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Why Alex Walks: To End HIV

AIDS United is participating in Whitman Walker Health's annual Walk to End HIV on World AIDS Day, and Alex Smith, our Senior Policy Manager, is currently the lead fundraiser! Alex has also devoted his career to the health and rights of marginalized communities through the coupling of sound public policy and the meaningful involvement of people living with HIV and other marginalized persons.

We decided to take this opportunity to highlight Alex as our start AIDS Walk team member and to learn a bit more about his work, motivations, and hopes on this World AIDS Day.

Tell me a bit about yourself and how you got involved in your work?

I’ve been volunteering in HIV for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, my mom would bring me with her when she volunteered at our local AIDS service organization in Tuscaloosa, Alabama – then West Alabama AIDS Outreach, now Five Horizons Health Services. I continued this service throughout high school and college at various organizations across Alabama and other areas in the South.

Shortly after I was diagnosed in 2011, I struggled with what to do – go on about my life in banking and communications and keep my diagnosis to myself or lean into my diagnosis, shed my shame, and do something. My friend Josh Bruce, education director for Birmingham AIDS Outreach, let me know that our mutual friend Nic Carlisle (then director of policy and advocacy for AIDS Alabama, now executive director for Southern AIDS Coalition) had started a program at AIDS Alabama geared toward building the policy and advocacy skills of people living with HIV. Nervous and unsure, I joined the inaugural cohort of the Positive Leadership Council. Through my work and growth with this inspiring group of leaders, it became clear that policy was my passion.

I continued to pour myself into this work, taking on a leadership role with the Positive Leadership Council in its second and third cohorts. The Council accomplished a great deal in its first few years and opened the eyes of people living with HIV across the state of Alabama that policy was crucial in the response to HIV and building political power was imperative. At the close of the third cohort, the director of policy and advocacy position came open at AIDS Alabama, and I’m fortunate that Kathie Hiers, chief executive officer, took a leap of faith and hired me. From leading the charge to legalize syringe services programs in Alabama to coordinating national efforts for HOPWA modernization, I helped shape AIDS Alabama's policy and advocacy department as a crucial voice from the South in federal HIV policy.

I departed AIDS Alabama in early 2017 to serve as executive director for Equality Alabama through mid-2018, reviving the organization and positioning it as the movement leader for LGBTQ equality and rights in Alabama. In May 2018, I moved to DC and joined the staff of AIDS United.

What inspired you to walk for HIV?

I’m committed to ending the HIV epidemic in my lifetime. Against all odds, we’ve made remarkable progress in the nearly 40 years of response to the HIV crisis. The biggest remaining challenge, however, is the pervasive stigma faced by people living with HIV. This stigma manifests itself in so many ways and is exacerbated by other forms of bigotry and oppression – racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ageism, classism, and so on. Breaking this stigma is my inspiration to walk for HIV; ending HIV-related stigma must be a collective priority and is crucial to ending the epidemic.

On a lighter note, I really just need to get in better shape. Having a deadline to get ready for a 5k was a great motivator!

What role do HIV and AIDS Walks have in breaking down HIV stigma?

One of the keys to breaking down HIV stigma is visibility, and HIV/AIDS walks are a great example of hugely public and widely impactful anti-stigma work. How can onlookers tell who among the walkers are living with HIV and who are allies? They can’t, and that’s the point. People living with HIV are no different than people who aren’t living with HIV. Public displays of unity like HIV/AIDS walks help to dispel old notions of people living with HIV that are rooted in stigma.

Truly ending stigma goes beyond HIV/AIDS walks, though. Most walks center around World AIDS Day observances each year, but breaking down stigma takes daily work from each and every one of us.

You’re currently the lead fundraiser on the AIDS United Walk to End HIV team. What has it been like to reach out to your network and talk about HIV? Why is it so important to have these conversations?

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I hate asking people for money. It was the least favorite part of my job as executive director for Equality Alabama, and I still haven’t found a way to make it not feel awkward.

That aside, it’s been incredibly refreshing and affirming to continue talking to my networks about HIV. I’ve been openly living with HIV since not too long after my diagnosis, so I’ve had considerable practice having these types of conversations. What continues to excite me is how these conversations have shifted over the years – from talking about simply knowing your status to conversations about PrEP to now talking about one of the most exciting topics in HIV prevention: that a person living with HIV who has an undetectable viral load cannot sexually transmit the virus to another person; this concept is called Undetectable Equals Untransmittable, or U=U. How amazing is that?

Regardless of whether someone is living with HIV or even knows someone living with HIV, it’s important for all of us to continue having conversations about HIV. Talking openly about HIV helps us collectively eradicate stigma and get to the end of the epidemic.

You recently started as the Senior Policy Manager at AIDS United this summer. What have you been most proud of so far?

Honestly, I’m incredibly proud of being tapped to join the staff of AIDS United as Senior Policy Manager. Having worked alongside this organization for years during my time in HIV policy in Alabama, I’m so excited to be part of the team driving domestic HIV policy efforts in Washington, DC, and across the country through our Public Policy Council, the largest and longest-running national coalition of community-based HIV organizations in the federal response to HIV.

I am most proud, however, of the release of Ending the HIV Epidemic in the United States: A Roadmap for Federal Action – a policy paper that we wrote in coordination with the Act Now End AIDS coalition that I have been managing since my second day on the job at AIDS United. It took the work of hundreds of dedicated folks across the country, and I’m so excited to see how we use this document in our advocacy with the federal government to finally get to the end of the epidemic.

How do you stay motivated?

Watching all of the work my comrades in the HIV community and movement do is the biggest motivator for me. I am in constant awe of the strength and power and creativity they all have and what each of them uniquely bring to the table. Another motivator for me is the legacy of activism in this community – the work that I have the opportunity and privilege to do was built with the blood, sweat, tears, and death of so many before me. I strive to honor that in everything I do.

Support the AIDS United Walk to End HIV Team here!

Posted By: Sarah Hashmall, Communications Manager - Friday, November 30, 2018

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