Positive, Powerful, Visible: Interview with Volunteer Positive
What is Volunteer Positive?
V+: Volunteer Positive (V+) is the first international volunteer service organization for people infected and affected by HIV. The motto for V+ is positive, powerful and visible because if you see positive, powerful, visible people living with HIV you are more likely to feel that way yourself and take care of yourself.
What are some realities that HIV positive people face in the US and elsewhere?
Up until a few years ago, there were more travel restrictions for entering countries and for coming into the United States. So, even when they had huge AIDS conferences, some of the delegates wouldn’t be able to come into the country to represent issues to solve the problem because that country wouldn’t give them visas to enter. In other parts of the world, access to medication is really difficult. One of the universals would be stigma. And stigma is a tremendous killer. When stigma is so high and when disclosure means you lose your job, you have no protections. Society has to make a choice. Do we create a society where anyone that has a vulnerability feels safe enough to get care? Because if they get care, then their virus is controlled and it is extremely difficult for them to pass it. But if we surround them with stigma and fear, they don’t get treatment and they don’t get tested.
Can you tell us about the work of Volunteer Positive?
Ultimately, Volunteer Positive is improving the health of the volunteer and of the people they volunteer with. The way you do that is through love and connecting people to others. Neglect and stigma kill. It seems to me that (HIV positive) volunteers have a place in international service. Who better to send to a place where people are struggling with questions like, should I get tested? Should I be compliant in my medication? What does it feel like to talk about it? V+ brings HIV positive people into the communities who openly identify as positive and say “I’m here, I’m strong, I’ve chosen to come to your community and to work at your direction.” You know, it’s certainly not about ‘Westerners’ being the domain of the solution and everyone else being in the domain of the problem. My agenda is that the volunteers learn the world is open to them, that what they’ve lived for and what they are living through has value. It’s not like “I’ll take you to do international service even though you are positive.” I think it should be “Are you positive? We really need you!” Whatever your obstacle may seem to be might actually be your greatest gift and the way that you lead if you really are going to be in service. In a way, your greatest vulnerability is the thing you know the most about! You know it. You feel it. You taste it and you live with it every day. How do we use these people? How do we give them an opportunity to fulfill their life dreams?
Why do you think it is so important that the volunteers work side by side with people from another country? Why not volunteer locally?
Well, I don’t think it’s an either/or. I got this question before (founding) V+, just working in service. People say “Why are you going over there to do that when you could do it right here?” Most of those people, I find, don’t do it right here either. There’s some sort of xenophobia behind that question, you know, or somehow that that life ‘over there’, by the nature of distance and culture and space, is not as valuable. Or that somehow your priorities are in the wrong place. And, I want to just deconstruct it and say, I do it here too! I ran a social group for HIV positive guys in the Hudson Valley and there were 150 of them because there was no group in my area, and I went to Thailand. And because I went to Thailand, there were things I learned about myself and things I learned about HIV because I saw a different culture manage it. There were things they did that I would have never thought up in my own culture and some of it is pretty effective, I thought!
Can you give an example?
I was surprised in Thailand about how the networks of HIV positive people worked because you can’t see them. So I am in this one town in Chiang Mai and the activists there started to direct me to all the people they knew who could really benefit from our services but weren’t ‘out’ about being positive. And in Thailand, there are a lot of gay people there but they also have third gender people. That was very different than in the west, we have a very cut and dry way of defining sexuality, sexual orientation, and the masculine and feminine. Also because Thailand is Buddhist, there is a different concept about life and death. It certainly doesn’t mean that they’re callous. It’s not like “Oh well, it’s a big circle of life, it doesn’t matter if I suffer, the Buddha likes that” or anything like that. It’s a different way of living in the world and walking in the earth.
You’ve completed one program so far in Chiang Mai, Thailand, what was the outcome or outcomes of this initial program?
One of the things I am really proud of is out of twelve volunteers, four have gone back (to Thailand) on their own and have decided not just to go back to support the organizations where they interned or volunteered, but to go further and to do other explorations in South East Asia and in other parts of the world. They realized that maybe there is a reason why they are still alive. It’s not just to sit and wait, it’s to really contribute. That over the last year has been really powerful for me to see–that liberation. It takes courage on both sides and it’s an interesting exchange. Why this has never been done before is because it potentially pushes a lot of buttons in people. A lot of the volunteers who came on the first program with me were not out about being positive in the communities they came from in the US because for them it’s not safe. And yet they really felt that they had something to give. What I saw from the volunteers as they worked in the communities was the bonds that started to form because these organizations that had been living in Northern Thailand for years had never met a positive Westerner. They said one of the great gifts that Volunteer Positive gave them was just to be together. I learned a lot about how important community is.
Can you describe the final event?
My Thai counterpart is an activist named Anne, and she has been positive for a long time. She said, “If it doesn’t include food, and party, and dancing, the Thai’s won’t show up!” And I thought, ok I’m with you on that! It has to be fun! At the end of the (program), I had each volunteer invite their NGO and that NGO’s community and I had taken some funds from each of our volunteers and rented a center. I asked each NGO if they would participate, sort of like a talent show. Anything they wanted to do to express their experience of working with Volunteer Positive, or themselves, or their lives. I just wanted to give them a space. People came out and danced, lip-synced, and it went on and on! I thought we would have maybe 100 people…we had over 200. People just stayed and talked and it was the head of the NGO’s and their people and kids and it was translated into Thai and English by people from the university and by friends of mine. Everyone just had a riot of a time and lots of laughter. In the back of the stage was a big mural that one of the volunteers had done with kids and teenagers that said ‘Positive, powerful, visible’ and that solidarity was there. One of the ministers in Chiang Mai got up and spoke and said “We’ve really shared culture. We’ve really been happy together and please don’t make this be the last time. This is important.”
What are some ways that people can practically support HIV positive people or raise awareness in their community about HIV?
Acknowledging the history that it’s not over and being a witness. You know sometimes people want to have a solution, they want to tie it all up in a nice bow and say it’ll all get better. But I’d rather someone say “I’m with you on this. I hear you. I’m glad you’re here. Tell me what it’s like. Tell me your story and who you are with this illness.” Also, breaking the silence about HIV. Most people know somebody or know of somebody who has HIV. I feel like because there is a physical distance, like the HIV people are ‘over there’ (even in the gay community!), I always want to touch that person and let them know I am not afraid of them. That’s one thing. Someone says, “Can I give you a hug?” And I’d say “Sure! Thank you for not being afraid of me!” But that won’t work for everybody in every culture.
Who do you consider to be a mentor, and why?
Mentoring for me is a web of people that I really care about. If you saw them all individually, you may not get how they’re connected but if you spent time with them you’d start to realize that there’s probably a way that all of them see things. There are moments that each one of them mentor me. (They are) people who tell you the truth because they want you to get where you’re going not because they want you to be wrong. I think of those as qualities of a mentor. And, there are people I’ve met that profoundly changed my life because I spent the day with them.
Thank you, Carlton!