Five questions for a young activist fighting AIDS globally
On Tuesday, Raw Story met 22-year-old AIDS activist Amirah Sequeira at a screening of the film “How to Survive a Plague.” We caught up with her again on Wednesday to talk about her path to activism, her work as national coordinator of the Student Global AIDS Campaign and the definition of “bird-dogging,” a practice she and other activists have used to target, assess and take action on the policies of politicians and other public figures and thereby shape policy. Sequeira graduated from Columbia University in May and is currently living and working in the Washington, DC area.
Raw Story: How did you become interested in AIDS advocacy and activism?
Sequeira: I started doing work in AIDS advocacy when I was 14. My family is from Malawi in sub-Saharan Africa and I would go with them to spend time with my grandparents every few years and when I was younger, I’d been really confused and could never understand the relationship between poverty and how people were living there and how we were living here. None of it made sense, and when I went back when I was 13, I did a ton of my own research and went and talked to people and ended up realizing that systems of inequality were creating this terrible poverty, and that nothing was going to be solved unless we did something about this disease that they called “Skinny Man’s Disease” that was killing everybody.
So then I learned that it was HIV. I did more research and came back to Canada, where I’m from, and started running workshops for youth about the AIDS pandemic in Africa, and specifically in Malawi. Then I started doing actual advocacy work. One thing led to another and eight years later, here I am.
Raw Story: What are the organizations you work for?
Sequeira: I’m the national coordinator for the Student Global AIDS Campaign, which is a student AIDS activist and advocacy organization, and right now I’m an organizer for the Take the Money Out of Politics campaign, as well.
Raw Story: How big is the Student Global AIDS Campaign? How long has the organization been around?
Sequeira: The Student Global AIDS Campaign was originally founded in 2001 and it was very active from 2001 to 2007 or 2008, nationally, but then their original parent organization folded. We restarted it in the fall of 2010 with four chapters and just about two years later we now have 23 chapters nationwide that are active, 15 more chapters that are sort of in the works and developing.
One of our primary focuses right now is expanding into the South, particularly historically black colleges in the South. Transmission rates are really high there, especially among people of color, and particularly among young, black gay males.
Raw Story: And what form does the group’s advocacy take? You said that the SGAC will be doing “teach-ins” at showings of “How to Survive a Plague.” What will you be teaching?
Sequeira: We sort of have two focuses. This is where the domestic epidemic is and this is where the global pandemic is, numbers-wise. Most of our work revolves around national funding levels for global aid programs, for domestic aid programs, and national policies for people living with AIDS.
We also do some work around patent law, trade policy, everything that affects access to medicines, particularly HIV medications. So our teach-ins consist of an educational component, “Here’s where funding levels are, here’s where current policies are, this is what Obama just said and how he did not meet his commitments.” This is where trade policy is, and kind of an overview of everything.
And then we do training. We train students in how to advocate effectively. So we train students how to talk to their Senators’ and congressmen’s staffs in order to help us get a letter to the president or the appropriations committee, how to do phone calls with these Senators’ and congressmen’s offices, how to talk to media, how to organize a rally or a protest, and particularly, how to effectively ‘bird-dog’ political candidates.
Raw Story: “Bird-dog?” What does that mean?
Sequeira: “Bird-dogging” is this really wonderful, tried-and-true strategy that made the AIDS movement as successful as it is today. It’s where you follow around politicians, you go to their events, particularly candidates’ events, and you ask them strategic questions about your issue. So, in past years, in the 2000 election cycle, the 2004 election cycle, AIDS activists organized people living with AIDS and their allies and their friends across the country to show up at candidates’ events and ask the same questions about funding for global AIDS programs, and funding for domestic AIDS programs.
It’s sort of a hunting term, you “bird-dog” these answers out of politicians about how they feel, what they’re thinking and what their policies are going to be about AIDS and AIDS funding levels. So, you get those answers out of them, and if they give you a bad answer, you have reason to protest them, make them look bad and get what you want. Or you get the good answer from them and you work with their staff on developing a policy that you want. And then you’re able to play candidates off of each other, right?
So, it’s a way of getting directly to the target, asking them strategic questions, talking to them after, and eventually getting the change you want to see happen.