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Southern REACH Returns From Atlanta

Last month, AIDS United hosted the 2016 Southern REACH convening in Atlanta, GA! Grantees, speakers, and guests gathered to engage in meaningful discussions and share the amazing work happening around HIV in the South. The week was filled with difficult yet important conversations, a true collaborative spirit, learning opportunities, amazing sessions, and great food!

We kicked off the week with a welcome presentation to Atlanta, where we learned about Atlanta’s history and culture. “There is so much rich history of HIV community building and advocacy here in Atlanta,” said Charles Stephens. Thank you to our Atlanta Grantees, Charles Stephens of The Counter Narrative Project, Dazon Dixon Diallo of SisterLove, and Jeff Graham of Equality Foundation of Georgia, for giving this presentation.

Following this was a very engaging discussion about recognizing and understanding how well-intentioned organizations can be co-opted in the service of racism. This amazing workshop, facilitated by Kara Bender and Jessica Vasquez Torres of Crossroads Antiracism Organizing & Training, truly opened a space to continue to foster meaningful discussions about racism throughout the rest of the convening. Participants felt that this session gave them the opportunity for individual and organizational self-reflection. “It forced us to look at the reality of the issue," a participant noted on their evaluation. Others appreciated the framing, good visuals, and facilitation.

The convening continued with a policy panel focused on HIV-related policy in the South from regional and state-specific perspectives. Key issues included:  Medicaid Expansion, CDC Funding Allocation, and HIV Criminalization. “We must align politics with sound policy to move us forward. This isn’t easy,” said moderator Ronald Johnson, Vice President of Policy and Advocacy at AIDS United. We also discussed the elections briefly, reminding ourselves that the president we elect in November will be implementing (or not) the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and that voting is HIV advocacy.

We closed our first day with a discussion about the meaningful Involvement of people living with HIV/AIDS – frequently abbreviated as MIPA. Facilitators Venita Ray of Legacy Community Health and Andy Spieldenner of the US People Living with HIV Caucus shared with us the concepts of MIPA, the role it plays in HIV organizations and communities, and how to reduce resistance to MIPA. “We build community not programs,” Venita Ray said during her presentation. 

The second day of the convening kicked off with a very interactive session where we learned about the projects taking place within grantee organizations. We learned about the goals of each grantee project and the strategies taking place to achieve these goals. For example, Micky Bee of Southerners On New Ground (SONG) creatively shared about their grantee project by having participants collectively hum and chant with her. She said, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” Learn more about other grantee projects at

Following the grantee project overview was the Understanding the Role of Somatics in Our Self-Care and Leadership Development session led by Xochiltil Bervera, who is the co-director of Racial Justice Action Center. Somatics is "a path, methodology, a change theory, by which we can embody transformation, individually and collectively”. During this session, we focused on the growing awareness and role of somatics work in supporting activists and leaders, like ourselves, in social justice movements. As leaders in this field, we may work in traumatic situations that impact our identity, physiology, emotions, behavior, thinking/interpretation, place and belonging. Generative somatics teaches us how to work through trauma in order to remain successful at the work we do. “Through somatics we are able to learn presence and boundaries, re-establish connection with yourself, others, and community and connect to which makes your life meaningful and garner your resilience and courage to live that”.

Participants had the opportunity to continue exploring the role of somatics during the breakout sessions. Breakout sessions also included a deeper discussion into Policy Change and HIV decriminalization, and legal service provision and advocacy. Some other breakout sessions included, Moving the Needle, a discussion about improving drug user health through syringe access policy and Facebook Your Way to Change, a discussion centered on managing your organization’s Facebook page.

The last day of the convening began with Building Alliances & Partnerships within the REACH Cohort.  Grantees built upon the previous day’s sharing of projects by coming together based on the focus of their projects and shared challenges, collaborative opportunities and lessons learned. Mary Hooks of Southerners on New Ground, Malika Redmond of Women Engaged, and Evany Turk of Positive Women’s Network, served on the panel that ended the convening with a discussion about thoughtful examination of models that engage constituents in advocacy. Panelists shared their experiences and participants found it powerful and inspiring! Steve Rygiel of Birmingham AIDS Outreach said, “I loved closing with this panel, as it was uplifting and I much appreciated the reminders that every grantee is carrying on the work that began generations before through tears, blood and sweat, and this work will continue beyond each of us as well”.

Thank you to all who participated and was a part of the 2016 Southern REACH convening. We appreciate your efforts and hard work to make this year’s convening a success and your work inspires us at AIDS United!!

Posted By: Adele Appiah, Program Associate, AIDS United - Monday, April 25, 2016

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