By Erin Williams, SGAC member at Saint Michael's College
The thing about power is that it seems only a select few hold it by the reins. Those that are wealthy. Those that are lawmakers. Those that are in the public eye. But young college students? Not likely. I don’t imagine most people would picture a stressed out, bleary eyed young adult whose main source of nourishment is pizza when they imagine a powerful person with great influence. But the reality of who has power isn’t so straightforward.
This topic was a common theme at the Fall Uprising conference in Washington, D.C. We spent a great deal of time learning the power to create change is already in our own hands, and how to use it to bring about necessary change. Over the days we spent together at the skillshare, we decided that our power lies in our cause and our passion for ending the AIDS epidemic. One of the most effective ways we realize this power, we concluded, is through talking about our cause, especially face-to-face, with others. Little did I know that I’d have the opportunity to try this tactic out for myself in the following days.
Congressional meetings. When I first learned we were going to present our case to staff of select Senators’ offices, I felt, quite honestly, that it would be a waste of time. Can you blame me? I couldn’t imagine the people in the marbled halls of the Senate building giving much weight to my and my peers’ words. Why would they? After all, many of us are still considered young and inexperienced. Many of us, myself included, are just getting our feet wet in the “real world.” So, when the time came for these congressional visits, I was riddled with anxiety and an overall feeling of helplessness. I felt young. I felt foolish. I felt like I was rooting for the losing team. I felt small.
But the conversations we had at the Fall Uprising were ringing in my ears, and I was committed to testing out the theory that I too had power. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith, even if that means you’re going to fake it until you make it.
First, we met with Senator Leahy’s office. On the surface, our meeting went well and we discussed the points that we had intended to. However, I walked away feeling like I had received a batch of empty promises from a stranger in a suit who’d never follow through. I was discouraged, though not altogether surprised. This feeling was reinforced when we met with Senator Warner’s office. Both conversations seemed to revolve around the “impossible” political climate and the challenges of navigating the budget. The takeaway was “we support you but we’ve already done everything we can.” As I said: discouraging. This all changed though when we went to Senator Murphy’s office. His staffer was engaged, collaborative, and was filling pages with notes. More importantly, he changed the direction of the conversation. Instead of targeting public policy initially, he wanted to focus on first gaining support for the cause by working with other Senators’ offices and perhaps using World’s AIDS Day as a time to maximize publicity about the epidemic. At this time, I found myself speaking up more, strategizing, and asking for commitments. I carried this energy with me to our final meeting with Senator Kaine’s office.
I surprised myself greatly in these last two meetings. I finally felt settled in to my role as an advocate to end the AIDS epidemic. I had contributed to the conversation about the concerns of SGAC and what we believe needs to change in our society. For the first time that weekend, the connection between merely being aware of an issue and taking action clicked into place for me. I felt my contribution, whether it be my voice or just my presence at those meetings, was starting a ripple that was spreading outwards. And that is a powerful feeling.
I am determined to not allow that feeling of empowerment and purpose to be fleeting and tied to one weekend. I am excited about SGAC’s mission and more so now than ever, am determined to end AIDS by 2030. Going forward, I will continue to use my power as an activist to keep the ripple spreading.