The Pirate of Dane County
Poster contest combines art with awareness
to deliver a message of hope
by Jeff Berry
Bob Bowers talks about HIV prevention and education the way that most people talk about their family or their pets, or even their favorite hobby—with a great deal of passion, mixed with just the right amount of sentiment.
“I deplore the egos and infighting between organizations—it’s getting in the way of the war that we’re all fighting.” That’s one of the reasons he came up with the HIV awareness campaign, “What if it were you?” The campaign, sponsored by HIVictorious, a grassroots HIV/AIDS prevention and education organization in Madison, Wisconsin which he founded in 2005, includes a contest which challenges area high school students to answer the question, “What if it were you?” The students then incorporate the slogan and their response into posters they design themselves, in an effort to raise public—and student—awareness about HIV/AIDS. Bowers explains that it wasn’t about bringing resources to his organization, but rather about showing unity, collaboration, and fighting against HIV/AIDS.
Bowers tested positive in 1985, and today looks the picture of perfect health. But he’s been at death’s door more than once, and estimates he has been living with HIV for more than 25 years. At age 45, he’s known by friends, on his website, and his MySpace page simply as “One Tough Pirate.”
He got the name and idea from his friend Clark, now a retired Los Angeles policeman. At the time Bowers was living in Los Angeles, and he took medicinal marijuana to ease the nausea and vomiting caused by his HIV medications. He was worried that he would get pulled over and subsequently arrested because he rode a Harley with straight pipes, and portrayed a tough guy image—shaved head, tattoos and all (in truth, Bowers claims, he’s been in only two fights in his entire life).
When a friend introduced him to Clark, Bowers spilled his whole story, but his first impression was, here was a guy who was his polar opposite—cop, straight-laced, clean cut. Clark told Bowers that when he first saw him on his Harley, he thought he looked like a “friggin’ pirate who ate small children.” But Clark taught Bowers a valuable lesson about people’s perceptions. The reality, said Clark, is to just be as honest and nice as you are, and the cops aren’t going to mess with you. If a cop brings in a card-carrying medicinal marijuana club member with AIDS, they’ll get in more trouble than you ever would, said Clark.
“That’s where the quote of ‘compassion is our cure’ came from,” explains Bowers. “I really thought that the campaign was a compassionate way to make people understand perception versus reality. It provided a very safe way to put it into our community.
“So many of the messages are ‘just say no,’ or ‘put on a condom,’ or ‘sex kills.’ Instead, I prefer to let the kids send that message.” And out of that came the “What if it were you?” campaign.
“I had never done a social marketing campaign before,” laughs Bowers. “I didn’t even know what that was. But I just felt that by asking, ‘What if?’—that no one could really argue with that. I’m not asking you to agree or disagree with AIDS, or who it’s affecting, or why it’s affecting certain demographics, but—what if? What if you were in my shoes? How would you want people to react? I think it’s extremely profound and powerful.”
Today he regularly goes on speaking engagements and delivers that same message, that “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” to anyone who will listen—businesses, schools, and even law enforcement groups. Bowers, who’s straight, believes it’s essential that kids, especially, understand that HIV does not discriminate, and can happen to anyone. And just as importantly, people shouldn’t be afraid to discuss it, and be able to do so in a manner that doesn’t incorporate fear or judgment. He does this by talking with them frankly about his own experience living with HIV, and finds he has an ability to connect with the kids on their own level.
Bowers is quick to point out that he’s not artistic, in the sense of being able to create his own original artwork, and so he really had no clue where the contest would lead. “I just totally trusted and put my faith in these kids, and we’ve been blown away by some of the very powerful and heartfelt messages that they’ve created.”
In addition to the poster contest, students fill out a brief pre- and post-questionnaire which poses the question, “If you found out a classmate had HIV, how would you react?” as well as other questions about transmission and prevention.
Bowers is adamant about the need to address the social issues and the stigma surrounding HIV, in addition to emphasizing prevention and education. He says that racism and homophobia continue to play a large part in the rising infection rates in the community.
“The demographics of this epidemic show that half of those infected are African American, and half are men who have sex with men (MSM). I can’t help but think that if it were affecting white, upper-class folks that we’d be faced with a different outlook right now. We may not have the scientific cure, but money would be pouring in, left and right.”
This fall will mark the third year of the contest. Unfortunately the program did not receive renewed funding from the Wisconsin AIDS Fund, which had funded them the previous year. Upon learning this, Joe Pabst, a member of the well-known Pabst family who has done a great amount of philanthropic work in the city and state, was able to secure funding through the Johnson and Pabst LGBT Humanity Fund of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.
This helped offset some of the initial costs and started the ball rolling again for the next round of the contest, but in the absence of any other funding Bowers has had to seek additional donations from individuals and organizations in order to cover the remaining costs. While Bowers says he doesn’t mind, it makes it difficult to reach a broader audience, and requires much more time to promote on his own.
Bowers’ organization doesn’t accept any federal or state funding because of the strings attached—the limitations on what one actually can say or do when it comes to HIV prevention and education. HIVictorious has no administrative overhead, so all of the funding goes directly to cover the costs of things such as printing, ad placement (billboards and bus ads), and Product Red iPods, which are used as giveaways to some of the finalists. “It’s all peer-driven and grassroots—and I pride myself in keeping it that way,” says Bowers.
Bowers reached out and enlisted the help of key local politicians, including Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz (better known as Mayor Dave) and U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin, who were both eager to help. Mayor Dave and Congresswoman Baldwin were instrumental in helping to get the contest off the ground. They also helped raise awareness throughout the campaign with not only their constituents but the media as well, and met with winners and their families afterwards.
The same school produced both the first and second place winners of the most recent contest, of which there were about 100 entries altogether from four area schools in Dane County. James Madison Memorial High School senior Collin Burke was awarded first prize, and Kevin Julka was runner-up (view this year’s winning posters at www.positivelyaware.com).
The morning that the winners were announced, Bowers opened the paper to read an article that a reporter had penned about the contest. It was only then that he learned that Collin’s uncle, who had been an outspoken HIV/AIDS advocate in Madison, had in fact died of AIDS before Collin was born. Bowers just sat there, in tears. He says he is continually humbled by the project and the support that has come from the entire community, including even the local police department.
|“It’s all peer-driven and grassroots—
and I pride myself
in keeping it that way.”
“It’s a testament to keeping it out there, and giving people the ability to share openly about their experiences,” says Bowers. “That’s why Collin’s family has been so involved and thrilled by this whole thing.”
For more information visit www.hivictorious.org, where you can donate online; or send a check or money order to HIVictorious, Inc., P.O. Box 3032, Madison, WI 53704. To view entries from past winners visit www.whatifitwereyou.org; also visit www.onetoughpirate.com.
Discuss this article in our new discussion forum