April 20, 2012
I've never known a time without HIV and AIDS. It affected my family early as my uncle was diagnosed positive before I was born. Even my high school in conservative Bakersfield, California had the AIDS Quilt visit our campus.
I entered this world of HIV and AIDS activism reading stories of civil disobedience by groups like ACT Up in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and at the New York Stock Exchange. Growing up, I remember Pedro Zamora sharing his status on MTV's "Real World" even though I probably shouldn't have been watching it at the time. When I started organizing on condom distribution, I heard rumors of condom commercials airing during prime time in the 90s. And when I moved to D.C. to go to college, I even had a chance to attend the Ryan White National Youth Conference on HIV/AIDS.
But today, things are much different.
Just recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fewer young people are learning about HIV than in previous years. Condoms are locked up at drug stores. And even though study after study shows abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are ineffective, many states continue to teach these programs and lawmakers are paving the way to make it easier for them to do so. The Ryan White Youth Conference is no more and the only group showing a significant increase in HIV incidence are young men who have sex with men (YMSM), primarily YMSM of color.
The more I learn where we used to be as a country, the more I feel like my generation's mission in this fight is to get the country back to that sense of urgency that was so prevalent in the 80's and 90's so we can actually move forward.
But make no mistake, young people are still concerned, engaged, and taking charge.
While you may not see young people getting arrested in acts of civil disobedience, I do see them correcting the myths their friends (and unfortunately sometimes teachers) hold about HIV, sending their younger siblings condoms to distribute at their high schools, organizing education events for World AIDS Day, learning to become mobile testers and more. Through social media we collected signatures and pressured the Milton Hershey School to stop discriminating against a HIV positive 13-year-old, shared and discussed on Facebook and Twitter Magic Johnson's "The Announcement" with an audience that otherwise is not actively involved in the movement, engaged with and questioned the White House's commitment to HIV prevention in youth and more.
While we may not be as visible and in the streets as much as previous generations have been, young people are still doing amazing work.
Of course, we can always do more. What we need to make that happen, however, is framing and guidance.
The amazing thing about this generation is that they get, in my opinion, intersectionality better than other generations. Our youth HIV activists are making the connections between HIV and sex education (prevention), immigration (issues around care and treatment), the economy (hard to get a job if you're positive and would have to give up health care), abortion (restricting access to services), and LGBT issues (increase in incidence, housing concerns). Adults need to empower youth to get involved on HIV and AIDS and allow us to work from an intersectional framework. They also need to share their wisdom about what it was like at the beginning of the fight and the best ways to make change now. Adults need to work with young people most affected by HIV and AIDS -- youth of color and LGBT youth -- and give them support through paid internships and guidance to be successful in this movement. And frankly, young people need a seat (or five) at the decision making tables-whether it's the President's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS or Community Planning Groups.
In December of 2011, President Obama called for an "AIDS-Free Generation." To get there, HIV and AIDS organizations are going to have to invest in the next generation without discounting the impact of what the movement looks like now, versus what it looked like back then. Youth should be seen as experts when it comes to their communities and peers. Young people need to be nurtured and trained as not only the leaders of the future, but the leaders of today.
Sarah Audelo is the senior domestic policy manager at Advocates for Youth.