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Youth Take to the Streets

At 5th Annual Youth Action Institute, Participants Protest California Budget Cuts

July 1, 2009

YAI participants protesting in San Francisco
YAI participants protesting in San Francisco

When San Francisco's Iris Center Executive Director Angela Green spoke to participants at the Youth Action Institute (YAI) last Tuesday about the impact of California's budget cuts on her organization, she didn't expect much more than sympathy. But then Kimberly Jefferson of Hampton, Virginia, said, "We're here for three days. What can we do to help?"

After consulting with Green, Jefferson and 23 other burgeoning youth activists from as far as China and Australia got to work planning a demonstration outside Iris Center, which provides lifesaving services to women with HIV in San Francisco's Castro and Mission district. Galvanized by Green's sense of urgency, the group rearranged the YAI schedule in order to spend three days seeking media coverage, creating messaging and organizing a demonstration outside of Iris Center's facilities. At the demo, participants passed out fliers that read, "We can't allow people to die alone" and held up signs that read "Honk against AIDS cuts" to publicize the $175,000 in cuts to Iris Center's budget.

"I see a growing demographic of African-American women who are infected and then California is cutting these services," Jefferson said.

Because of California's horrible budget crisis, it has planned to eliminate more than $160 million in HIV services as part of more than $5.5 billion in tentative new cuts to health and human services.This would gut the state's Ryan White AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) and eliminate services such as HIV counseling and testing, early intervention programs, and home and community-based care programs. California AIDS activists held a mass demonstration in Sacramento on June 10.

Youth-Run and Adult Supported

The YAI demonstration Friday was the first time some of the participants had ever participated in an activist event.

"The night before the rally we went to the same place and did outreach, and I was really uncomfortable passing out fliers and such. But during the rally I was lying on the sidewalk in protest," said Summer Sterling, 21, of Silver Spring, Maryland. "I wasn't thinking twice about how I looked."

Organized by the Campaign to End AIDS (C2EA), the Youth Action Institute was held at the UC-Berkeley campus over five days. The purpose of YAI is for young AIDS activists between the ages of 16 and 24 and many living with HIV to learn from each other and more experienced AIDS activists and take that information back to their home towns and engage in an on-the-ground AIDS advocacy project.

"The culture and diversity really made the experience unique. A lot of times we speculate as to what demographic HIV/AIDS affects, even those of us who are affected," said Jefferson, 25, who has followed in the footsteps of her activist father Greg Fordham. Fordham is the HIV-positive founder of C2EA's Virginia chapter.

In addition to hearing presentations from advocates in the Bay Area, as well as participating in sessions led by Housing Works President and CEO Charles King and Health GAP grassroots organizer Kaytee Riek, the YAIers ran many of the sessions themselves.

"YAI was youth-run and adult-supported," said Anthony Roberts of Miami. "We were hearing from experts, but the group brought experience and expertise."

Some youth participants had experience with street outreach. Others were bilingual. Roberts, 24, was a marketing/communications major at Johnson & Wales, and he used his knowledge to teach the group about gaining media coverage -- skills that paid off when Friday's rally garnered press coverage in the California Chronicle. He is working on designing a social marketing and media campaign in Miami for his YAI project.

This year's YAI was the first that truly used social networking and communication to advance its message. Carrie Rheingans, 27, a participant from last year's YAI and one of the event's organizers, taught a session about online organizing and posted on twitter throughout the conference. The group also started a blog, "", where they will report on their projects.

The participants continue to stay connected (via Facebook of course), and have committed to staying involved with the Campaign to End AIDS.

After hitting up the Bay Area, this year's participants are considering holding next year's YAI in Shreveport, Louisiana, and hold a public outreach campaign during the annual Crawfish Festival next June.

YAI participant Justin Coleman, 21, who's from Shreveport, said, "There's not much activism here around HIV and AIDS. It would be a good thing to open up everyone's eyes."

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This article was provided by Housing Works. It is a part of the publication Housing Works AIDS Issues Update. Visit Housing Works' website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
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