Lend your ears to the global fight against AIDS


Is anyone really listening?

I found myself asking this question at various points during my week of reporting from the U.N. High Level Meeting on AIDS.

Walking through Dag Hammarskjold Plaza – just steps away from the U.N. headquarters – I saw a small rally of HIV/AIDS activists. They took turns speaking boldly into a microphone, sharing stories of their struggles.

I listened, amazed that they had come all the way to New York City from the Philippines and El Salvador to share their stories with strangers on the street. Some people are afraid to tell close friends they are HIV positive. Yet, here they were literally shouting it out to the world.

Throughout the plaza, children played, adults ate lunch on park benches and shoppers sorted through fresh fruits and vegetables on sale at the farmers market. But, few people stopped to listen.

At a workshop on the needs of women living with HIV/AIDS, I watched as one of my favorite artists, Alicia Keys, addressed a crowded conference hall.

“I know we can send men to the moon,” she said about ending AIDS, “so I know we can do this.

“I know we can bail out Wall Street in a week, so I know we can do this.

“I know we can stop this disease in its tracks. We can create the future.”

I got goose bumps.

But I looked at a woman in front of me who was responding to messages on her Blackberry, while another women was looking at her iPad. I thought: “It’s Alicia Keys! Why aren’t they listening?”

Even former President Bill Clinton, who spoke this week, noted the absence of the world’s reporters.

“There should be 400 media in the back of this room,” he said, during a session in an U.N. conference room.

I must confess, before I became a UNITY Global Reporting Fellow, I was not paying close attention to the advances being made in the fight against AIDS. But, I walk away from this week’s experience knowing that while there have been tremendous inroads made in the fight to eradicate the virus, there also have been broken promises — pledges of funding that have not been delivered and advances in medication that are not affordable to the people who need them.

Leaving Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, I was struck by a quote engraved into the ground by the park’s namesake, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner and former secretary-general of the United Nations.

“Never for the sake of peace and quiet deny your own experience or convictions.”

So I won’t deny what I learned from this experience at the United Nations.

I will pay attention.

I will listen.

Behind the Pen, Paper and Lens: Reporting on the Global AIDS Conference
By Tametria Conner

Reporting for the 2011 United Nations High Level Meeting on AIDS has been a priceless experience. I have been in the midst of all walks of life from around the globe. As a TV news journalist, I have seen many parts of the world, but this was the first time I have come face-to-face with the world, gathering in one place for one cause.

This reporting opportunity reaffirms that my purpose and my life is bigger than me. I’ve covered so many angles of this meeting, interviewing people living with HIV and AIDS from Senegal, South Africa, Peru to name a few. My opportunity also yielded multimedia projects featuring celebrities such as Alicia Keys, African queens, princesses, prime ministers, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, UNAIDS leaders, delegates, world leaders and UN Secretary–General Ban Ki-moon. And a special moment for me was entering the United Nations and watching the opening session of the General Assembly. Before I even made it inside, it was breathtaking to see the 192 flags from around the world flying in the sky above the United Nations Headquarters.

One of my stories featured Enrique Chavez put a smile on my face when he sent a text saying “very nice storyJ.” It showed me that my work depicted what he wanted to be: the living face of this pandemic. It is hoped that his story will touch and educate many. Hearing his story and the stories of others has really broadened my perspective on this global, social, political, health and human rights issue.

This was my first opportunity to report on a global issue of this magnitude and to report in multiple capacities beyond my expertise of on-air reporting. Being out of my element, pushed me to kick it into overdrive when it came to shooting video, writing print stories and even taking photographs that made the front page. It’s been 10 years since I’ve written a newspaper story, but the experience I gained was phenomenal.

I will never forget my experiences here and the people I’ve met. From the fellows to the mentors to the people at this conference, they all have contributed to this rewarding experience.

TAMETRIA CONNER is a news reporter for WICS-TV in Springfield, IL. She recently earned a Master of Arts in Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield, where she speclalized in political reporting. She is a native of Hattiesburg, Miss., and has worked at WJMG-FM in Hattiesburg, WTOK-TV in Meridian, Miss.

The Fear: What would they say? Would they understand? Would they judge us?
by Carla Pineda
Sifting through our garage to prepare for a move, my mom and I found a box of notebooks filled with song transcriptions and English books. They belonged to my half-brother Byron Enrique Hernandez. When he landed in Los Angeles in 1984, his dream was to be an architect. Five years later, he was dead.

The fear of prejudice pushed my family into silence in the 1980s when we lost him to AIDS. More than 20 years later, the fear of judgment still keeps many people living with AIDS in the shadows.

When he was diagnosed in 1989, he spent his final months in denial, in shame, in disillusion, but finally, in acceptance.

My mother tells me that he would ask her, “Why me?”

In the five years that he lived in Los Angeles as an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant, he learned enough English to earn his GED and apply for pre-architecture classes at Glendale Community College. His excellent grades and an accounting degree from a Guatemalan college meant nothing when GCC learned that he had entered the country illegally.

In the five years that he lived in the United States, he touched so many people that he filled a South Central Los Angeles mortuary.

He was 24.

He lived with a beautiful woman.

He was one of my favorite adults to play with and, according to our home videos, he was one of my favorite targets for tantrums.

He was selfless, ready to drop anything to help his friends and family.
He was HIV-positive.

And he still is the face of AIDS that guides my commitment to seeking justice and equality and freedom from discrimination and shame for anyone who lives with HIV/AIDS.

He is the reason the world needs to know everything there is to know about this virus.

No one deserves to live in silence.

The ignorance and rumor surrounding the illness in the 1980s resulted in misguided notions about where AIDS comes from, how it is transmitted, how it debilitates the entire body and how it ultimately kills people.

“Did you hear about that artist who died from AIDS? He died for being a fag,” a former family friend mentioned casually to my mother before my brother’s diagnosis.

Thirty years later, despite a wealth of information, awareness campaigns and billions of dollars devoted to this disease, HIV/AIDS is still killing brothers, architects and immigrants – and billions still have to live in silence.

“His story – I wish I would have told it,” my mother told me this morning from 3,000 miles away. “And you are honoring me by telling it for me.”

CARLA AZUCENA PINEDA is a staff writer for the Daily Commerce, a Los Angeles-based regional business publication. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in communications from California State Polytechnic University-Pomona, and she has been an AIDS Walk-Los Angeles volunteer since high school.

Hot is Where the Home Is

by Graham Lee Brewer
On a possibly record-breaking day of heat in New York City it isn’t the blistering temperatures that are a departure from my home state. In fact, Oklahoma just recently snapped its longest drought streak
since the Dust Bowl forced thousands of people from the dry planes of the Sooner State. No, the heat I can handle. The biggest adjustment that comes with leaving the rolling green hills of Oklahoma for the
gray asphalt of the New York City streets is the pace. Saying life moves a little slower in Oklahoma is a vast understatement.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve worked in daily news environments before, under the looming shadow of a fast approaching deadline. But for that kind of rapidity to carry over into life outside of the newsroom is a
bit like jumping into the freezing waters of Little Niagra on a sweltering Oklahoma summer day (I know, my reference is lost on you, but trust me, the water there is cold enough to make your nipples fall off).

I got my first taste of New York speed as soon as I stepped out of Grand Central Station on the way to my hotel. Carrying a backpack and reporters bag while I dragged my suitcase behind me made navigating
the crowded sidewalks a precarious endeavor. And, at least one gentleman behind me made it outwardly apparent I needed to pick up the pace. “C’mon! Today,” he said as he finally found an opportunity to
swoop around me. I know he probably didn’t mean to be rude, really. There’s a lot to do, and people just move faster here. Although, I may or may not have wished a plague upon his house.

Even though the adjustment may have taken a couple days, the rush of being in the city is exhilarating. I haven’t visited New York since I was a doe-eyed 19 year-old tourist with a, in my opinion, charming
naivety and propensity to ask too many questions of total strangers. But, no matter how slow I move, or how many questions I ask, I am always pleasantly surprised by how friendly and accommodating New Yorkers seem to be.

I’ll never forget having my car booted and towed on that last trip. As me and my friend Joey, a 19 year-old Marine and high school friend of mine, stood on the sidewalk and pleaded with the city worker who booted our car to let us off with a warning, a group of native New Yorkers gradually started accumulating around us. “They boot yer car,” they’d ask. “Where ya guys from?” Oklahoma, we told them. It’s our first time here. “Those bastards,” the natives would scoff. “Hey! You in the van (yelling at the city worker who was waiting for a tow truck to arrive). Leave these poor Oklahoma boys alone! What, you got nothin’ better to do?”

So, to any New Yorkers reading this now, thanks for your patience. If you’re ever in Oklahoma you’ve got a couch to crash on, but please, one at a time.

Graham Lee Brewer is a freelance public radio reporter and writer
studying Journalism at the University of Oklahoma’s graduate college.
He is a UNITY Global Reporting Fellow.

On A Lighter Note With President Bill Clinton

by Natasha Zouves

Today was the first time I’ve been in the presence of a former president.

And as far as former presidents go, there are probably very few more charismatic than Bill Clinton.

But still, as he began delivering his speech during a meeting on how women’s lives could be saved so their HIV positive children would have a chance to survive, I wondered how he could possibly make us laugh given the subject matter.

So far this week at the UNAIDS conference, it’s been event after event covering heavy topic after heavy topic. Even success stories have been tempered with the caveats: we need more funds, we need more research, we need more time to save lives.

I’ve gone to bed every night with a mind so full that it’s hard to sleep, but with a heart so heavy I could cry.

So the highlight of the event took me by surprise, when Clinton ribbed 14th President of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan on his hats.

Let’s let Former President Clinton tell you himself.

Former President Clinton looked older than the way I picture him in my mind. For me, he still looks the way he did in 1996—when I was in first grade.

In first grade we held a “mock election.” It was the first time I learned about democracy. We each got a vote, I voted for Clinton, because, as a first grader, I thought he had kind eyes.

He stills does. And even when addressing an issue as serious as the future of HIV/AIDS, his humor is still very much intact.

Natasha Zouves is a University of Southern California broadcast journalism student, concentrating in public health. She has also covered health news for KCBS in Los Angeles. Zouves is a UNITY Global Reporting Fellow.