The young founders of the Stigma Project, one of the nation's newest HIV awareness and education organizations, owe Paris Hilton a big thank-you.
In the fall, when the media got wind of nasty and uninformed comments made by the celebrity socialite, Scott McPherson and Chris Richey of the Stigma Project (TheStigmaProject.org) quickly turned the firestorm into a teachable moment. The Los Angeles-based pair created an Internet meme that quickly went viral; receiving more than 5,000 Facebook comments and shared nearly 2,000 times on the social media site. While McPherson, this magazine's creative director, and Richey, a fund-raising account executive, formed the Stigma Project in February to break down HIV prejudices through art and education, the Paris Hilton meme raised their profile and garnered plenty of positive attention.
Supporters say the messages of the Stigma Project are especially appealing because they're witty and humorous, never heavy-handed or preachy. While McPherson and Richey plan to place their ads on bus benches and billboards, they focus most of their energy on getting their memes on Facebook and Twitter, forums where young people pay attention and spread information to friends.
"Statistics show that around 84% of the world's 18-to-34-year-olds can be reached through social media," McPherson says. "It just so happen this is the age range with the highest rate of new HIV infections. Why isn't more being done to reach out to these people to not only educate them on HIV, but to reduce the harmful stigma associated with it? Between the popularity of Internet memes and social media activism, Chris and I saw an opportunity here to do something new that can actually make a difference."
Part of the Stigma Project's goal is to create an "HIV-neutral" world, which it describes in its mission statement as a "state of mind, regardless of your status, in which you are informed and aware of the constantly evolving state of HIV/AIDS.... It is putting emphasis on the humanity of all people and not casting judgment because of their status, positive or negative."
With the Stigma Project, McPherson and Richey want to not only lower new infection rates but make life better for those living with HIV, especially in a world where many people still think like Paris Hilton--that only gay people get HIV, that those with the disease are promiscuous, that HIV is a death sentence. As Richey puts it, "To get people 'HIV-neutral,' we must begin shifting toward a new way of thinking about HIV/AIDS. Moving away from thoughts full of death and sadness and toward thoughts of life and hope for the future."
Visit HIVPlusMag.com to see a slideshow of some of The Stigma Project's most popular images