(Columbus, Ga)- For those of you who don't know me, I've been HIV positive since 2003. Like so many others, I acquired the virus when I was a young person. At one time I weighed about thirty five pounds less than I weigh now, my CD4 count was 16 and my viral load was over a million. I was very sick. I'm somebody who was fortunate enough to have access to and respond well to combination therapy when it became available to me. And as a result, I'm probably healthier today than I have been at any time in my adult life.
Today I work with The Chattahoochee Valley Better Way Foundation campaigning to combat HIV discrimination and stigma, promote status knowledge, prevention and awareness, but most importantly to bring love and support to our clients. We work to teach them to become self-empowered, self sufficient and masters of their own health care.
I've been asked about the Candlelight Memorial and its relevance today. The first question is, Why do we revisit the Candlelight Memorial every year? It's very simple, this Memorial is the foundation of the Self-Empowerment Movement of People Living with HIV. It shows us how earlier activism from those four young men who decided to march the streets of San Francisco influences our struggle today and what we can learn from that experience. This was profoundly historic. It was the first time, the very first time in the history of humanity, when people who shared a common disease organized and asserted the right to their voice. Before that, people who were ill were on the outside, they had no voice, and they certainly had not organized politically to assert the right to that voice.
The Candlelight Memorials are also the foundation of building a grass roots movement, one led by people with HIV, into a powerful voice. So part of my mission has been to educate people about this memorial and to share the self-empowerment message, and to urge you to take it back to your homes, to your agencies, to your friends, to your support groups, churches and schools and share of this message, because when we organize and assert our voice we have an incredible authority, an inalienable right to participate and to be heard. We cannot be ignored because we are the people who have the disease, we are the people who will thrive or suffer, survive or die depending on how the epidemic is managed. And when we are working together, We cannot and will not be ignored.
The Memorials also give us an opportunity to participate in the broader global movement towards the Greater and more meaningful Involvement of People Living with HIV and AIDS.
Self-empowerment is what enables us to demand resources from government for treatment, care and prevention. Self-empowerment is what gives us the authority to speak to complex ethical considerations with research and treatment
Self-empowerment enables us to fight stigma, discrimination and criminalization, and most important of all self-empowerment helps us to live longer and healthier lives. I am alive today because of self-empowerment. I am alive today because of the Candlelight Memorial. The Chattahoochee Valley Better Way Foundation is alive and well today because of self empowerment and the Candlelight Memorial.
When I attended my first Candlelight Memorial, It was that very movement that inspired me to create the Better Way Foundation and to gather people with AIDS to organize and strategize politically and empower themselves; there had been some local activism here, but there had never been an occasion where people with AIDS organized as people with AIDS. When creating our Mission Statement and Business Plan, I drew upon the collective wisdom of the HIV Community, not just outside experts imposing their wisdom upon our community, and don't get me wrong. I don't diminish the importance of experts, we need experts and there is plenty to be learned both ways, But first and foremost, we need to listen to ourselves, and we need to listen to each other's experiences, because there is so much for us to learn and to share with others from that. We were just people who were struggling to survive, struggling to make sense of an epidemic that had so profoundly stigmatized us. Some were very ill. The local political and cultural environment was terrifying. It was a very frightening time. But because of self-empowerment, we now have a voice in our community. And because of self-empowerment, that vision and dream called The Better Way Foundation, has become what you see here today.
And finally the second question was What is the relevance of the Candlelight Memorial today? The Candlelight Memorial is as relevant and necessary today as it was nearly three decades ago. With over 33 million people living with HIV and a new generation of youth emerging every day and 50,000 new infections each and every year here in the US of A, we must continue to create public space to learn from the past and motivate actions to improve our approach to HIV and other national and global health challenges in the future.
On behalf of the over one thousand communities in over a hundred countries participating today in the Candlelight Memorial, we declare our solidarity in the response to AIDS and recommit ourselves to the cause. We call on global leaders to hear our voices, honor pledges to give resources for HIV and AIDS, and increase access to prevention, treatment and care. We call upon national and community leaders to serve as examples and continue to include people living with HIV and AIDS in the process of forming national programs. We call on businesses to invest in their communities and we ask institutions of faith to be more inclusive. And we call on the media to report the truth about HIV and AIDS, and help us share stories about what works.
Policy must be equitable and based on evidence. Treatment must be balanced with prevention. Human rights, particularly of children, must be upheld and education must be a priority. The link between AIDS and TB, malaria, and other conditions should be promptly addressed with appropriate actions and resources, and the issue of AIDS must be addressed as part of a broader problem of poverty and development, gender inequity and sexuality, and health care system reform. We must move beyond fear and ignorance, and embrace people living with HIV and AIDS by replacing stigma and discrimination with understanding and support. All of us, each and every person in this room tonight can be a part of the solution. Learn about AIDS! Get tested! Become an advocate! Join us and volunteer! Become a sponsor and Donate funds to help us continue with our efforts!
As we gather around the world today to remember those we have lost, we stand committed to finding a solution by working together to shine the lights on human rights, to end HIV/AIDS discrimination and stigma and to finally find a cure that will bring an end to this epidemic once and for all.
With the beginning of the Self Empowerment movement for people living with AIDS all the way to the creation of our community organization, the Better Way Foundation, In the scope of history, I am confident that a hundred years from now that the birth of the 1983 Candlelight Memorial, that started with those four young men in San Francisco, and runs right here into this room today—because we are the representation, we are the heirs to that, those of us sitting here today—And I am ever so confident that it will be seen as a proud historic and profoundly important event in human rights history.