Approximately sixty Williams students joined hundreds of other collegians from New England schools on April 28 in the Boston movement of the Rally Against AIDS National Weekend of Action, sponsored by Student Global AIDS Campaign (SGAC).
The weekend included staged rallies in Chicago, Ill. and Atlanta, Ga., as well as in front of Boston’s City Hall, to advocate increases in federal budget spending to $2.5 billion to combat international AIDS and a reinstatement of the $9.7 million cut from the Massachusetts AIDS budget earlier this year.
Though the Boston contingent was expected to be the largest, with attendance reaching into the thousands, plunging temperatures and driving rain likely shriveled student representation to a still-impressive unofficial tally of 1,000 over the course of the day.
Those present included members of SGAC chapters and individual supporters alike from Harvard Medical School, UMass Amherst, Dartmouth College, Wellesley College and Yale University, as well as a scattered few from as far away as the University of Michigan and University of Maryland.
The crowd of students was remarkably lively given the circumstances of the weather. The crowd was also diverse; barriers of races, religions and sexual orientation were ignored in favor of a common goal to eradicate AIDS. Many students carried sandwich-board signs, others strung homemade drums of water coolers and recycling bins around their necks, and others pinned red ribbons to hats, shirts and backpacks. A few dynamic leaders seized the microphone over the course of the afternoon to lead the crowd in chants of “We’re students, we’re here, fund the fund this year” and “Stop global AIDS now.”
The Williams chapter of SGAC last week signed up more than 100 students to participate in the rally. While it became obvious that those who attended firmly backed the SGAC demand for $2.5 billion in the fight against AIDS both abroad and at home, it was clear that many made the four-hour journey east primarily to offer support to one of Williams’ own; Liz Kaplan ’04, an HIV-positive student and passionate SGAC activist, was featured as a keynote speaker.
The only student asked to address the crowd, Kaplan spoke of her first-hand experience with the disease, having learned at age thirteen that she had been infected with the virus that causes AIDS through a blood transfusion received during infancy. She also recounted stories from her Winter Study trip to Nicaragua and her study of the country’s still-primitive AIDS treatment.
Her speech also echoed the SGAC plea to tender the support that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for from the U.S.
“The extent to which the AIDS epidemic has progressed, and the totally inadequate response of governments around the world, particularly this nation’s, is not only tragic, but appalling,” Kaplan said.
Healy Thompson ’03, an organizer and marshal of the rally, functioned as a familiar face at the podium and animated emcee, along with Harvard junior Ben Wikler.
Miss Universe 1999 Mpule Kwelagobe, also the current Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N. Population Fund to Botswana, delivered an uplifting speech that drew enthusiastic applause. She lauded the students involved for their energy and reminded the crowd that “we are not part of the problem â€“ we are the solution.”
The SGAC as a whole and the Williams chapter in particular has garnered considerable media attention recently. Thompson, Kaplan and fellow student Shira Rosenberg ’04 interviewed on a local radio show at the beginning of the month, and Sunday’s rally earned a featured segment on WBZ-Channel 4, an NBC affiliate in Boston, and coverage in the Boston Globe the following day.
Celebrities also weighed in with praise of the work of the SGAC. Comedian and social activist Chris Tucker offered muffled but supportive words of commendation via cell phone from the site of his next movie, “Mr. President,” due out later this year. His movie is the first feature-length film to focus on the sub-Saharan AIDS epidemic. Tucker was slated to speak at the rally, but the rain prevented his small prop plane from bringing the actor to Boston.
Jeffrey Sachs, director of Harvard University’s Center for International Development and a professor of economics at the University, closed the rally with a speech reminding the crowd of students that their next generation is backed by a strong network of belief and a noble cause. Sachs, a popular professor and veteran of AIDS activism work, is leaving Harvard for Columbia University at the end of the year, but testified to the dedication and energy of those working to procure a better world, urging them to continue the fight until it is won.
“This is too simple, too obvious, too plain not to stop,” he said.
Sachs then recounted a story to the audience of the three days he spent with his family in Dublin, Ireland at the mansion of his good friend, U2 lead singer and legendary AIDS funding advocate and philanthropist Bono.
The singer had written a letter for Sachs to read in front of City Hall, in which he challenged the collegians to ask the government, “Do you believe your own rhetoric? Are you ready to invest in the future? Are you ready to believe in the idea of equality?”