March 30, 2017
by Kamaria Laffrey
The energy of the tribe of my fellow HIV advocates at AIDSWatch 2017 echoed the heartbeat of those we have lost from the beginning of the epidemic. I was honored to walk to halls of the Capitol building and speak for those lives, my life with every congressperson and staffer I met. Our collective voices together are the rhythm of that heartbeat that will spark change and become a deafening war cry to our legislators if they don’t listen to us.
My most memorable moment was when the US PLHIV Caucus surprised Sean Strub with an award for his tireless work in eliminating HIV stigma and fighting for the modernization and repeal of outdated HIV laws. It’s an honor to be on his team at SERO.
While I got to meet with a lot of supportive staffers of my state’s Congress members, I think the most memorable ones were tied where the delegates were scheduled to meet with Senator Marco Rubio. I felt that he came into the room with his own talking points that were set to appease us for great sound bites, but the youngest of our group spoke up and took control when it came to why healthcare funding and Florida’s small needle exchange program go hand in hand. This was outside of my scope of advocacy, but I loved how they didn’t allow Rubio to downplay the importance of what we needed to say.
The second meeting I enjoyed was with Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’s staff. She was already signed on to support the HIV REPEAL Act, so that eased my nerves, but gave more time for one of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation’s Ambassador Daniel Franzese to speak on how ETAF was prepared to support any local efforts Rep. Wasserman-Schultz’s office would move in. Having him there just showed ETAF’s dedication to the cause of many people living with HIV.
What I enjoyed most was the networking with my state delegation and the morning rally. Hearing various chants, words of encouragement and standing together before taking on the Hill was motivating and needed. It created an energy that synced me with causes outside of my own personal ones.
The most challenging part of my experience at AIDSWatch was just keeping up with the scheduling without really having an idea what I was doing. Operating on a state level versus the federal level looks different from state to state, so it would have helped if our sponsors had provided a forum or webinar on the topics specific to our fact sheets that we were armed with in our packets before our meeting. There was a lot that I knew about, but there was a lot I didn’t realize was an issue federally. For example, HOPWA is always an issue but I didn’t know that this Friday would be the cut-off date for legislators to sign on in support of maintaining and protecting the funding that is allocated to HOPWA. That would have helped in having dialogue with our Congress members.
There was so much that I learned – that I walked 10,000 steps that day, that the Capitol has its own Verizon store and bank, that along with there being state delegations there were also topical delegations there. I learned that the staffers are amazing, knowledgeable and super friendly. I enjoyed speaking with each of them, hearing where they knew the climate of their Congress member’s agenda priorities were and feeling like I was really being heard. I plan to follow up with each of them via email to thank them for their time.
My advice to anyone wanting to attend AIDSWatch in the future:
- If you receive a scholarship – respect the scholarship, attend the sessions and meet your fellow state delegates.
- Bring comfortable shoes because you are walking – sunshine or rain.
- Come and support your fellow advocates! Awards and recognitions are given and we need to lift up our tribes in the work that they are doing.
- Take notes and pictures often so that you can provide a state report back home.
- Network, network, network – find others that are new to advocacy or new to AIDSWatch and be a friendly face.
- Thank ANY staff from the sponsoring organizations for their time in putting all of this together – especially ETAF, AIDS United and the volunteers.
- Don’t be afraid to use your voice. I attended a meeting with only one other state delegate because I was the only constituent, and I was nervous at first because I didn’t vote for this particular congressman, but his staffer was so nice and asked questions. He made the experience go smoothly. I’m grateful Jennie hung in there with me, it was awesome having her by my side.
- Have fun!