Our Stories

A Disaster of Global Proportions

They say it's "the crisis of our generation."

It's a crisis focused on the devastation of one disease, but one that health experts and student activists say reflects a multitude of global problems -- growing gaps between wealthy and poor nations, social and economic injustice within countries, unequal distribution of health resources, racial inequality, corporate irresponsibility. It's the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which continues to kill 8,200 people every day. "The AIDS crisis brings out some of the most horrible issues of the world," Will Nevius '09 says. "People are dying in large numbers, even though it's a completely preventable and now treatable disease."

Nevius is one of the organizers of Willamette's chapter of the Student Global AIDS Campaign (SGAC), a national grassroots movement that is the largest student network committed to ending the HIV and AIDS pandemic worldwide. These students have worked tirelessly for the past year to educate the campus, the Salem community and students across the Northwest about "the crisis of their generation."

It started in fall 2005 when Carolyn Burns '07 took a class from assistant anthropology professor Joyce Millen, a global AIDS expert who co-authored the critically acclaimed books "Dying for Growth: Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor" and "Global AIDS: Myths and Facts." She is the former director of the Institute for Health and Social Justice at Harvard Medical School. The institute is the research and educational arm of Partners In Health, a global health organization with a proven track record of preventing the spread of HIV and delivering life-saving health care to those in need.

"I was shocked and horrified about how little I knew about this pandemic, and I knew that others at Willamette also were unaware of it," Burns says.

With the help of Elliot Williams '08, Burns organized a campus showing of the film "A Closer Walk," a documentary about the AIDS crisis. Everyone who attended was stunned and left wondering how to help. They learned about SGAC and decided to start a campus chapter, with Millen as their faculty advisor.

Nevius, now a member of SGAC's national steering committee, says that Americans don't understand the implications of the pandemic because the disease is not as prevalent here, and different factors lead to its spread in other countries. Poor people in some countries don't have access to the drugs that could easily treat the disease, or even to basic health care that could make their lives easier. Multitudes are dying of AIDS in some countries, leaving orphans behind. In some areas, such as southern Africa, up to 30 percent of the adult population is infected. And children are dying, too. "It's killing the most productive people," Burns says. "It's killing farmers, it's killing doctors. It's not just affecting the people who are dying. It's affecting the whole society."

Willamette's SGAC members made presentations in residence halls, held a campus rally and took part in an AIDS awareness walk in Portland. Last spring, Nevius and Mara Hansen '07 traveled to SGAC's national conference in Washington, D.C., and made another shocking discovery -- Willamette had the organization's only university chapter in the Pacific Northwest.

So in December, the students organized and hosted the Pacific Northwest World AIDS Day Summit, inviting students from throughout the region to a day of sessions led by AIDS and health care experts. They wanted to teach students about the issue, hoping to inspire them to start SGAC chapters on their own campuses. About 200 students attended from 10 schools across Oregon and Washington. A nighttime dance-a-thon benefiting Partners In Health raised more than $8,000.

The keynote speaker was Adam Taylor, a well-known social justice activist from Washington, D.C., who co-founded the national Student Global AIDS Campaign. Taylor reminded the students of the importance of activism. "We have the tools to fight the AIDS crisis," he told them. "We have to have the courage to pick them up and use them."

The summit seems to have had an effect. Lewis & Clark College held a similar AIDS conference this spring, and students at Reed College are interested in organizing a chapter there. The Willamette students also are working more closely with similar AIDS organizations in the Salem area. "We hope to establish a grassroots network in the Northwest so we can organize collaborative actions," Nevius says.

On National Youth AIDS Day in February, the students dressed as health care workers and marched to the Salem offices of Oregon's senators, asking them to support the African Health Capacity Investment Act, which would provide funding for a better health care structure in sub-Saharan Africa. They also have joined letter-writing campaigns to urge Abbott Laboratories, a company that produces AIDS-fighting drugs, to expand its product for children. "They have the drugs available to treat AIDS, but they haven't formulated them for children," Williams says. "They just need to take that extra step."

The students plan to host another campus rally April 24 to mobilize more students to join them. "We get a lot of support. People are positive and they've learned a lot," says Sarah Zerzan '08, another SGAC organizer. "But I think we still have a long way to go, even within our group. We need to make this an integral part of the Willamette community, by raising awareness and then pushing people to action."

That's one of the toughest parts of any grassroots campaign -- getting people to move from support to action. "Often it's difficult to know the next step and how to be effective," Hansen says. "Getting involved in the political process can be confusing and overwhelming. We're trying to help people understand how they can make a difference."