Structural Inequality Within HIV/AIDS Service Organizations Must End

Art Jackson
Art Jackson (Photo
Art Jackson

As I sat and contemplated what I would write about for World AIDS Day, I thought of many topics. Each was worthy, yet the one that made me the most uncomfortable was the one I chose. In 2016, the inequality that still permeates decision-making roles within HIV/AIDS service organizations and state HIV/AIDS departments can't continue. The failure to confront our own racism, bigotry and lack of diversity is costing lives and feels paternalistic.

Look honestly at many of these organizations from the top to the bottom. In most of them, the top is mainly white, while those doing the grunt work with little pay are people of color. If you look at the agendas of LBGTQ organizations, how many include anything that addresses inequality in a real way? How many have implemented cultural competency in their own organizations and have a work environment that truly seeks diversity on all levels?

In my state of North Carolina, whether at the state level or in many of the organizations providing services, the management looks nothing like the people they are providing services for, and they are not making effective and honest programming decisions to address these issues. The disparity we are dealing with has a lasting impact on communities of color.

Because of this, even with best intentions, there is much these organizations miss because of their lack of cultural experiences and lack of honest understanding -- and some of them do have an honest bias that they bring to the table. They know best and we should just be quiet and trust them. Well, I'm sorry, but enough is enough. We don't see how their decisions are helping us when they don't have us at the table. We don't trust their decisions because, at the end of the day, rates of infections continue to rise at astronomical numbers, violence still hurts and kills us and access is still limited.

Now, I know that many will read my words and feel a certain way, and that's OK. Defenses will come up, and they will point to those in their organizations who are people of color. They will talk about how they try, and why can we work with what we have. They will say, "Oh, they are always complaining," and will seek to discredit the message by discrediting the messenger. They will do all they can to defend themselves and never look at the issue being addressed. They will say how hard it is to find qualified people of color instead of mentoring and growing their own folks from within. They will not look to their own clientele, peer counselors and volunteers to begin building from their own communities. They will come to our community for help in reaching that community, but when it comes to offering positions that could impact lives, they have nothing. They will use us as numbers for their programs with $25 gift cards, some foods and a t-shirt, but no programs that can help us achieve personal enrichment. Demonizing advocates who speak out does not absolve them from making the changes necessary to be more effective.

I call on the organizations reading this to look in the mirror and honestly assess how they have tackled diversity, how they treat people and how they have engaged people of color. I say it's more than having a token man who has sex with men, a trans person and young person on staff at minimum wage. I say it's more than just doing a DEBI or having a group. It's changing the culture at the top and bringing in people from the community who know it. It's understanding how actions can be paternalistic and disrespectful. It's understanding and addressing one's own biases and bigotry and privilege. It's about true diversity and saying we will be an agent of true change that respects and appreciates those we serve though they don't look like us. It's about understanding that, as we go into 2017, what was can no longer be the norm and we must do all we can to smash this glass ceiling that continues to reduce the effectiveness of the work we need to accomplish.

Art Jackson is a longtime community advocate and the namesake of the Art Jackson "Client Voice Advocacy" Award, a Red Ribbon Community Service Award given by the North Carolina Community AIDS Fund. He lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina