Peter Staley, HIV/AIDS-LGBT rights activist, visited the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on November 22, 2016 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes/Harvard Chan School.)

Values and Actions: Lessons in Activism and Organizing from Peter Staley

By Junaid Nabi

Hope can be a powerful instrument to change the course of situations that appear intractable. Sitting at his desk in the fall of 1985, Peter Staley, then a Wall Street bonds trader at J. P. Morgan, could never have fathomed that he would one day become the face of a powerful activist group that would “break into the consciousness” of the society, and make AIDS medications more accessible and affordable. Before this, people suffering from AIDS were dying by the thousands, with 3665 AIDS-related deaths in the USA in 1984 alone, largely due to societal neglect and rampant homophobia. The United States is going through a different, albeit related, wave of opposing political viewpoints and the nation has become ever more divided. How can we, as a nation, come together and address these challenges in healthcare delivery and community building? On November 22, 2016, the Harvard T. H. Chan School’s Voices in Leadership series invited Peter Staley, a Fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School, to help us navigate these taxing political and leadership questions.

Watch Peter Staley’s full talk with the Voices in Leadership series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on November 22, 2016.

Staley has been involved in and has had a profound impact on HIV/AIDS activism since his own diagnosis with AIDS-related complex in 1985. In 1989, Staley joined ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), an international advocacy group responsible for forcing Burroughs Wellcome to lower the prices of an anti-HIV drug AZT (Zidovudine) by infiltrating their North Carolina headquarters, leading to a demonstration on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange that shut down stock trading for the first time in U.S. history. Mr. Staley credits this achievement to approaching problems with logic, being purposeful and strategic about the issues that one advocates for, and by being able to compartmentalize different priorities in life. He described his life at that moment as, “a crazy double life, a closeted bond trader by day and AIDS activist by night,” and reminded us, “you don’t always make the right choices, but it helps to put yourself on the learning curve.” Staley highlighted the difficulty for people with AIDS in the U.S. at the time, saying,

“Our government has always responded to new epidemics, and this was the first time in American history where we decided not to; and it was clearly driven by homophobia.”
Peter Staley, right, HIV/AIDS-LGBT rights activist, sat down with Dr. Shahin Lockman, left, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on November 22, 2016 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes/Harvard Chan School.)

Staley did not wait for others to act; he quit his Wall Street job and became a full-time AIDS activist. He armed himself with knowledge, pouring hundreds of hours into research to understand what he was up against. The resolve and dedication of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) activists was the theme of David France’s Oscar-nominated documentary, How to Survive a Plague. The film featured Staley prominently, although he insisted that ACT UP was essentially a ‘leaderless’ movement. Staley spoke about how the movement is always bigger than the individual and it should never be reliant on any one person. He said, “ACT UP led all of us and it was one of the purest examples of people power in American history.” Staley also stressed the importance of narrative,

“The movie concentrated on the beautiful story of how we became our own experts and the birth of patient advocacy, where we demanded a seat at the table.”
Peter Staley, right, HIV/AIDS-LGBT rights activist, answered questions from Harvard Chan student Sanam Roder-DeWan, left, on November 22, 2016 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes/Harvard Chan School.)

Staley emphasized that the importance of organized action in bringing change. In order to make governments act, one must start with the public: engaging them, educating them, uniting and rallying them for a common cause, so that the people insist upon policies and legislations that benefit the society. Looking forward, he expressed concern on the current situation that immigrants and people-of-color find themselves in, and advocated for “logic-driven, not anger-driven activism.” He also stressed,

“Politics is all about the grays, and if you black and white the situation and push it all away, you are shooting yourself in the foot.”

He emphasized that one of the most important strategies in activism should be to look for allies on the opposite side. Staley concluded the talk with a sobering thought, “activism is about plowing through pessimism, to create a tipping-point,” and that the current generation of activists must, “stay clear-headed, love and support each other, as nobody can be on the sidelines anymore.”


For more from the Voices in Leadership (@VoicesHSPH) series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (@HarvardHSPH), visitwww.hsph.harvard.edu/voices.

Story by Junaid Nabi, a physician who is interested in global health systems and surgical care accessibility and is pursuing a Master of Public Health in Global Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Story edited by Sohini Mukherjee, a first year student in the Master of Science program in Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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