Posted by: Academy of Achievement | 01/27/2010

Kate Otto

Kate Otto, Class of 2009
Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Scholar
New York University

Kate Otto graduated from New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service as a Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Scholar. Kate is currently living and working in Indonesia.

I imagine Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds may not be excited to hear that since I arrived in Indonesia, I’m in prison at least once a month, in and out of the hospital every other week, and in my free time, rubbing elbows with stoned, Skinhead-styled teenagers at punk-metal concerts.

Yet this is my life as a Program Consultant at Rumah Cemara, a grassroots community-based organization dedicated to empowering drug users and people living with HIV in West Java Province to lead health lives within a positive community environment.  Here in Bandung, the provincial capital, over 80% of injecting drug users are living with HIV and 60% of people living with HIV are also drug users.  Although my prior work in the world of HIV/AIDS has spanned many countries and cultures in Africa, I had yet to encounter the AIDS pandemic manifested in this way – nor have I ever had to become fluent in another language in order to contribute!

Many of my days are spent in our humble headquarters facility, advising Administration on funding strategy development, human resources management, and other organizational sustainability factors.  However it is a crucial part of my work as well to regularly join our outreach staff and case managers in ‘the field’, where our services are offered and community is built.  This means enabling HIV+ prisoners to host support group meetings as well as monthly football matches to boost their morale and CD4 counts, visiting patients in the hospital and in their homes so they know they are not alone, even in the midst of a health care system and society that still discriminates against people living with HIV.  And for the many people in Bandung who do not yet seek our services, we show up at any and all places where people at risk of becoming injecting drug users or infected with HIV may be: drug users at rock concerts, sex workers at train stations and truck stops, or troubled teenagers hanging out on street corners.

The grassroots has opened my eyes, my mind, and my heart, as I gain a new perspective from my coworkers – and my new best friends –  as nearly every one is a recovered addict and living with HIV.  I have spent years researching and discussing ‘about’ HIV, as a problem that although I am passionate about, is not part of my personal life.  Now it is, or at least now I understand what it means to live with HIV, and considering there are millions of people living with HIV worldwide, this is a perspective that will be crucial to shaping health, education, and foreign aid policies in the future.  I am thinking more creatively now about the solutions and interventions that will work best, from the level of global policy down to community-based strategies.

And perhaps one main take away is about involvement and integration.  One, rather than make programs “for” people living with HIV, as is still practiced by major international donors even under the guise of ‘local empowerment’, allow people living with HIV to design programs and dictate to the donors what will work best. Secondly, hold the local powers-that-be accountable for supporting  the grassroots energy in a systematic way — incorporate HIV/AIDS into the national budget, eliminate stigma from the health systems and create a national AIDS curriculum for all Indonesian students to become part of the solution.

My year as a Luce Scholar wraps up in July 2010, though I am so happy working here I wish I could continue longer!  As of now I have not yet made work plans post-Luce, but am eager to put my experiences – including the new language! – to use in the realm of health policy, specifically related to HIV/AIDS.

For more detailed accounts of my experiences and lessons learned from Indonesia, I write weekly essays and I love to hear feedback!


  1. Marvelous… inspiring… & it’s as charming as the person.

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