You have programs to run, presentations to make, and condoms to distribute. The volunteer program needs attention and a grant proposal is due. Considering all you do in the fight against AIDS, AIDS public policy may seem complicated, far removed from your client's lives or better left to the AIDS advocates and lobbyists. What difference could your voice make in the political arena?
One voice, yours, is a powerful force. History shows us that individual activism is a powerful force for change -- just think of the enormous social and political contributions made by Rosa Parks, Harvey Milk, and Ryan White, to name just a few. In ways large and small, individuals have countless opportunities to make a difference, a lesson aptly illustrated by the recent presidential election. As President Clinton said, "No American will ever be able to seriously say again, 'My vote doesn't count.'"
Individuals concerned about and affected by HIV/AIDS have a critical role to play in shaping America's response to the epidemic. Public funding for HIV/AIDS programs and services is increasingly insecure. Meanwhile, the need for such programs continues to grow as the number of people living with HIV -- or at high risk for infection -- expands relentlessly. Lawmakers need to be informed about the realities of HIV/AIDS and the challenges it is creating in the communities they represent.
AIDS advocacy may seem complicated, but getting involved can be easy, fun, and rewarding. With a little effort, you can benefit the communities you serve by facilitating policies and laws that help stop the spread of HIV and prevent discrimination against HIV-positive people.
The First Step to AIDS Advocacy is Information
Groups in Washington, DC and in every state monitor Congress, state legislatures, and other government offices on HIV-related issues. By joining one of these groups, you can keep up to date on national, state, and local AIDS advocacy issues. Most groups offer their services free of charge and registration is simple. If you or your agency is located in Illinois, call the AIDS Foundation of Chicago at (312) 922-2322 or visit their website at www.aidschicago.org. Outside of Illinois, contact the DC-based AIDS Action Council at (212) 986-1300 or www.aidsaction.org, and the San Francisco-based Project Inform at (415) 558-8669 or www.projectinform.org. These organizations provide members with regular news on pressing AIDS advocacy issues, as well as information on quick and effective ways to make a difference. As an affiliate, you can focus on your daily tasks, yet stay informed on current issues and ways to promote sound AIDS public policy.
The Next Step is to Know Your Elected Officials
Most AIDS advocacy organizations will gladly help you identify your representatives in Congress, the state legislature, and city hall. In most states, the board of elections, secretary of state's office, and/or county clerk's office have information on state legislators and city council officials, or check out AIDS Action's website. Identify your district's elected officials and the people who represent the AIDS organizations you are affiliated with. Talk to your elected officials about HIV/AIDS, local service providers, and emerging issues and needs. This education will help them be effective lawmakers, and cultivating these relationships will have a lasting and positive impact on how lawmakers respond to AIDS in your community.
The Third Step: Take Action
Once you are affiliated with AIDS advocacy groups, you will receive fax and e-mail "alerts" on pressing AIDS policy issues. Alerts generally instruct you to contact an elected official, and you should do so, via phone, fax or email, immediately. Calling an elected official is painless: simply follow the steps outlined in the alert. Alerts generally provide background information and explain what and why the certain actions are needed. Always contact the sender of the alert if you need any additional information.
The Fourth Step: Involve Those Organizations with Whom You are Affiliated
On important issues, contact your agency's legislators as well as those in your home district. When you call, tell the person on the phone who you are and why this issue is important to your community -- lawmakers want to know how these issues will impact their constituents. Remind co-workers and clients they will not be quizzed on the phone about the issue, nor will they be asked about their HIV status. Generally the person answering the phone will note your comment and may ask for your name and address in order to send you a response. Although the entire process rarely lasts five minutes, these simple efforts help produce better policies and programs for HIV-positive individuals.
The Fifth Step: Encourage Others to Get Involved in AIDS Advocacy
Advocacy alerts can be useful tools in your local efforts to fight AIDS. Share AIDS advocacy information with friends, clients, partner agencies and volunteers. Bring the latest alert to staff and board meetings, support groups, and volunteer gatherings and encourage others to make calls and join an advocacy network. Increasing participation among staff and clients in your agencies will make your advocacy efforts more effective, and will show legislators the strength and number of those concerned about the epidemic. If contacting elected officials seems daunting, remember that public officials were elected to serve constituents just like you. Once you've made some calls, you'll find that most officials appreciate hearing from their constituents. Thank you letters for a job well done also helps improve and strengthen a commitment to our cause.
Getting involved in HIV/AIDS public policy advocacy is as easy as joining a network and making some phone calls -- things you do all the time, already. With a little time and effort, you will make a huge difference.
Sara Schmitt is the statewide advocacy network coordinator for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.