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An Ally’s Journey At AIDSWatch

I’ve been active in HIV/AIDS advocacy for many years, donating; training, contacting legislators, etc. This was my first year at AIDSWatch, however, and I’m so grateful to the North Carolina AIDS Action Network for inviting me to tag along.

Joining other North Carolinians at the event was a moving and meaningful experience. I’m a data person, and getting new research and survey findings strengthened the foundation from which I advocate. Probably the most eye-popping piece of data was that almost a quarter of new HIV diagnoses are in people 13-24.

I also discovered important qualitative data, examples and personal stories from others in attendance, put faces on the facts. Insights from people who continue to face discrimination and financial hardship make the advocacy work personal.

The expanded view makes me a better-informed and more engaged advocate for reality-based sex education in our schools, increased funding for the 340B program, and passage of the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act (H.R. 1739).

I also gained valuable insights for advocacy from our meetings with legislative aides working on healthcare issues. Legislators’ acute interest in addressing the opioid problem creates an avenue to discuss the urgent need for HIV prevention measures like syringe exchanges; access to treatment options; and funding for housing, medication and other costs of living with HIV. I plan to leverage that in my future outreach to elected officials.

Perhaps the most valuable take-away from AIDSWatch was a deeper understanding of the power of our community.

As we introduced ourselves to staff at Sen. Thom Tillis’ office, I realized the impact when a group of people from different backgrounds and with diverse experiences comes together in a legislator’s office in support of the same issue. It’s a show of force that illustrates how HIV/AIDS creates a constellation of issues for the entire community, not one or two interest groups.

Sitting in those offices, I understood the value of my position as an ally. Though I lost friends to AIDS and have several friends living with HIV, these conditions are not front-and-center in my daily life. I realized that there is a value in legislative staff seeing me, someone who is not living with HIV and whose work does not center around HIV, participating in AIDSWatch. Seeing allies who care enough to haul themselves to a legislative office forces elected and staff to view HIV/AIDS as an issue of importance to people outside the “traditional” groups with a “reason” to care.

This wasn’t a seismic “a-ha” moment – I think we all know this on some level. But sitting in the offices of my senators and representatives brought it to the fore. The more we show our elected officials that the needs and rights of people living with HIV/AIDS are paramount to us all and the more we can explain that HIV prevention and treatment are vital to the entire community, the more effective our advocacy.

I came back from AIDSWatch with a new view on my role as an ally. Sure, I’ll keep writing checks, keep training advocates on how to communicate effectively, keep amplifying messages via social media, and keep contacting my elected representatives at all levels. But I’ll also work harder to activate more allies to stand with our brothers and sisters who live and work on the front lines.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in AIDSWatch 2018 and am looking forward to next year. I’ve committed to recruiting an ally or two to come with me, and I challenge you to do the same.

Margot Carmichael Lester is an ally and advocate from Carrboro, N.C. She volunteers for N.C. AIDS Action Network and provides popular workshop on how to write for advocacy.

Posted By: Guest Blogger: Margot Carmichael Lester - Thursday, April 12, 2018

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