The country's first major winter snowstorm left air traffic centers from LaGuardia to O'Hare temporarily paralyzed the first weekend in December 2003. Despite the deep freeze, approximately two dozen HIV/AIDS advocates from across the country battled long lines at airport terminals, waited all night for rescheduled flights, went on wild bus rides and tromped through snow drifts on New York City streets to reach the offices of Gay Men's Health Crisis to attend the first-ever strategy planning meeting of the AIDS Treatment Activists Coalition (ATAC).
Initiated as a conference call among 20 participants in 2001 and having grown now to an email list with over 100 members, ATAC has mainly been a "virtual" organization. Many of the group's most active participants had only known each other by the sound of their voices during conference calls or by email address in online discussions. Meeting for the first time in person brought an opportunity for in-depth discussion of a number of key issues and for strategizing on long-term objectives while also building camaraderie.
So far, ATAC has assembled a pool of talent, passion and conviction in an association of activists from the Pacific Northwest and Texas, to the Midwest and various points in between, all united in a sense of urgency based on frustration with years of federal funding shortfalls for HIV care and prevention. We share a common realization that if we are to succeed in presenting our views in a manner that sticks with legislators and the public alike, we must utilize our resources intelligently and effectively.
To this end ATAC's SAVE ADAP Committee is planning a Washington, DC event in February 2004 to highlight the emerging crisis of waiting lists for ADAP access and the inadequate funding at the federal level responsible for this situation. Its Drug Development Committee has met with the FDA and several major drug companies to lobby for community concerns. A new Prison Working Group was formed at the summit that hopes to facilitate cooperation between regional activists.
With many of the first wave of AIDS activists now dead or retired from the movement -- exhausted from the never-ending fight -- a vacuum has been left. Attracting a new generation of HIV/AIDS activists is recognized as a priority of utmost importance, in order to "replenish shrinking ranks of AIDS activists" operating at a national level, said ADAP maven Lei Chou. Part of ATAC's mission is to identify how best to attract new people into the movement who are willing to do the necessary work. Instituting an effective mentoring program, supporting local skills building, and providing periodic teach-ins on various topics will be important factors in achieving these goals.
As one who has often felt like a lone wolf crying in the wilderness of Michigan, the NYC summit allowed people like me to take comfort in the recognition that no matter how distanced one may sometimes feel from the national scene, our experiences on the home front are universal and can pull us together in our common cause. Realizing that our personal experiences aren't merely localized phenomena but in fact are symptoms of chronic ills permeating the country, whether urban centers or rural outposts, reawakens the feeling of being a part of a greater community. Members from around the nation report an increasing groundswell of "screaming" by community-based organizations that are feeling the pain of budget cuts, and a growing demand for effective advocacy training that helps them get results. The emergence of ATAC is a major step in that direction.
As we've been saying in Michigan lately: "We're taking command of our disease one T-cell at a time." As more and more individuals and organizations come to recognize that significant change only occurs by standing in allied strength with fellow advocates, it appears that a coalition with the potential of ATAC may be the best vehicle we have for reaching that goal. Now we need to harness those individual T-cells and put them to work fighting for health and justice in the body politic.
This article was provided by Gay Men's Health Crisis. It is a part of the publication GMHC Treatment Issues. Visit GMHC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.