Meet 4 Social Innovators in HIV Advocacy

A New Era of HIV Advocacy

Eric Audras/Getty Images

HIV advocacy is alive and well, both here in the U.S. and abroad, with a new breed of activists finding novel ways to increase awareness about the often-dire challenges facing those impacted by the disease. Some have employed technological strategies to increase their social and political reach, while others have taken to traditional channels in entirely new and inspiring ways.

Meet four such innovators, both individuals and organizations, who have staked their claims as leaders in the next generation of HIV advocacy.

102.3 WHIV-FM, Bringing Advocacy to the Airwaves

New Orleans has one of the highest rates of HIV in the United States, second only to Miami in the number of new infections reported each year. Redressing these statistics required a novel strategy, one which was able to deliver the AIDS message in a voice that was not only recognizable to its listeners, but tapped into the very roots of the city’s rich musical culture.

Such was the genesis of 102.3 WHIV-FM, the country's first radio station dedicated to HIV and public health advocacy.  Launched on December 1, 2014 as a collaboration between the not-for-profit New Orleans Society for Infectious Disease Awareness (NOSIDA) and Odyssey House Louisiana, WHIV aimed to ensure that the disease remain a part of the public dialogue at a time when many remain fearful of stigma and disclosure.

To NOSIDA executive director Dr. Mark Alain Dery, including the term "HIV" in the station's call letters was key. "Because how else do you de-stigmatize a stigma?" he surmised. "You just say the word over and over and over again."

While HIV will remain at the forefront of the station's commercial-free agenda, the programming itself will touch upon the numerous vulnerabilities affecting at-risk populations, with slots dedicated to a LGBT audiences, Spanish-speaking youth, human rights advocates and others. There’s even programming on weekends scheduled for children.

WHIV has already managed to expand its reach by partnering with the highly respected New Orleans Musicians Clinic (NOMC) and becoming an affiliate of Pacifica Radio, a listener-supported network anchored by WBAI in New York, WPFW in Washington D.C., KPFT in Houston, KPFK in Los Angeles, and KPFA in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In a city where law can sometimes stand in the way of public health—where carrying a condom, for example, can be grounds for suspicion of being an illegal sex worker—the impact of station like WHIV could be more than just profound. It could be a game changer.


U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Diagnosed HIV Infection among Adults and HIV in Metropolitan Statistical Area—United States  and Puerto Rico, 2011." Surveillance Report | Supplemental Report. March 2014; 18(8):1-87.

Reiss, J. "WHIV-FM wants to be your community radio station." Gambit. Published online November 24, 2015.

Amon, J.; Wurth, M.; and McLemore, M. "Evaluating Human Right Advocacy on Criminal Justice and Sex Work." Health and Human Rights Journal. January 29, 2015; volume 17.

Josh Robbins Remind Us That 'I'm Still Josh'

Josh Robbins/

We try to keep our fingers on the pulse of social media and, in doing so, have to come to admire of number of dedicated HIV bloggists, including Mark S. King of My Fabulous Disease, Dr. Joel Gallant of Ask Dr. Joe, and the team at

But if we're to be perfectly honest, we have a soft spot for Josh Robbins and his blog I'm Still Josh, which we first featured on back in 2013. Since that time, Robbins has become one of the most recognized and admired HIV advocates in the U.S., so much so that he recently garnered an invitation to participate at communications roundtable organized by the White House's Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP).

Robbin's success is spurred largely by both his accessibility and media savvy.  A Nashville-based talent agent by profession, Robbins has used many of his own personal experiences—including a much-shared YouTube video in which he first receive confirmation of his diagnosis—as a mean to both contextual and humanize his social media advocacy.

And it works. His voice is one of dispassionate humanity, laced the insight, humor and an unflagging optimism. Moreover, Robbins manages to avoid many of pitfall of personality-driven blogs, providing a depth of content that is not only authoritative and accurate, but oftentimes newsworthy. Few other bloggists we know can actually say that.

In addition to I’m Still Josh, the 32-year-old Robbins hosts a weekly digital series, HIV Video Minute with Josh Robbins, and recently created the Ask HIV iPhone app (available on iTunes).

Sean Strub and Kerry Thomas, Phoning In to Fight HIV Criminal Laws

Sero Project

One of the most troubling barriers to AIDS outreach in the U.S. has been the criminalization of HIV in many states, the laws of which can ostensibly penalize an HIV-positive person for having sex even if transmission has not taken place. Many of these laws not only ignore the weight of current scientific evidence, they perpetuate fear and ignorance in a way that actively stigmatizes all people living with HIV.

Two individuals have taken up the fight to end these discriminatory practices—one from the executive director's chair of a highly respected, Pennsylvania-based human rights group and the other from behind bars at the Idaho State Correctional Center in Boise.

Sean Strub (pictured left) a well known activist and co-founder of POZ Magazine, and Kerry Thomas (pictured right) a former college basketball player currently serving a 30 year sentence for failing to disclose his HIV status to a sex partner, have together become a driving force behind the anti-HIV criminalization movement in America.

Strub established the not-for-profit Sero Project in 2012 to spur the development of a grassroots movement of anti-criminalization advocates. In the short time since its founding, Strub has aggressively grown the organization and its profile, using his professional experience (as former board member of the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS and former president of Cable Positive) to raise public awareness  through education, research and media interaction.

Thomas, who currently sits on the board of the Sero Project, made headlines in 2014 by participating in the first HIV Is Not A Crime conference in Grinnell, Iowa—presenting not from the podium but from a phone in his prison cell.

Thomas recounted how, in 2009, an Idaho grand jury charged him with seven felony counts of violating Idaho Code Section 39-608 by "transferring or attempting to transfer any of his bodily fluid" to a sex partner—despite the fact that he used condoms, had an undetectable viral load, and did not transmit the virus.

In a legislative battle for which there are few public faces, Thomas' appearance at the Iowa conference served as something of a rallying cry for anti-criminalization advocates. 

Working in tandem, Thomas' public eloquence and grace, paired with Strub's political savvy, may provide the push needed to gain support for the proposed REPEAL (Repeal Existing Policies that Encourage and Allow Legal HIV Discrimination) Act of 2015, currently sitting with a congressional subcommittee.


Kovach, G. "Prison for Man with H.I.V. Who Spit on a Police Officer." New York Times. Published May 16, 2008.

Newbold, T. "Full Disclosure: Idaho’s HIV Disclosure Laws Causing Their Own Issues." Boise Weekly. Published January 23, 2013. H.R.1586 - REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act of 2015114th Congress (2015-2016). Accessed November 13, 2015.

Populations Services International (PSI), Using Metrics as HIV Advocacy

Population Services International (PSI)

Advocacy takes many forms. At its very heart, it finds the means by which to reduce stigma both for those affected by HIV and those at high risk of infection. In order to achieve this, it often requires that we re-frame the disease in such a way as to pull community support and interest, rather than push a particularly message or cause.

The 45-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based Populations Services International (PSI) is considered a pioneer in the field of behavioral change in developing countries where both HIV stigma and infection rates run high.

Rather than taking a traditional approach to community mobilization, many of PSI's efforts are focused on using proven social marketing tools to seek out deeper, more truthful insights as to what attracts an individual to a particular treatment or preventive strategy.

To achieve this, PSI employs the same type of research used by multinational companies to determine where their customers are, what motivates them, and what is needed to generate meaningful interest in their product or service.

Think of it as going Google: using interpersonal communications to tailor your message in a way that achieves results.

One such example is PSI's efforts in Zimbabwe to increase uptake in voluntary male medical circumsion (VMMC). The strategy, aimed at populations with hyper-prevalent rates of HIV, is known to decrease male infection rates by up to 60%—translating to one averted infection per every five procedures. In countries like Zimbabwe, which has the fifth highest rate of HIV in the world (16.4%, or roughly 1 in 7 adults), that represents a potentially profound reduction in the annual incidence rate.

By continually tracking community participants at every stage of the decision-making process, PSI was able to change the public dialogue about VMMC. Rather than framing it as a means to protect oneself from HIV—which, to some, was considered a declaration risk or distrust—PSI simply re-framed VMMC as a lifestyle choice.

By enlisting high-profile male celebrities to get circumcised in a I Did It campaign, PSI was able to increase VMMC uptake, even in hard-to-reach rural communities, with the aim of hitting a target of 1.4 million male circumcisions by 2017. If reached, that could represent as many 280,000 averted infections.


World Health Organization (WHO) and Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). "Male Circumcision and HIV Prevention: Research Implications for Policy and Programming." Montreux, Switzerland. March 6-8, 2007.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). "The World Factbook – Country Comparison:: HIV/AIDS Adult Prevalence Rate." 2014; Washington, D.C.; accessed November 15, 2015.

The Standard. "Celebrity circumcision campaign paying off." Published May 17, 2014.

UNAIDS. "Global AIDS Response Country Progress Report: Zimbabwe 2014." Accessed November 15, 2015

Continue Reading