AIDS Watch - How Did I Get Here? Part 2

So, I've filled you in what AIDS Watch is all about, but in case you forgot, it's the premier gathering of advocates and people living with HIV from all over the nation for a high impact policy traninng on key issues impacting people living with HIV and arming them with resources to have dialogue with their elected congress people on what they should do about it. But then, it's so much more than that! It's what an empowered legacy looks like! It's what never giving up and using the collective power of voice to create change looks like. It's presented by the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and AIDS United and this year featured more than 650 people from 34 states, DC and Puerto Rico to continue sharing their truth and enact their power in their communities.

Let me tell you, being around that many amazing, passionate and determined people is something you can get high off of. It's an energy that pulses through you stronger than espresso. It's a sense of community that is as valuable as family. It's a collective heartbeat of solidarity to create change, speak truth, honor life, act up and fight back!

I am still trying to figure out how I got here, even though I've reflected in a brief timeline before, I am still in shock that this is the work I get to put my voice to. Policy work. Woah.

If you had said to me three years ago that I'd be involved as a leader in my community to work on modernizing Florida's HIV Specific laws, I'd look at you in complete shock. 

But here I am. Doing the work, learning the stuff, making the sausage, herding the cats, speaking the get it. And now attending a major policy issue based conference...amazing. As a scholarship recipient, I knew I was going to take full advantage of this opportunity and honor the space I was in even if I couldn't believe I was in it.The guidelines to apply for a scholarship to AIDS Watch were pretty straightforward, the application process simple and the requirements to follow through, fair. 

Day 1 - So, I arrived in DC and immediately met up with a advocate newbie Lindsay, in baggage claim. This girl...I have to tell her story for you to understand why she rocks my world. I met her at the PWN Speak UP Summit last September. She was brand new to everything and had only come across this particular conference because she Googled "Upcoming AIDS Conferences". In the beginning of our session, we went over disclaimers of disclosure. Pictures would be taken to document the event and if you didn't want to be in these pictures, you'd put a green sticker on your name badge. She immediately asked for one. I don't blame her, she had no idea what to expect. Then we kicked into our session with different breakouts led by women living with HIV. We talked about dating and disclosure, we talked about criminalization, we talked about being a voice when you're scared and what leadership looks like for young women living with HIV. We shared, we cried and evidently we inspired. By the time we got to our first break at lunch, Lindsay walked up to me with her green sticker in hand and then walked off to sign the photo release paper. She was done hiding and I was in full on "proud momma" mode. I don't even know if I directly had anything to do with that moment but the fact that she included me has bonded us. So, it was a joy and blessing to start off this conference with her (which she later jokingly handed me another photo release sticker, it's our thing now)

Next, my co-worker and brilliant friend Tami Haught came through baggage claim excited to embrace the cool 45 degree weather that this Arizona born, Floridian resident was not happy about. 

I know that's rain, but there's a theme I'm trying to stick with, Carry on.
We then grab a taxi to our host hotel, only to realize that because our group of 600 (take that Sparta!), we have to wait for our rooms. So, we turned the lobby into one big family reunion! It was the who's who of HIV advocacy and brilliance. Lindsay kept saying she was sitting with the "cool kids". When you realize that ALL of us are the cool kids, where else would you be? I connected with some first timers from Tennessee, re-connected with people I knew by name but not in person, caught up with people that inspire me and make me want to push harder and then our rooms were ready. We were each assigned a roommate as part of our scholarship recipient requirements. When I checked into my hotel room, my roommate hadn't arrived. Lindsay was staying at a hostel so she hung out with me until she had to check in later that night. Tami vanished into thin air so she could crash in her room since she hadn't slept in a few days. 

We then headed to the United States People Living with HIV Caucus reception to kick off our few days together. We recognized some of the AIDS Watch Leadership Award Recipients, and suprised my awesome boss, the creator and mastermind behind The SERO Project and POZ Magazine (and so many other accomplishments), Sean Strub. The USPLHIV Caucus worked behind the scenes to honor Sean with the "Persistent Advocate Award" and recognized him for not just pushing through years and years of hard work but for bringing countless others into the fold as well. We closed the night with Naina Khana, Executive DirectHER of Positive Women's Network and her amazing energy to rally a crowd. When she leads this chant, I literally am ready to break out and run (and I run for no man) to victory!

Lindsay and I then realize we have hit our wall in hunger and are desperate for food beyond the reception's hors d'oeuvres spread. Not wanting to walk too far and just wanting to sit and relax, we head to the Hilton Garden Inn across the street for great service, delicious food (crab cake on point) and relaxing environment. Afterward we go back to my room, Lindsay grabbed her things and got an uber to her hotel and I settled in for the night. 

But roommate came!! A young New York native with an AIDS Service Organization fellowship, she was a doll! We chatted and I brought her up to speed so she knew she didn't miss anything major and the rest is a blur because tired hit me hard and an early day was ahead of me.

Day 2 - This was the day where we would examine the purpose of AIDS Watch which included an overview of our policy briefs on The Affordable Care Act (including Ryan White Programs & Other Health Reforms), Housing, Quality Sexual Health Education, HIV Criminalization and Funding for the Federal Response to the HIV Epidemic. With these issues protected and funded, we truly can reach the goal of an AIDS Free generation. Our morning consisted of various speakers highlighting the importance of this, the poitical landscape we are in now (and have faced in the past), as well as what our Hill visits and state team orientations would look like. Of course, experienced another war cry by Naina Khana, then broke for lunch and meetings with our state delegations.

For me, this is when things got crazy and real at the same time. Because of the size of our group of advocates, the set up required an overflow room with a monitor connected to where the main stage was. Tables were designated with variousd states on them but many people didn't know that until lunch. We ended up with at least ten Floridians, our Hill guide Isaiah Wilson from the National Black Justice Coalition, his co-worker Trinice McNally and our AIDS United Hill guide Matt Lasier. Isaiah was amazing at getting us motivated and prepared to speak with our members of Congress and their staff and he made the experience so much fun. We connected because there are some initiatives NBJC have planned for in Florida and HIV criminalization in the future. After we discussed who was going to work on what topic of policy we then broke out for our hosted meetings and networking sessions.

Well, not before PWN had to shake things up with a group photo, which always include chanting and singing of some form. "ALL WOMEN, ALL RIGHTS!"

We are a force to be reckoned with. Try us. More about that in another blog!

As an employee of The SERO Project, I had the honor to be in the HIV criminalization session and discuss the sucess and challenges Florida was experiencing as well as any advice to new advocates wanting to tackle HIV criminal law modernization in their state. Our room was packed with people crowding the door, sitting on the floor and taking everything in. Other advocates spoke on their experiences as well from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and South Carolina. 


From there since the schedule was packed with so much information and I was beginning to feel overstimulated, I chose to step away from our sessions, review the packets we had been given and focus on some self-care so I could be present the next day. I have to say, it's taken some years of me crashing and burning to realize how important it is to do this. If it's printed on an agenda for me to do, I don't normally take it as a suggestion, but look at it as a requirement, ultimately stressing myself out. I mean, who wants to miss sessions on the Souther HIV/AIDS Strategy Initiative when you're from the South (that session overlapped with mine), or Black Advocacy Networking when you're a person of color? OR how to build an AIDS Watch at home when your state is currently working with legislators to modernize your laws? There was something there for everyone, but no way to do it all. AIDS United has been intentioinal to re-create as much as possible on their website to direct those that couldn't attend to the resources provided at each session. So, winner, winner; chicken dinner!

The day was then closed out by a cluster of events including The Positive Leadership Award Reception where Bre Campbell, Daniel Driffin, Dr. Carrie Foote, Sen. Christopher Coons, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen were honored by the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and AIDS United. There was also a viewing of MTV's SHUGA Down South with a panel of the actors and film team fostering dicussion. Lastly, an impromptu gathering/reception for the Prevention Access Campaign's U=U messaging that embraces that "the scientific evidence is clear. Someone who's HIV is undetectable does not pose an infection risk to their sexual partners." It was so wonderfu to gather and celebrate one another in a space of excellent acheivement.

But then hunger ensued and I found Lindsay once again about to chew her arm off. So we tagged along with a crew of hungry advocating misfits to Firefly and had a spread of chicken mole tacos, fried bbq clams, and burgers.

This is the part of the night I call, eat, laugh, crash repeat. Another early and long day was ahead.

Day 3 - Here's my immediate reaction to my experience captured by The Positive Women's Network and highlighted on AIDS United's blog. Woah. 

A First Time Peek from the Hill at AIDS Watch 2017

Just to highlight some surrounding information:

  • We had a morning group photo and rally, until the rain came. Unlike some outreach events I have worked in the past, the rain means nothing! March on soldier!
  • Capitol Hill is literally a hill. I did not realize this until of course I was half way up. Thank God for comfortable shoes.
  • In meetings with members of Congress on days like this (these meetings were pre-scheduled), there may be last minute changes and people may hi-jack your thirty minutes to spend 20 minutes talking about their state issues. Rude, but I get it. Get in where you fit in.
  • There is a buzzer/clock in some Congress members offices that goes off when they have to go to the floor to vote. Watching this on TV when the tally of who votes Yes or No shows on the screen, I always wondered why the room was empty or had a small group of legislators milling around, how they were determining when someone voted. I now know. They literally run over the House or Senate floor, vote and leave. I witnessed this in my last scheduled meeting with Rep. Darren Soto. His staff was so friendly and funny while I waited.
This experience could not have been made possible and fabulous without the following agencies and organizations. 

AIDS Foundation of Chicago | AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin | AIDS United | amFAR | Bristol-Myers Squibb | The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation | Gay Men's Health Crisis (GHMC) | Human Rights Campaign Foundation | Janssen/Johnson & Johnson | Legacy Community Health | Merck | NAPO Pharmaceuticals | National Alliance of State & Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD) | National Black Justice Coalition | National Minority AIDS Coalition | NC AIDS Action Network | Planned Parenthood | Treatment Expansion Access Project  | US PLHIV Caucus

And lastly, but definitely not least. For those of you wondering why in the world I have a Mean Girls theme throughout the images in this blog post...

The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation has a team of ambassadors all committed to the mission of providing grants to domestic and international organizations that service efforts for treating people living with HIV and AIDS. While they support marginalized communities, they are also breaking ground with support to innovative HIV education and advocacy programs including efforts on HIV criminalization.

I tell you this because as I sat in the overflow room of Day 1 listening to various presenters acknowledge the work that has been done and the work still ahead of us, a team of ambassadors was recognized in the room. This time includes Elizabeth Taylor's grandchildren and great-grandchildren (who I greatly look forward to meeting in person one day) as well as Chandi Moore (xoxo), "Trans-Diva" and bestie to Caitlyn Jenner on I am Cait and Daniel Franzese, best known for his amazing smile and giving fans of Mean Girls one-liners to live by.

While we walked the Hill to meet legislators, we stuck to our schedule not knowing if other advocates from other topics or states would tag along with us. So imagine my joy and suprise when I walked into the office of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz's and see Daniel chilling in the lobby. The. Nicest. Guy. Ever. I asked him how his comedy show went the night before as one of the advocates I had dinner with was invited to go but didn't know if she could make it because it was late. I then confessed to him that it was 13 year old daughter that convinced me to watc Mean Girls and it was one of her favorite movies (mind you, she was 1 when it debuted). He then handed me a "House of Glen Coco" sticker which made my insides happy, but I kept it professional. Ok I fangirled a little, and then lovely Lindsay (not Lohan) took this pic of us:

I did later on get caught up in my nervousness of being around him as an ambassador and Rep. Wasserman Schultz's staffer (who is awesome and super attentive) because we were going to tag team the discussion of HIV Criminalization. When I mentioned it to her staffer Kaitlyn, she told me that they had just signed on as co-sponsors to the federal bill that Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen & Rep. Barbara Lee introduced on March 26th called the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act (H.R 1739). 

REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act (Repeal Exisisting Policies that Encourage and Allow Legal HIV Discrimination): This bill is no cost legislation that would ask the Attorney General, Secretary of Health & Human Services, and the Secretary of Defense to work with state stakeholders to review laws, policies, and cases that impose criminal liability on people living with HIV; develop a set of best practices for the treatment of HIV in criminal and civil committment cases; issue guidance to states based on those best practices and finally monitor whether/how states change policies consistent with that guidance. 

When Kaitlyn told me Rep. Wasserman Schultz was already on board, I gushed "That makes my job easy (as I handed her my card), thank you very much" and then yielded the floor to the next topic for the next advocate. Daniel and I high-fived and then it dawned on me that he might of have more to say in that moment as he is the ambassador for not only the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation but for Lambda Legal too! I later saw him having a brief moment with Kaitlyn and felt relieved that he seized the opportunity, but continued to kick myself for being so nervous I overlooked him. I'm sure he didn't give it a second thought, at least I hope he didn't. It was just so awesome to stand there with him representing the same issue. 

So, that sums it up as one of my favorite HIV advocacy moments ever - AIDS Watch 2017. I look forward to attending next year and seeing what progess has been made, especially in the days of resistance.

Have you ever attended AIDS Watch? Did you even make it to the end of this blog? It is one of my longest posts ever (I apologize). If you made it this far, which celebrity would you love to change the world with? Could you maintain professionalism or would you fan-out the entire time?

xoxo | #embracehealing | #giveinspiration | #livevictorious | #empoweredlegacies