Late last August, Marcus Stanley, M.P.H.—a gay Black man who is the project officer on the Gilead COMPASS Initiative (which funds HIV prevention efforts throughout the South) at the University of Houston—was delighted to hear that an abstract he’d authored with his COMPASS colleague, Samira Ali, Ph.D., LMSW, was accepted by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) for inclusion in its December HIV/STD conference, to be held virtually because of COVID-19.
The abstract, coming at a time when the term “white supremacy” has been widely broadened to mean not just overtly racist groups like the KKK but the underlying ways that white people hold onto power in many organizations and systems, was titled, “Dismantling White Supremacy Work Culture and Anti-Blackness in Organizations.” Particularly focused on HIV and other community-based service nonprofits, it shone a light on such practices as the seeking or fulfillment of grants that demand that quotas of Black people be brought into an outreach program, the requiring of high school diplomas or advanced degrees for jobs that don’t necessarily need them, and decision-making processes that shut out the input of Black staffers who are not in top leadership positions.
In those regards, the presentation was similar to many such presentations, books, workshops, and webinars on the topic that have been happening around the U.S. and the world, in recent years. “This wasn’t going to be the first time I’ve presented it,” Stanley says. “I’ve done it for many national conferences,” including the United States Conference on HIV/AIDS and the National Conference on Social Work and HIV/AIDS.
Everything seemed good to go for the DSHS conference. Then, says Stanley, on Sept. 11, he and Ali received an email from a DSHS staffer, Shelley Lucas, asking to discuss “our proposed abstract.”
“I’m the lead author and the contact person, yet she chose to contact Dr. Ali,” he says. (Ali is of South Asian background.) Nonetheless, he and Ali joined Lucas and another DSHS staffer, Gregg Beets—both of them white—on an Oct. 1 Zoom call, during which, he says, Lucas never addressed him and, whenever he asked her a question, would respond instead to Ali.
Moreover, he says, during the Zoom, Lucas asked them to change the title of the presentation, saying, “The people downtown may have an issue with the title,” and that nothing else had to change but the title. Says Stanley: “I said that to do so would be disingenuous, because that was precisely what the presentation was on.”
Shortly after that, he says, he and Ali received an email from Lucas, telling them that DSHS was not going to pursue inclusion of their abstract anymore. After their University of Houston colleagues, including its school of social work dean Alan Dettlaff, Ph.D., complained to DSHS, they received an email from DSHS assistant commissioner Imelda Garcia asking for a meeting. But, he says, when they asked her what the meeting was for, nobody ever answered—save an email from Lucas apologizing for how she may have come off on the Zoom call.
“And that was it,” says Stanley, who shared with TheBody emails between him and Ali and DSHS confirming his account here.
Not the First Time
“Nothing has happened since then,” says Stanley, speaking in mid-January. In early December, he and Ali recounted the incident on a webinar, in which he then went ahead and co-delivered the actual presentation with Masonia Traylor, an HIV/AIDS activist affiliated with the COMPASS Initiative. (Watch it on YouTube.)
Why does he think DSHS asked him to change the title, and then—upon refusal—rescinded the abstract? “I’ve asked myself that many times, and the only answer I can come up with is that this was a regional conference, and conservative Texas views would not allow that title.”
In response to an email from TheBody asking why the abstract had been rescinded, whose decision it was, and whether DSHS would further explain the pullback or give the abstract another platform, a DSHS rep replied via email: “A sponsoring state agency has the authority to decide the content for any state-run conference, and DSHS decided not to include this presentation at the 2020 HIV conference. Unfortunately, in this case, the author was sent a notification that the presentation had been accepted when that wasn’t the case.”
The rep did not reply to a follow-up email asking exactly who at DSHS decided to nix the abstract, and why. Stanley says he believed that the abstract was accepted by some parties, then someone higher up expressed disapproval of the title, ultimately nixing the abstract when he and Ali refused to rename it.
Overall, he says, his reaction to the rescinding was “confusion, which turned to anger, which turned to hurt. It’s not the first time I’ve experienced something like this, but this was the first time I felt empowered to say something and had individuals [like Ali and Dettlaff] there to support me.”
Taking Apart White Supremacy in HIV Organizations
He says that the rescinding reminded him of positions he held before getting his master’s in public health from Emory University in Atlanta. Prior to that, he was an outreach worker and youth coordinator for an Atlanta HIV agency, then a researcher at Emory, then a capacity-builder for two national agencies in D.C.
In those settings, he says, he was often in “positions that require recruiting other Black gay men into programs, but the culture of the organizations wasn’t set up for me to feel comfortable advocating for myself or the group I’m there to serve.” Any such speaking up, he says, was “seen as defiance.”
For example, he says, working under a grant in one outreach job, he was tasked with recruiting gay Black men in clubs. “But when we said that painted Black gay men as only out to have a good time, and when we suggested that we connect with them during the day, on the main drag or in barbershops, and try to cater to their everyday needs, that fell on deaf ears.”
Now that he is a funder, on the other end of grants, he can see in retrospect how “most of those state and federal grants are tied to quantity: how many people can you bring in, get tested, get [HIV] positive diagnoses from. It reduces individuals from humans to numbers. You’re not working with them, for their wellness.” This was especially so, he says, when agencies could not guarantee that they could connect clients to treatment and care the same day they handed them a positive HIV diagnosis. “So the agencies hit their quotas, but then the grant ends and they have to focus on the next grant.”
It’s a numbers-driven approach that puts pressure on outreach workers who look like the people being targeted, he says—and adds that there is a better way.
“Don’t chase your dollars, but your mission,” he says. “The goal should not be to be the leading HIV organization in your area or to identify the most individuals, but reducing disparities by treating individuals holistically. That means that the folks most impacted by HIV, the ones with the lived experience, should be at the head of the table—and it should be the responsibility of those with the resources and the privilege to help make that happen.”
Also, says Stanley, organizations must care for their staffers as well as their clients. “Clients can tell you what they need all day, but are your staffers supported enough in helping them?”
Traditionally, the structure of HIV agencies looks like the hierarchical structure of most organizations, with an executive director or CEO at the top, deputy directors and program managers beneath them, then frontline staff like outreach workers, peer education and workshop leaders, and case managers and care navigators carrying out programs.
But, says Stanley, agencies should strive to be “as horizontal as possible, with the understanding that some decisions have to be made unilaterally or on the fly. You can’t always lead by consensus, but you can at least be transparent about why or how a decision was made.”
How to bring leadership equity to agencies that have been majority white-led for years, if not decades? “You need to create a succession plan,” says Stanley, “so that when they retire or pass away, the organization doesn’t have to close down. And successors should not just be cherry-picked. There should be a process that is economically and socially just, as well as transparent, to find the best candidate.”
And as for high school diplomas and advanced degrees? “Only things that require specialized knowledge and skills should require them,” says Stanley.
Plus, he says, dismantling white supremacist systems at work can take unexpected forms. “I work with an agency that inadvertently dismantled, because they were doing a trauma-informed change process, [giving staffers the chance to] talk about not only what trauma looks like, but healing, too. They couldn’t grasp how much individuals were bringing trauma to work but did not have the space to process it.” Providing that, says Stanley, led staffers to “better understanding their clients—the fact that there are no difficult clients, just difficult situations.”
That same organization, working for a year with a consultant, set up a community advisory board, broken down into committees of staff members on everything from policy and procedures to gender inclusivity to making the actual workspace more welcoming with warm colors and well-lit exteriors.
Of course, he acknowledges, making such change can be difficult if existing leadership can’t or won’t acknowledge underlying white supremacist systems in the first place. That inability or unwillingness, he thinks, was what lay behind DSHS staffers wanting him to remove the term from the title of his abstract.
“White supremacy isn’t just individuals expressing blatant or overt racism,” he says. “It’s policies and procedures that are anti-Black that are cloaked by the more overt expressions. We have to start by acknowledging that it exists and being accountable for it, which is still not something that everyone is ready to do.”