On World AIDS Day 2017

1 December every year is World AIDS Day.

This year’s theme is ‘My health, my right‘. That is, one’s right to health represents a fundamental human right, and one’s right to health encompasses and extends to rights to sanitation and housing, nutritious food, healthy working and living conditions, education and access to justice. All of which are accessible free from stigma and discrimination, and free of violence.

I may no longer devote much of my working life to issues surrounding HIV. But, I still very much believe in continuing to focus on the response to HIV and ensuring that no one is left behind in our local, national, regional and global responses to HIV and various other related issues.

On this World AIDS Day, much like each and everyone before it, my thoughts are with all those living with HIV first and foremost. My thoughts are also with those who have died far, far too young and long before they needed to. Their faces remain at the forefront of my mind on many days, but particularly today.

I also extend my thanks and gratitude to all of those who tirelessly continue to devote their voices, time and indefatigable energy to making sure others are not left behind. All those who work on HIV-related issues ensure that people living with HIV continue to receive the attention they need, at times desperately so. From activists to policy makers to aid workers to healthcare professionals, those working on HIV also ensure that those affected by HIV are placed at the centre of discussions on HIV policy, funding and programming, and highlight the necessity of inextricably linking access to health as but one fundamental human right.

Health. Gender equality. Freedom from harm. The freedom to make decisions about one’s health and one’s own life. Respect and dignity. These are but a few of the words which come to mind on each World AIDS Day. And, they represent a world we can look forward to, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Here’s to all those living with, affected by and responding to HIV. You deserve so much more than one day each year. You are worth so much more than one day on a calendar. May we collectively never forget your worth.

AIDS ribbon tree

On ‘Strength to Love’

Strength To LoveStrength To Love by Martin Luther King Jr.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.

This quote more than any other moves me, and serves as a reminder that tolerating injustices of any kind, whether directed at me or at others, represents an incredibly slippery slope.

Nearly 50 years after his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr remains a voice of strength and love and compassion aimed at shattering the hatred that justifies racial injustice. Sadly, nearly 50 years later, much of his writings and reflections related to his faith in a loving and just god and the reality of being black in the 1950s and 1960s America ring true today. As a diverse nation, we’ve come some way from the dark days of the civil rights era; but, if the last year has provided me with any sort of measuring stick on where we as a nation now stand, we still have much further to go.

I do not share MLK’s faith. Despite being raised in a Southern Baptist family, their god and the stories in The Bible never really made sense to me. Their god was one to fear, whose wrath was fierce. And, much of the rhetoric I heard justified the supremacy of those like us — white, middle class, privileged. In Strength to Love, MLK uses his faith and scripture to justify justice. To justify love rather than hatred. To justify compassion and inclusion.

So much of this collection of sermons and reflections remain relevant in these times. In a chapter entitled, ‘The man who was a fool’, he states, ‘The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live.’ I couldn’t help but wonder what he would think of our world today, where technology has boomed. I wondered if he would be demonised as a ‘fake news pundit’ or a antifada anarchist. But, I also wondered how powerful these tools could be when coupled with his various messages and teachings, particularly amongst those who share his faith. And, particularly when addressing the various unarmed shootings of young black men by police officers.

He closes this chapter with these words: ‘What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world of externals—airplanes, electric lights, automobiles, and color television—and lose the internal—his own soul?’ I’m not sure where I lie on the existence of a soul, but whilst we in the United States possess so much stuff, I wonder if we haven’t lost which makes us truly rich beyond wealth. More than anything, I can only imagine how much more fortunate (and happier) we’d be if we would only view our fellow citizens as worthy rather than as ideological or racial enemies.

Strength to Love may represent a piece of our past and a long ago moment in our young nation’s history. But, to my mind, it serves as a powerful guide for what we still need to accomplish as individuals and as a nation.

View all my reviews

If the people lead…

The Leaderless Revolution is one of the many books that sits in my to buy / to read list of books. It sits there largely because several folks I respect immensely rather simultaneously and independently posted their reviews of it, and how it has them thinking of what we could accomplish if only unconstrained by structures which inhibit us.

Colour me intrigued.

Last night, also rather randomly, The Cuban queued up for our nightly dose of television a BBC Storyville documentary featuring none other than Carne Ross, the author of this intriguing book. I finally bought the book after about 15 minutes into this documentary. And, I plan to read it immediately upon its arrival.

Communities can not just offer but provide solutions. But we overlook such opportunities because these solutions can’t possibly be that easy or can’t possibly work because no one has ever tried them. Communities often remain unconsidered or an after-thought by those who make decisions, decisions which profoundly affect them. And, by far more often than not, those decisions are made without representatives of specific communities in the sodding room.

No wonder so many projects fail to reach their achievements or to produce the results others have intended or to meet the needs of those they should be helping. As someone who worked in development aid for a number of years, this was and remains all too obvious and tragic. Yet, precious little appears to change.

By contrast, a few indefatigable individuals I am honoured to know have extolled the virtues of anarchist activism for years. They don’t just sing its praises; they are anarchist activists in action.

Currently, through their efforts aimed at reducing opioid overdose deaths in their communities (in this case, Toronto), they are demonstrating just how incredible community-level activism alongside a little anarchism can effect change, hugely and positively impact local-level communities, and confront power structures we typically cower to or eventually relent to.

Briefly, as city-level structures (pardon the pun) drug their feet to implement any action as overdose deaths continued to not just occur but increase, these harm reduction policy activists sprung into action and opened a pop-up injection site in a community park. This action resulted from inaction and in part out of desperation. They were tired of seeing their friends and community members die. And, they knew definitively what to offer the community in order to prevent further deaths. By supervising injecting drug use, they can help prevent deadly overdoses immediately and call for medical assistance if necessary or needed. An added bonus is the on-the-spot outreach to those who may otherwise exist beyond the reach of health and social services. Services and the space are provided without judgement and without conditions placed on those seeking them, all within the community where it is most needed.

Within one week of opening up the pop-up site, they had reversed five likely fatal overdoses. They had also distributed overdose prevention kits to many, many, many others.

This may seem rather small-scale. But, imagine: within a single week, five of your friends died. And, you had the tools to help prevent those deaths but they were locked away by someone beyond your own community.

What would you do? Would you wait for public (e.g., city, state or national level governmental) action? Or would you do what you could to prevent any further deaths?

I’m not necessarily convinced that government is entirely bad. Indeed, I still believe in public institutions on various levels. But, clearly, we—all of us—face some serious obstacles given how power structures currently overwhelmingly favour those with power and money. Those who are already in the room. Given that so many decisions are made which impact those of us not in various rooms, something clearly needs to change. Perhaps we need different rooms with fewer ‘big men’ and ‘important women’ standing at the front.

Perhaps, if the people lead, the leaders will follow.

 

Struggling to make sense of it all

This year. This year brought with it hope and joy and goodness. It also brought unspeakable tragedy and despair, and what at times seems like an endless stream of senselessness. I find myself struggling with it all like never before. I suspect I am not alone.

Mercifully, none of these tragedies or despair are my own. Yet, as I attempt to absorb the news of each new tragedy, finding some glimmer of kindness amongst my fellow humans can seem like a futile quest. ‘What is wrong with us?!’, is a question far too often repeated, becoming equally and increasingly incredulous and louder with each passing week.

Most recently, like much of the world I have tried and failed to understand why we seem incapable of preventing the needless and horrid death of a young Syrian boy, whose only ‘crime’ was being born to a family living through what surely must be hell on Earth, and who tragically made a most desperate attempt to find peace and security in Europe.

But, it’s not just the images of Aylan Kurdi which haunt my consciousness; it’s how my fellow privileged folk in the peaceful and calm developed North react. Whilst messages of #RefugeesWelcome bring me a sense of awe and hope, the voices of hate and vitriol ring just as loud, if not louder and more persistent, drowning out those seeking and extending compassion and kindness.

This theme, which did not begin recently, seems to repeat itself over and over and over again. Each new injustice and each new tragedy, each new viral story of the idiocy and ugliness which pervades this world is accompanied by hatred so intense and profound that I find myself speechless. Who are these people? What has happened to them—to us—to inspire such intense feelings of hatred for another human based on seemingly insignificant traits or differences? Are we really that different from one another? Are our stories so vastly divergent that we share absolutely nothing in common with ‘the other’? What has happened to our humanity? And, can we find it once again? Or are we hopelessly lost?

It’s the worst sort of rabbit hole to find one’s self in; climbing up out of it can seem insurmountable.

We need a reset button. Collectively and individually. I include myself within this targeted mass re-calibration. Wars will end and new ones will begin. The outward traits of tomorrow’s refugees may differ from those of today, but they will all seek a life which is free from worry and fear for themselves and, mostly, for their loved ones, perhaps more so for the youngest and oldest in our midst. Will we ignore them, choosing instead to leave families who look different to simply exist in horrid conditions and ‘camps‘? Will we help them to find a different, less crisis-laden life amongst us?

Perhaps we simply need to re-focus our energy on those tiny bits of goodness each one of us can pass along to those in need. Re-train those individual strengths and talents we each possess to create a better, safer, more just world, which when combined may result in lasting change that benefits us all equitably. Re-image and discover that one common trait we share with those who seem so outwardly so entirely different from us.

We must do something. Otherwise, we are lost. And, ultimately, we all lose.

This week’s viral escapade featuring the worst sort of pigeon-holing, most troubling in that it was directed at a young boy with what appears to be a promising intellect, provides some hope. If we can collectively step up and police those who seek to profile based on antiquated and bigoted perceptions, perhaps we can create a better world.

So many stories remain untold, while each one is worth telling. Maybe that re-telling is our first step on the arduous path towards understanding and making sense of it all…

 

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Yes, one person can make a difference

Several years ago in a discussion with a colleague after a typical day in the office, a brief snippet of our conversation has stayed with me and inspired much reflection. Discussing the many issues in the world around us which we’d like to see change, a world more socially and economically just and fair, I declared my own desire to make the world around me just a bit better. Whether that difference be at a community or national level wasn’t important; making a difference to the lived experiences of others was what drove me, even if it was on a seemingly small scale.

His response? ‘If you help just one person, you have succeeded, no? You have after all changed the world for the better for at least one person.’

So, so simple. And, so, so true.

Both before and since that after-work conversation and revelation, I’ve thought often about what one person can do to make the world a little better. A little brighter. I’m perhaps in equal measure hopelessly naïve and optimistic enough to believe that one person can and often does make a difference. But, it wasn’t until that conversation several years ago that I stopped worrying about how many people or how large the impact was (something which my day job placed priority on — the number of people reached rather than how much better life was for one person). Yet, one person’s world is still ‘a world’. And, perhaps by helping that one person, others’ lots would improvd as well.

However seemingly insignificant the gesture may be, a single act of kindness, a random bit of support extended to another can create good. From holding a door open to buying a meal for someone who is hungry to clothing a stranger to standing up and speaking for those who have no voice, no act is too small. No act is too insignificant. And, perhaps, those changes and improvements to an individual’s ife can mushroom out as ripples on the water—one person can help another can help another and so on until an entire community benefits.

Like I said, hopelessly optimistic. (It beats the alternative!)

But, what of the more significant, larger acts? Do they take a village or can they be accomplished through the actions of an individual on his/her own?

A single person has made an enormous difference with an amazing impact, as evidenced by Jadav Payeng.

Since 1979, this one man has been planting saplings and growing a forest in Brahmaputra, India. Growing a forest. These saplings have transformed a barren, eroding landscape into a lush, green habitat for various creatures, including elephants, tigers and vultures, which returned to the region in 2012 after a 40-year absence.

Talk about seeing the forest for the trees…

If a single man can create a forest, imagine the possibilities of the seemingly small and insignificant actions we each want to do and don’t for fear it will change nothing. Just as each seed may not on it’s own create a forest, each individual action may on its own seem unimportant and carry very little benefit. Yet, over time and collectively, imagine how much better the world could be? Imagine how much better it would be?

Sometimes, it’s quite alright to focus on that individual tree.

 

Where an ‘I love you’ text is a crime

A week ago, a man in Cameroon died. Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, who was only 34 years young, died of complications and lack of treatment for a hernia. As if this wasn’t tragic enough, Roger died needlessly and senselessly after having to live in hiding and knowing that his family wanted to remove the ‘curse’ which plagued him. Why?

Because he was gay.

Roger was jailed under Cameroon’s anti-gay legislation in 2011 for sending a text message to a man which read, ‘I’m very much in love with you’. He was sentenced to three years in prison, and later released on medical grounds. He lived in hiding upon release and some reports suggest he was barred from receiving medical treatment. Even his family said that it would be better to just let him die.

Because he was gay. Because he loved a man and declared that love.

There are far, far too many countries in which individuals who do not fit the ‘norm’ face criminal charges for simply declaring an emotion which should bring joy, happiness and hope. Depending upon how you classify both country and legislation, a total of 83 countries (84 if you count Russia) have laws which place strict limitations on the human rights freedoms to those citizens who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender. That’s 84 too many. Imagine living in a place where you cannot declare your love for another human being. Where you cannot show your love for another human being. Where you are not free to love and show that love for whom you wish.

With all of the attention Russia and President Putin have been quite rightly getting given the upcoming Olympic games, perhaps we can also shine a spotlight on all those other countries in which LGBT men and women face prison, discrimination and stigma on a daily basis simply for being who they are. This includes Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda and 35 other African nations (although the Ugandan law has not been signed by the president as of this morning). These are only the countries from one continent in which laws exist making it a crime to be gay. Let’s not forget the Americas, Asia, and, yes, Europe. As we in the developed North applaud the steady march towards marriage equality in the United States, the spread of laws which criminalise homosexuality continue and with them stigma, discrimination and hatred become more common and, in a way, legally sanctioned and institutionalised.

Despite Putin’s claims that the Sochi games will be welcoming to all athletes and free of discrimination in any form, what about the remainder of Russia outside the Olympic bubble? Actions, and in this particular case, legislation speak infinitely louder than words. So loud in fact that 27 Nobel laureates and Sir Ian McKellen (aka Gandalf) have penned a letter asking President Putin to reconsider the anti-gay propaganda law. Once the Olympic torch is extinguished, I’m dubious that anything will change, and suspect that things for Russia’s LGBT community may in fact become more grim.

But, what of those other countries in which the laws are even harsher? What of those countries who punish their LGBT citizens with decades long or even life prison sentences? What of those countries where being gay carries the death penalty? Where is the outrage? Where is the international support? Where are the protest letters from those 27 Nobel laureates and knighted actors?

In some parts of the world, undoubtedly we’ve come a long, long way towards making it safe and legal for all to love whom they love, openly and without fear (or, as it should be). But, as the senseless and tragic case of Roger Jean-Claude Mbede illustrates all too cruelly, we still have a very long way to go.

The Anti-Gay World (pinched from Buzzfeed)

The Anti-Gay World
(pinched from Buzzfeed)

Suffer the Little Children

It’s hard to imagine life in Syria today. Harder still to imagine that fleeing to Iraq would be preferable to remaining in Syria.

Being a child and experiencing either is unimaginable.

Yet, Save the Children estimates that as many as 1 million Syrian children are now living as refugees. One million.

War and conflict are tragic enough. But, robbing children of their childhood and all the attendant delights of youth is simply criminal. I cannot imagine a more helpless feeling than being a parent to a child living in a war zone or fleeing from conditions which are nightmarish at best and a living horror at worst.

How do you explain it? How do you try to shield your child from the reality of war without deceiving them into a false sense of security? How do you instill hope whilst living in conditions which leave little room for belief in a brighter future?

Children under Fire, Save the Children’s report documenting the reality in which children now exist as a result of the civil war raging in Syria, is gut-wrenching.

By their estimates, more than 2 million children in Syria now need some sort of assistance. Figures from a study conducted by Bahcesehir University in Turkey which is referenced throughout the report suggest that three out of every four Syrian children have lost at least one loved one because of the conflict. Three of every four. Many children have lost multiple family members. Many of those children have watched as those loved ones died.

In their own words, children describe the horror of constant shelling and gunfire, as well as living in houses which are shelled whilst they sit inside. They describe running for their lives through neighbourhoods they used to run around in for play. They describe the loss of their schools, either to serve as shelter to the millions displaced within Syria or which have since been burned to the ground. They describe watching friends and family members being shot in front of them. One child’s mother recalled the first word spoken by her young child, born into a world lived only in a state of war: ‘explosion’. That was the first word a mother’s child ever uttered.

Malnutrition is now the norm. Children go un-vaccinated because the manufacturing of medicines has declined if not completely ceased (along with all manufacturing in the country) or because it is impossible to get through the multitude of checkpoints set up by various factions within the country. Thus, the likelihood of epidemics are all the more real. When children do get sick, it is either impossible to reach a clinic or hospital due to the continued threat of sniper-fire or bombings or the impossibility of simply getting through or there is nowhere to go because most if not all hospitals and clinics have been destroyed in a particular area.

Young girls now face the threat of sexual violence as well as the violence of war, and are thus kept indoors for weeks on end. Young boys, some as young as 8 years old, are being recruited as child soldiers and have been used as ‘human shields’.

Suffer the little children. ‘Suffer’ seems insufficient to describe the hell that is life in Syria today.

The easiest way to end the suffering is to end the conflict in Syria. As the US and others in the West beat the drums of war, peace looks unlikely any time in the near future. But, what of the children now? And, how to help even if we cannot physically be there?

In addition to prevailing upon our own leaders for peaceful solutions rather than violent retaliations, we can take steps to help in the seemingly smallest of ways.

As Syrians flee for refugee camps and as winter approaches, many of those fleeing have nothing but the clothes on their backs. One charity which is specifically designed for the crafty amongst us and focuses on helping children in need is asking for a very simple show of support and kindness—send knit or crochet squares.

LILY—or, Love in the Language of Yarn—is calling upon the community of knitters and hookers (not those hookers) to spend a bit of time busting their healthy yarn hordes to make squares, which are then pieced together and given to child refugees. As a knitter, I love this idea. As a humanitarian, it is so elegantly simple and yet necessary. As winter approaches and warm shelter, let alone a warm blanket, is often non-existent, I’ll gladly use some of my time and precious yarn stash to make as many squares as possible.

It may not be much, but it is something.

If we cannot give them security and safety, perhaps we can at least give them warmth.

Some of the squares I'll be sending in the hopes that they bring some 'security' to Syria's forgotten children living as refugees.

Some of the squares I’ll be sending in the hopes that they bring some ‘security’ to Syria’s forgotten children living as refugees.