It was at the Canadian Aids Society's Pozitive Youth forum in 2015 when Piotr Burek, one of the organizers of Youth Unleashing Power: A Pozitive Youth Symposium (YUP), met a positive person from his generation for the very first time. For seven years since he tested positive, he had not had the opportunity to meet a positive peer his age. The empowering feelings of connecting with peers at the forum, something he yearned to experience for years, was one of the reasons we, as organizers of Youth Unleashing Power: A Pozitive Youth Symposium (YUP), decided to navigate the complex process of having a national convergence of positive youth.
With some funding from our Health Authority, Island Health, and support from the Vancouver Island Persons with HIV/AIDS Society, four of us (thre peers and a non-peer accomplice) embarked on an organizing journey to bring together pozitive youth from across the country. This organizing journey brought about multiple insights and hard-to-learn lessons in national organizing, but resulted in the first ever national HIV and/or HEPC positive youth conference organized by and for positive youth ages 19 - 30.
We knew as organizers that we couldn't guide the process of building this convergence without incorporating the diverse experiences and skills held by peers across the country. Katie Lacroix, another organizer of YUP, brought her experience of national organizing to our attention and guided the processes of ensuring meaningful peer involvement. Having organized Collective Voices Effecting Change, the first ever national convergence of peer-run organizations of people who use drugs, Katie guided the organizers of YUP in bringing together ten positive youth from various regions and perspectives to participate in a steering committee that would provide guidance for the conference. With the technological, emotional, and administrative support of Sarah Kathleen, our non-peer accomplice, organizer, and funding generator, we initiated a monthly teleconference to shape the space we wanted to hold.
The first teleconference was a powerful experience. The ten youth who participated in it, all positive peers from across the country with varying experiences of involvement in the positive youth community, brought their stories and knowledge to build a solid platform for the execution of the conference. Many had known each-other from Camp Mumba, and it was a humbling experience to hear their excitement at reuniting at YUP. The teleconference allowed us the opportunity to be guided in our organizing process by incredible and powerful youth from across the country and ensured that peers were centered throughout the whole process.
It was also at the first teleconference that we approved the name Youth Unleashing Power. We wanted to highlight the amazing activism youth are bringing to the movement while also honoring the amazing work done by the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. We were, and are, always inspired by the radical work done by the countless of activists who have allowed us the opportunities to exist today.
"For some, it was the very first time they shared their experiences of being young and positive. No words can describe the pain and love that was expressed at the sharing circle."
The weekend began with an opening ceremony which was coordinated by our fourth and final organizer, Martin Glen. He brought together a wonderful group that welcomed us to these beautiful territories with their songs and prayers. As organizers and participants, we felt honored to be so humbly received on these lands.
With the input of the steering committee, we aimed at creating space for participants to connect and have fun, rather than a conference filled with presentations and workshops. Because of this, we focused on providing space for art, creativity and lots of self-care. Two massage therapists provided massages for the participants throughout the conference, a registered counselor was there 24/7 to hold space to be supported, and a community acupuncture session allowed for the participants to take a nap while being poked full of metal acupuncture needles.
The educational component, through a call for abstracts, included four presentations that were given by the youth who attended the conference. We had a presentation on Youth and disclosure, a presentation on HIV and spirituality, a roundtable workshop on the experience of being Trans and poz, as well as a one on the intricacies of online cruising within the MSM community. The balance between education and support was a unique element of YUP and we hope to provide a similar space for interpersonal connections next year.
The most impactful part of YUP was the ability to hold space for story-telling. On the second night of the conference, five powerful women came and presented the Viral Monologues, an evening that left most of us drenched in tears and unable to form cohesive sentences without being trembling balls of emotions. The impact of the Viral Monologues was felt strongly that night as bearing witness to the struggles of others allowed us to connect with our own. The stories provided by the five women allowed participants to witness the unique resilience of living with HIV which in turn encouraged participants to share their own experiences of being young and positive. The final debrief, a sharing circle, provided a forum for participants to share their stories and experiences of the weekend.
For some, it was the very first time they shared their experiences of being young and positive. No words can describe the pain and love that was expressed at the sharing circle. One by one, participants opened their hearts to the room and expressed the love they felt for each other. The closing circle provided participants with the space to connect and support each-other, something we hoped would be the overall theme of the symposium. It is also at the closing circle where we all decided to move forward with the organizing of YUP 2017, a symposium we hope will be an established event in the National Pozitive Youth community. We’d like to leave you with a reflection from participant and presenter, Muluba Habanyama:
“I was brought to YUP out of pure interest and intrigue in the first youth led and organized event. I felt a gap recently in my connections with positive youth and I guess longed it. I'm kind of in a limbo with my life and really needed this weekend. Highlights for me were just the openness and the immediate love between the group. To share our stories and our hopes and dreams, and struggles, and fears and what HIV has done to them. It was beautiful and brings tears to my eyes. I was honoured to present on Youth Disclosure and was stricken by how much we all had to say about disclosure and criminalization. Lastly, I am so excited for YUP 2017 and will be counting down the days. I look forward to more of this. More conversation, more youth leading, and having a spiritual relaxing weekend. And of course massages! Massages are a must, please.”
The organizers of YUP would like to graciously acknowledge the Vancouver Island Persons with HIV/AIDS Society, The University of Victoria Student Society, The Anti.Violence.Project, The Hearts and Hands Collective, UVIC Pride, the Indigenous folks who welcomed us to the territories, the masseuses and all the others who helped make the first ever Youth Unleashing Power: A Pozitive Youth Symposium the success that it was. Please help us in making YUP2017 possible by visiting www.youthunleashingpower.ca
Signed, The organizing committee of Youth Unleashing Power