Sunday, January 31, 2010

Are we going to lose the fight against HIV?

It was with sadness and disappointment, but not surprise, to read the Wall Street Journal article published January 30 titled “War on AIDS Hangs in Balance as U.S. Curbs Help for Africa”. The gist of the article is this: “Seven years after the U.S. launched its widely hailed program to fight AIDS in the developing world, the battle is reaching a critical turning point. The growth in U.S. funding, which underwrites nearly half the world's AIDS relief, has slowed dramatically. At the same time, the number of people requiring treatment has skyrocketed.” The article goes on to point out that the global effort to prevent new infections has suffered some reversals due to a combination of factors such as complacency because of effective treatments, abstinence-only education, and testing that continues to suffer from the oppressive burdens of prejudice and homophobia.

As I sit and write this, it is a quiet Sunday afternoon and I am reflecting on, among other things:
• The radio program presently airing about being gay in Africa (in Namibia in particular), and how policies that outlaw homosexuality devastate HIV-prevention efforts. American Family Association radio host here in the US also thinks gays should be put in prison.
• The sermon at the National Cathedral this morning that talked about how Love, not our love, but God’s Love, is everywhere
• The Sunday forum at the Cathedral, with Congressman Tom Perriello (D-VA) talking about faith and politics. He mentioned how the financial bailout rewarded failure, and it had me thinking that when huge dollars are given to the big players in HIV/AIDS work (“AIDS, Inc”), are we not doing the same thing?
• In 2003, I pitched the idea to Senator Durbin that Illinois be the first state in the country to commit to getting all residents tested as part of the effort to get ahead of the HIV-transmission curve. He said “we can’t afford to do that”.
• This Wall Street Journal article, while certainly ringing an alarm that we all need to pay attention to, also perpetuates the misconception that “global HIV” is “Africa-only”. We are starting to see waiting lists for HIV-treatment in this country. If we cannot offer people who test positive some treatment options, we have lost a major selling point for testing. This is not an African truth, it’s a global truth that exists here as well.
• The two written comments to the WSj article include these comments: “This is a classic case of trying to fix problems in a retarded society using modern technology…AIDS isn’t the problem, it’s only one of the many symptoms…Until a people decide they want to join civilization, no amount of money will save them…” and “maybe what we are seeing is nature (gods) way of population control?”. Gotta love the compassion of ethno-centric Americans.

The nice thing about blogs vs. publications is that there is wiggle-room for venting, and that’s what the combination of the above drives me to. Are there no adults anywhere that can sit people down and say, ok, let’s be serious here: this is a deadly disease that is very treatable, preventable not curable, costly to treat, and the sooner we contain it, the cheaper the collective treatment costs will be. I’m not a public health expert, theologist, politician, financial whiz, prophet etc, but it just seems increasingly clear to me that we are a society that is trying to tinker with a system that needs a major overhaul. HIV/AIDS is both an example of this in action and an opportunity to learn what it takes to make a major overhaul. Funny thing is that this overhaul is not one of bricks and mortar, but of mindset. The image that comes to mind of our current state is this: the best mechanics in the world have been asked to work on the engine of an old car. They are all looking at the parts of the engine, talking about a new air filter, an oil change, perhaps some spark plugs. Then a kid walks by and points out to them that the car has rust, torn seats, no tires, smashed trunk, broken windows, and is basically beyond repair. By focusing on the engine, they did not see the big picture. That’s what we seem to have with HIV/AIDS work; no one in a position of authority seems to be willing to connect the dots. For example:
• The need for treatment will go up no matter what we do. Ideally, if we can quickly implement community-wide, compassionate, non-judgmental HIV-testing, the need will spike dramatically as we quickly decrease the collective “undiagnosed”, and then the needs for testing and will decrease over time. Under the current testing system, however, that tries to “cherry-pick” the most at-risk from society (basically the approach of the last 30 years), we will stay on the same course of ever-increasing needs for treatment.
• We cannot effectively stop the spread by saying everyone should be tested, and then focus on “them”.
• It is not possible to encourage the openness needed to have everyone know their status while condemning and judging the people most at-risk.

I could go on, and have for years. The point is, this WSJ article should be our wake-up call. I remember saying to a friend in Wheaton, IL, perhaps 4 years ago that the reason we were so insistent on community-wide testing in Wheaton is that’s where we were, we have to start where we are, and if we can’t do it here, is it realistic to expect places like Africa to take the lead? Most importantly, I felt then that if we do not implement a program like this locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally, we will see HIV become worse. I fear that that day has now come. We humans think we are so smart, but this simple virus has exposed a dark side of us that we need to overcome: greedy, arrogant, judgmental, afraid, and very short-sighted.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What I Did During the State of the Union Address

While President Obama started his first State of Union address last night, about 100 volunteers and I were gathering at the United Planning Office (UPO) to go out in teams for the Point in Time census to count the number of people sleeping on the DC streets. Even though we were only two miles away from where the President was speaking, I felt like I was a lot farther away and in many respects, I was.

As I started out on the census with another volunteer, I saw President Obama speaking on many TVs as I walked around a nearby neighborhood. As I saw him speaking on TV, I wondered if he would mention homelessness once in his speech, but I found out later that he didn't and I wasn't surprised. This year alone, according to National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, three million people will experience some kind of homelessness, whether it is sleeping on a friend's couch after an eviction for a couple days or a prolonged period of homelessness.

The topic of homelessness has been on my mind constantly for a couple weeks, after I decided to volunteer for this census. In between signing up and last night, a fellow Quaker brought to my attention an article in Street Sense, a publication by homeless advocates, about violence on homeless people by other homeless people and made the point that the homeless are not always innocent victims.

I already knew this from my own personal experience. Once several years ago, in Chicago, two homeless men accosted me as I was walking around downtown and I had escaped by walking frantically into a nearby store. Also during the past two years in my job as a coordinator of a service learning program, I have heard about numerous people speak about their experiences being homeless. I have heard stories of drug/alcohol abuse, depression, and health issues as causes of chronic homelessness.

Just because someone isn't entirely innocent of the situation they are in, does that mean we shouldn't help? But is that really an issue: Their innocence? They need help. No one is really benefiting from people sleeping on the streets. When a natural disaster or a fire hit, does the Red Cross not help people who didn't have any insurance?

I have done several risky things in my life that could have easily led me to be homeless, like moving to an unfamiliar city with no job prospects, passing up good paying jobs in the hope of a better job opportunity, and spending money that I don't have by using my credit card. But I have always been lucky to have a bed to sleep on and food to eat, because I have a strong support net and a family and many friends who loves me unconditionally. Every time I messed up, I knew I had a fallback plan. For many people who experience homelessness, they don't usually have that kind of support net, like Joe, who I met last night.

My volunteer partner and I encountered Joe outside a pharmacy panhandling. He was reluctant to admit that he was homeless. As he was telling his story, he told about his mother, who told him constantly that he wouldn't amount to anything. In contrast to my life, where each time I messed up, my parents were there to encourage me to try again and not give up. I know that there are stories of people who grow up fine with messed up parents, but there are still a lot of stories, like Joe. When the budget gets cut, social services to help people get off the streets are usually the first ones to go, not salaries of elected officials or the military budget. For example, here in Washington DC, people rallied together to save potential budget cuts to social services in order to save vital programs that help the homeless and low income people from becoming homeless.

Obama's theme last night was about how America needs to move forward together to build a better economy. As we work towards that goal, we need to see how as a community we can better meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our midst, instead of just continuing to turn a blind eye to them.

PS: Point in Time Surveys happen all over the United States during late January. Check with your local social services if you are interested in volunteering in your community.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Two Wolves

An elder Cherokee Native American was teaching his Grandchildren about life. He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me… it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.

“One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

“The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

“This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”
They thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

This parable was part of the sermon yesterday morning at the National Cathedral, where I started my day. It has resonated with me for the past 24 hours. I think it speaks to many aspects of not only my own life, but also the times in which we live. For much of my work at William Penn House and with The Mosaic Initiative, what I hope we are doing is not just educating people about social justice issues, but feeding the latter wolf in this parable. It is a challenge these days in our media-driven partisan world. Media, almost by definition (at least the 24-hour news networks and many of the Olberman/Maddow/Limbaugh/O’Reilly/Beck/Palin world) succeed by feeding the first wolf in the parable. The “Tea Party” movement is definitely a product of this first wolf. I have a friend on facebook who claims to speak for the “vast middle” of America, and claims to look at things not optimistically, but realistically. What I suspect he doesn’t get is that we are both looking at things realistically – our differences are which wolf is being fed. I don’t know that he is conscious of his own internal mechanisms.

So I carried these thoughts with me through much of the day. I attended a kick-off celebration for an Arts and Cultural networking organization that is primarily a grassroots community group inspired by Kymone Freeman, a man of great passion and fire who clearly has both of these wolves fully energized within him. He sees the great injustices, has experienced them first hand, sees the waste and corruption of bureaucracy, but he pours the energy into the second wolf – dedicating his life to so much of what the second wolf represents. It is a life of service – he truly walks the walk.

As I was walking to the Metro to attend this event, I walked by a car parked on Nebraska Ave. near embassies and churches. On the back of this car were three bumper stickers. Two of the bumper stickers had the “O” symbol from the Obama campaign, but were the “O’s” in “Oshit”, and “Commie”. The third bumper sticker, playing on the campaign slogan “Got Hope”, said “Got Ammo” (calling for the assassination of Obama). Clearly, the owner of this car is feeding the wolf of anger, fear and lies, and wants to feed ours as well.

Herein lies the challenge: how do we respond? For me, I want to stand for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith in the face of these things. But I am also human – I get angry when I see these things. I know that to respond in-kind is not helpful in bringing us together to deal with all the challenges of the world. I also know that if I react angrily, I am feeding the first wolf as well. Perhaps the best I can do is just be aware that both wolves reside within me, and that awareness alone can help me tame one side while feeding the other.