Hope Arcuri is a passionate and prolific college student who is dedicated to the fight against HIV. As the Trump era unfolds, she is predicting and documenting what the new administration and Congress will be doing -- for better or worse -- about domestic and international health policy, especially in the arena of HIV.
I asked Arcuri to talk about how she found herself in this role, how she handles the responsibility of being an ally, and what she's doing in the days and weeks ahead.
Tell us about yourself and how you came to find yourself blogging about HIV and other global health policy issues.
My name is Hope Arcuri and I'm a junior at Duke University studying Global Health and Public Policy. I've always been so passionate about development issues, especially those that impact my community. I'm from Winston Salem, North Carolina, and North Carolina as a whole has an extremely high HIV rate -- we're 9th in the U.S. -- and high sexually transmitted infection rates. Over half of my public high school was on free or reduced lunch. There is also a huge Latino and African American demographic in my area and in my state. I saw these health issues taking a huge toll on those two demographics, and I couldn't just sit there watching it happen. I interned for a governor, advising him on needle exchange programs, and I took a very influential class on the AIDS crisis at Duke. I'm now interning for a humanitarian organization in Geneva, Switzerland, working on HIV and tuberculosis issues globally. I started a blog about two years ago, calling it Words of Hope. I wrote about my life, with running themes on the importance of strong relationships and the value of emotional vulnerability, but especially about my passion for doing whatever I could to make this world a better place. People really resonated with the message, and I now have over 20,000 readers.
What's your elevator speech on HIV/AIDS? What do you most want people to know and do about the epidemic?
HIV is a terrible disease that requires so much more understanding. People need to understand that HIV does not just affect people without condoms in sub-Saharan Africa. Condoms don't solve the problem -- it's so much more complicated than that -- and the epidemic is rampant across the entire world. More than that, the stigma around HIV in this country is horrifying. The fact that one in four Americans still thinks she/he can get HIV from drinking after someone is just beyond me. Antiretrovirals are too expensive in this country, and especially too expensive in other countries. I want people to champion needle exchange programs. These programs are so effective for reducing the spread of HIV among injection drug users. But, most of all, I want people to understand this: Reducing the spread of HIV is a bipartisan issue. Republicans -- even the farthest right of them -- are passionate about reducing the spread of HIV. This I can confirm from my in-depth analyses for my blog. Where the difference lies, where there is not bipartisan support, is in how we approach reducing the spread of HIV. That is where we have to find common ground. That is where we have to come together, understand our differences and work to find creative solutions for HIV reduction that are bipartisan. We can complain all we want that people disagree with our methods for reducing HIV, but until we sit down, iron out our differences and come together for the better of our country, we are not going to eradicate this disease.
As you've learned more about health and policy, have your views on HIV changed? If so, how?
I wouldn't say my views have changed, per se, but they have become much stronger. Growing up, I always thought HIV was a problem because people couldn't get access to necessary antiretrovirals or because people were not practicing safe sex. Throughout college and through my work experience, I've learned how much more complicated the disease truly is. So much of the epidemic involves cultural, social and economic factors that are not solved by simply increasing resources.
What are you doing to respond to the results of the election?
As a result of the election, I wanted to read every potential health policy proposal out there to understand how the new administration can, could and will affect national and global health issues, specifically HIV. So, I started a tab on my blog called THE, which stands for Trump's Health Effects, to discuss how this new administration must respond to the needs of the HIV community nationally and globally. It's been a great initiative because I already had a reader base from my main blog, and now I can get those readers interested in health policy areas. I don't need to be writing to the direct health policy experts; they already understand the implications of certain policies. I need to be writing to general American citizens who may not understand what Affordable Care Act (ACA) reform means, or who may not understand the implications of certain HIV initiatives or lack thereof. My blog can help facilitate a more national understanding among regular American citizens.
You are a student and relatively young for a person doing such in-depth policy analysis. How does your age work for and against you as a person who cares deeply about these issues?
I hate that my age and lack of work experience has to matter in this realm. I endlessly pore over news articles, have personally analyzed the ACA, have read all of the Republican proposals for reforming the ACA and wrote a 160-page memo on how Trump will affect 20 different areas of health. I am constantly asking health experts for their opinions, virtually attending conferences and taking challenging courses at my university. But I am 21, a woman and a college student. Even after doing so much in-depth analysis, with proof of that, I felt I didn't have the political or social clout necessary to put my ideas forward. Which is why I started the tab on my blog, and why I am honored that I am being interviewed by TheBody.com. Because TheBody.com and my blog are two platforms where my analyses and perspective can gain more national presence. Unless we build together, with a common, in-depth understanding, we won't be able to promote the HIV initiatives we know work. Unless we educate ourselves, we will get walked all over. So, I hope that regardless of my status as a 21-year old woman, people will read my blog, share it and join together.
As a white, HIV-negative person in the United States, how do you ensure your work is in keeping with the realities and priorities of people who are most directly affected by HIV?
I would never pretend that I understand what it's like to be marginalized -- for my HIV status or for my race -- but I do empathize and I do listen. Working so closely with the Latino community in Winston Salem and Durham, North Carolina, I have such strong relationships with HIV positive, non-white people. I see the ways they are discounted, discouraged and forgotten. And I can't just be their friend and then sit there and do nothing. So, I ask a lot of questions. And I do a lot of listening. And I gain humility in realizing that I will never fully understand, but I can still be an ally and help. Admitting that I don't understand but that I want to help goes a long way. Because, on the flip side, saying that because I don't understand I can't help is extremely offensive and ignorant. And then, on an even more personal note, my cousin passed away from a heroin overdose. So, I empathize a lot with injection drug users and how HIV can become an epidemic among this group of people.
Who are your mentors and/or from whom do you take inspiration for your work?
You know, the International Association of Providers of AIDS Care (IAPAC) just recognized 150 individuals that have been crucial in our fight towards eradicating HIV. Those people are so inspiring. There are names like Zackie Achmat, Myron Cohen and Jeffrey Sachs on there. Amazing, amazing people who have helped thousands understand what real development, real HIV care and real change looks like. On a more personal level, Sharonann Lynch is also on that IAPAC list -- one of the most dedicated activists for HIV issues that I have ever met who has done amazing work with Doctors Without Borders. The faculty at my school are constant mentors to me: Sherryl Broverman who started the international NGO WISER, David Boyd who has done incredible work all around the world and Deborah Johnson who has believed in my blog since the beginning.
My parents are my biggest supporters and mentors, though. They have supported me in all of my blogging escapades, my studies and my work experience. They let me attend a #BlogHer conference so I could learn more about marketing and blogging best practices. They always share my posts and tell their friends about my work. When I really look critically at the world's problems, they can become overwhelming and depressing quickly. But my parents have shown me how to stay positive and look for the silver linings. After all, they named me Hope, the most endearing and crucial word our world needs to hear right now! As such, I'm striving every day to instill hope in others, through my outlook on life, my blog and my work. I believe so strongly that hope exists in this world, if we only join together and choose to look for it.
What else should I have asked you?
How can people help? I think a lot of people out there want to know what they can do to help: to help our nation come together, to help battle HIV, to help support marginalized communities, to decrease poverty. You don't have to brainstorm for hours on the ways that you can help in the most effective ways possible. You just have to start helping! "Helping" is not necessarily a huge gesture or a massive amount of money. Helping can be as simple as being informed, informing others, fighting for what you believe and loving and caring for people all along the way. When I started my THE tab, I wanted to point a lot of fingers. I wanted to say: "This is what works. This is what doesn't. This is who's helping. This is who isn't." But it's a lot more complicated than that. It may seem as if people who disagree with you are evil natured or don't share your objectives, but that's not always true. We have to find our shared values and interests, and that can only happen if we stay informed and motivated around clear goals. So, share my blog with your friends. Share news stories with your friends. TALK about the issues that matter and debate your ideas. Seek out people who specifically disagree with you. When we, all together, find common ground in the good that is in all of us, we will eradicate HIV.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
JD Davids is the managing editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.