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Interview with Veteran HIV Prevention and Social Justice Activist Julie Davids

In December 2010, TAGlinecaught up with the super energetic and visionary HIV activist Julie Davids, veteran of ACT UP/Philadelphia, HealthGAP, and a slew of more recent U.S. HIV prevention and social justice organizations such as CHAMP, Project UNSHACKLE, and the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance. In January 2011 Julie took over as national advocacy and mobilization director for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. TAGline asked Julie to address the following questions:

  • What changes have happened to HIV prevention research and programs domestically since CHAMP was formed?
  • How have they changed over that period?
  • What are the challenges facing HIV prevention research and programs today?
  • What are the key activist strategies to deal with these challenges?
  • What is needed, and who needs to do it?

Julie Davids:The Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP) has ended operations as of this writing, though is sustaining our two main networks (Project UNSHACKLE and the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance) through excellent allied organizations (NYCAHN/VOCAL and AIDS Foundation of Chicago, respectively).

Having had the privilege of founding the group in 2003, and working with it until its closure, my feelings about this transition are understandably complex—but I appreciate the opportunity to reflect a bit on the past and speculate on the future in these pages.

But first, I wish to invite anyone who has had experiences with CHAMP and/or thoughts on the past decade of mobilization, organizing, and policy work on HIV/AIDS in the United States to join our online reflections on our work, the climate in which it occurred, and ideas for future directions. The discussion will be hosted by on an ongoing basis, and submissions can be made as letters, statements, comments on other posts, or links to online media.

In 2002, I began to engage in dialogue with other HIV/AIDS and social change activists as I sought to sketch out what became CHAMP. That fall I had the opportunity to craft some thoughts on domestic HIV/AIDS organizing in this newsletter  (“The Way Forward: Philly ACT UPer and Health Gap Founder Tackles the Challenges of an Aging Activist Movement,” TAGline, October 2002).

At that time I assumed that a regional or national HIV mobilization initiative focused on building a new generation of leadership while maintaining our community’s history of strong advocacy would and should be focused on treatment. But as I moved forward in talking to others about these ideas, people started to confront me, asking, “What about HIV prevention?”

There was a sense of frustration that HIV prevention was, for the most part, outside the scope of much of the AIDS community’s diverse organizing and policy change efforts while remaining underfunded and underresearched. Yet it was visibly in the crosshairs of conservative politicians in the seemingly endless days of the [George W.] Bush administration.  And I was part of the problem for sure: I remember my broad ignorance on the subject, thinking, “HIV prevention? That doesn’t really work, does it, outside of syringe exchange and PMTCT?”

But the more I learned, the more I felt compelled to jump in. I got schooled in the need for HIV prevention advocacy, which had tonot only build the power to resist attacks but integrate a broad range of social justice and equity issues; broaden the concept of HIV prevention beyond abstinence, condoms, and clean needles; and delve into challenging research questions that had never been adequately explored.

Although we struggled with issues of capacity and sustainability, CHAMP had a noted impact on HIV prevention advocacy. Entering a realm with little public, strategic conversation and a wide gap between the small but growing body of prevention research and the underfunded, earnest prevention programs at the community level, we found ourselves bridging disciplines and sectors, becoming a trusted “content provider” feeding honest and strategic information to hardworking front-line prevention workers and policy leaders alike, and a leader in strategic campaigns and coalition efforts.

Over time we crafted a national network of 12,000 people—many deeply involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS—who were able to take quick action through online alerts, and who were invited to contribute to debate and dialogue at our events, conference calls, and trainings.

CHAMP began in 2003 by drawing community attention to the secretive process the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was using to revamp their prevention efforts under the “Advancing HIV Prevention” rubric, which was to have major implications, including the near fossilization of interventions into a set of mandated “boxed” interventions.

Now the broader federal government, with much leadership from the CDC, stands poised to reorient prevention approaches in a time of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS). Last year was a very busy year that saw the release of the unprecedented NHAS as well as encouraging results of partial efficacy from microbicide and preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) trials. But CHAMP, which grew out of those initial constructive confrontations from prevention advocates seeking a national movement, is shutting down.

TAGline:So what do we do now?

JD: We continue the fight.

Looking at the successes and failures of CHAMP and other efforts, I’ve learned that this fight must not be limited to one-time or short-term trainings, small-scale technical assistance, capacity building, and/or online organizing. For those who have noted and respected our work, I’d ask you to look at our capacity struggles as well as our successes as useful data about the need to have strategic alliances and resources to stabilize efforts over the course of years, allowing activists to work together with support and a sustainable home for ongoing campaigns and flexible networks.

In the near term, state-level and regional efforts—providing training and support for new and longtime leaders—need to be scaled up in partnership with national initiatives. We can leverage interest in the 2012 International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012) in Washington, D.C., and the presidential election of that year into resources for leadership development, political education, and on-the-ground field organizing. But we also should reap the benefit of skilled facilitation and strategic support for healthy collaboration to ensure that passionate and opinionated individuals and organizations in our movement are best able to build our collective power in the coming years, and to allow new leaders to emerge for the fight that will continue long past the conference and election.

And fundamentally, we need to continue the fight for the very basics of HIV prevention, such as condom access and funding for syringe exchange, that remain out of reach for many.

We must amplify the fight against the social drivers of HIV in our country, like mass imprisonment, lack of safe and affordable housing, and LGBTQ marginalization.

And we should challenge ourselves across and beyond the HIV sector—whether people living with HIV, prevention providers, public health advocates, funders or cogs in the wheels of struggling public systems—to bridge the now-artificial distinction between treatment and prevention and aim higher for cross-cutting efforts that have a shot at reaching population-level success to reduce HIV incidence and health inequities.

We must also use the momentum of the NHAS and the upcoming spotlight on the U.S. epidemic at AIDS 2012 to ensure that more and better coordinated resources reach, and are accountable to, the populations most affected by HIV in our country: gay men, other MSM, and transgender people of all races and ethnicities; and people of color of all sexual orientations.

We need to continue the fight because HIV prevention does work.

The basic HIV prevention package—including counseling, access to condoms and sterile syringes, and STD treatment—has helped and continues to help many people avoid infection. Its success has actually made it harder to get results from efficacy studies of additional or alternative prevention interventions, since the systematic inclusion of the basics in the placebo arms has often meant the overall infection rate in trial participants declined substantially.

We have never had a basic, solid, comprehensive foundation of HIV prevention in our country upon which to build more innovative solutions or combination approaches. Notably, it was just this past year that the CDC released a powerful and clear set of data and recommendations on condoms as a structural intervention in HIV prevention. Not just an individual intervention, where one person chooses or is able to use a condom, but a structural intervention, meaning that overarching civic structures can and should make condom access a priority (as has been done in New York City).

In addition, most students and young people never get fully comprehensive sexuality education. There is still no data at all about whether or how sex ed is protective or helpful for LGBTQ youth, and abstinence-only programs still spread misinformation on the public’s dime.

These days, the basic prevention package should also include seamless access to postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) for serodiscordant couples and those who have a risky encounter and/or self-identify as at high risk for HIV acquisition, even as we puzzle out how to best move forward on interpreting and implementing initial PrEP results. While there are longstanding public health service guidelines on PEP, actual local programs to get it quickly into the hands of those who need it are rare.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see that a 12-city expanded HIV planning initiative that’s one of the first cross-agency offerings out of the NHAS box—Enhanced Comprehensive HIV Prevention Planning and Implementation for Metropolitan Statistical Areas Most Affected by HIV/AIDS (ECHPP)—mandates “PEP access for populations at greatest risk” as one of the required interventions.

Of course, we could hope that syringe access could become more reliably a part of the basic package, now that the federal funding ban has finally been lifted. But two major barriers remain.

Sadly, the NHASperpetuates Bush-era bias against harm reduction, in a time in which those on the front lines believe we could virtually eliminate HIV in injection drug users through concerted, systemic efforts. For example, the ECHPP doesn’t even list sterile syringe provision as a “recommended” intervention, much less require it (though it notably highlights a brief alcohol screening/intervention for HIV positive and high-risk people that’s seen some success in New York). Even if many of these municipalities are already committed to sustaining syringe exchange (which we cannot count on in this economic climate), the absence of these words in the intervention list of this much-publicized new initiative is chilling.

And there’s just not likely to be new money for HIV prevention federally (and much less money given recent and pending cuts at the state and local levels.) This probably means that federal funds must be taken from something else in HIV prevention in order to be redirected to syringe access, setting up competition between different camps or constituents in HIV prevention. While this could and should provoke healthy conversations about the most vital interventions in the current era, it’s not an easy process, especially while our organizations and constituents are battered by economic challenges.

Clearly, it’s not just syringe access that’s threatened by budget woes. The now-worldwide recession is not likely to disappear any time soon—and if/when it does, there’s nothing guaranteeing that funds will flow into the path of justice and public health rather than into the pockets of the banks and corporations that are steering much of the decision making around the U.S. economy.

This is a challenge to us on multiple levels. It’s not only harder to find the city, state, federal, and private funds to implement the best strategies of the NHAS and push for much needed investments in HIV prevention, treatment and care. Those hardest hit by economic turmoil are those who are or will be put in harm’s way and made more vulnerable to HIV. The CDC has now acknowledged that poverty is a major driver of HIV in heterosexuals, and as the number of impoverished people goes up, we could guess that HIV incidence will as well—and not just in straight people; poverty jeopardizes the health of all.

Even in this economic downturn we are finding potential innovations in prevention, like PrEP. But we must use these breakthroughs to inspire us to find ways to confront and overcome, rather than reenforce, longtime and persistent health disparities based in economic, racial, and social injustice in order to ensure that interventions reach all people who could use them.

So we need to also continue the fight because in order to prevent HIV; we need prevention justice.

During CHAMP’s lifetime, we launched and promoted an HIV prevention justice movement—one that will be sustained and expanded, in part, through the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance (HIV PJA) as it moves forward with its two other cofounders, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and SisterLove. Prevention justice asserts that advocates for HIV prevention must join in common-cause struggles for social, racial, and economic justice, and that human rights are essential in furthering our fight against HIV.

The HIV PJA has identified three key social drivers as major contributors to stubbornly high HIV incidence rates in the United States: shortage of stable, safe housing access (which is a marker of economic injustice), mass imprisonment (particularly of people of color), and the marginalization of LGBTQ people.

As we move forward in coming generations, we must twin our efforts to combat the proximate, or immediate, causes of HIV, such as sex without condoms or syringe sharing, with an ongoing commitment to the distal causes that determine relative vulnerability or resiliency against HIV, such as poverty and discriminatory policies, that are the focus of HIV prevention justice.

For example, by joining efforts to fight for fair housing for all people at the local level, we bring the strength and passion of the HIV/AIDS community to a human rights struggle that is concretely tied to HIV prevention, treatment, and care. And when we do so as people openly living with HIV and their allies, we create visible space for others to come out, and that’s also a good, grassroots way to combat HIV stigma.

CHAMP and others have worked assiduously to draw attention to the reality that gay men of all races and ethnicities are the largest group of those infected in the United States, with the highest rates in black gay men, and the only group in which incidence rates continue to increase. Thus it can come as a shock to some that efforts to end LGBTQ marginalization are often at a distance from the HIV/AIDS community.

Data keep coming out about how events early in the lives of queer people—like whether or not we are accepted by our parents, or to what degree we are targeted for bullying in schools—are formative issues that set in place a cascade of vulnerability or resiliency for a lifetime of health issues, including substance abuse and intimate partner violence as well as HIV/AIDS. And groups like Queers for Economic Justice  have challenged the AIDS community to recognize the distinct and compelling challenges faced by low-income and poor LGBTQ people that draw our attention right back to core social drivers like poverty, housing, imprisonment, and immigrant issues.

Fortunately, the NHAS explicitly states that we will never overcome HIV in the United States if we do not deal with the epidemic in gay men. But it remains to be seen if resources truly shift in a smart and sustained way to address the prevention needs of gay men (both HIV-positive and HIV-negative) across the lifespan—and if the HIV/AIDS community will bolster important justice efforts for the liberation of LGBTQ youth and adults that need to go way past issues of marriage.

We know that success in struggles for true justice and human rights do not happen overnight. These sorts of realities—despite encouraging news on the biomedical prevention front—make it clear that HIV will probably be a health and political challenge well beyond our lifetimes.

Moving forward, I think we should be honest that it’s very likely that we are talking about a fight that will last multiple generations. While we may be able to drastically decrease HIV rates, we are likely to see sustained transmission in marginalized communities as well as the need for care and treatment in the absence of a cure for some time to come. (As an aside, the reemergence of campaigns to fight for a true cure for HIV are encouraging and vital as a counter to any belief that its acceptable to assign people with HIV to a lifetime of expensive and non-benign treatment.)

It seems increasingly disingenuous to state that the epidemic is fueled by longstanding, complex problems like racial injustice, homophobia, gender bias, and poverty, but then also assert that we could “end AIDS” in five or ten years if we just had enough funding.

We might want to look at the vision of groups like Generation Five, an Oakland-based initiative whose mission is to end childhood sexual abuse in five generations, and consider the following challenge: How would we fight HIV/AIDS in the current time if we both want to move forward to improve things today, and put things in place so our descendants can further the fight in their lifetimes?

The provisions of the Affordable Care Act do hold some promise for near-term resources for HIV prevention. The act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund contributed some $30 million to HIV research and prevention in fiscal year 2011, and is (hopefully) the source to pay for the implementation of the 12-city plans in fiscal year 2012, if it survives conservative attack. And the fund is slated to grow each year, without the need for annual appropriation battles.

In addition, the planned massive expansion of health care and medication access as many of the major provisions of the Affordable Care Act roll out in 2014 will increase access to care for many people living with HIV. This should spur innovative and collaborative planning to scale up prevention resources for people living with HIV, and the integration of PEP, PrEP, and testing into a more holistic vision of HIV prevention efforts that bridge behavioral support with treatment and biomedical approaches.

But it’s not 2014 yet, and problems abound as AIDS drug assistance program waiting lists grow, immigrant populations are increasingly distanced from care with little hope of abatement from anything in health care reform, and the Affordable Care Act remains a big target for old-school conservatives and Tea Party leaders alike.

As we seek to survive to 2014 and beyond, we can acknowledge that this is a long-term struggle and bolster our strategies for furthering HIV-specific advocacy, marshaling the passion of the HIV/AIDS community as a powerful part of broader coalitions and collaborations to confront the social drivers of the epidemic while we confront HIV stigma through our very participation in these broader campaigns.

Despite cuts that are slimming the HIV sector and public health infrastructure, there are people ready to join and sustain the fight for HIV prevention justice.

We can and must usher in a next-generation approach to prevention that breaks down silos of treatment, care, behavioral interventions, mobilization, and research in order to innovate, evaluate, and expand combination interventions deeply rooted in community that marshals the strengths of large health care and public systems.

We can and should move forward on initiating no-cost, low-cost, or independently funded DIY and grassroots sex ed and HIV prevention that can be as down and dirty and explicit as it needs to be—without worrying about the political climate that can make funders balk.

Oh, there’s so much we can and should do. But no matter what, we need strategic approaches that bring our best ideas together to give us a shot at succeeding. I feel lucky to have been able to be a part of CHAMP, which helped so many people turn frustration into power, and hope that the ideas, actions, and national activist networks that we helped to inspire will resonate for some time to come.

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