September 16, 2013
So I landed in New Orleans around 11:30 am local time and was full of nervousness, anticipation, and a desire to complete my mission. My mission, which I chose to accept would be to represent people of my organization, NMAC's Youth Initiative, and most importantly people living with HIV. My goals were to network, gain knowledge, and make connections that could help my community of Fredericksburg, VA and overall the increased number of people who are HIV Positive. You will notice for a first time I did not take any pictures of me on this trip. This is because attending this conference was not about me but more about the work that needed to be done. I was focused and ready to accomplish my mission. On the flight in I had already noticed so many of my friends and colleagues from the DMV area (DC, Maryland, Virginia) and was excited and relieved that I would know some people there.
Arriving to the Hyatt Regency Conference Hotel I was amazed and thought to myself "wow USCA knows how to impress!" Arriving at the hotel I had made my way to the elevator and after ten minutes of trying to figure out how to operate it made my way up to my hotel room. While heading up to the room I turned around to the amazing view of The Superdome. It was gargantuan and a reality check that I had arrived. The room I was to reside in for four days was amazing. After spending the afternoon showering, grabbing lunch, and resting it was now time to head downstairs for the youth reception. It was there that I met amazing young people who had the same interest in ending this epidemic as I do. Words cannot describe the feelings of joy that I had being in a room with people who were also down for the cause. After that reception things just took off. From a dinner presentation about resilience from awesome plenary discussions about ending AIDS in the south, Perspectives on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), The Engagement Challenge, Personal stories surrounding HIV, and Implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Plenary sessions were great and I truly benefited from hearing personal stories. Mondo Guerra from Project Runway was present and took the time to speak and take pictures with us (thanks to Advocates For Youth for working to set that up). He thanked us for doing what we did and told us to stay vigilant in getting the word out and having those important conversations about HIV. What really shocked me was his persistence to stay and talk with us despite behind the scenes people trying to move him along. That spoke volumes on how big this opportunity was for me and the other scholars. I know Duane Cramer from our initial meeting at this year's DC Black Pride; however, he continues to amaze through his friendliness and hard work.
The workshop sessions for me were the essential meat and potatoes of this conference. On the first official day of the conference I attended a session on Comprehensive Sexual Health Education as HIV Prevention, which was very interesting to be in. I had no idea that many states still only taught abstinence. I know that in my own high school career comprehensive sexual education was briefly mentioned while abstinence was more emphasized, but wow six years later and still no major moves. That was very disappointing to hear; however, we were told to reach out to our state representative and even the school board (which has huge power) to push for more comprehensive sexual education in our school systems. On day one we had a welcome to the whole Youth Initiative which went over roles, responsibilities, and expectations. This also allowed us additional time to get to know more about us and also what we were expecting from the conference. That session wrapped up day one and I spent the rest of the evening catching up on my homework which I was so behind on.
The start of day two went awesome. I awoke got ready for the day and made my way down to a very informal roundtable discussion for people living with HIV. The topic that was presented by the moderator Alex Garner of NMAC was "How do we bridge the intergenerational gap?" I was one of the very few young people in the room and I have to admit that I was so nervous and overwhelmed. In the room was Peter Staley, one of the original founding members of ACT UP New York, Oriol Gutierrez of Poz.com and Poz Magazine, and Mark S. King successful creator of Myfabulousdisease.com and the web-series "The Real Poz Guys of Atlanta," just to name a few. I was so humbled to be able to be in the presence of such great people. Most importantly I was able to listen to their stories, their wants, and most importantly their needs. What I got from this standing room only session was that many of the more experienced advocates were tired and were ready to pass on the torch to the next generation. Bear in mind many have been fighting the long hard battle for more than 30 years!! I also was given the floor to share my experiences and my thoughts, which I would have never imagined almost two years ago when I first learned my status. Peter Staley said something that really has and will continue to sit with me. He stated that it was depressing to see the HIV stigma among gay men. Every gay man who lives with HIV has experienced this before. It is heartbreaking to be treated differently from people in general let alone your own community. From the room I took away many connections and also support from strangers who turned quickly into my new extended family.
The next session was one I was involved in. I was moderating a panel and audience discussion on Storytelling Using the Media & Cultural Arts. I was very honored that I was given the ability to moderate and lead this discussion as well as work alongside other intelligent and committed youth initiative scholars. The presentation went really well and we discussed how social media like Facebook, Twitter, Blogging, and Vlogging can be effective tools in storytelling. Cultural arts are also very important. Taija, an Alaskan Native who was a panelist of this session shared with us how storytelling in her community is important. She shared a video with us, which served as a great example.
I also want to give a huge thanks to my other panelist Derek Hernandez and Felton Beeks who provided great feedback and knowledge surrounding social media tools that can be utilized. That evening we had the pleasure to meet Dr. Jack Whitescarver, Ph.D., NIH Associate Director for AIDS Research and Director, Office of AIDS Research. We all sat around informally as he told us the story on how he first was introduced to HIV/AIDS. It was very beneficial and I am greatly appreciative of the time Dr. Whitescarver took out to meet and talk with us.
On the morning of day three I attended a session on Engaging People Living with HIV in a Changing Environment. I am not going to lie I was a little late to the session due to engaging and networking with someone who is a fan of ThePozLife stopping me (networking happens often in spaces like this). I slide into the session to notice my colleague Venton Jones of The National Black Gay Mens Advocacy Coalition on the panel of the discussion. My work doing the pozlifeofpatrick was highlighted by Venton and he asked me to tell everyone in the room about my story. So I quickly gave a synopsis of how I found out my status and why I created the blog (for you!) and before I knew it I was being followed by AIDS.GOV, the amazing Josh Robbins of Imstilljosh.com! A huge thank you to Venton Jones for giving me that opportunity to discuss the pozlifeofpatrick and the effectiveness it has been in engaging both HIV Positive and Negative individuals. In the afternoon I attended two sessions on Strategizing and Mobilizing to End the Epidemic and another session on PrEP Messaging. Both sessions had participation by youth initiative scholars and I was gaining so much knowledge from the points that were discussed. I particularly loved the discussion about PrEP. Start talking about innovations and expanding the prevention toolbox and I am there! It was a great discussion which really focused on the importance of PrEP and the role it will play going into the future in regards to decreasing new infections of HIV.
On day four all the youth initiative scholars met and we closed out the session. I attended the lunch plenary session but left early to prepare to depart for the airport. For me it was a bittersweet moment. I have never really been to a summer camp I actually enjoyed; however, for four days I felt as if I was on top of the world. Where else but at my first USCA conference was I able to network with so many movers and shakers in the field of HIV, but most importantly be surrounded by like-mined young people who will be alongside me to take the torch and continue the fight. On my flight back I tried to think about what I really enjoyed about The U.S. Conference On AIDS overall and I would have to say outside of the sessions it had to be the people. For me it was fantastic interacting with such great people. From Paul Kawata, Executive Director of NMAC spending as much time as he could around the youth initiative scholars to the NMAC staff providing guidance and a very unofficial form of mentorship throughout this entire process. To Viiv Healthcare for having fantastic people speaking and engaging with us. Also, the Magic Johnson Foundation for being apart of the process and speaking on the last day about the importance of what we are doing as future leaders in our communities. Over a huge thank you to The National Minority AIDS Council for creating this initiative for me to be apart of. USCA 2013 had other major sponsors that helped to create an event of a lifetime for me.
I am already in the planning stages to attend USCA 2014 in San Diego, California and am excited to be apart of that conference. I know that more work has to be done to improve the treatment cascade so that more individuals living with HIV have undetectable viral loads. That takes place by having more prevention with people living with HIV. It is important to engage the community and getting them involved in the fight against HIV. Also, that ACA is right around the corner and will transport healthcare to a new destination we have never seen before. Leaving USCA 2013 I know that many understand the importance of PrEP to help reduce HIV transmissions. At the next conference I will be sure to bring empty luggage so I can take as many things as possible from the exhibition area. I appreciated the condoms, lube, pamphlets, posters, and other things that can be distributed in my community that needs these resources. I will always keep the youth initiative scholars of 2013 very close to me. In four days I developed friendships and camaraderie with these special young people I know I will be working with closely in the future.