An AIDS Activist Reflects on Kenneth Cole’s Visit

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Carrie Rheingans

I’ve considered myself an AIDS activist for a couple years now, so I was very excited to meet Kenneth Cole when he came to campus last week. He’s been in the public, working to reduce AIDS stigma for nearly as long as I’ve been alive. It was very cool to get to meet him a the reception before his talk. There were about twenty students, not just from public health, that got to meet with him. He started by saying hi to the group then asking us to give him our elevator speech about what we’re interested in and hope to do when we’re done with school. We all also got a copy of his book Awearness: Inspiring Stories about How to Make a Difference.

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Students waiting to give their elevator speech to Kenneth Cole

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"To Carrie Good luck in your effort to change the world one step at a time. -Stay awear -Kenneth Cole"

My elevator speech included that I have been an AIDS activist for a while now and that I hope to do community-level work around health issues (including AIDS) when I’m done with my two master programs. I also mentioned that I’m going to China and Bangladesh this summer to do some HIV and AIDS work with various organizations. He discussed amfAR’s (The Foundation for AIDS Research) work with their TREAT Asia program, so naturally I asked if they fund students who do work abroad. The other students laughed at my gutsy-ness, but Mr. Cole said you don’t get anything if you don’t ask!

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Kenneth Cole and me!

You can see more pictures of the event on my facebook page here.

His talk was mostly a history of how he got where he is today. One thing that I kept thinking was that he had some things going for him that not everyone does, which enabled him to be outspoken in the early stages of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. He’s a white man who has a successful business, all of which give him some power to make a difference. Fortunately, he did decide to use this to the advantage of the cause, making advertising campaigns outside the norm to raise awareness. There’s still a high level of stigma around the world, including  in the United States. Mr. Cole acknowledged that he probably would not wear one of his own t-shirts made for an awareness campaign that said “I have AIDS” due to the potential burden placed on his children if he did so. Overall, it was good to hear from another veteran rabble-rouser to encourage me to keep going.

Here’s a video of Kenneth Cole talking about youth getting involved.

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