This week, Bowdoin hosted the largest event series in the College’s history in recognition of HIV/AIDS. The schedule surrounding today’s World AIDS Day recognition has so far included a screening of the Oscar nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” as well as a discussion with a cast member and a panel on the local and global view of HIV/AIDS. Today, to commemorate the worldwide event, there will be screenings of several short documentaries on the ongoing epidemic. The event series will continue until Monday.
Planned by Rowan Staley ’18 and June Lei ’18, the events are intended to create discussion on campus about the prevalence of HIV and AIDS.
“The goal of these programs is to start conversations and not provide any comprehensive knowledge because the issue is so interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. It also ranges through multiple decades, so it’s impossible to get all that information across in the short time we have,” Lei said.
Lei also wants students to realize that while HIV and AIDS are commonly talked about as a problem of the past, it is still prevalent in communities around the world and needs attention.
“There is a local and global aspect to HIV/AIDS, because while here in Maine it is not as prominent, it’s still here and its prominent around the world where there are pockets that are still struggling,” Lei said. “HIV is a contemporary issue that is pressing and affects us all.”
Rowan Staley’s uncle, Peter Staley, a passionate HIV/AIDS activist in New York, was a cast member in “How to Survive a Plague,” the documentary on HIV/AIDS activism that screened on Tuesday in Kresge Auditorium. Peter Staley is the brother of Jes Staley ’74 P’11, a trustee at the College.
Rowan Staley hopes the events this week will be as “eye-opening” to students as the documentary was the first time she saw it.
“I think it’s super important to put on events about HIV/AIDS in both Maine and the global context, especially at Bowdoin because I think people our age know so little about it,” said Rowan Staley. “I think it is really baffling that, before I saw this film, I didn’t even know this about my uncle’s past. He was just my uncle. It was really eye-opening for me to see this film at 16, and I want to create that feeling for my peers and friends.”
The programming is designed to dispel the myth that certain knowledge or interests are necessary to get involved in HIV/AIDS activism. Staley and Lei both come from different academic fields and stress that anyone who finds passion in this issue is needed.
“We are really interested in how HIV/AIDS spreads across so many discussions we have at this school. Rowan is pre-med and I study art history and English, and we have found that you can study any major at Bowdoin and have a stake in this issue because it overlaps with everything,” Lei said.
The discussion of the epidemic is especially timely due to the new tax bill proposed by President Trump and a Republican coalition, which includes cuts to public health relief funding. This means cuts to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), an American funded global HIV/AIDS relief fund.
“We are advocating for people to call their representatives. So calling Senator Susan Collins from Maine and asking her to not support the tax bill is important,” Lei said. “We have to be also thinking about action as well as history.”
The programming is also tied to a course this semester, “Viral Cultures: HIV/AIDS in Science, Policy and Culture,” taught by Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, Marika Cifor,
While Bowdoin has held various events related to HIV/AIDS over the years, Staley and Lei felt that this course represents a shift in the College’s approach to teaching students about the ongoing epidemic.
Cifor was excited to be contacted by two Bowdoin activists before she even set foot on campus. The students and Cifor began having conversations over the summer about the vision for the events.
“The ideas for the programming are fundamentally theirs, but I was able to help get lectures and concerts funding for support,” Cifor said.
Student projects from the class will be on display at the last event for the programming on Monday.
Along with this partnership, the events are co-sponsored by organizations within and outside of Bowdoin. Lei was particularly excited to partner with Student Global AIDS Campaign for Health GAP. Health GAP (Global Access Project) is an organization that is dedicated to ensuring people across the globe have access to life-saving HIV/AIDS medicines.
The event series hopes to provide a diverse range of narratives for students to interact with. Cifor stressed that the continuation of these discussions on campus and access to external activism resources is critical to Bowdoin students’ understanding the HIV/AIDS health crisis.
“World AIDS day presents an opportunity to have that conversation … to mourn and to recognize the long history of the epidemic and the many people who fought and died of AIDS-related causes,” Cifor said. “Also, I think it is more important for us to stop and recognize the state of the epidemic now, to bring attention, to use that history [that] we learn to mobilize action in the present.”