If you ever have any doubt that the future will be in good hands with today's youth, just talk to the three young people with whom I recently spoke. Amelia Schlossberg, a 22-year-old senior at Carleton College in Minnesota; Ignacio Cruz, 19 and a junior at the University of Texas-Austin; and 23-year-old Tasha Campbell Parker, of Boston.
Each of these young people is a "youth ambassador" for the first-ever annual National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NYHAAD), to be marked Wed., April 10. Sponsored by Washington, D.C. --based Advocates for Youth, the day will be celebrated across the U.S. with events at churches, colleges, community centers, high schools -- even at sneaker stores popular with youth. Young people like Amelia, Ignacio and Tasha are among those organizing events and making sure their peers know about them.
NYHAAD is intended to be a wake-up call for America's youth. They are the first generation never to have known a world without HIV/AIDS. One in four new HIV infections in the U.S. is in a 13 to 24-year-old. Every month, 1,000 young people are infected with HIV. Sixty-three percent of millennials say the government should spend more on HIV/AIDS.
As the NYHAAD website puts it, "While there has been much talk about an AIDS-Free Generation, we know that it's not possible without our nation's youth. Young people and their allies are determined to end this epidemic once and for all, and this day is a way to acknowledge the great work young people are already engaging in to do so."
Biology and virology major Amelia Schlossberg's activism began in high school, when she realized her peers had missed something important because they didn't go through the sex education program her Unitarian Universalist (UU) church provided to seventh and eighth graders. "There was certainly a level of giggling," said Schlossberg. "We were in middle school, after all." But the program, taught by two church members, a man and a woman, gave her the ability to talk about sex without feeling as though she was talking about her personal experience.
A peer health educator at Carleton College since her second year, Schlossberg is also president of the AIDS/HIV (AHA!) awareness club on campus. Asked whether the level of stigma about HIV is less among her age-mates, Schlossberg told me, "The stigma is lessening, but we have a long way to go. [Sexually transmitted infections] in general are still seen as dirty, a moral signifier. I do see my peers being hesitant because there is a stigma."
Looking to a career in public and sexuality health, Schlossberg said, "I definitely feel peer education is one way to decrease stigma and help people be on the same page." As a young person herself, she added, "I can anticipate questions and understand where people are coming from. I can help people understand that HIV/AIDS is affecting us in the U.S. as youth."
Ignacio Cruz is clearly on the right track as a corporate communications major focused on social justice. When I ask about his activism on behalf of youth and NYHAAD, his eloquence belies his 19 years. "I come from a very conservative cultural background in South Texas. As a gay male growing up, it was difficult to have a voice or have an opinion because I always felt I would be shot down, and I felt I would probably have no ground to stand on. So being vocal about social justice issues, especially HIV/AIDS, really didn't take much flight during my young teen years until I got to college. It's all just a matter of being independent and free where you find yourself, find what you're passionate about and you find the courage to speak out."
Cruz first became interested in HIV/AIDS his freshman year through involvement with the ONE campaign. "But I felt I needed to do something that helped out poeple here in the U.S., youth just like myself," he said. He credits Advocates for Youth with supporting his efforts at the U of T. "They've let me do my part as a student leader, as a citizen of Texas and Austin," he said. "It's been a new experience for me creating something from the bottom up."
The university will mark NYHHAD on April 11, rather than the 10. A tabling event in a high-visibility area will feature condom distribution and information for students. "It's going to be focused primarily on education and mobilization," Cruz explained, "getting them involved, giving them places they can get tested." That's just in the morning and afternoon. "Then towards evening we're going to host a panel in which we'll have a couple student leaders talking about the effects of HIV/AIDS mobilization and education, and a professor who is an expert and does a lot of work on HIV/AIDS and youth empowerment in the area."
If you have any doubts by this point that youth are already working to shape a better future, just talk with Tasha Campbell Parker. This is one sharp young Afro-Latina.
"Right now I'm kicking myself because I wish I was able to put together a bigger event," Parker told me. She is "only" working with a high-end sneaker store in Boston that caters to young African-Americans and Latinos. The store regularly features athletes and celebrities for meet-and-greets. Parker hopes to convince them to sponsor a contest where young people design a T-shirt or hoody with a message around young people and HIV. "This community store gets money out of the young people in the community, we want them to give back," she said. Assuming the store supports what Parker calls her "crazy plan," she will be Tweeting and posting information to Instagram, as well as doing street outreach outside the store, passing out condoms and information where young customers can get tested.
Parker realized in high school that no one was talking about HIV/AIDS, even though so many had been affected by it in one way or another. "I remember going into the restroom and seeing those little tear-off things saying 'If you want to hear about HIV/AIDS and STDs...' and all the little tear-off things would be gone." The school itself wasn't doing anything to educate students on the subject. "I wanted to be able to educate my peers, my friends," said Parker. She didn't want to see anyone else wind up with a humiliating nickname like one of her female classmates who had the misfortune of contracting an STI and became known forever as "Gonorrhea."
Besides her efforts for NYHAAD, Parker is serving on the host committee for the Campaign to End AIDS Youth Action Institute to be hosted in Boston June 23-29. She is also involved with Take the Test-Boston, an initiative aimed at increasing HIV testing in communities of color. The group has sponsored HIV testing inside a branch of the tax preparation service H & R Block and even a Dunkin Donuts.
Parker told me, "I have had people asking why I am doing this, and I say why not?" When she first got involved, Parker said, "I was 22, still a virgin, not doing drugs. I was still considered high risk because I'm Latina, black, spoke another language. I said, why not me?"