When I was young, I dreamt of being many things when I “grew up”. First, I was certain I would be a paleontologist, delicately brushing sand and rock from the bones of beasts long dead; or a botanist, cataloging hidden treasures in the rainforest; perhaps an author, putting my daydreams of fantastical far off lands to the page. Like many of us, my childhood dreams held a sense of grandeur that reality does not always live up to, but inspire nonetheless. I carried this sense of wonder with me throughout my life, always dreaming of a world ripe with possibilities. As I grew older, I began to recognize the inequities in this world, the injustices that prohibited the utopia I imagined for so many people. I began to see traits within myself that were oppressed by a society that I once thought would welcome me with open arms.
I experienced racism and homophobia at young age, in some ways, my childhood fantasies were soured. The barriers that marred my path became a reality, and I saw how some, could easily leap over these structures, while others like myself, struggled. It was during this time, that my dreams began to shift. In realizing my oppression, I also found my power, my voice. I imagined a world were equity was the status quo, and justice was served. A world in which the rainforest stood intact, and the oppressed and disadvantaged could claim a higher education. A world where everyone can afford the privilege of having the same dreams that I did as a child, without fear of violence and insurmountable structural barriers. While I did not grow up to be the field scientist of my dreams, I realized my life’s purpose.
As a Newman’s Own Foundation Fellow, I am living that purpose by giving back to my community and advocating for the oppressed. My host organization, Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) had been on my radar for some time. In college I had organized several campus efforts around student access to LGBTQ+ programming, support and housing. Arguably, my activism in college is why I am here today. Working in development, I have been able to marry important functions for social change in today’s America: direct service, grassroots organizing, and fundraising. I have gained valuable experience writing grants for corporations and foundations and learning the ins and outs of donor engagement and cultivation. I will be able to carry and grow the skills I have learned at this agency throughout my career. While, this is important to my personal development, what I value the most is being at an agency that has had such an important impact on my community’s history. GMHC was founded at the onset of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980’s. The first of HIV/AIDS service agency of its kind, GMHC started a movement to care and advocate for those dying from the virus. It is an honor to know that I play some small part in such a great legacy.
My first day GMHC also happened to be the agency’s first day in its new building! It was uncanny, while I was going through all those first day jitters, so was everyone else around me. During the move, relics from the past were unearthed. In a seemingly forgotten storage closet, buried deep in a filling cabinet, GMHC staff found 7 composite books. I recognized them immediately as the notebooks I would buy from my local pharmacy as a kid for a dollar, the kind made from recycled materials. The notebooks were labeled “Obituaries Vol. I – VII”. At first, I did not know what I was looking at. They were yellowed, the binding worn and loosened, and each marked with a year accompanied by volume number. As I opened the Volume I, denoted with the years 1982-1983, I felt a sense of dread as I realized what I was seeing. Written in mismatched pencil and pen were the names of those who had passed from the AIDS virus, or as it was referred to then, Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). GMHC had documented the agency’s first clients’ last moments in these composite books. They felt unbelievably heavy, as if each page was weighted with the names they held. I carefully flipped through each volume, not looking at any name in particular, but taking it all in, imagining the unbelievable grief these people and those around them must have felt. During those early years of the epidemic, my community lost a generation. As I grew into my queer identity, I immediately recognized how few elders there were in my community, and what a tragedy that was. I yearned for someone to teach me how to be myself, how to exist in a world that did not want me to be myself and how to reconcile that with myself and not plummet into self-hate and despair. Finding these composite books fueled a flame within me, it reminded me of where I come from, and put into perspective where I am heading. It reaffirmed that I wanted to spend my life helping others and combating oppression wherever and whenever possible.
Newman’s Own Foundation has provided me with such an amazing opportunity to grow and live my life’s goals. When I think about Paul Newman, I see a man who always saw the good in the world and knew there was always work to be done to ensure that goodness prevailed over the bad. This whole experience has been so inspirational, that even on a bad day, I am willing to go that extra mile to help others. After all, it’s what Paul would have done.
By Neiko Alvarado, NOF Fellow at GMHC, New York, NY