Road to AIDS 2012: A Series of Town Hall Meetings – Philadelphia

The 12th in a series of articles about the Road to AIDS 2012, a 17-city tour that seeks to define the state of the U.S. epidemic and that leads up to the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., in July 2012. The eleventh installment reported on the Seattle meeting.

Philadelphia is working to make sure that it has the biggest representation in the United States at the International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012), according to participants at a town hall meeting held in May at Philadelphia City Hall.

A crowd of 71 registered participants listened to panelists describe the benefits of attending the International AIDS Conference from July 22 through 27, as well as provide tips on making the most out of the experience.

”We know this disease can be stopped,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes. His wife, HIV/AIDS activist Sheryl Lee Ralph, captivated the audience with lyrics from the Dianne Reeves song ”Endangered Species”: ”I am an endangered species, but I sing no victim song.”

She then drew a standing ovation after describing her dedication to fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic. ”I’m not HIV positive, but I’m a woman, and women are becoming infected at rates that should be unacceptable in these United States,” she said.

Unlike some of the other Road to AIDS 2012 town hall meetings, the Philadelphia conversation revolved around figuring out how to get the local community to Washington for the conference. About half of the attendees said they had plans to attend, while a handful said they would not because of the costs involved in doing so.

Panelist Megan Warren, AIDS 2012 hub coordinator, described how Philadelphia residents who could not attend would still be able to experience the conference by hosting a conference hub, a mini-gathering held by local organizations where organizers can screen sessions from AIDS 2012 free of charge.

One audience member announced that she was already part of an effort to create a hub. ”We welcome partnerships and are thinking of venues for it,” she said. About a quarter of the people at the conference raised their hands to indicate that they would also be interested in hosting hubs.

Panelist Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, described why Philadelphia residents should go out of their way to attend the conference: ”You have a robust epidemic here. You don’t want Philadelphia to be left out of conversations about ending the epidemic.”

Wilson also described plans by the Black AIDS Institute to have journalists publish information about the conference each day through two special publications dedicated to the conference. In addition, the Institute would provide news services to newspapers, radios and magazines read by Black America. ”We’re publishing a Black road map to the conference,” Wilson added.

Panelists also described the peaceful demonstrations expected to take place during AIDS 2012. For example, on Tuesday, July 24, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., an economic-justice and human rights march will take place. ”We’re trying to bring 10 buses from Philadelphia for that march,” said panelist Waheedah Shabazz-El, a representative of the Positive Women’s Network.

The Global Village, the portion of the conference that is free and open to the public, is another highlight that should not be missed, panelists said. ”The Global Village is the prize,” said Shabazz-El. When Shabazz-El attended her first International AIDS Conference, ”I thought the Global Village was the conference–that’s how lively it was,” she said.

A couple of town hall participants complained about the high costs of housing in the Washington, D.C., area, but others pointed out that Philadelphia residents could actually commute to the conference via car, bus or train. The travel time would be no longer than what was endured at other International AIDS Conferences, said Wilson. ”To put it in context, when we were in Mexico City, it took us an hour and a half to get to the conference every day and an hour and a half to get home,” Wilson said.

Regardless of how community members planned to get there, Philadelphia residents left the meeting determined to seize the opportunity to share challenges and successes with the world stage.

”The world’s leaders will already be there,” said Shabazz-El. By attending the conference, Philadelphia residents can ”hold everyone accountable.”

The entire Road to AIDS 2012 tour is a joint effort between the Washington, D.C.-based Community Education Group, the Urban Coalition for HIV/AIDS Prevention Services, pharmaceutical company Merck and AIDS 2012. The Road to AIDS 2012 will seek community input in cities across the country. That input will be shared at AIDS 2012 in Washington, D.C., when the International AIDS Conference is on American soil for the first time in more than 20 years.

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes frequently about emotional health and wellness.

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