January 16, 2009
Health Care Advocates Host an Inaugural Ball
by James Wortman
President-elect Obama kept the topic of affordable and accessible health care for all Americans at the forefront of his presidential campaign. Given that there are 45 million people without health insurance in America—many of whom are grappling with chronic illnesses such as HIV, diabetes and heart disease—placing new focus on health care as a basic human right is crucial.
Working with DC-based planning company Event Emissary on the occasion of Obama's January 20 inauguration, the Vineeta Foundation, a health and human rights organization, will host the "Health for All Blue Diamond Ball" at DC’s Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Their goal? To ensure that health care reform remains a top priority as Obama enters the White House.
Speakers at this inaugural ball—one of many taking place in the capital that evening—include Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE; and Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. Nine-time Emmy Award–winning journalist Tracey Neale will emcee the program that will include performances by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Jackson Browne and Graham Nash.
The Vineeta Foundation recently appeared on the pages of POZ and on POZ.com when we interviewed foundation heads Brian Hennessey and Radia Daoussi about their documentary Please Talk to Kids About AIDS, which showcases their daughters Vineeta and Sevilla—then ages 6 and 4 respectively—grilling the top minds in the HIV/AIDS field at the 2006 International AIDS Conference in Toronto. POZ spoke with Hennessey and Daoussi about the upcoming ball and about the importance of their work as global health advocates.
What inspired you to put this ball together?
Radia Daoussi: Our foundation is dedicated to public health and human rights, and getting HIV/AIDS prevention and advocacy messages out to a lay audience is a big part of what we do. The ball really fits within that framework of having a broad appeal to diverse audiences. The audience that we’re expecting there is not exclusively public health professionals or advocates, but it will be a mix with lay public as well. The ball is called “Health for All” in reference to the landmark [International Conference on Primary Health Care] Alma-Ata Declaration of 1978 that called for accessible health care worldwide by the year 2000. Needless to say, in 2009, we’re really short of that goal [both] here in the United States and overseas, where billions are still denied the right to health care.
Brian Hennessey: Outside of our foundation, individually, many of us worked on the Obama campaign. Not from the beginning, but we all eventually got there from other efforts for other candidates. Around the time of the election some of us foresaw that things looked good. We knew Obama winning the election was a big deal and we certainly wanted to celebrate it. Much more importantly, we wanted to claim a victory for our issues.
We were fortunate that on the day we decided to [create the ball], MoveOn.org released a poll of its 3 million members—who were, of course, instrumental in getting Obama elected—and their No. 1 issue was universal health care. It was ahead of the environment, ahead of [stopping] the war in Iraq, and mind-blowingly, it was ahead the economy. So we felt the minute the poll came out we certainly had to do this.
HIV/AIDS sits at the crossroads of health care and human rights. What are some of the main things you’re hoping this ball accomplishes in regard to those living with or affected by AIDS?
BH: One thing I think that this health care system has done to us is made us single disease advocates. It’s had us fighting [for the scraps]. It’s interesting that a lot of [special interest] groups—the National MS Society, the American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association are involved in the ball. They’re partnering and we’re happy about that, but it’s a reflection of the sad state of affairs that we’re in. We’re competing against one another where in a rational health care system you get covered and you get the help you need no matter what you have. You don’t have to put your hand up in the back of the room and say, “Wait a minute I want to make a special case.”
Specifically with regard to HIV, of course, if we have better public health and better primary health care, then [people with HIV/AIDS will be] in much better shape [and that's good for public health]. Everyone benefits.
RD: We just celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In particular, what’s important to us is Article 25 of that declaration that states, without ambiguity that everyone has the right to health. This is more urgent than ever in the U.S., where health is [viewed as] a commodity. It’s treated as a commodity on the market, and that’s completely against the spirit of the Declaration of Human Rights. We feel that because of all the stigma still that surrounds HIV/AIDS, we forget about human beings as human beings and the rights that come with being human.
What do you think human rights advocates can learn from HIV advocates?
RD: In the early days, AIDS advocates had this added incentive because they were fighting for their lives. Survival instinct made them realize that they [had] better get organized and have their voice out there. That was a really strong lesson for [all] human rights activists to understand—even though our life is not [necessarily] on the line, [thinking that it is] that’s how we’re going to achieve massive change for everyone.
BH: In looking at successful movements, you can’t help but be impressed with where groups who’ve helped with HIV/AIDS have come from. It was not long ago in most people’s living memory that AIDS was an absolute pariah disease. Famously, people wouldn’t even talk about it, and if they did talk about it, they used incredible language, saying that infection was deserved. So where we are now is phenomenal, and it’s because of the dedication of the AIDS activists. I think we have a lot to learn about the model of activism [in general] and how it was brought to the floor publicly [from those who advocated for people dying with AIDS].
Your daughters, Vineeta and Sevilla, were the stars of your documentary Please Talk to Kids About AIDS. How do you think sex education will change under the Obama administration? Will we be able to talk to young people about the virus?
BH: I’m fascinated that Obama is reading history books about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln—two great American presidents. Roosevelt had a great quote. When someone approached him urging support for a cause, Roosevelt replied, “I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it.” That person left the room realizing he was going have to build coalitions and agitation and force Roosevelt to do it. Not because Roosevelt didn’t want to personally do it but he needed the political space within which to do it.
When I look at Obama—who came from the streets of Chicago to where he is today—and I know his heart is in the right place. However, we need to make him do things, and we need to create space for him to safely do things. We just haven’t done enough in this country to make an American politician be able to do the things we need them to do. You can’t do anything without political support, and that’s where we come in.
When Obama talked about sex education for yougn children, he was lambasted for it. He corrected himself a little bit. I see right there we didn’t make him do it, and we didn’t create a safe place for him to talk about that.
RD: I’m really hopeful that we’re going to have a better way to reach young people under this administration and move away from abstinence-only [sex] education. Anyone who claims [that abstinence-only sex education is] a program that deserves consideration and funding obviously has not read the science. That’s one change that we’re hopeful will happen.
Would you consider sexual education a basic human right?
RD: I would in the sense that [education] helps you get [to good health]. It helps you achieve your goal. Providing [people with] the correct information is a fundamental element of how we reach this goal of having access to health care for everyone.
For more information on the Blue Diamond Ball, visit bluediamondinauguralball.com.
Search: Vineeta Foundation, Barack Obama, inauguration, human rights, Brian Hennessey, Radia Daoussi
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