The origin of activism

Just before the 20th International AIDS Conference started here in Melbourne a few weeks ago, I got a text message from my father. This happens a lot, even though we live so far apart, thanks to the miracles of modern technology (e.g. iPhones); usually it’s just a “hi” or a joke, a photo or a silly story. This particular message was to tell me that he and my mother had been going through some boxes of old letters and documents, and found a copy of a letter from my maternal grandmother to a member of parliament, something he thought I’d be interested in.

My grandmother was, shall we say, Opinionated. She had Things To Say. And Views on The State Of The World. Supposedly, there was a whole drawer in one of the filing cabinets at the office of the local newspaper filled with her letters to the editor. (I have no idea if this is true or not – I choose to believe that it is because it makes such a good story.) It didn’t matter how big or small the issue, Grandma Agnes would have an opinion on it, and she would tell you about it. This was not something you had a great deal of say in, you were going to hear what she thought whether you liked it or not.

I have the feeling that most of her letters to the editor were about local issues, not anything of global importance, but I had no idea she’d ever written to a member of parliament, so I was surprised when my dad brought it up, and very curious when he said it related directly to me. Turns out, Grandma Agnes was writing about gay rights, giving a good tongue-lashing to this MP, whoever he was, over some bill he was hoping to push through.

It was a pretty cool moment, but I’d already known that my grandmother was a fiery, passionate advocate for equality in every sense. I didn’t really think too much about it, because there didn’t seem to be much to think about – a neat bit of family history, that was it. I was about to spend a week at the AIDS conference, I was busy with my thesis, there were other things to focus on.

But at the conference, I ended up attending a workshop on avoiding burnout in social justice work, and at one point the audience split into pairs, with the instruction that we were to spend one minute telling our partner why exactly we were passionate about our work, why we got involved in the HIV/sexual health/sex education/social justice field in the first place. The first thing out of my mouth, as it usually is when I’m part of these sorts of conversations, was that it would never occur to me NOT to be involved in this stuff somehow. If not inclusive sex education and reproductive rights, I’d be advocating just as hard for some other cause, because that’s the way I grew up. My parents never laid it out so clearly, but somewhere along the line I got the message that just by virtue of having been born, I was a citizen of a world, that world had big problems, and I should do what I could to help solve those problems. (And furthermore, that I had a hell of a lot of privilege and not for one second should that make me think that I was better than other people.) My mother is a veteran protest marcher, and once phoned the prime minister’s office to inform him that she did not care for the way his government was running the country. My father isn’t so outspoken, but when it’s been possible, voting is a family outing, at his request. That’s just the way our family works.

The great thing about events like the International AIDS Conference is that they tend to bring together a large number of like-minded people, people who are passionate and driven and care enormously about how to make the world a better place for everyone. I’m lucky, too, to be surrounded by friends and colleagues who feel generally the same way. Unfortunately, over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that we seem to be in the minority. The conference made the news here, sure, but it was a local event, the biggest medical conference ever to be held in Australia. A lot of the reporting from the rest of the world was focused on the conference delegates lost on flight MH17, or Bill Clinton’s keynote address.

So, since the conference ended, I’ve been wondering: what is it that makes some people so passionate about making change for the better, and others less so? We all live in this world, so how can it be that not everyone is invested in what happens to it? And how can we change that?

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