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Global Positioning

A St. Mike's prof mixes AIDS action and academics


Published November 27, 2002 at 1:09 p.m.

You can find any number of students getting instruction in religion, sociology or economics on a weekday afternoon at St. Michael's College. But only one class on campus considers those subjects as contributing factors to the "Global Politics of the AIDS Pandemic." The young men and women grappling with Patricia Siplon's new 300-level course are getting a real-life lesson sobering enough to make their baseball hats spin.

"Twelve million," Siplon chalks at the front of the classroom. "That's how many AIDS orphans there are in sub-Saharan Africa right now." While her students try to wrap their minds around that staggering figure, Siplon returns to the blackboard and writes "40 million" below it. Calmly, the mild-mannered academic-activist announces, "That's how many there will be by 2010."

For an hour and a half, Siplon manages to get 27 privileged American college students to imagine life with no parents, money, education or health care. She lays out chilling scenarios -- young girls sold into servitude and prostitution, young boys turned petty criminals subjected to unchecked police brutality -- and tells tales from her recent six-month stay in Tanzania. Cliff Lubitz, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Gambia and now resident director at St. Mike's, adds anecdotes of his own from the back of the class.

The two have designed a unique course of study that would allow students to get their own direct experience in Africa and witness the AIDS situation for themselves. The idea marries at least two of the Catholic college's missions: global awareness and social activism. Siplon and Lubitz are lobbying the curriculum committee to approve a three-part program built around a semester in Kenya, where students would work in an orphanage run by Father D'Agostino, a St. Michael's alum. Twelve students -- almost a third of the class -- intend to make the first foray this summer.

Siplon is already preparing them for the culture shock, speaking frankly about the ways in which Africa contributes to its victimization. She acknowledges widespread government corruption, sanctioned oppression of women, vigilantism and traditional "laws" that cheat children out of their rightful inheritances. But there is empathy in her lessons. "We talk about the constraints of poverty," she says; "part of the reason we have this luxury of feeling revulsion is that we've never had to make any of these choices."

The United States takes a harder hit for largely ignoring the escalating body count beyond its borders. With quiet intensity, Siplon takes aim at profit-driven pharmaceutical companies, and then reloads to fire on the repayment policies of the International Monetary Fund. Her new book, AIDS and the Policy Struggle in the United States, chronicles the David-and-Goliath battles that have transformed the image of the disease in the U.S. Now, like the rest of the AIDS movement, she's going global.

"I don't think any of us realized the scope of the problem in sub-Saharan Africa, India or Romania, or that those situations are perpetuated by our lack of commitment to those countries," says Julie Cunningham, a 21-year-old senior who is planning to travel to Kenya this summer. "Trish will give us a scenario: You're the leader of this country and you have this much money. What would you spend it on? Sometimes it just seems impossible."

Indeed, Siplon is asking nothing less of her students than to remedy the largest public-health crisis in human history -- the more "active" a role they take, the better. Not a single one asks, "Is this going to be on the test?"

"Many academics feel that the term 'activist scholar' is an oxymoron," Siplon once wrote in a paper published in a political-science journal. But she has been charting that contrary course since grad school at Brandeis, where she switched her doctoral focus from environmental policy to AIDS politics -- a subject thought at the time to be too new, and politically charged, for a Ph.D. candidate.

"It was just one of those weird, serendipitous things that just moves you in a whole other path," she says of her first encounter with AIDS at the restaurant where she was working. One day she waited on an HIV-positive customer. "I was surprised by how much it shook me up. I didn't know what to do about it, so I started volunteering," Siplon says.

She wound up at the AIDS Action Committee in Boston, where she did "just about everything," from stuffing envelopes and planning events to writing policy and launching a needle-exchange program. She ran the switchboard for a while, and in the process met lots of People with AIDS -- or PWAs, as they're called in the acronym-filled activist world.

Those encounters humanized Siplon's thesis about the community politics surrounding the disease. She covered treatment and prevention, and devoted a chapter to "blood politics" chronicling the herculean efforts of the hemophiliac population in the United States. "This tiny little community of 10,000 really pushed the issues of justice and reparations and fought for a seat at the table so that these things don't happen again," Siplon says.

Unfortunately, they are happening again. Though Siplon won't say it outright, American AIDS activists have dropped the ball when it comes to the global pandemic. "In the past, everybody kept talking about how great it would be if we could just mobilize the same people who were willing to be mobilized six or seven years ago around the issue, in Africa and other places," Siplon says. "It frustrates me that it isn't happening to the extent that it could."

Students, too, are reluctant to cross the line from charity to protest, according to the 35-year-old self-described button-down activist. "Somehow it's a good thing to do something that is vaguely charitable, and it's a bad thing to do something that is vaguely activist," she reasons. "When you start talking about having a demonstration or doing anything that confronts the political system, the students run for the hills."

Siplon may be reversing that trend, too. Given the choice between launching "advocacy projects" or writing term papers, most of her students this semester are opting to shake things up. One group is taking on Coca-Cola, which has failed to follow through on a promise to treat all its HIV-positive employees in sub-Saharan Africa. The students organized a boycott of Coke products on campus, and sent a resolution to the Student Association of St. Michael's calling for the company to respond. The resolution passed unanimously.

Last week Siplon's students were writing reactions to a paper arguing that AIDS treatment is a human right. "A light went on" for a number of them, Siplon says. "They said, 'It never occurred to me that these things were about human rights, instead of just a tragedy.'" Such moments give Siplon hope that she is getting through to the students -- maybe even creating an agitator or two. She leads by example. She was among the protesters this Tuesday at a Washington, D.C., demonstration for World AIDS Day.

Julie Cunningham wasn't with her -- this time. Her parents "weren't really happy about it" when she first mentioned studying in Africa. But they've come around. "They see how enthusiastic I am about the class. Trish has just made me so impassioned about the AIDS problem," she says. "Numerous people in the class have said they wished everyone else in the United States would be required to take this course."