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Interview

How Do You Advise the President About HIV When He Doesn't Want to Be Advised?

Part One of a Two-Part Interview With Gina Brown

June 28, 2017

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OGF: Did this current administration ever make any effort to reach out to PACHA? What's the difference between how engaged the group was previously versus what happened after January 20?

GB: Prior to January 20, we were very engaged. We had a director of the Office of National AIDS Policy [ONAP]. One thing I can say about number 44 -- my favorite president, Barack Obama -- he was in tune with the HIV community, and he put some really good people in the position of director of ONAP -- from Jeff Crowley all the way to Douglas Brooks, even Amy Lansky, Grant Colfax. But I'm saying Jeff and Douglas because those are the two people that worked on the National HIV/AIDS Strategy as ONAP directors.

Jeff was the one: We never had a strategy until we got a Jeff. When Jeff came on board, we got a strategy. When Douglas came on board he heard what the community was saying: "Wait a minute. You're not talking about trans women. You're not talking about black women. You're not talking about youth enough." [He] went back to the drawing board and gave the community a chance to weigh in. Everybody weighed in.

We wrote out the finished product in Atlanta, at the Morehouse School of Medicine. The response was amazing because people saw themselves in that strategy. I saw me in it. Now we're talking about women in the South. We're talking about women who are on drugs. You know?

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Prior to January 20, we always got a White House statement for those important days of awareness, or days of observation. We haven't gotten one since -- and we've had four awareness days since 45 has been there. He hasn't said anything. I think the way we were engaged with HIV in the previous administration -- those days are gone.

But I must say, I commend my brothers and sisters who stayed. I really do. Because we need them there, just like they need us out here. Because we're not going to get this work done doing it one-sided.

OGF: It sounds as if those of you who resigned from PACHA are still in conversation and solidarity with the folks who stayed.

GB: Nic [Carlisle, my co-worker and executive director of Southern AIDS Coalition (SAC)] and I were part of an article talking about why I left and why he stayed. SAC was strategically placed. We had two people on PACHA. Before I made my decision, I talked to Nic. It was really exciting to do this article with him, and to really think about: Why did you leave? Why did you stay?

It can't be all grassroots organizing, and it can't be all boardroom talk. We have to merge those two, and we have to figure out how to do that.

I'll tell you, Olivia: I'm worried. I'm worried because 23 years ago I gave birth to a daughter and because I was on a study she does not have HIV. But, if all of the pieces that are in place right now go away, she has a really good chance of acquiring HIV for the simple fact that we're poor; we live in poverty -- even having a master's degree. I guess if I was in another city doing this work, my pay would be a little different.

Those ingredients would be there for my daughter to go through what I went through. So, I'm fighting for her. I'm fighting for other young men and women. I'm fighting for my trans sisters and brothers. It breaks my heart when I think about how they're already at the bottom of the totem pole, really. We continue to leave them behind. We don't talk about them in a really concrete way in this work. And we sure don't go and listen to what they have to say and figure out how we can help them.

This administration, we know, does not care about a whole lot of people. We know this administration cares about themselves, and -- I really, truly believe this -- if it's not a dollar in it for them, forget the rest of us.

I can't let that happen. While I am nervous, I'm still really, really optimistic. Because I think we, the HIV community, learned from the past. We didn't let that history go to waste. We looked at ACT UP. We can take from their playbook. We know that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. And we will squeak, squeak, squeak till they get so sick of us squeaking they're going to make sure that people living with HIV have our voices heard and our needs met.

OGF: I know that everyone's being really supportive, but at the same time, the response of some community members has been: "Don't give up! Stay on PACHA; be in there for us." What's your response to that idea?

GB: I want people to truly understand that stepping away from PACHA was not a form of quitting or of giving up. I stepped away from PACHA so I could be stronger in the HIV community, so that I can do what I need to do for the people that I care about, so that I can ensure that, when there's a call of action, I don't have to sit on the sidelines because I'm on PACHA.

On PACHA, we take an oath of office. I know a lot of people [in Congress] are exhibiting that they don't care about their oaths. But we take the same oath that Congress takes, basically saying that we will defend this country against our foreign and domestic terrorists. I feel like right now we are under attack. The HIV community is under attack -- whether we know it or not. And to me, that's a domestic terrorist. So, I have to be able to defend this country.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Olivia G. Ford is a contributing editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

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