal to work with HIV-positive sex workers.
“I get so depressed,” Shrestha said, referring to the sex trafficking that ensnares so many young Nepali women. “But this C2EA gathering makes me think I can do something. If we are together, we can do anything.”
That collective strength was on display at a Tuesday C2EA press conference at Inner Light Ministries (led by the HIV-positive Rev. Rainey Cheeks) and a rally and barbecue in Anacostia Park—both locales are in Southeast D.C’s Ward 8, ground zero for the District’s three percent HIV prevalence rate.
“Southeast would be getting PEPFAR money if this were an African country,” said Health GAP’s Matt Kavanaugh at the press conference. “If this were Botswana or Zambia, we would be required to have a plan that says, ‘Here’s how we’re going to end the epidemic.’ But we have no emergency plan for AIDS relief!”
Southern AIDS activists were especially well represented at “C2EA 5.” Melva Florence is the executive director of The LaStraw, a group fighting AIDS stigma in Greensboro, North Carolina. “We wanted to bring the AIDS quilting project to our community. When we went looking for people to participate, they’d tell us about cousin or niece but give us no other information,” she said in her speech at the press conference. “No one wanted to come forward.”
Antron Reshaud, 26, is an Atlanta-based activist. Nearly a dozen people stood up and told their stories at a spontaneous sharing circle at the barbecue. Reshaud was among the many speakers that drew tears and gasps of recognition from the audience. He was diagnosed when he was just 19; after his diagnosis, his mother threw him out on the street.
“Communing with other people this week, hearing their stories, feeling everybody’s energy, it’s been beautiful,” Reshaud said. “We all have one thing in common, and it’s brought us together.”
The reunion kicked off on Sunday with a look back: a screening of Closer to God, a documentary about C2EA’s first major political action, a multi-week, multi-route caravan to Washington, D.C., intended to unleash grassroots activism nationwide and force local and national leaders to commit to ending the domestic and global AIDS epidemic.
“Awesome” is how Isaac Henry, a Dallas-based C2EA activist who was on the “TK” caravan featured in the movie, described the film. Despite the dramatic arguments that marked the progress of the caravan, Henry says that “everyone comes together when the trouble starts—there was strength there.”
On Monday at the “veterans” panel, a handful of C2EA’s earliest members discussed the challenges of launching a grassroots movement. The panel included activists who have grown into high-profile leaders in the last five years, including Karen Bates (South Carolina), Bishop Joyce Turner Keller (Louisiana), Michael Rajner (Florida).
Monday’s plenary speaker, Sean Strub, the pioneering longtime activist who founded POZ magazine, went even further back for inspiration, revisiting the historic Denver Principles and urging conference-goers to apply that empowerment manifesto to today’s challenges, such as the federal government’s thorny “Test and Treat” testing initiative and the lack of people with HIV serving on AIDS organization boards of directors. (The Update will feature the full text of Strub’s speech tomorrow).
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