The Political is Personal

By jschneidewind on August 19, 2011 in Policy/Advocacy

by Julia Cheng, Pedro Zamora Fellow

It’s been almost eight months since I started working here at AIDS United as a Pedro Zamora fellow and it’s been over a year since I moved to the D.C. area. As I wrap up my last week both at AIDS United and D.C., I’m reflecting on my time and trying to construct a narrative of what I’ve learned. But you know what? What I’ve learned about policy, advocacy, and engagement with government can be easier reflected in where I’ve come from and where I’m going. I think that is somewhat apt for a year of working in policy—it’s a fuzzy field in some ways. For every concrete thing I’ve generated, I think it’s safe to say there are numerous more vague ideas that may or may not have come to fruition, but are nonetheless important.

Where do I come from? I come to AU as an advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights. More literally where I come from? Mississippi. Doesn’t that explain a lot? Growing up in Mississippi, it’s probably not surprising that I didn’t receive sexuality education. Though I never received any formal sexuality education growing up, sometimes mistakenly, I’ve felt I was subject to an abstinence-only-until-marriage program, that’s how palpable and close the mentality was for me. It’s hard to pinpoint where the messages were coming from. Certainly, some from my peers who actually had such programs and some from adults around me, maybe most though, from politicians and state officials who relied on such messages to draw support. There’s also that message from the sheer lack of any services regarding sex and reproduction for young unmarried (presumed straight) individuals.

One of the things I remember most from that time is how stressful being around young sexually active individuals without any sort of support services. I can vividly remember the relief when Plan B became available over the counter for those aged over seventeen years old, conveniently around the time me and my friends were turning seventeen. I also remember the misinformation—a friend drank half a cup of vinegar in hopes to prevent unwanted pregnancy before belatedly realizing it was a scare tactic. More recently, I learned the convoluted way that misinformation came about. My friend drove with other two other people to a health clinic. The two accompanying friends went inside to ask for advice and reported back to my friend. Not only the appalling misinformation, but the way that the misinformation was perpetuated is telling and speaks to the amount of stigma, fear, and shame that came along with sex in Mississippi. Thank God for the internet, as flawed as it can be.

Another vivid memory is when Judy Shepard (mother of Matthew Shepard) came to speak in my hometown. That was—and still is—big moment for me. My friend with whom I went to the event started a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) soon after in our school. Fortunately, our public boarding school was somewhat of a haven for LGB youth, some of whom came to our school so that they could come out with less fear far away from their families, hometown friends, and communities; but, it didn’t completely remove from toxic environments and sometimes there would be coming outs and outings that would lead to being kicked out or subject to an endless attrition. I have always been interested in social justice, but the pain extricated from my friends were formative in evolving my interest to passion, from sympathizer to advocate.

You’ll notice that pregnancy was our main worry and there was much less stress about STIs. I can’t recall ever worrying about HIV. Why? I think because pregnant teens were something we could see all around us, but STIs, HIV, were invisible. Without ever being taught about sexually transmitted infections, why would we think about them? It was like we had this book and we knew there were important things inside, but no one had taught us to read. The importance of inclusive and comprehensive sexuality education led me to interning at SIECUS which eventually brought me to AIDS United.

Where I am going? After month at home with friends and family, I will be moving to Kenya for twenty-seven months as a Peace Corps Science Education Volunteer. Much of my reasons for joining the Peace Corps have to do with my interest in health and communities and how they intersect. I come to health, as well as HIV, from the perspective of social justice. As I face this great unknown of the future, there are some things I know I can bring from my experience at AIDS United. Inevitably, my career will involve some aspect of HIV education and I look forward to using some of the knowledge I’ve acquired at AU.

The point I’m trying to get at conveying my past and my future is that they illustrate to me how the work I will do and the work I wish someone had done for me connect to what I’ve done this past year. Both of these stories are “on the ground” as opposed to the seemingly removed politics of Capitol Hill. But policy and advocacy forms both. I came to D.C. not realizing that my interest was in policy. What I did know, though, was that the problems I faced and others faced were not my individual problems, but the result of a more structural society level problem and it turned out that policy and advocacy addresses those issues. It reminds me of the feminist phrase “the personal is political,” a concept that should ring true with all communities concerned with social justice. As I move on to work where I will not have a political voice (Peace Corps maintains an apolitical presence in the countries where it exists), the same tenets still hold true. Our problems, the problems of individuals, can only be solved by community action and change. Our work, as individuals, is only part of a greater picture that we cannot detach ourselves from. Though many of us work or live removed from policy, it’s important to remember how intricately tied we are to the politics and policy made here in D.C., in our states, and in our local communities—and make our voice heard. In other words, the political, trust me, will get personal.

Post a Comment

We'd love to hear what you think about this piece! Submit your comments below and join the discussion.

You must be logged in to post a comment.

< Back to the blog