Ryan McElhose is a December 2016 graduate from the University of Kentucky with a degree in Sociology. He currently serves as the Pedro Zamora Public Policy Fellow at AIDS United and also is one of fifteen recipients of the Build-A-Brother Institute Young Scholars program, an HIV advocacy scholarship through the Young Black Gay Leaders Initiative. In October, he will serve as a Medical Coordinator for Hombro a Hombro health clinic in Santo Domingo, Ecuador, and then will enroll in graduate school at Boston College in August 2018. He will work towards a dual degree in social work and law (MSW/JD). When not working, Ryan enjoys tennis lessons, training for half marathons, drinking slurpees, and popping all the way off at the club.
In observance of National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, we asked our current Zamora Fellow on his insight and journey understanding HIV prevention, treatment, and care. These are his thoughts.
What drew you to work in HIV?
One of the reasons I wanted to graduate early from undergrad was to apply all the theory I have learned in the classroom. Studying Sociology with an emphasis on public health has taught me the fundamentals of HIV prevention, treatment, and care. However, I wanted to become more involved in the public policy response to the HIV epidemic.
What do you enjoy most about this work/what is your passion/motivation?
In this work, I enjoy the collaborative approach to address the HIV epidemic. It was such an awakening and emotional experience organizing and attending my first AIDSWatch. This year, AIDSWatch welcomed over 650 constituents from 34 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico, while organizing over 260 visits to Capitol Hill for constituents to hold legislators accountable to HIV-related legislation. The passion of advocates including grassroots organizers, social workers, health care providers and administrators, journalists, professors, The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, and people living with HIV attending their first AIDSWatch furthered my understanding and appreciation that ending the epidemic involves everybody from all sectors.
My passion is to one day serve as a bilingual, licensed social worker and attorney committed to serving people living with HIV and ending HIV criminalization. With this goal, developing a biomedical, social, legal and interpersonal understanding of HIV has become a top priority.
Why is it important that young people continue to be involved in this work?
I see the importance of involving young people for two initial reasons. Firstly, according to the CDC, youth aged from 13 to 24 accounted for more than 1 in 5 new HIV diagnoses in 2014. At the end of 2012, 44% of youth ages 18 to 24 years living with HIV did not know their status. Youth are crucial in the conversation about ending HIV.
Secondly, youth serve as key advocates to educate peers and create spaces for conversations on HIV advocacy. Learning alongside people who look like me has informed my advocacy, particularly my experiences with my brothers, uncles, and aunties that serve with me in the Build-A-Brother Institute (BABI) cohort. Attending the NAESM conference and understanding the experiences from my cohort has changed my life, introduced me to crucial information, and ultimately challenged my own subconscious stigma.
There is no room for any form of stigma within advocacy. I find it to be dangerous (at best) for those in leadership positions to be out of touch with the community. If you are HIV- in HIV advocacy but wouldn't imagine dating someone living with HIV, you need to check yourself. If you entrust institutions over people living with HIV, you need to check yourself. Throughout my fellowship at AIDS United, I have needed to and will continue to check myself and be receptive to being checked by others. I need to create space for active listening and readily shut down any and all forms of stigma. Thanks to working alongside other young advocates, I am becoming a better person.
What can the field learn from the experiences of young people?
As young advocates, we are powerful in holding leaders accountable to be inclusive in advocacy spaces. For me, the most powerful takeaway from AIDSWatch was the chant "Nothing About Us, Without Us!" From grassroots movements to federal policy, everyone needs a seat at the table and a working microphone when discussing HIV prevention, treatment, and care. Holding space for youth-led conversations and initiatives is critical to challenging HIV-related stigma and ending the epidemic.
Can you speak to any experiences of the importance of mentorship from people who have been in this field for longer?
One of my favorite part of my fellowship is when I can squeeze one-on-one time out of AIDS United's Vice President of Policy & Advocacy, Ronald Johnson. He has been involved in HIV advocacy since the beginning of the epidemic, serving as a volunteer with Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), one of the first organizations to respond to HIV/AIDS in New York City. Semiregularly, I visit his office to get to know him personally as well as professionally, which has helped me understand that personal narratives do inform advocacy. I believe mentorship from people like Ronald will guide young advocates through the complexities, realities, possibilities, and potential for future advocacy.
What has your experience engaging in policy work as a young professional been like?
This has been a very rewarding experience serving as a Pedro Zamora Public Policy Fellow. Although I foresee my contribution towards ending the HIV epidemic in the grassroots circle, I find it immeasurably important to understand how to navigate governmental structures. The AIDS United Public Policy Committee meetings, congressional coalition meetings, and the Federal AIDS Public Policy meetings exposed me to the nuances of advocacy work. There are plenty of committees, subcommittees, and conversations about the importance of how language is used, and oh my gosh ... so. many. acronyms!!!
I am having a life-changing experience as a Zamora Fellow and as a Build-A-Brother Institute Young Scholar. I am learning how to be a better active listener, a more well-rounded advocate, a sharper critical thinker, and I am now a pro with DC's public transportation!
AIDS United has been so good to me; I have learned so much and have so much more to learn.
Do you think we'll see an end to the epidemic in your lifetime?
In my lifetime, I wholeheartedly believe that we could see an end to the HIV epidemic. The fight continues and I look forward to continue to working alongside young advocates.