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Advocacy in action with AIDSWatch

AIDSWatch 2024 cohort pictured Each year AIDS United brings together hundreds of people living with HIV and their allies in Washington DC to learn about the latest policy issues messaging strategy and advocacy tactics
via AIDS United

As the fight for health, rights, and recognition rages on, AIDSWatch remains the nation's largest event for HIV advocacy and building a community around those living with and vulnerable to HIV.

Nearly a month ago, we gathered for the culmination of AIDSWatch, the nation's oldest and largest HIV advocacy event. We were immersed in plenaries, discussions, and workshops, and 500 advocates from 35 states did over 240 meetings with Congress in one day! As a health advocate and a Black man living with HIV, I feel an immense sense of pride reflecting on the critical moments our community shared.

It may seem stereotypical, but as a gay man, I took delight in curating my attire, draped in red, white, and blue, to affirm a simple truth: we are Americans, too.

Amidst the crowd's fervor, an advocate started a spontaneous singing of "God Bless America" that grew to a chorus of proud voices. Indeed, may God bless us all, for we stand at the precipice of a pivotal moment in our democracy.

And it's a pivotal moment for the lives, rights, and health of people living with and vulnerable to HIV.

The HIV community possesses a unique perspective on the value of democracy. Our health, rights, and lives hinge upon its preservation. Yet, these fundamental pillars are under siege this election year. As Americans, we understand the power of our vote and our expectations that those we elect do their duty to uphold our rights, health, and well-being.

I've been honored to speak to millions on television and radio, deliver hundreds of keynote addresses, sermons, and presentations, and contribute to numerous conferences worldwide. However, these audiences are different from the passionate advocates at AIDSWATCH. I know our resilience.

Living with HIV for four decades, I buried a partner from AIDS years ago and have spent over 30 years living alongside my husband, Bill. I'm deeply fueled by our people's history and achievements over the years. Collaborating daily with the dedicated team at AIDS United, members, and grantees continues to be both a privilege and a driving force in my life's work.

I've dedicated myself to advocating for our communities and advancing HIV/AIDS policies and programs on national and international levels. In my current work on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA), the Scientific Advisory Board for PEPFAR, and as chair of the board of Funders Concerned About AIDS (FCAA), I know that collaboration between the community, funders, and policymakers is vital to progress in this fight against HIV/AIDS.

But what truly makes a meaningful difference for policymakers is seeing the faces and hearing the stories of people like me and others living with and vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. Our experiences must inspire and guide efforts to enact policies and appropriate funds at the federal and state levels that make a difference in the HIV epidemic.

AIDSWatch serves as a clarion call to action. It compels us to remind our representatives in Congress of their duty to stand with us, champion our cause, and resist those seeking to deny our rights and erode our progress.

Our journey is fraught with triumphs and tribulations. We celebrate the strides in ending the epidemic but acknowledge the persistent disparities. The decline in new HIV transmissions is cause for optimism, yet it falls short of what it needs to be for people of color, people in the South, and LGBTQ+ communities.

Viral suppression rates continue to rise, thanks partly to programs like the Ryan White program. However, access to PrEP and awareness of U=U remain insufficient, particularly among communities of color and marginalized groups.

As we ventured to Capitol Hill this year, we carried the memories of those we loved and lost. Equally, the impactful efforts of fearsome advocates like Dr. Ada Adimora, Cecilia Gentili, and Hydeia Broadbent. Their legacy fuels our determination to advocate for change.

In the wake of AIDSWatch, our message to Congress remains clear: we demand action to preserve and protect our democracy, our lives, our health, and our rights. Because, at our core, we are Americans, too.

As we look ahead, let us seize this moment to create meaningful change. Let us unite in our shared pursuit of equality, justice, and dignity.

God bless us, America. Together, we shall prevail.

Jesse Milan, Jr., JD is a tireless community advocate and recognized national and international expert on HIV/AIDS policies and programs. Jesse Milan serves as the President and CEO of AIDS United, a national organization committed to ending the HIV epidemic in the United States by 2030. Learn more at www.aidsunited.org.

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