The State of the Union – From the Inside

By Melissa Donze, Zamora Fellow, AIDS United

The first time I went to the White House, I was 11 years old. I was on a family vacation in D.C., and the only thing I can remember is standing outside the North Portico after our tour and my dad taking pictures of my brother and me, which he has since framed and kept in his living room. The second time I went to the White House was just this past week, when I was invited to watch the State of the Union. Not everyone can say they’ve been to the White House, let alone twice. But being invited to the White House to watch the State of the Union? Now that’s something to write about.

Last week, I stumbled upon a tweet inviting individuals who actively engage with the White House through social media to apply for a spot at the 2013 State of the Union White House Social, an opportunity to watch an interactive, live-stream of the State of the Union and discuss the address afterwards with White House officials. I often use social media, namely Facebook and Twitter, to share news related to HIV and other issues that are important to me. While I didn’t think I would actually be selected, I applied thinking it was a great opportunity to engage with others who advocate through social media. To my great surprise, I received an email from the White House congratulating me on being selected to attend the State of the Union White House Social!

February 12, the night of the State of the Union address, finally rolled around, and I could barely contain my excitement! I arrived at the White House in time to see President Obama’s motorcade leave for the Capitol, and the 100 of us who were selected to attend made our way into the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Everyone in the room, including myself, was armed with computers, iPads and iPhones, ready to share the President’s address with friends and followers on our various social media venues. The live stream we were viewing was an interactive version of the State of the Union, one that included graphs, charts, pictures and other visuals that enhanced whatever it was that President Obama was speaking about at the time. These visuals helped underscore not only the legitimacy of his address, but also provided us with a well-rounded and comprehensive view of his proposals.

I was pleased that President Obama continued to push a progressive agenda in his State of the Union that supported much of the rhetoric of his inaugural address. His approach to the impending sequester and deficit reduction is a balanced one that must include both spending cuts as well as further revenue increases, which will hopefully ensure that non-defense discretionary programs do not carry the majority of the burden of deficit reduction. The most exciting moment of his address for me was his mention of “realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation, which is within our reach.” I was pleased to know that this is a priority for his Administration, and I believe that if we commit the resources required by the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and the recent PEPFAR Blueprint, we can achieve an AIDS-free generation, both domestically and internationally.

Following the address was a Q&A session with White House officials. The panel took questions from those at the event as well as questions submitted online through Twitter, Google+ and Facebook, and it made for a really comprehensive and substantive end to the evening. The event was an incredible opportunity that allowed me to share valuable information with friends and followers on social media, and it really helped me realize the power that social media can and will play in the future of the HIV epidemic, especially when it comes to youth engagement.

While I can’t remember much from my first visit to the White House, I’m sure I’ll remember every moment of this incredible visit…and hopefully it won’t be my last!