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Finding Support and Inspiration at AIDSWatch -- An Advocate's Story

Too often when we talk about AIDSWatch, we tend to get hung up on the sheer size of the event. Sure, it’s important to note how many people attended the past year’s AIDSWatch (over 600) and how many meetings we had with Congressional offices (272), but those big picture figures fail to encapsulate the truly transformative potential of AIDSWatch to inspire and motivate individual HIV advocates to take what they’ve learned from their experiences in Washington D.C. back with them and continue working to create change in their own communities.

In an effort to remedy this, AIDS United reached out to Kirsten Bean, health education program manager at the Greene County Public Health Department in southwest Ohio, to share her experiences at AIDSWatch 2019 as one of more than a dozen syringe exchange program facilitators and harm reduction specialists who came for the event. This is her story.


This was the first AIDSWatch I had attended, and it was a fantastic opportunity to meet with legislators and also build connections among HIV and syringe exchange advocates from across the country. I am from Ohio, so except for one of my visits, all my interactions were with Republican members of the house and senate. I felt like many Republican legislative assistants were not particularly interested in hearing about increasing access to healthcare or services for HIV treatment and prevention, but they did really tune in when one member of our delegation told his personal story about the challenges of aging with HIV. They were also surprisingly supportive of syringe exchange programs (SEP), which is something I don’t think I would’ve encountered a year ago if I had made the same visits.

Sadly, the Hepatitis A outbreak has drawn a lot of attention to intravenous drug use/users (IDU) in Ohio and has driven home the reality of shared needle use as pathway for disease transmission. Even though we have been witnessing a Hepatitis C outbreak among IDU in Ohio since at least 2013, the recent Hepatitis A outbreak—and other factors—seem to have galvanized support for syringe exchange programs on the right.

Another great thing about AIDSWatch was that if gave me the opportunity to connect with other women and mothers who are running syringe exchange programs. In our conversations we talked a lot about the experience of IV drug use for mothers and the lasting trauma of losing the custody of a child, or the challenges active users face in obtaining birth control so they can avoid unplanned pregnancy. Through these meetings I came away with ideas for how to make effective referrals for women in our syringe exchange programs to practitioners that will provide unbiased and supportive care so these women can meet their reproductive health care needs.

We always hand out condoms at the SEP, but for many women it is hard to negotiate condom use with partners, and they are interested in birth control or sterilization but have not taken that extra step to see a provider. Often this has to do with the stigma many active users experience when they interact with the medical system. I returned to my SEP determined to start asking participants what they were doing for birth control, especially if they declined to take condoms. For one participant I found out that she had been planning on having a tubal litigation (she has three children under the age of six and is taking care of her sister’s newborn twins) but just hadn’t made the appointment. I was able to give her the number of a good provider and before she left the exchange she had an appointment scheduled.

I have said this before, but I guess it is worth repeating. Syringe exchange work is incredibly isolating, especially when working within the context of a local public health department. Me and my two co-workers are perhaps the only two people here who are passionate about serving drug users and are committed to meeting people where they are at and employing the principals of harm reduction in our work. Because of this, it was so validating to get to hang out with peers, and other people doing this work, and learn from and debrief with and connect with the larger movement. It fuels me to keep going and expand services here in Greene County.

After attending AIDSWatch I was also more interested in changing policies at the state level, especially our laws criminalizing possession of paraphernalia, which make it difficult for some people to travel to and from our syringe exchange.

The final thing I appreciated about AIDSWatch is that is brings together veteran advocates like Barb Cardell (of Positive Women’s Network-USA), and new advocates, and mid-career HIV advocates like myself. At one point I found myself offering career advice to a young man from Ohio who is looking to work in HIV prevention or for an AIDS service organization. At another point I was talking with a retired lady who had been living with HIV for over 20 years about how she has balanced career, family and her advocacy work over the past several decades. It gave me a lot of hope that even though my kids are small now and most of my advocacy work is limited to what I do through my job, that there will be times in my life where I can do more.

Posted By: Guest Blogger -- Kirsten Bean - Friday, April 19, 2019

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