Several weeks ago, before the first round of Trump-era Republicans' attempts to kill Obamacare and expanded Medicaid was thankfully shot down in Congress, our fabulous, Philly-based HIV-positive contributor Abdul-Aliy A Muhammad, 33, an organizer with Philly's Black and Brown Workers Collective, had a looonnnnggg and juicy chat with Maximillian Boykin, 27, community advocacy and social justice manager at AIDS Foundation of Chicago. (He's also the co-manager of the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance and a member of Black Youth Project 100). Many topics were discussed, all of them intersecting in one way or another with HIV. Get comfortable and enjoy the conversation!
Abdul-Aliy A Muhammad: Hi there, Maxx!
Maximillian Boykin: Hi, Abdul-Aliy!
A-AM: It's a pleasure to be chatting with you today about our lives, the challenges we face and the joy we live despite the challenges. Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
MB: Sure. My full name is Maximillian Mathis Boykin. I was born and mostly raised in the suburbs of Atlanta. My parents are from Alabama: My dad is from Selma, and my mom is from Montgomery. They were both raised during the civil rights movement, so they brought me up stressing the importance of going out to vote, the importance of civic duty. My dad also came up in the Black Power movement of the '70s. My parents made sure that my two sisters and I really understood the importance of where we came from and what we had to fight for to get what we have today.
I've been in Chicago now for the last three years. I dropped out of school in Savannah, Georgia, to work on President Obama's campaign in 2012, went back to school for a little bit and then went back to work on three campaigns in Virginia: Terry McAuliffe's campaign and the two special state senate elections. But, at the time, I became less enamored of the Democratic Party because I've seen how it pandered for black votes and didn't expand Medicaid in Virginia; they didn't keep their promises. I saw how the Party wasn't doing enough to actually get people things they needed -- like Medicaid expansion in Virginia.
A-AM: What brought you to Chicago?
MB: I wanted to learn more about organizing, to become a better organizer. The first year I was here, 2014, I worked on implementation of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, and really getting people a chance to have access to it. I learned a lot about Chicago. I worked on the South Side and in the southern suburbs all the way down to Champaign. Since then, I've also worked on the Fight for $15 campaign with SEIU -- to raise the Illinois minimum wage to $15 -- before coming here to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.
A-AM: What is it you love so much about organizing?
MB: I love being in the community, talking to folks and seeing how we can strategize to get people more rights than they already have. From the electoral campaigns I've worked on to what I'm doing now, I've always worked in black communities. I love working with my people to try to make sure that they can access the things they deserve, you know? That includes not just proper health care but proper jobs and access to better education and living wages. I'm always thinking about what we can do to make sure they can have access to this so-called American Dream. And that means fighting against racist laws, against sexist or heteronormative education. It means fighting a lot of the things this country is built on. And now more than ever, we are under attack from many lawmakers.
A-AM: I think about social determinants of health often, for example, how black and brown people are simultaneously targeted by the state and vulnerable to HIV. So, let's talk a little about how these big issues intersect with HIV.
MB: I work for AFC, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. I am the community advocacy and social justice manager, which means I work on things like training advocates on the state and national level around how they can talk to legislators and help strategize about affordable health care. I am also the co-manager of HIV Prevention Justice Alliance, which is a 13,000-member network that is fighting for social justice issues, fighting against the social determinants of health. An example of this would be the case of Michael Johnson, who was convicted of spreading HIV, to uplift his case and repeal and modernize state-specific HIV criminalization laws.
We're really trying to hit the big issues and get us to a nation free of HIV, working from the epidemic's structural roots. We are not going to end HIV without ending poverty, without ending homophobia and until we stop teaching history and sexual education in heteronormative ways.
I'm also a member of Black Youth Project 100,which is a group of 18- to 35-year-old activists and organizers from across the country fighting for black liberation.
On a more personal note, I got into a lot of these issues partly because I had an uncle who died in 2015. He was a gay black man living in Alabama who had been incarcerated, and I saw how that impacted his overall health, how not having Medicaid expansion in Alabama prior to his death in 2015 impacted him, and how his death impacted the health and wellness of his family, the people around him. Through him, I understood how these issues -- incarceration, health, not having access to a job -- all intersect.
So, when I had the opportunity to work on the intersections of these issues at AFC, just a few months after his death, that felt right. I'd been looking for a new way to help make change that's best for black folks. It felt very timely to go ahead and make that jump and start a social justice program that AFC had not had before. The program helps make people most impacted by HIV better advocates. And not just advocates that can speak on HIV issues, because we have many issues to address. I've worked on the southwest side of the city, which is primarily people of Mexican Chicano descent and Latino descent, and the South Side, which is majority black. I think Illinois has the best damn advocates in the country!
A-AM: Our survival rests on disrupting the policy goals of Trump and right-wing Republicans. How do we continue being strong advocates for our own lives in the Trump era when Republicans are trying to dismantle health care?
MB: The policies that the Trump administration is trying to put into place are some of the scariest things we've ever seen in this country. After many years of our hard-won progress on health care, they're still trying to kill the Affordable Care Act [editor's note: This remains true even after Republicans pulled Obamacare repeal off the table in late March, facing a lack of votes to make it happen]. Currently, 55% of people living in Illinois have access to health insurance. People have been able to sign up for Medicaid expansion and access the health care marketplace. That is a 52% increase from 2013 to 2016. That is huge. Over 20,000 people living with HIV now have access to better health insurance than they ever had before. If the current programs are cut or repealed, it's likely fewer people will have coverage, or they will have to pay more for less coverage. So, we really have to keep pushing back against repeal and say, "OK, if you want to do something, make this better while making sure that we still have access to health insurance."