Amandla! Awethu! (Power to the People)



            This call and response could be heard echoing the streets of Durban South Africa during the 2016 International AIDS conference (IAC). To the people of South Africa, this call and response is translated to Power! To the people! To many people at the IAC, including me, it meant unity.

            The IAC was filled with people from all around the world — from scientists showing their work to activists uniting together to have their voices heard. From the UK to the US, from Argentina to India, we all came together to let the world know that the first word in HIV is human and that this virus has no borders, no race and can affect judges and janitors alike.

            That is what made this call and response so powerful. Like HIV, this call and response had no borders. The message was clear: power, not some of it, to the people, not just a certain population. As the different demonstrations went on, people from all over the world made this call and response even if they did not know its meaning. It is inclusive — much as we need to be to create a movement.

            For me, the most awe inspiring moments of the conference were when I heard South African activists and many others from around the world use the call and response during marches and demonstrations. This call and response spoke to people in an international audience, its power and inclusiveness gained support from all people. Though we are focused on different aspects of the fight - including sex work, HIV decriminalization, gay rights and transgender rights — Health GAP, the Treatment Action Campaign, Section 27, the Student Global AIDS Campaign and countless other organizations united in solidarity with the same goal:  to fight HIV and AIDS. And through these demonstrations you would always hear the leader say “Amandla!” and the crowd responding “Awethu!”

            Activism, bringing people from different backgrounds and interests together, is the key to building a movement. I am an expert in my experiences. As a man born HIV positive, my experiences are unique to the understanding I developed over my short lifetime. The sex workers, transgender people, and other activists in Ireland or South Africa, for example, also have their own unique experiences and ways of doing things. But we have a similar goal. Bridging these experiences and building community rather than competition can create the change needed.

            Just as we heard those voices loud and clear at the IAC, we have a responsibility to continue to lift them up in the spirit of amandla awethu long after the conference has ended. We as the Student Global AIDS Campaign need to close the gaps between our brothers and sisters. We cannot claim to fight for the good of a global movement without having as much contact as possible with the diverse global population that we claim to serve. We have to work to know what people and activists in Kenya may need out of the Presidential Emergency Plain For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) or how the Lawyers Collective in India may need us to stand with them in solidarity once again. HIV positive men and women, no matter how they identify, must be given the space and voice because they have an understanding how these policies affect them.

            We need to support our allies around the world and help to strengthen leadership in the communities affected by this disease by using our privilege to help power to the people, just as we proclaimed in Durban. And we need to unite within SGAC to be the most effective we can be in order to fearlessly mobilize our peers to join this vibrant global movement.

            Speaking from experience, having a personal investment in the success of the HIV movement gives me the strength to do my absolute best. I know that there are many out there who feel the same way I do and it would be a great waste of passion not to give the space for them to grow. That is the lesson of Durban: Power to the people! Amandla! Awethu!