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RISE: A social commentary event during Calgary Pride

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One is known as the “Cemetery Angel,” a former caregiver of AIDS crisis victims and an AIDS awareness advocate, while the other is a renowned American AIDS and LGBTQ rights activist.

Both legendary voices will be providing a social commentary, dubbed RISE, at a special event Aug. 28, during Calgary’s Pride week. The event will go ahead at the Plaza Theatre, brought to life by the HIV Community Link and Twisted Element.

At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s, Arkansas-based advocate Ruth Coker Burks used her salary as a real estate agent to care for AIDS patients whose families abandoned them. Her tireless work earned her the moniker “Cemetery Angel.”

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Because of the prejudices, fears, and stigma surrounding the disease at the time, Coker was often the patients’ only caregiver until their passing. She’s recognized for burying them in her own family cemetery in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Cleve Jones is an American AIDS and LGBTQ rights activist who conceived the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which has now become the world’s largest piece of community folk art at 54 tonnes. He also co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

“This event is about recognizing and honouring the work of Cleve Jones and Ruth Coker Burks. It’s just really incredible what they’ve done for the community,” said Andrea Carter, HIV Community Link director of programs.

“They’re tireless advocates for human rights and the HIV community … and this is an opportunity to learn from their wisdom and their insight.”

U.S. played critical role in HIV activism

Carter said the timing of the event is to recognize and honour the critical role that the U.S. LGBTQ community has played and continues to play in the HIV movement.

“We’ve come so far from the early days of the AIDS crisis. The reality is we wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we are today without the community’s commitment to HIV activism and human rights.”

And while society has come a long way in understanding HIV and AIDS, there is still a lot of work to be done, Carter added.

“It’s important that we continue to raise awareness that HIV is still very much a party of our community. Across the country, thousands of people are still becoming HIV-positive every year,” she explained.

“There’s still a chronic and unparalleled stigma associated with HIV, so human rights are continuously the foundation of how we address HIV-prevention, support and care.”

The Pride week event itself features a chance for Calgarians to ask questions and afterwards, Jones will be doing a book signing.

Twisted Element is hosting a free after-party where people can have some drinks, celebrate and converse while meeting new people.

For more information, please visit calgarypride.ca/event/rise-cleve-jones-ruth-coker-burks.