Our Stories

A New Generation of Activism

Stephen Lewis, who recently completed a term as the United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, didn't mince words when he addressed Willamette's new students at convocation in August. The fast-talking Canadian diplomat's emotionally charged speech offered a mix of research and personal anecdotes to convey the tragedies of AIDS and gender inequality worldwide. His plea to the students was urgent: You, the next generation of potential activists, can do something about these problems.

Will Nevius '09 was in the audience that day, but these weren't new ideas to him. Nevius, a politics major, had already met Lewis earlier in the summer at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City -- the latest in the student's long list of activist efforts. It's no surprise that Nevius calls Lewis one of his heroes.

"He has this amazing presence, and he's not afraid to have this critical voice," Nevius says. "He's a change agent wherever he is, whether he's inside or outside the machine."

Those words could also apply to Nevius, who, like Lewis, talks fast when discussing the political issues that hold his attention. His leadership and continued advocacy for social justice were recently recognized with a scholarship from the Pride Foundation, a Pacific Northwest organization that makes grants to nonprofit foundations, awards scholarships to students, and supports grassroots organizing around lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. Nevius is the first Willamette student to receive this scholarship.

Nevius has done extensive policy and community organizing for nonprofits, serves on Willamette's Council for Diversity and Social Justice and is on the board for the Oregon Student Equal Rights Alliance. His research interests include the nation's LGBT homeless youth epidemic, and last year he helped facilitate a group to support at-risk LGBT youth in the area.

Fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic has been one of Nevius's causes since he was in high school. During his first year at Willamette, he co-founded a campus chapter of the Student Global AIDS Campaign (SGAC), a national grassroots movement that is the largest student network committed to ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic worldwide. At the time, Willamette was the only university in the Pacific Northwest with a chapter. Nevius now serves as SGAC's national student coordinator and travels monthly to Washington, D.C., to help plan the organization's efforts.

Last spring, Nevius explored the cultures, history and political dynamics of South Africa while studying at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. "South Africa is truly a 'rainbow nation' trying to create a democracy the whole country can believe in. It's the country running on hope. Experiences like seeing Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak really brought this home for me."

He also continued his efforts to fight HIV/AIDS by working for the director of the Rafael Centre, an organization that travels to townships and informal settlements in the Eastern Cape to offer AIDS testing and counseling.

"I decided that if I really want to work on these issues, this was the place I needed to go," he says. "Being in an uncomfortable situation is sometimes the best place to learn, and I definitely got that. There are 11 official languages in South Africa. It's not Salem anymore."

Spending a semester in a country still working to overcome years of pain from apartheid showed Nevius the real effects of social and racial inequality.

"I would look at Grahamstown, which has extreme poverty and an unemployment rate of about 70 percent, and then I would go back to school at Rhodes where there were security guards every 30 feet so outsiders couldn't come onto campus. It was odd navigating both worlds."

Inequality also carries over to the way many countries fight diseases like AIDS, he says. "We have the science to keep people alive for decades, yet people continue dying, even though it's a completely preventable and treatable disease. In order to stop its spread, we have to look at it as a political issue."

After he graduates this spring, Nevius hopes to head to Washington, D.C., to gain experience in the offices of progressive legislators on Capitol Hill, or possibly to work with nonprofits to fight inequality. No matter where Nevius lands, Lewis's words will likely remain with him: The students of his generation are inheriting the world, and it's their responsibility to make it a better place.

To learn more about national scholarships, contact Monique Bourque in the Student Academic Grants and Awards office on the third floor of Putnam University Center, or visit www.willamette.edu/dept/saga.