AIDS conference draws diverse speakers, students

More than 100 students from 21 schools converged on Williamstown this weekend for the Northeast Student Global AIDS Campaign Conference.  The events planned were “a combination of educational presentations, workshops/trainings, inspirational speeches and three public lectures,” according to Healy Thompson ’03, a member of the Students Global Aids Campaign (SGAC) National Organizing Team and co-coordinator of the Williams chapter.

The SGAC is an organization consisting of over 200 high schools, colleges and graduate institutions, and a national listserver of over 1,000 people. According to the SGAC website, its aims are to “educate, train, and mobilize U.S. students in partnership with students around the world to fight HIV/AIDS.” Founded in 2001, it is the “United States’ largest student network devoted to combating the global AIDS crisis.”

The weekend was highlighted by the keynote address on Saturday night, entitled “Life or Death: Access to Anti-Retroviral AIDS Drugs in South Africa,” by Thembeka Majali, Western Cape Coordinator of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), and Nathan Geffen, TAC National Coordinator.

The TAC is an internationally recognized organization currently working to provide AIDS treatment to those in need in South Africa. TAC recently took the South African government to court to force it to supply medication to prevent transmission of HIV from mothers to their children. In the past, Thompson said, TAC “worked with the government to force several pharmaceutical companies. . . to drop the lawsuit they had brought against the government for having instituted legislation that would allow reduction of drug prices through import and production of cheaper AIDS medications.”

The keynote event was “a huge success,” Thompson said. “Thembeka Majali and Nathan Geffen provided the more than 200 in attendance with information about the struggle for access to AIDS treatment and hope for a different future. They engaged audience questions for more than thirty minutes at the end of the lecture,” she said.

The conference also included two lectures by prominent members of the international AIDS-prevention community. Chung To, the founder of the Chi Heng Foundation in Hong Kong, spoke Friday evening. The Foundation is a leading gay rights and AIDS activist organization which works specifically for the rights of AIDS orphans and promotes safe sex in the Hong Kong gay community. Eric Sawyer, a co-founder of ACT-UP NY, which fights both domestically and internationally for the rights of those infected with HIV/AIDS to treatment and care, spoke Sunday afternoon.

These high profile speakers were brought to the campus through the work of the SGAC. “The SGAC consists of highly dedicated students and has gained support from many other HIV/AIDS activist groups,” said Erica Dwyer ’03, co-coordinator of the Williams SGAC chapter and the National Education and Research team.

“Individuals in the campaign spend large parts of their lives involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and many have spent time abroad working with other leading organizations. It is through the friendships and connections formed in this international work of individuals that we were able to reach leading activists from Hong Kong and South Africa. They were happy to come speak to us, and we were fortunate that they were planning tours through the U.S. for this time.”

Dwyer illustrated this process through her own experience. She and Kuda Mutyambizi ’03, co-coordinator of International Partnerships Team, worked for the TAC last summer, making contacts that enabled them to secure speakers from the internationally renowned organization.

Dwyer also said that the SGAC’s “long-standing relationships with our domestic partners in the struggle against AIDS,” including ACT-UP NY, helped bring Sawyer to campus.

The weekend also contained several smaller information sessions and workshops run by the speakers and members of the SGAC, on topics such as the chemistry of AIDS, AIDS orphans and HIV/AIDS issues and intravenous drug use.

Conference participants also took part in training workshops, which focused on skills like lobbying and letter writing/phone-in campaign training for creating and running SGAC organizations at other institutions. Participants also attended a vigil at Chrysalis, an end-stage AIDS home in Williamstown.

Overall, the conference went “extremely well,” according to Thompson. “There were certainly kinks, but in the end all of the work that the members of the Williams chapter of the SGAC put in in preparation for the conference paid off. Most people who attended commented on how well-organized the conference was. This was undoubtedly due to the behind-the-scenes work of about twelve SGAC members who take all sorts of details and pesky tasks, even during the conference.”

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