Advocacy across continentsJohn Iversen grew up in Two Harbors in a family that wore its politics on its sleeve. His mother, Alice, now in her 90s, was on the board of Minnesota’s first community health care center, founded in Two Harbors, as well as the board of the Two Harbors Federal Credit Union. Both organizations emerged from the communities determination to work together and take care of one another. Paul’s brother was on the Two Harbors City Council for years, was vice president of the Duluth labor council and has been active in social and political issues, as well. That John Iversen became an activist should come as no surprise.
By: Tammy Francois, Lake County News Chronicle
John Iversen grew up in Two Harbors in a family that wore its politics on its sleeve. His mother, Alice, now in her 90s, was on the board of Minnesota’s first community health care center, founded in Two Harbors, as well as the board of the Two Harbors Federal Credit Union. Both organizations emerged from the communities determination to work together and take care of one another. Paul’s brother was on the Two Harbors City Council for years, was vice president of the Duluth labor council and has been active in social and political issues, as well. That John Iversen became an activist should come as no surprise.
The 1967 graduate of Two Harbors High School attended the University of Chicago, graduating with a degree in sociology, but when it came time to consider grad school, he said he realized his talents were better utilized outside the walls of the classroom. Accepted to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism , Iversen said he dropped out after just a few weeks.
“I felt there were going to be enough progressive journalists. There needed to be more progressive organizers,” he said. Iverson said he credits many experiences for informing his political beliefs, perhaps none more than attending Bethlehem Church where he learned of Martin Luther’s then radical approach to what he saw as the failings of the Church — nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. That act resonated with Iversen.
“Give me demands, a door and a staple gun and I’m there!” he quipped. Iversen currently lives in Berkeley, Calif., but his name and his work extend far beyond. He was the founder of Act Up-East Bay, part of a nationwide network that demanded access to medications and an end to discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS. Diagnosed with HIV in the late 80s and later with AIDS, Iversen said he expects to live into his eighth decade owing to medicines that now exist—in part due to pressure applied to government and pharmaceutical companies by activists and allies.
Iversen said his work has taken him all over the world on behalf of the cause, which has included promoting access to therapeutic drugs for people battling the disease in developing countries. During his recent visit to Two Harbors, Iversen spoke to the Lake County News-Chronicle about his efforts to support related work in Uganda. He said he attended a global meeting of people with AIDS in Kampala and after a pre-conference gathering of activists, found himself surrounded by people who hoped he, as an American, could help secure badly needed resources for treatment. He also met Vincent Wandera who asked Iversen to see an orphanage and school for children whose parents had died of AIDS.
“At first I thought it was going to be so depressing I didn’t think I could stand it, but I was astounded by the love, compassion and honesty of Vincent toward the kids and everyone,” recalled Iversen. The Good Spirit Support Action Centre was founded in 1995 by 12 adults who had HIV and recognized the plight of the growing number of parentless children, said Iversen. Originally home to 37 children, the facility’s population has grown dramatically.
“Now people realize the kids will be taken care of, so they just leave the babies at the door,” Iverson said, adding that the staff has risen to the challenge of the increasing numbers. Where in its early days the orphanage managed just one meal of cornmeal mush per child per day, Iversen said that Wandera reports that the children now receive food and schooling, and that staff are raising crops, including vanilla beans which are sold in markets. During his first visit in 2003, Iversen said that the children were sleeping on the floor in the school building and there were difficulties maintaining the supply of electricity due to an aging generator, but past donations have resolved both issues and he’s eager to see more progress. To that end, he has brought his fund raising efforts to Lake County, believing that folks here will help.
“People are so kind here,” he said, “just the sense of community you have – you don’t have that in a large city.” Iverson’s contacts have included old friends from the area, too, such as fellow THHS class of 1967 graduate, Gary Nelson, now living in the Twin Cities. Nelson has made donations for the past five years.
“I’ve known John since we were about two, I believe, since 1951 when we lived on the same block,” Nelson said, “we were buddies and hung out in high school. John has always worked for other people—on social justice issues, poverty, AIDS. As soon as he told me about (the orphanage) I said I’d certainly be interested in this. I feel like it’s a real good thing to support.”
Iversen said he is determined to raise $5,000 and take advantage of matching funds promised by a group of his friends and acquaintances. He has asked local businesses to donate prizes for a raffle with 100 percent of proceeds going to the orphanage. Three tickets can be purchased for a $10 donation, eight tickets for $25. Prizes include a handmade quilt donated by Louise’s, John’s CDs featuring his tango music and old standards like “Blue Moon.”
In bringing the needs of the children to his hometown, Iversen said he also told community members about his personal connection to the devastation caused by AIDS. As a long-time survivor he’s seen many who didn’t make it and knows that a stigma still exists. With that in mind, he said he had a frank conversation with his mother about his plan to tell people about his condition.
“Many people know anyway ,and this is a way I can use my status to concretely help 4-500 people, he said, “there are people who have come up to me and said they’ve lost people (to AIDS). I figure half the town knows someone, but they’re afraid to say.” According to Iversen, his mother is onboard with his decision.
“She said ‘well, I guess if it will help raise money for the orphanage, then okay.’”
For more information about the orphanage or his fund-raising efforts, contact John Iversen at 510-841-4339.
Send donations to:
Friends of Ugandan Orphans
Care of John Iversen
2110 Haste Street Box 419
Berkeley, Calif. Please write Good Spirit on memo line. Donations are tax deductible and donors will receive a letter for tax purposes.