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Front Lines of Advocacy: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Commit to Get 30 Million People on AIDS Treatment by 2020.

One of the most powerful advocacy actions we can make during an election year is birddogging. Although it is a silly word, birddogging is the process of asking pointed questions to presidential candidates on the campaign trail in order to get a commitment on issues that we care about. Why is it so powerful? Candidates for president are trying to capture the views of Americans from all walks of life. They do this by holding town halls, rallies, and events all around the country to ask for our input as constituents. As advocates, this gives us great access to our candidates as they roam around in our own neighborhoods, and if we can get them to make commitments now, we can hold them accountable for them later!

As global health advocates, PIH Engage members are a big part of the movement for the right to health. As a part of the movement, our advocates represent the voices of millions of people around the world and bring this view to candidates on the trail.

These past couple of weeks have let advocates from Boston, Rhode Island, and Connecticut work together to get to two of the most prominent Democratic candidates for the 2016 presidential race: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Below are the stories of two of the many PIH Engage advocates who were able to talk to the candidates and gain commitments for global AIDS.

Hannah Sheehan – University of Rhode Island:

 Hannah with Hillary

Hannah Sheehan, University of Rhode Island Team scores a selfie with Secretary Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in Manchester, NH

“Your first rally as an activist is a bit nerve-wrecking. It is like sitting on your opponent’s side of the stadium during a football game. You are surrounded by an overwhelming number of supporters of the candidate, and you feel like you are the only one who has another motive. This was how I felt at my first experience bird-dogging at the New Hampshire Democratic Convention.

Once the rally started we sat calmly in our seats, waiting for our moment. Different political figures spoke for about two hours before Secretary Clinton approached the stage. We attempted to talk about Partners In Health to a reporter, but were told that she was “only there to capture the energy of the event”. As time passed, it was looking increasingly unlikely that we would get the chance to shake hands with any candidates that day and ask our question. Only delegates, not guests, were allowed in the section near the stage, and of course our passes did not say “delegate.” After Secretary Clinton delivered her speech, we decided that even though it was unlikely, we had to try.

When Hillary Clinton finished her speech, another girl who was bird-dogging for PIH Engage, Aakriti, and I decided to try to get past the woman checking tags to walk onto the floor. As the security woman got caught up with helping someone to the floor, we made our run for it. We speed-walked as fast as we could toward the stage, pushed our way past the crowd, and finally made it to the front. I was equally as nervous to meet Secretary Clinton as I was to get kicked out by security by this point. Once I was finally close enough, I made eye contact and introduced myself while shaking Hillary’s hand.

Aakriti and I introduced ourselves as global health advocates I asked my question. I knew I wouldn’t have much time, so I kept it nice and short. All I said was, Secretary Clinton, “we are student activists from Harvard and the University of Rhode Island. We are wondering if you would be willing to commit to helping us get 30 million people worldwide on AIDS treatment by 2020.” Her answer was short, but got the point across. She said, “Yes I absolutely will!” After that, I asked her if she would mind taking a photo with me, and she was more than willing.  After we said thank you, we went back to our seats. On the way up we were briefly stopped by the security guard, who sternly asked how we had gotten down onto the floor. I was still shaking from the shock of it all, but I replied, “I don’t know, we just walked?” and quickly headed back to our seats.

Overall, this was an incredible experience, especially since I’m new to PIH Engage. It was very exciting to get the chance to be a part of this. If I could do it again, I absolutely would. The one thing I would change next time is that I would be more adamant about getting a reporter to interview us on the question we asked and the candidate’s response. I recommend birddogging to anyone who is passionate about global health.”

As a follow up to the New Hampshire commitments (some from outside PIH Engage), Hillary Clinton committed in front of news cameras on October 1st in Boston. This even resulted in news coverage, albeit in a local Boston University paper, who quoted Darshali Vyas, a coalition partner from the Student Global AIDS Campaign. 

Sophia Geffen – Boston Young Professionals:

 Bernie Sanders and Sophia Geffen

Sophia Geffen, Boston Young Professionals Team, scores a selfie with Senator Bernie Sanders at his rally in Boston, MA.

“On Saturday, October 3rd, I had the pleasure of attending Bernie Sanders’ rally in Boston. I arrived a bit later than the other PIH Engage and GHAC community members, concerned that I wouldn’t be able to participate alongside them or even locate them. Luckily, our group was impossible to ignore. They established a strong presence by the entrance to the rally with four team members chanting “Bernie Sanders lead the nation/We want an AIDS-free generation!” I jumped in the seemingly endless line, which proceeded with a mixture of intermittent, overly polite speed-walking and noisy chatter about Bernie Sanders and frustrations with the state of politics today.

As we entered the convention center, my friend guided us to a Bernie staffer who willingly gave us green bracelets that allowed us to join a group of supporters behind the stage. I immediately saw Jon Shaffer, who directed me toward Bernie’s entry/exit route, where I placed myself in a prime birddogging location. The next few hours were spent listening to, being moved by, and cheering every couple seconds for Bernie. I also repeatedly rehearsed my question - “Senator Sanders, will you commit to getting 30 million people on HIV-treatment by 2020?” As Bernie wrapped up and made his rounds—shaking hands and kissing babies—I supplied a friend with my phone to videotape the encounter. Then, in the blink of an eye, my question was received with a “yes, we will try,” which seamlessly transitioned into the most beautifully authentic selfie the world has ever seen.    

Bernie was asked four times that evening about his commitment to increasing access to lifesaving HIV treatment and four times he made a verbal commitment. Given Senator Sanders’ history of engaging with issues being brought to his attention, we can only hope that the door has now been opened for him to become a firm advocate for AIDS treatment.”

These opportunities are incredibly exciting, and can really help move the dial on global health commitments and funding. If you’re worried about finding an event near you during this election season – have no fear, we’ve created the Candidate Tracker to help you do just that!

We have the chance to influence the policy direction of our future president, whoever they may be. By asking pointed questions, getting commitments, and making those commitments public, we can achieve a lot as a network.

Not everyone is in a prime location for birddogging, but if you are it is a great opportunity to feel the excitement and be an advocate in a quick and effective way. When there’s an upcoming event in your area, talk to your coach about setting up a birddogging training and trip!

 

 

 

 

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