People keep talking about the need for a “new generation of AIDS activists.” Heroes of our movement call on young people to take up the gauntlet, veteran activists point out that young people are failing to mobilize in mass movements like that of the 80’s or 90’s, and every time a new AIDS doc comes out, the resulting opinion columns hope that it will be the catalyst for the new generation of rabble rousers we’re supposedly missing.
But these claims and calls to action can be just a little frustrating.
First, the assumption that there are no youth involved in AIDS activism is wrong and fails to recognize the incredible work that young people across the country are doing in the fight against AIDS. Young AIDS activists are spearheading grassroots campaigns for political advocacy, and they often win. Young people DO care about this pandemic, and there are a ton of them who are meeting regularly with their legislators, calling out decision makers for lack of leadership on policy, pushing for increased funding and access to medicines, and occasionally making media headlines for protesting folks from pharmaceutical companies to President Obama.
What is true, however, is that there isn’t the sort of mass movement of young people that existed in the 1980’s and 1990’s. But there isn’t the same sort of mass movement generally, not defined by age, as there was in those decades. This leads to the second, and main area of frustration catalyzed by the “new generation” call to action.
These generalized calls to action fail to appreciate the practical implications of the generational differences in the epidemic. We gloss over the meaning of the word “organizing”, when the truth is we need to focus on organizing more than anything else.
When people living with AIDS began to mobilize their communities in the late 1980’s, it didn’t take a ton of organizing power to get people in a room for a meeting or bodies in the streets for a protest. People were dying at alarming rates, and the combination of pent up fear, anger, and indignation had created a bubble that was just waiting to burst. It took a flyer or word of mouth for people to flock to activist meetings and protests.
Today, things are a lot different in the U.S. The existence of lifesaving treatment, coupled with federal programs that should (note: I said “should”) allow access to treatment and care for any American living with HIV means that people are not fighting for their lives the way that they were 20 years ago. While there are so many things left to fight for, the epidemic is just not as immediately terrifying to potential activists as it was 20 years ago. This is completely due to the work of the older generation of activists who came before us.
Now add to that the fact that there are a million and one social justice issues that young people feel pulled to work on. Why should they work on HIV/AIDS now? When treatment is available, everyone in this country should be able to access it if desired, and billions of dollars are funneled into global treatment and care programs in developing countries? What is there left to do, really? And are those things really more important than the threat of climate change, rising student debt levels, education inequality, or neglected diseases? Despite the fact that there are still 50,000 new infections in the U.S. every year, that only 25% of HIV+ people in the U.S. have reached an undetectable viral load, and that 25 million people around the world are without access to treatment, the perception exists that the AIDS problem has been fixed.
What does all this mean? It means that AIDS activists can’t just put up a flyer and expect one-hundred people to show up to a community forum or action planning meeting. Instead, getting those 100 people in a room takes a whole lot of work - it takes ORGANIZING.
If we want to organize young people to take part in political action, we need to invest in organizing. It does not just happen organically. Investing in organizing is different than many of the initiatives we tend to invest in regarding young people and AIDS.
It’s not just putting up billboards about overcoming stigma or the need to get tested.
It’s not just funding support groups and community based HIV prevention programs.
It’s not just sponsoring a film tour so that young people can learn about the history of AIDS activism.
All of these things are incredibly important, but if we want young people to take political action, they need to be followed up with strategic organizing.
It’s organizers on campuses and in clinics with clipboards taking names.
It’s countless follow-up calls and emails and facebook chats and twitter conversations.
It’s networks of young activists that can support each other.
It’s teaching young people the ins and outs of the policies that address the epidemic.
It’s skills building in birddogging and media relations and storytelling.
It’s training youth to take legislative action, having an experienced activist accompany them on their first in district meetings, and then connecting them with other activists in their districts to take action with.
It’s teaching the large numbers of young people who care about global health that global health is political - and teaching the large communities of social justice activists that HIV is a social justice issue as well.
There are young people throughout this country doing these things. But this movement is choosing to fund education and awareness and support groups, while letting political organizing take a hit. And yet political organizing is necessary to creating an aids-free generation.
Young AIDS activists have learned how to be strategic. We’ve figured out how to win campaigns without having a massive amount of people involved. We’ve mastered strategic political advocacy and legislative action, pulling on a tiny amount of resources to make our numbers seem much bigger than they are. We’ve formed close relationships with veteran activists - and we appreciate working in partnership with these mentors to be as efficient and effective as we can be. We can keep doing what we’re doing - and we can keep winning in the campaigns we choose to tackle. But there are a hell of a lot of battles to fight, and if we want the numbers to fight them all, we’re going to need to organize.
To all the veteran activists that talk about the need for the next generation of AIDS activists - we’re already here, we’re ready to go, in fact we’re already going - but if this movement doesn’t invest in the organizing needed to sustain our political movements, then we won’t be here for long. Let’s deepen our relationship, lets share resources, lets invest in the new generation. No movement has ever won without youth taking political action - and if we want to end AIDS, then it’s time we support young activists.
Amirah Sequeira is the National Coordinator of the Student Global AIDS Campaign, a national network of youth committed to ending AIDS through strategic political advocacy and direct action. www.studentglobalaidscampaign.org