April 6, 2007
MAGIC IN MISSISSIPPI
Claudine Ervin from HUD at the AAIM 4 Life Summit.
On March 30, a particularly beautiful spring day, advocates and people with HIV from around the state of Mississippi descended upon a small church in rural Greenwood for the second-annual AAIM 4 Life Summit—a day and a half of intense advocacy training, strategy planning and empowerment.
There were approximately 50 HIV-positive men and women on hand to meet with organizers from AIDS Action in Mississippi (AAIM) and Housing Works, and representatives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Attendees voiced their concerns about housing, transportation, discrimination and access to health care and listened to presentations about how advocacy can create change at all levels of government.
“The summit was a huge success,” says Valencia Robinson, AAIM field organizer. “People were able to sit in on the planning process for what needs to happen in the state for people living with HIV and AIDS. We all came up with plans that we’re going to work on over the next year.”
Keeping it real
Summit attendees were an ambitious and motivated group. Participants didn’t passively take in information from speakers—they grilled them with questions about how to get housing, where to attend public hearings, how HOPWA funds were being spent in the state and why permanent housing was not a priority. They have reason to be fired up: The AIDS death rate in Mississippi is 40 times higher than the national average.
“The group was hungry for answers and glad to have someone who could provide them,” says Christine Campbell, director of national advocacy and organizing for Housing Works. “People from the government are usually pretty scripted in their presentations, but once the representative from HUD heard some of the questions, she changed her presentation and addressed the topics that people were interested in.”
Participants themselves did some of the educating. At one point, a presenter referred to people living with HIV as “AIDS victims.” That made folks uncomfortable until Jessica Mardis, another AAIM field organizer, spoke up and delivered a quick lesson in etiquette. “Each time this person said ‘AIDS victims,’ you could see people cringe!” says Mardis. “After the third time, I had to say something and we straightened her out. People who don’t deal with AIDS issues don’t always know. I don’t think she was used to dealing with people like us who are outspoken when it comes to our needs.”
There were other dramatic moments. Charles King, CEO of Housing Works, delivered a powerful keynote speech about the vital importance of advocacy in fighting HIV and AIDS. “I am moved every time I go to Mississippi,” King told the Update. “The state government is deliberately negligent when it comes to AIDS services and care. But the people who came to the summit have so much heart and determination to make change happen. They are a model of commitment in the face of overwhelming prejudice and hostility.”
Down to business
The second day of the summit was spent in working groups where participants collaborated on action plans and set goals such as fighting stigma in the church, reducing HIV transmission in prisons, educating members of AAIM about HUD and HOPWA guidelines, assuring the existence of safe, affordable housing for people living with AIDS, and finding funds for drug rehab for the homeless.
“As we were developing a plan, people wanted to make sure there was accountability and that the plans made an impact for people in Mississippi,” says Campbell. “I am encouraged by the energy I saw last weekend. There’s a lot of passion in people who want to get things done.”
Last weekend’s summit was different than the previous year’s. Instead of focusing on health care providers, the event brought together people with HIV who are accessing care in the state. The venue also changed and will continue to change each year. “We want people to understand that AAIM is about helping people all over the state, not just those who live in Jackson. And we have to make sure to include people who can’t get to where we are. Providing transportation certainly helped this year.”
Taking it further
By the end of the summit, the group was ready for action. With plans—large and small—drafted and being finalized over the next few weeks, many are maintaining the momentum of the event.
“We have people who want to learn the political process here,” says Robinson. “They want to visit the Capitol and talk to legislators. They are ready to speak up and speak out. They are tired of being silent.”
Within the next few months, participants will work with the prison system to create HIV support groups, attend public hearings for HUD to urge permanent-housing solutions for people with AIDS, and work toward educating churches about stigma and HIV prevention.
Eric Bailey, the newly appointed state chair for C2EA Mississippi says, “By this time next month, the ball should definitely be rolling.”