So, as of August 2016, I am the Florida Community Organizer for The SERO Project. My job description is to go out in various communities in Florida and educate people living with HIV about the laws throughout the nation and specifically Florida that are being wrongfully used in criminal prosecutions, either under HIV specific criminal laws or under general criminal statutes. I'll explain more about HIV criminalization later. The education is part of the strategic planning for work that has been the current that has moved legislation in Florida to modernize our laws and promote a more public health friendly frame.
How did I get here?
May 2016, HIV Is Not A Crime II training conference with The SERO Project, Positive Women's Network and many other sponsors including our host organization Thrive Alabama gathered nearly 350 advocates and people living with HIV in Huntsville, AL for a national dialogue on what their state has in place as law, the successes of other states (Iowa & Colorado) on their modernization of these laws and provided skill based training to equip advocates to return home and make things happen. It was here I presented for a conference on something beyond my story. I was more than a person living with HIV, I was someone providing insight and knowledge that would promote dialogue in various communities and get people to understand their "WHY".
How did that happen?
February 2016 after prompting from various advocates in other states, I submitted my first ever in life abstract for a conference. I remember being so uncertain and afraid that I was waisting time of the people evaluating and planning HIV Is Not A Crime II, because I was inexperienced. Then I received an email saying it was accepted. What? Wait, let me go back and be sure that was meant for me!
In my application, I asked that if I was selected to be paired with someone of experience that would co-sponsor because while I believed in the activity I had planned and drafted, I was not going to get up in front of a room full of experts and facilitate it myself. Nope. When I received a follow-up email that the unicorn of HIV advocacy, Olivia Ford was going to be my co-presenter, I then realized how real this was. We planned calls and drafted slides to develop "Being the Change You Seek in a Resistant Community", which I then was allowed to present with her two more times at the Positive Women's Network - USA Speak UP summit and Positive Living Conference 19, both in Ft. Walton Beach, FL. By the way that averaged a total of 650+ people I encountered.
How is this happening?
November 2015, an invitation was sent out to various advocates living in Florida to have discussion on what strategic plan could take place in Florida that could change our laws. I remember that meeting like it was yesterday because I had no idea what was going on through half of the conversation. But I learned the power of my not knowing what was happening because it prompts me to ask questions. It prompts me to dig deeper than what other people in the room are focusing on. Remember that, it will come up later.
I say all of this as an intro to empower people to stop underestimating who they are. What you think is a weakness might be the very thing that will launch you into your purpose. What you think is a flaw, might be a characteristic someone of influence and power is looking for. What you think is holding you back might be what needs to be unleashed so that you can change the world.
I thought that being a person that always had questions and alternative solutions to how things are done was annoying. I felt like if I brought up a topic or idea that was not on a planned agenda, then I shouldn't speak. Then I had to learn to understand the concept of having a seat at the table. If space has been created for you, fill that space. No matter what the intended purpose is for you being there. It could be that someone simply remembered you from a previous encounter and thought you would be a good fit. Honor that. Don't shrink yourself.
Your invitation to the table could be because a quota had to be filled. I have often been the youngest, the only woman or the only person of color and sometimes all three. That fueled my motivation to make the best of this time at the table. Regardless of what brings you there, always use it as a catalyst to get another seat at a bigger table. If there is dialogue being had around a topic you have little knowledge of, do not be afraid to politely say so. I have often asked for clarity of a situation and put it on my certainty I was understanding what others were saying, by rephrasing the main point of the topic. If I missed my window to ask for clarity, I wait until the close of the meeting if this isn't provided in writing sometimes and ask the facilitator to reiterate what our individual tasks, if any are. There are many ways to make your presence known. You don't have the be at the head of the table to have an impact, but if you're not at the table my friends, you are definitely on the menu.
So that is how I got to AIDS Watch in Washington D.C. Next post, I will tell you all about what I experienced there. I can tell you one thing, it was nothing anyone could prepare me for.
Stay tuned, tales from DC coming soon xo