Learning About Activism with AIDSWalk

Emili Ema Sedlar

by Emili Ema Sedlar

In the United States, one of the most effective and exciting parades is the annual AIDS Walk, a community event that focuses on raising awareness, educating, and informing others about the ongoing stigma towards people living with HIV. AIDS Walk also allows the space for community members to remember the lives of many loved ones who lost their battle to AIDS-related complications and to celebrate those who still live with the virus.

The agencies that participate in AIDS Walk continue to fight for a much better world, in which people are more educated and curious about the social misconception of HIV/AIDS- fighting the taboo and making it a topic in which people will raise questions to understand the complexity of the subject. Organizers of the annual AIDS Walk from Austin and Buffalo, have elaborated in detail, about the ways many local citizens dedicate their time and effort to make the AIDS Walk significant and more crucial each year, thus helping the public to learn more about the social and political aspects of HIV/AIDS.

The difference in the Past and Present

Cambriae Bates is the Special Events Coordinator for AIDS Services of Austin and the organizer of AIDS Walk Austin. This year marks the 30th anniversary of AIDS Walk Austin and she explained how in those 30 years, there have been many innovations to allow people living with the virus to live longer lives. “Today, getting HIV doesn’t mean your life has to end. You can still go to school, have a career, start a family and aspire to be anything you want to be. That’s why the the AIDS Walk is now much more about celebrating life,” Bates illustrated. However, Bates informed me that even with all the medical innovations, stigma and indifference have been keeping infection rates steady in the Central Texas community.

Bates pointed out the need to inform others about the present statistics about HIV/AIDS. The issue is that the majority of new infections are in people under the age of 35 (65%) and many whom have contracted the virus have barriers that prevent them from getting into care. Many people in the US and around the world do not know some of these facts. “Although HIV can affect anyone, many people in the community who are affected tend to face other struggles. A majority of the people we serve fall below the poverty line and many struggle with homelessness and mental illness. They need a holistic form of assistance in order to get them to a healthy place. If someone is worrying about where they are going to sleep, they will not worry about taking their medication,” highlighted Bates.

That is why Bates tries to make the AIDS Walk such a grabbing event. Bates says that AIDS Walk Austin is getting bigger and better with many active and creative volunteers willing to learn and help out as much as they can. AIDS Walk Austin has 200 volunteers venture out each year, a volunteer committee of  6-10, and speakers and performers who commit their time to this important event.

Communicating With the Younger Audience

It is speculated that transmission rates are the highest among young adults and youth because there is a generational disconnect when it comes to HIV and the disconnect also reflects in AIDS Walk attendance. “There are fewer who sign up to actually walk and I think it’s because of indifference in the young community. They didn’t live through the 80’s and early 90’s so they don’t understand what HIV can do and has done to many people. Some people even think it’s curable, but over the last six years the number of people living with HIV in Travis County has increased by 18.6%.

Contracting HIV in our community is still a serious issue,” claimed Bates. One of the solutions Bates has elaborated on is educating young people in schools and universities on sexual health. She described that talking about sex should feel comfortable and it should not be a taboo topic since it is a something that almost everyone partakes in. “I think sex positivism is key with youth. We should normalize the practice of talking about sexual health, normalize the idea that people “get busy“ in the bedroom, talk about our bodies, and talk about healthy practices. There should be no shame or embarrassment in having the conversation,” clarified Bates. This is something that educational boards should urgently take into consideration. Bates gave advice as to what the public should focus on when talking about HIV/AIDS and sexual health.

There are two things that need to be taken into attention: education and awareness. “We have the opportunity to say, this virus was here and now it’s gone, but in order to do that we cannot slack. We cannot let new generations become unaware and careless and we cannot let people forget what HIV can do, has done and is still doing. There are people out there living who are ill and need to get into care and we can unite as a community to help. Everyone needs a hand sometimes and together we can lend enough hands to build a healthier community,” Bates confirmed.

It Is Never Too Late to Join the Conversation about HIV/AIDS

Rachel Voelkie-Kuhlmann, an AIDS Walk Buffalo organizer, also agrees with Bates. In this year’s Buffalo AIDS Walk, which was held on May 6th, there were, according to Kuhlmann, over 400 participants and 150 volunteers. On the participant survey, there were many satisfying and optimistic comments, such as: “Lots of great vibes and a wonderful message…A most wonderful event filled with hope and love…We made our own sunshine today.” What makes AIDS Walk Buffalo special and unique is that every year, its organizers produce an educational component that attempts to illustrate current issues surrounding HIV/AIDS. “This year, we created a series of short videos that participants could watch and share on social media to keep the conversation going. By engaging younger individuals on social media, we are educating future generations about HIV and why it remains an important issue”, described Kuhlmann.

Moreover, Kuhlmann explained how for the organization it is very important to keep this kind of a trend going and creating an informative and culturally safe space for many of those who want to have an open and honest dialogue about this issue. She also added how a conversation can be an open door to breaking barriers of stigma and animosity. „We can all play a role in fighting this disease“, she suggested.