Public InterestFran Quigley
If you are taking an exam from high school social studies teacher Stan Abell, you could be faced with this question:
During the course of the last two weeks, the most important venue for the fight against global AIDS has been:
A. The White House
B. The United Nations
C. A second floor computer lab at Carmel High School
Last week, Stan Abell"s social studies students hand-delivered a petition with 600 signatures to Sen. Richard Lugar"s Indianapolis office, urging him to support fully funding anti-AIDS programs.
Here"s a study tip: You can make the case for answer "C." Down the hall from where backpack-toting teen-agers flirt in front of blue and gold posters supporting the wrestling team, some serious and timely activism is taking place.
Last week, Abell"s students hand-delivered a petition with 600 signatures to Sen. Richard Lugar"s Indianapolis office, urging him to support fully funding anti-AIDS programs. The previous week, they set up a phone table in the cafeteria. So many Carmel students called Lugar that the senator"s staff politely asked Abell to encourage them to find another way of communicating their message. ("We jammed the phone lines," says a smiling Maureen Maryanski.)
Lugar"s e-mail address is scrawled on a Dry-Erase board in the front of the computer lab, and students hunch over their keyboards, imploring the senator to help stop a pandemic that is claiming 6,500 lives a day in sub-Saharan Africa. This past weekend, they had a brief face-to-face meeting with Lugar.
For the global AIDS movement, the sudden emergence of an energetic youth group in Lugar"s home state is the advocates" equivalent of a perfect storm. "It may be surprising to consider the Indianapolis area as the front line in the fight against global AIDS," says Bob Elliott, the Massachusetts-based co-founder of Student Global AIDS Campaign. "But right now, pressure on Senator Lugar is essential for saving millions of lives. A senator almost never gets very many contacts on a foreign aid issue. By making hundreds of contacts happen, these Carmel students are really influencing foreign policy."
Lobbying Lugar is so important because he is the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that will soon be voting on the U.S. commitment to the global anti-AIDS effort. If the U.S. is to take meaningful steps toward preventing the disease and providing life-saving treatment, our own senior senator must lead the way.
Some folks thought that the leader would be President George W. Bush, especially after he gave a wonderful State of the Union speech about providing treatment to African AIDS victims ("Ladies and gentlemen, seldom has history offered a greater opportunity to do so much for so many."). But when Bush submitted his global AIDS proposal to Congress, he actually took a big step backwards from a bill that passed the Senate last year.
That bill, co-authored by Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) and Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tennessee), had the U.S. contributing $2.5 billion to AIDS programs in fiscal year 2004. Half the amount was earmarked for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a highly respected and efficient multinational group. The bill also mandated relief of the crippling debt that hinders the development of many AIDS-racked nations.
In contrast to the Kerry-Frist bill, Bush"s promised $15 billion, five-year commitment is significantly backloaded, with only 5 percent of the promised new money being released in 2004. Bush even calls for a reduction from last year"s U.S. contribution to the Global Fund. "The devil is in the details," Elliott says. "But the details are what will save or lose thousands of lives."
Good for Kenya, good for Carmel
The genesis of the Carmel students" campaign was Bono"s December visit to Indianapolis as part of his tour to raise attention to African AIDS and debt issues. Abell returned from the event inspired, joined the new Indiana for Africa group and shared the experience with his students. Junior Darcie Odom, a student in Abell"s first semester history class, decided to look up the Student Global AIDS Campaign Web site, and then asked a few of her friends to help her start a chapter.
Despite a few tussles with Carmel"s politically conservative culture, the activists have generally found their fellow students to be receptive to the message. When asked if they believe they can have an impact on the political debate, they answer in unison, "Oh, yes," vigorously nodding their heads.
Adults may label that as naivete - "I"ve had teachers tell me I don"t know what I"m talking about," Odom says. But public opinion does have an enormous influence on lawmakers whose profession, after all, is winning regular popularity contests. Determined anti-AIDS activists deserve the credit for Bush even mentioning African AIDS in his State of the Union address, and for the Senate bill already moving toward the inclusion of debt relief.
That success is good news for AIDS-stricken citizens of Kenya, of course. But it"s also good for teen-agers in Hamilton County and good for the community they will soon lead. "I"m not even voting age, but I"m having an effect on the government," Lally Sothmann says. "That is awesome."
"Awesome" may not translate easily into Swahili, but I"m sure that critically ill people in Africa would agree.