Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Recap - Stronger Together HIV/AIDS Advocacy Conference 2016

Over one hundred HIV advocates from across North Carolina and the South made their way to Winston-Salem State University for Stronger Together: NC HIV/AIDS Advocacy Conference 2016 on Saturday, September 10th, 2016. The annual all-day conference, hosted by the North Carolina AIDS Action Network and the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition,  included plenty of breakout sessions for advocates to learn how to fight for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, people who use drugs, sex workers, and affected communities from grassroots leaders and respected experts.

The conference included a variety of HIV/AIDS-focused workshops, including “HIV is Not a Crime” and “The Trans Community, HIV Stigma and HB2.” “Much has changed in the landscape of trans equality over the last year,’ says Crystal Richardson, Esq., the Director of Advocacy at Equality NC.  ‘Available data, which is mostly limited, shows an alarmingly high HIV rate among the trans community, and legislation like HB2 and negative dialogue about trans individuals in North Carolina and across the South stigmatizes those most in need of services.”

Prior to the official start of the conference, the NC AIDS Action Network, along with the North Carolina AIDS Training and Education Center (NCATEC), hosted PrEPing for 2017: North Carolina Moves Forward, a PrEP-centered pre-conference summit, on Friday, September 9th, 2016 at The Hawthorne Inn and Conference Center in Winston-Salem. The summit covered PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and future plans to expand PrEP access throughout the state.

"With North Carolina, along with the rest of the deep South, being in the heart of the current HIV epidemic, our state needs to increase HIV/AIDS prevention efforts statewide through syringe access, safer sex education in schools, and, through access to PrEP,’ says Amanda Stem, Advocacy Supervisor at the Western North Carolina AIDS Project in Asheville, NC. ‘North Carolina currently has two cities on the list of top 15 cities in the nation with the highest amounts of new HIV infections, which are Greensboro and Charlotte and increasing access to PrEP in our state is a vital tool in reducing transmission rates. PrEP is another tool in the toolkit for prevention but studies show it is highly effective, especially when used with condoms, antiretroviral treatment for people living with HIV, and drug use treatment. HIV is not a virus with a one shot cure-all and right now it takes many tools to prevent and treat, but if this proven prevention method is out there, then why aren't we making it easier to get?"

Advocates are optimistic for the future of people living with HIV/AIDS in North Carolina. This past year, the NC AIDS Action Network has experienced various legislative victories for the NC HIV/AIDS community on the state and federal levels, including the NC General Assembly expanding the AIDS Drug Assistance Program to allow the program to use funds for premium assistance and Congress unanimously passing legislation that would modernize the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA) funding formula, which would allocate HOPWA funding based on the number of people currently living with HIV instead of the current cumulative formula.

-Christina Adeleke, NCAAN Communications and Development Coordinator

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Welcome Matt Martin to NCAAN!

Comfort is something that we focus on in every aspect of our lives.  We want clothes that are made from the softest materials, beds that mold to fit our bodies just right, and even technology that makes it so we never have to leave the comfort of our couch.  Think about it!  From birth, children are given comfort objects that help them when they are fussy or upset, so it only makes sense that, in everything we do, our goal is to be comfortable.  The funny thing is, it wasn’t until I became uncomfortable that I truly became happy.

When I graduated from high school, I had my whole future planned out.  I would go to college with my scholarship papers in hand, major in music education, take all the classes I needed, have a stellar experience with my student teaching program, graduate with my degree, obtain a job as a middle school band teacher, and live happily ever after.  It was set.  Music was my “comfort” zone that I excelled in, so naturally that was the career path that I chose.  I spent my entire college career making sure that I stayed on track to make my future as comfortable as possible. I got a call, after graduating in 2013, which offered me a job as the band teacher of my very own middle school program.  Alas, everything that I had been working so hard for had finally come into fruition, and it was time to make my plans a reality.

As I began my teaching career, within days I realized that I was unfulfilled.  Here I was, twenty-two years old, doing exactly what I had planned for so long, and I wasn’t happy.  My “comfort” had quickly become the thing that obligated me every day when I woke up.  I realized that in my years of preparing myself for my future, I completely forgot to find what really fulfilled me.  I was so concerned with staying inside the box of my “comfort” zone, that I let my passions go to the wayside.  In the name of my “comfort,” I became uncomfortable.

The interesting thing about being uncomfortable is that it forces you to fight for yourself and approach life in a different way.  As I continued to be unhappy with everything that I tried in my teaching career, I started seeking out what it was that I truly wanted.  I reflected on the things from my past that truly made me feel fulfilled, and one common trait kept showing up: fighting for what was right.  For as long as I can remember, I have been passionate about helping people and advocating for social justice.  I wasn’t always able to be super involved because of the predetermined plans I had set for my earlier self, but, when I was able to partake in issues of advocacy, an overwhelming feeling of fulfillment consumed me.  Even in my teaching career, I realized the part of the job that I did enjoy was when I was able to advocate for a student who was struggling.  So, there it was, my answer to the lack of fulfillment, staring me directly in the face.  I knew what I needed to do.

After two years of being unhappy and unfulfilled, I took the leap of faith and decided to resign from my “comfort” plan.  I did all that I could to become involved in issues of social justice and advocacy in order to make my passions a reality.  It wasn’t easy.  I applied to job after job with no feedback; I volunteered with advocacy organizations whenever I could; and, though I was tired and stressed and worried, the satisfaction and passion that I felt far outweighed any fear that I had.  I finally landed a job with the TurnOUT! Charlotte campaign, then again with the TurnOUT! NC campaign.  For the first time, I woke up every morning excited for life and the fight for justice that I knew was my purpose in life.  I found that the fight for intersectional equality introduced me to a side of myself that I didn’t know existed, and it wasn’t until I made myself uncomfortable that I truly became happy.

So, it is after all of this that I get to say that I am ecstatic to join the team of the North Carolina AIDS Action Network as the Grassroots Advocacy Coordinator.  I am ready to join in this fight to empower and advocate for those impacted by HIV/AIDS.  I care so deeply for people and equality, and I will do all that I can to make a difference in this world.  Your struggle is my struggle.  Your fight is my fight.

In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not.”

- Matt Martin, NCAAN Grassroots Advocacy Coordinator

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Note from Rep. Graig Meyer

I was pleased to participate in NCAAN’s HIV/AIDS Advocacy Day. It taught me an important lesson about risk and stigma.

I have been in a monogamous relationship for more than twenty years. I don’t use intravenous drugs. I don’t have any reason to believe that I could possibly have HIV.

Then why was I nervous about getting tested? What in the world could I be afraid of?

Stigma. What if? What will people think?

We’re still fighting stigma, and that’s why it’s important for NCAAN to continue their advocacy. With all of the medical advances on HIV and AIDS treatment, we are still fighting a battle of human minds. We can’t stop the spread of HIV/AIDS without people getting tested. And people won’t get tested while we still have such stigma.

I commend NCAAN for your important work to keep our focus on addressing HIV/AIDS and caring for those who have the disease.

Rep. Graig Meyer
NCGA House District 50
Serving Orange and Durham Counties

Friday, July 8, 2016

PrEP Experience

A few years ago, I had an HIV scare. At the time, I knew nothing about HIV or the ways that it can be transmitted. Shortly after this scare I set up a time to meet with a health educator at my local testing site to discuss prevention options. Working together we created a plan that was simple yet effective. One of the options that we discussed was pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP.

This once a day medication has helped expand the prevention options for gay and bisexual men. The pill helps to prevent HIV infection by at least 90 percent when taken daily and has an even higher rate of protection when combined with condom use. Current predictions from the CDC estimate that 1 in every 4 gay and bisexual men could benefit from use of PrEP.  

I decided to begin using PrEP nine months ago when I came to UNC. PrEP has been a good addition to the ways in which I protect myself against HIV. Initially, issues around availability, cost, and adherence made PrEP seem like an unlikely option. However, these concerns were addressed using online and local tools and resources available in North Carolina.   

PrEP is widely available throughout the Triangle area. This interactive map, created through UNC’s School of Medicine, helps both providers and patients identify PrEP providers throughout the state. On campus, I was able to simply talk with my primary care provider at the Student Health Center about my sexual health and interest in PrEP. My provider ordered a couple of blood tests, wrote me a prescription and sent me on my way. For students with insurance through UNC, the prescription is filled by a specialty pharmacy that delivers the medication directly to your home.

I initially thought cost would be one of the largest barriers, but found that PrEP payment assistance programs are available and may help to cover the cost of the medication. These programs are designed to help make PrEP more affordable and accessible for people with and without insurance. Originally, the prescription would have cost $30 with student insurance, but after co-pay assistance program was applied, the medication was free.

Lastly, daily adherence to this medication is key to its effectiveness. Users must take the pill at a similar time each day for successful use. I have found it helpful to set simple reminders or use apps that signal when to take my medication.

The introduction of PrEP has revolutionized the options that gay and bisexual men have to protect themselves against HIV. I share my experience using PrEP as a way to start a conversation on how to connect to resources and craft your own HIV prevention plan using the resources in your community.

-Ryan Drab, NCAAN intern

Friday, July 1, 2016

Thrilling Week for HIV Advocacy in NC!

The General Assembly is wrapping up their work today, and it’s anticipated that they’ll finish this year’s legislative session over the weekend.
In many ways, this has been a thrilling week to do HIV/AIDS advocacy in our state. We launched a campaign last December to support premium assistance for AIDS Drug Assistance Program patients in North Carolina. You showed up to support this campaign in a big way. Advocates spoke out in the media, met with legislators to educate them about this topic, and we packed the Senate gallery during HIV/AIDS Advocacy Day with dozens of community members from across the state speaking up for increased access to health insurance.
Our hard work paid off. The budget passed this week includes a provision authorizing ADAP to create a health insurance premium assistance program! On top of that, the legislature passed legislation legalizing syringe exchange programs in North Carolina. The governor is expected to sign both bills, and these measures are important tools our state needs to end AIDS and will save lives.
Even with these significant victories, I’ve been reminded of the challenges still ahead to make sure everyone in our community is afforded dignity and respect. The syringe exchange language was added at the last minute to a bill limiting public access to police body cameras opposed by many of our partners working in social justice. Legislative leadership has failed to repeal HB2, and is still discussing a proposed fix that would further stigmatize and shame our trans friends and family. Even in light of big victories, we must recommit ourselves to advocating for our entire community.
As we prepare for future efforts, I hope you’ll plan to join us later this fall at our annual HIV/AIDS Advocacy Conference hosted with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. This year’s conference will be September 10th at Winston-Salem State University. Be on the lookout for more information in the coming weeks. We’ve got some exciting things in store for this year, including a pre-conference the day before focused on PrEP access, dynamic workshops, and the opportunity to reconnect with movement leaders from across our state.
Our community is stronger when we work together. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Stonewall, 1981, HB2, and Orlando: Stories of Resilience

The month of June is celebrated as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) pride month. The celebration honors the June 28th, 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, which is regarded by some as the beginning of the modern LGBT movement. The month provides opportunity to recognize and reflect on the progress that our communities have made, and to recommit ourselves to overcoming current challenges we face.
The recent attacks at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando have raised concerns and questions around safety and progress for many LGBT people across the United States. As we individually and collectively process this tragedy, I have found it helpful to reflect on the resiliency and resolve the LGBT community has shown when faced with unbelievable challenges in the past.
June 5th marked the 35th anniversary of the 1981 CDC report identifying what would later become known as HIV. It is currently estimated that around 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV, with around 36,300 of those being North Carolinians impacted by the virus. At the onset of the epidemic, our communities organized, responded and cared for those affected by HIV. This response organically grew out of our own resilience and continues to move the conversation forward around HIV.
Currently, LGBT North Carolinians face the challenge of House Bill 2 (HB2), a piece of legislation severely limiting transgender individuals access to bathrooms, in addition to many other civil rights violations outlined in the bill. National and local organizations, such as Southerners on New Ground (SONG), Equality North Carolina, and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have led our communities in the fight against HB2.  
This organizing is important, yet it is the everyday resiliency and ability for LGBT North Carolinians to exist and live full lives within our state, despite the current legislations attempts to impede our ability to do so, which continues to inspire me.

On Saturday, June 25th, NCAAN participated in the local pride celebration in Salisbury, NC. This event was not large or flashy like those in major cities, but rather was homegrown and intimate with local community members celebrating their love and appreciation for one another. Jennifer, a community member from Concord, NC, talked to me about the importance of her local LGBT affirming church congregation. She described feeling lost and isolated before joining her current bible study, and described how this space provides safety and affirmation simply through its existence.

Jennifer’s words are particularly important as our communities continue to work through what happened in Orlando. Her words provide yet another example of the importance of our individual and collective resilience as we continue our fight against the challenges we face.

- Ryan Drab, NCAAN intern

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

HIV/AIDS Advocacy Day 2016

On June 7th, 2016, the North Carolina AIDS Action Network (“NCAAN”) held its annual HIV/AIDS Advocacy Day at the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh. The convening brought together around 50 advocates from across the state to talk with legislators and policymakers about issues related to HIV/AIDS.
The morning kicked off with an orientation and training on how to conduct legislative meetings and concisely communicate information. NCAAN staff outlined key campaigns including providing ADAP insurance premium assistance and the impact of closing the Medicaid gap for people living with HIV/AIDS. Advocates were organized into five regional advocacy groups and were provided with a list of legislators to target for their morning visits.
The groups were organized to highlight the diverse and intersecting communities and constituents impacted by and working on addressing HIV/AIDS in North Carolina. For example, one group consisted of  local community advocates from Alamance County, legal experts from Duke, UNC public health professionals and local and regional organizers.

Advocates met with many legislators throughout the day and shared their perspectives and information about ADAP funds being used to pay for healthcare premiums and providing compressive treatment and care for those living with HIV/AIDS. Building diverse coalitions of stakeholders allowed policymakers to hear a variety of perspectives on an issue and strengthened advocacy efforts through each individual’s expertise in specific areas.  
HIV/AIDS Advocacy Day provides the unique opportunity to bring together a community of advocates who are working together to create change throughout North Carolina. One of the groups had the opportunity to meet with the Democratic Minority Leader, Representative  Larry Hall of Durham, and discussed emerging HIV prevention strategies, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (“PrEP”), and the potential impact they could have for many North Carolinians. They were able to highlight a number of issues including how increasing patient access to the medication would slow the spread of HIV in North Carolina, as well as affordability and insurance coverage issues.

Speaking directly with Rep. Hall allowed advocates to provide him with relevant information and follow-up on any questions he had. Additionally, building and strengthening the relationships between our grassroots advocates, elected officials and the leadership of NCAAN allows us to continue the important work of addressing HIV/AIDS here in North Carolina.

- Ryan Drab, NCAAN intern