#WeCanEndAIDS: Reflections on the 2019 U.S. Speaker Tour

For two weeks in April, activists from around the world toured the U.S. with the Student Global AIDS Campaign, making stops at universities and congressional offices around the country, including on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to share a simple, yet powerful truth: We Can End AIDS.

In the latest State of the Union Address, Trump announced an initiative to end the HIV epidemic in the U.S. by 2030. But while we fight to end AIDS here in America, we can’t ignore what’s needed to fight AIDS abroad. In FY 2019, Congress increased the PEPFAR budget by a meager $50 million. While it is the first time we saw an increase in PEPFAR in 8 years, this increase does not nearly match the need. It is possible to end the AIDS pandemic in our lifetime, but it requires real political will. It requires a rapid scale-up in funding for life-saving HIV treatment and prevention programs in low- and middle-income countries, and an end to dangerous, discriminatory policies such as the Global Gag Rule.

This year, as part of the #WeCanEndAIDS Speaker Tour, a handful of powerhouse activists from around the world shared their stories about HIV and invited students across the U.S. to join the global grassroots movement to end AIDS!

On their final day on the road, the group of six weary (yet encouraged) travelers sat down at a restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts for their last meal together on tour and shared their reflections about the experience.

Members of the Speaker Tour sitting on the steps of Harvard Hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Back row, left to right: Becky Kroger, Resty Nalwanga, Gavyko Sumter; Front row, left to right: Emily Sanderson, Vovo Gonyela, Brittany Herrick)
Members of the Speaker Tour sitting on the steps of Harvard Hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Back row, left to right: Becky Kroger, Resty Nalwanga, Gavyko Sumter; Front row, left to right: Emily Sanderson, Vovo Gonyela, Brittany Herrick)

Why did you decide to join the #WeCanEndAIDS Speaker Tour?

 

Vovo Gonyela: I decided to join the tour because I wanted to share, firstly, my personal experiences as a person living with HIV, but also what led me to be part of the community that advocates for other people to access lifelong medication—particularly people living with HIV. I also wanted to be exposed to platforms where you engage face-to-face with decision-makers from the U.S. government and students and have conversations with them that motivate them to understand why it’s important. They (students) can still use the academic lens to understand HIV—its politics and economics and everything else—while at the same time thinking about what happens with that information when they leave the institution. So, for me, I felt like it was a great platform to share knowledge but also to learn from them (the students) as well.

Gavyko Sumter: Personally, the opportunity came at such a dynamic and climactic time for me in my work. Self-reflecting...prior to doing this tour...all of my work...I have unpacked my own HIV status and have unpacked my own advocacy in many different avenues and routes as an artist. I’ve done concept shows; I’ve done poetry, published books, helped do shows but I’ve never actually spoken about it—actually used my personal voice—and I noticed the disconnect in my work and the impact that it was having, especially in the communities that I’ve found myself in. And so I found this opportunity as one to help kind of force me to use my voice and actually start speaking my story.... And I guess the benefits have been exponential since then.

Resty Nalwanga: I came to share my story with U.S senators and university students because, as the beneficiary of the funding from the U.S. government to my country (Uganda), I wanted to show one of the positive results from what they’ve been investing in. I wanted also to remind them that if they put in more efforts and invest more—they will still achieve more because in my community, where I live, all people I represent on this tour, they are still lacking. Too much has not been done. And we also need to see how we can bring everyone on board—investing more in prevention as well as scaling up treatment so that each and every person who is at risk of HIV has access to prevention and those who have tested HIV-positive can be enrolled in treatment. I wanted to encourage the students to always have that heart of giving back and standing with those in need.

Becky Kroger: I decided to join the tour purely because I did the U.K. [Speaker] Tour and also I wanted to see where the U.S. is in supporting the rest of the world in ending new HIV infections and seeing the end of AIDS, really. It was interesting to go around to senators’ offices to basically highlight our asks and also for us to step up as young people from across the world going to the senators’ offices and putting the pressure on so that they can make commitments. It was incredible and I would do it all over again if I could!

Vovo Gonyela: We’re not at a point where we are comfortably saying we’re ending AIDS, but for me it was an opportunity to share personal country experiences and global experiences as well.

Gavkyo Sumter: Another crucial thing that made me fully say yes was realizing I would finally be in the company of global perspectives when it comes to HIV/AIDS. I was only privy to the domestic fight we were having. I knew I needed the global perspective.

Brittany Herrick: There was no question I wanted to be a part of it! For me, the reason to have a speaker tour is self-evident: Having people from PEPFAR countries come to the U.S. to talk to students is absolutely essential to building and sustaining the grassroots momentum necessary to end the global AIDS pandemic.

Emily Sanderson: When I went on the speaker tour last year, I saw students make the deep connection between their activism and the activism of people on the other side of the world and I knew I had to be part of it again (and, not that I’m complaining, but as the National Organizer of the Student Global AIDS Campaign, it’s also kind of my job to go). It is really powerful to be expanding our global movement of young people demanding an end to the AIDS crisis through resource mobilization and systemic change.


Iowa State University students writing postcards asking Senator Grassley to increase funding for PEPFAR & the Global Fund and to support the Global HER Act so #WeCanEndAIDS

 

What are you taking away from the tour?

 

Vovo: My takeaway is sort of a disappointment, in a way. I never thought that in the U.S. there would still be people who have never sat at a table with a person living with HIV, though we regard the U.S. government as *the* leader in the global response on HIV/AIDS. So, for me, I thought the role they play in the globe should also be translated with how those services and resources are accessed domestically, as much as there’s a global need. I was also uncomfortable with the fact that HIV is something that is somewhere “there” and not in the U.S.

Gavyko: A huge recurring takeaway for me is the value of taking care of yourself in the work that we’re doing and how that echoes even in community and how it further echoes into policy.

Becky: My takeaway from this tour is basically [the importance of] working as a team and being a huge support network for each other. And “Grown Woman” by Beyonce—I’ll never stop listening to that [laughs]. It’s so good! And just to reiterate, we need to put more pressure on the leading country in the global HIV/AIDS response and that’s what I really will take with me back to the U.K. I felt like my purpose here was to get the U.S. to listen.

Resty: I really appreciate the U.S. government for giving us the opportunity to visit with the senators’ offices. For me, this is an opportunity that differs from my country, where you [often] can’t even actually talk to your representative in Parliament in your community. It’s very hard. Really, I think the the U.S. is actually teaching us a lesson. The challenge to Uganda: give us [as members of civil society] space when we want you to open your offices so we can reach out to you and share our issues. In Uganda, my member of Parliament doesn’t even know what we’re doing at the grassroots level. They always come out into the community when they want votes from us, but they never give us the space which we’re always seeking. The U.S. government is doing it right [by giving space to civil society] and as a visitor to this country. I appreciate that very much.

Emily: We are the generation that will end the AIDS crisis! I am excited to keep building on the momentum we created on this tour, and see how far our movement can go when we are creative, vulnerable, and bold together. We have to hold members of Congress accountable to do everything in their power to end new HIV infections and provide quality treatment for all.

Brittany: I’m taking away a renewed sense of commitment to this fight. As a full-time activist who often works remotely somewhere in the U.S., I tend to feel a bit siloed at times. But spending two weeks on the road with activists from all over the world reminded me of just how widespread this movement really is, how powerful it is when we come together, and how privileged I am to be a part of it all. I’m convinced that with sustained pressure on our respective governments, we can really see the end of AIDS in our lifetime.


University of Virginia students and #WeCanEndAIDS speakers hold banner reading “AIDS AIN’T OVER” (Charlottesville, Virginia)

How would you describe the impact of the tour?

 

Vovo: I think we’ve made a huge impact through conversations, particularly with students. They were very engaged. To me, the fact that any number of students showed up and were part of the conversations was key. They showed an interest in furthering their understanding and identifying areas of interest. The fact that a few students came up to me after our speaking sessions to ask about organizations they could get in contact with in Africa to check for exchange programs and information-sharing, it gave me hope that not everything we said fell on deaf ears. There are those few that would want to do something about this—either in the U.S. or on a global scale.

With the legislative meetings, I think what was different for me was that not all meetings were sort of how we normally experience meeting with parliamentarians and ministers in South Africa. There’s a lit bit of ignorance and arrogance in South Africa. I had less of that experience in this tour. In fact, Senators’ offices kept said things like, “Oh, it’s a good thing that you’re advocating for this. We hear you. We support you.”

Resty: Something seemed to click for the students—even those who were willing to give their time to organize the event on campus. I think many of them realized they need to engage directly with the community—directly with people living with HIV—and show love and just talk. They were interested and they looked like they realized they have something to do back in their communities and in this country. Because they attended our speaking events and came to the legislative meetings with us, this showed that YES, there is a yearning to learn and to hear what we were sharing. I really appreciated that.

I also appreciated that in some of the senators offices we visited, they were informed. Even if they didn’t know all of the details, they knew parts of the plans where their government is funding (e.g. PEPFAR and The Global Fund). The fact that they are seeing us people, who have been taking this medication for all of these years—that we are living well with HIV—was kind of transformative for them. It was like they were thinking to themselves, ‘Wow, where we are investing is very productive and very good.’ So, as people who are receiving treatment today, coming out to speak with them was a way for them to see the fruits of the U.S. investment in HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria through the Global Fund and with PEPFAR. It’s not over until it’s done. With the support of the U.S. and other donor countries, we can reach the global goal of ending AIDS by 2030.

Gavkyo: When it comes to the students, I feel like we really reprioritized the conversation about HIV/AIDS and the pandemic, especially in places like the University of Virginia where we see lots of people who don’t have these open conversations about sexual health and accountability when it comes to healthcare and making sure that people have proper access and treatment—not just in a convoluted healthcare system that we see in the U.S., but also gaining the global narrative on the pandemic, especially for people that are directly impacted [by HIV]. So, I feel like we’ve made the progress that we need to see [continue] in the next few years...and [in finding] the right people that we need to mobilize to make sure we do see an AIDS-free generation by 2030.

Emily: On a very basic level, many people don’t know there is a difference between HIV and AIDS. Too many people still don’t know HIV treatment can suppress the virus in a person’s body to undetectable levels—and they don’t know HIV can be untransmittable. When students and congressional staffers make the connection that treatment exists, it’s cheap, and really effective at preventing new transmissions, they want to know more. Not only are people learning facts about HIV, they are putting a face to it and HIV became human to them. That’s huge, and it’s the first step to becoming an activist.

Brittany: I think the #WeCanEndAIDS Speaker Tour is an integral part of a successful strategy to end the AIDS pandemic. Without personal stories from people living with HIV from around the world, advocates here in the U.S. can often feel detached from the broader movement and especially from the people in countries implementing PEPFAR and Global Fund programming. But after someone like Vovo, for example, tells you her story of discovering she had HIV as a young person and then credits PEPFAR as the reason she's alive today, it all becomes more real. It becomes personal. After hearing her story, you know exactly who it is you’re standing in solidarity with and why it’s so important to keep campaigning..

Becky: And lastly, I’m just going to end this thing by saying, “We’re all each other’s friends.” [laughter] Yaaaas. Speaker Tour 2019, over and out.


#WeCanEndAIDS speakers boarding a flight from Burlington, Vermont to Des Moines, Iowa