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Make a Difference Day in Cleveland


        It is nearing the end of October and all of us here on Team Cleveland are getting in to the swing of things at our placements and keeping busy with our work. On Saturday, though, we set all of that aside for the day to focus on making a difference in our community. We planned two service opportunities for the day, one at the Eliza Bryant Village and the other at the Zelma George Shelter in Cleveland.

The Eliza Bryant Village is a skilled nursing facility that provides different levels of care for senior citizens with a focus on compassion and quality of care. As a team, we participated in their Saturday Social. We started the morning off by playing Pokeno (Bingo, except with playing cards), and then spent time talking with the residents over snacks and more games. This was an enjoyable experience for many reasons. It was a lot of fun to be in the midst of the excitement when somebody would call out “Pokeno!” but it was also nice just to sit and listen to people’s stories and sit in the comfort of somebody else’s presence. This experience was a reminder of how valuable the knowledge and experiences of our older generations are, and how humbling it is to be in their presence. I think this experience impacted our community because it created connections between us as a team, and all of the people that we met that day at Eliza Bryant. There is something to be said for the importance of human connection and giving each other the time to sit, listen, laugh, and just be with each other.

In the afternoon, we as a team headed over to the Zelma George Family Shelter to help facilitate the Fall Festival. We arrived and helped with the set up in the gym. This included getting pin the nose on the Jack-O-Latern hung up, setting up pumpkin bowling and getting the snack table ready with pumpkin cookies and apple cider, while getting all the craft making material out and ready to go for mask-making. With all of that preparation, nothing could have prepared us for the high energy levels of the children who came running and screaming with excitement into the gym, ready to get Fall Festival started. It was immediate controlled chaos. All of the children went running to each station, checking out all of their options with sheer excitement. After all of the children had gone through each different game, made a sparkly mask,  and snacked on their share of cookies and apple cider, the event dispersed into other games, a popular one being jump rope. The afternoon was certainly a high energy one, but it is certainly rewarding to be a part of the process of getting children to run around, care-free and laughing, while their parents get to sit back and take a break while making their own masks while enjoying the snacks. I think this service opportunity had an impact on the community by providing a fun event for the children in the shelter related to the upcoming holiday season and festivities.

Festive Halloween masks from the craft table at the Fall Festival.

Festive Halloween masks from the craft table at the Fall Festival.

Overall, this day of service was an impactful one that reinforced the importance of compassion, generosity, and recognizing that each person, old and young, has their own important story to share with the world. It was a humbling day that served as a reminder of the strength that people have to share, to love, and to survive. It was an inspiration to continue doing quality work everyday and to remember that this is about making this world a better place for everyone, in all walks of life.


All of us at the end of Make a Difference Day!

All of us at the end of Make a Difference Day!

What the Supreme Court’s Decision in Shelby Means for Voting Rights

Wade Henderson

By Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Supreme Court’s decision on June 25 in Shelby County v. Holder will have a real and detrimental impact on the voting rights of Americans. The Court dealt a significant blow to civil and human rights. As such, all Americans should be concerned about what this means for the continued health of our democracy.

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) has long been considered the most successful civil rights law Congress ever passed. Section 5 of the VRA played a critical role for decades in stopping voting discrimination against racial minorities.

Shelby County, Alabama, challenged Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which requires state and local jurisdictions with a history and ongoing record of voting discrimination to receive preclearance from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C., before any voting-related change can take effect. The Court did not rule on the constitutionality of Section 5. Instead, the 5-4 majority ruled that Section 4a, which determines which jurisdictions are covered under Section 5, was unconstitutional. The decision effectively shuts down Section 5 until Congress creates a new formula for deciding which parts of the country are subject to preclearance.

What’s most alarming about this decision is the fact that a narrow majority of the Court substituted its political judgment for that of Congress, which in 2006, during the last reauthorization of the VRA, held extensive hearings and gathered mountains of evidence in determining that the coverage formula in Section 4 remained essential. Congress conducted more than 20 hearings, heard from more than 50 expert witnesses, and collected more than 17,000 pages of testimony. A coalition of civil and human rights groups, (which included my organization, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights), commissioned and submitted for the congressional record reports that detailed the continued voting discrimination in all of the states covered by Section 5 .

Without Section 5 in effect, we have lost an important tool in stopping voting discrimination against racial minorities before it happens. While the VRA still stands, the only way to combat voting discrimination now is to file a lawsuit after the damage has already been done. This is costly and doesn’t actually do what the VRA was always intended to do – deter bad actors from discriminating against minority voters.

Just last year alone, Section 5 blocked discriminatory voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, and prevented Texas from drawing political boundaries that discriminated against African-American and Latino voters.

Our fears about a nation without an operational Section 5 have already proven true. The decision isn’t even a month old and we’re already seeing states like North Carolina introduce voter ID bills that will disproportionately keep minorities from being able to cast a ballot for their candidate of choice and curtailing early
voting. Within hours of the Court’s decision Texas’s attorney general announced that the discriminatory ID law that had been blocked by Section 5 would take effect immediately.

The danger is real. But Congress can – and must — act. The Court put the ball in our federal legislators’ hands to come up with a new formula. And while it’s true that Congress is bitterly divided along party lines, the VRA has always enjoyed broad bipartisan support. In 2006, the VRA reauthorization passed with sweeping, bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress and was signed into law by a Republican president.

So it can be done. And it’s our job as citizens to push Congress to respond in an urgent, responsible, and bipartisan manner to protect voters from discrimination at the polls.

Voting is the language of democracy. Without a vote, citizens have no say in the government that is supposed to protect and serve them. Without the ability to cast a ballot, citizens have no way to ensure that government is responsive to their needs on every issue of importance from health care to education and national security.

Join the movement at

Wade Henderson is the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the nation’s premier civil and human rights coalition consisting of more than 200 national organizations working to build an America as good as its ideals.

What the Supreme Court Decisions Mean to Us

flag over SC

By Aldona Martinka, Pedro Zamora Public Policy Fellow, AIDS United

Having just moved to Washington, D.C. to start my fellowship at AIDS United, I still ooh and aah at every building with grand columns and a fancy dome. I still read every statue and monument’s plaque when I walk by, even crossing the street to do so. When people walk by with nice suits and looks of intent I imagine grand and important work for them. I could barely contain my excitement when a senator walked past me in one of the tunnels below Capitol Hill. I am still amazed by Washington DC: The home of democracy in the Land of the Free.

Nothing I had experienced in my first ten days here, though, or even really in my life, had prepared me for my favorite DC experience so far. Standing in the sweltering heat, jostled by the jubilant crowd in front of the Supreme Court as news of DOMA’s demise exploded through the many supporters of marriage equality. I am so happy for our sometimes misguided, but usually well-meaning country. This decision reaffirms a commitment to equality that I sometimes question, and shows that, even here, you can’t halt progress toward the right thing, you can only delay it. On June 26, the Supreme Court chose to embrace it, and led us by the hand (some of us kicking and screaming) into a, still imperfect, but undeniably better country. I feel so lucky to have been there.

By Melissa Donze, Policy Assistant, AIDS United

On March 26, 2013, I found myself standing near the steps of the Supreme Court. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people had gathered to celebrate and show support for the LGBT community on the day the Supreme Court was to hear oral arguments in the Prop 8 case. That day, I stood, shouted and cheered in support of equality for all.

Exactly three months later, I found myself again at the Supreme Court steps waiting to hear the decisions on DOMA and Prop 8. I’d been nervous for days leading up to this moment. I’d been poring over law blogs and news articles trying desperately to understand the possible decisions that the Supreme Court could make. How could they deny certain rights and privileges to people just because they loved someone of the same gender? For me, this has always been a non-issue. My best friends are gay. Some of my family members and close family friends are gay. Why should they be treated any different than me just because of who they love?

Despite the blistering heat and sweat, when I heard the Supreme Court’s decisions on DOMA and Prop 8, I got goosebumps. Finally, I thought. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. I thought of my friends and loved ones. This is progress. This is love. This is history. At the end of the day, this is what really matters.

By Liam Cabal, Program Manager, AIDS United

This week, I had the great privilege of standing outside the Supreme Court when they overturned the Defense of Marriage Act. It was incredible to be there when the announcement of the opinion was made. The crowd cheered and clapped; there were tears, hugs, hoots of excitement. I thought back to when DOMA was enacted. I was still struggling with my own sexuality and that piece of legislation convinced me that I would NEVER be able to get married—at least not to someone I truly loved—and NEVER get the recognition from the government that my love equally deserved. It was hopeless. Thankfully, my melodramatic teenage self was wrong and I couldn’t be happier about it.

This huge step affords LGBTQ couples the same government benefits as their heterosexual counterparts. Let’s use this excitement and momentum to further address issues of discrimination and stigma. Stigma and homophobia, both external and internal, impact perceptions around HIV transmission and willingness to be tested. Overturning DOMA moves us in the right direction in reducing that stigma. Sure, we have still have a long way to go, but this gives me so much hope.

After 505: An Interview with Steve Wakefield

By: Charles Stephens, Regional Organizer, AIDS United

This past April, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced it would stop providing injections to participants enrolled in the HVTN (HIV Vaccine Trials Network) 505 study. HVTN 505 was aimed at studying the effectiveness of an HIV vaccine regimen in preventing HIV infection in trial participants or reducing the viral load among those that become infected with HIV.

The Data and Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB), the group of experts who examine the safety of patients and treatment efficacy during the course of a clinical trial, found that the vaccine regimen being studied did not prevent HIV nor did it reduce the viral load of participants that had been infected.

Over the past few years there has been considerable optimism and hope for the development of effective biomedical HIV prevention options, so the initial news was sobering. This is even more true given that nearly a year ago, the FDA approved Truvada for use as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), catapulting us into a new era of HIV prevention.

However, it’s important to keep things in perspective. The news about HVTN 505, though in some ways a setback, is an excellent learning opportunity and
provides us with valuable information about developing an HIV vaccine that will actually be effective.

To provide greater context around these issues, I interviewed Steve Wakefield of HVTN, a widely respected HIV prevention research advocate and thought-leader in the field.

What are your general reactions to the news about HVTN 505?

As an HIV vaccine advocate and believer in HIV vaccines as the way to end this epidemic, I am disappointed. It is very challenging that a strategy that seemed hopeful and asked people to invest did not result in a clear path forward. We have learned an incredible amount through in-depth analysis of tissue and blood from previous trials. This study was designed to give us an answer sooner and it did– I would have preferred a different answer. The good news is that people participating in the study and telling the truth about sexual behaviors can open us up to a world of information on next generation HIV vaccines. To date, scientists have learned information from clinical trial data that provides accurate guides to future HIV vaccine studies. Sometimes one study can tell us the way forward on several fronts.

What are your thoughts about the future of HIV Vaccine research for gay men/MSM?

It is essential to find a vaccine that works for those most impacted which may mean those with the most new infections annually. It is equally important to find a vaccine that works for all populations. Gay men are the key to understanding how this vaccine and future vaccines will be used along with new information about HIV protection for those who are sexually active. Gay men will generate knowledge about PrEP, condom use, home test kits, and partner selection by serostatus. How are these new tools used? Do MSM who participated in HIV vaccine research have different responses than those who did not? Do HIV vaccines have a different effect on anal tissue than in the blood stream? These and many more questions are key to understanding how to make an effective HIV vaccine.

Do you have any recommendations for HIV prevention research advocates as it relates to moving the HIV vaccine research agenda forward?

Prevention advocates should not get caught in the “where do we spend our money?” discussion, but should instead note for the public that there is not enough money being spent. We currently spend less on HIV vaccine research than it costs to make four Hollywood movies. I look at the new movie releases across the summer and think: which one or two could I live without in order to stop HIV’s devastation, in order to find a better condom or an HIV vaccine?

What are some critical lessons learned about HIV prevention research advocacy broadly that we can apply to our current moment as it relates to the HVTN 505?

HIV research has taken us from a somewhat toxic, one-drug treatment strategy to smart pills where you can get three or four drugs in one daily dose. Today’s drugs are as different from early pills as our smart phones are from the rotary dial phones that we went home to answer. We are learning more and more about public health strategies to protect entire communities, partners and individuals who may not find answers in behavior change. Research is the way to end the devastating impact of HIV.

What are the top three issues/areas HIV prevention research advocates should prioritize in 2014? What should our advocacy agenda look like?

From my perspective, we should focus on ensuring access to treatment and prevention for all who need it. In the U.S., that means a watchdog / whistle blower attitude to policies.

Secondly, we should turn our attention to campaigns that help individuals understand how to choose strategies that protect them from HIV infection, including reducing one’s number of partners and entering covenant agreements on safe, proper use of biomedical tools.

The third priority should be to ensure that we don’t wait for the government to save our lives. HIV activism has worked best when a couple people agreed to move forward to save the lives of those around them – not when we complained about government spending.

House and Senate Consider Respective Farm Bills: Please Oppose Harmful Cuts to SNAP

HIV and Food: What You Need to Know about SNAP!

HIV disproportionately impacts low-income individuals who may also be receiving support through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Congress is currently considering two versions of the Farm Bill, which authorizes funding for SNAP. However, both the House and Senate versions of the bill make dramatic cuts to the program, which is critical to low-income households. Proper nutrition is even more important for people living with HIV; God’s Love We Deliver, an organization that provides nutritious, individually-tailored meals to people who are too sick to shop or cook for themselves – and an AIDS United Public Policy Committee member and grantee through the New York City AIDS Fund – has highlighted the importance of proper nutrition for people living with HIV . A well-balanced diet helps people living with HIV maintain a healthy weight, strengthen their immune systems, and prevent infection. It also helps to build and maintain muscle, allowing medications to work better and enabling individuals to handle the side effects of medications.

Our friends at Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) have highlighted the cuts to SNAP that could occur. AIDS United strongly opposes these proposed cuts and the damaging effects they would have on low-income individuals, especially those living with HIV. Read the following blog to learn more!

House and Senate Consider Respective Farm Bills: Please Oppose Harmful Cuts to SNAP

By Jim Weill, President, Food Research and Action Center (FRAC)

jim weillThe Farm Bill is a comprehensive piece of legislation that guides and authorizes funding for most federal farm and food policies, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). Every five years, Congress takes the Farm Bill through the reauthorization process; the last Farm Bill was passed in 2008.

Currently, both the House and Senate are considering their versions of the Farm Bill, and both have large cuts to SNAP, despite broad support for this program. Seven in 10 voters say that cutting food stamp funding is the wrong way to reduce government spending.

These cuts would reduce already scanty monthly benefits for many SNAP recipients and kick many others out of the program altogether. FRAC – along with a vast coalition of national and state anti-hunger organizations, unions, religious groups, and more – has been vigorously opposing such cuts, noting the harm they will do to the most vulnerable in our society.

First, the Senate bill, S. 954, which was passed by the Senate Agriculture Committee and is (as of press time) being debated on the Senate floor, includes a cut of $4.1 billion over 10 years to SNAP. This cut limits a state option for coordination of SNAP with the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Through LIHEAP, states provide energy assistance to low-income households throughout their state, alleviating some of the untenable “heat or eat” choices that households face. The Senate cut could result in 500,000 households losing an average $90 per month in SNAP benefits, while increasing the paperwork burden of states.

The House bill, H.R. 1947, was passed through the Agriculture Committee with far harsher SNAP cuts of over $20 billion over 10 years. The House bill slashes more deeply the cut to the “Heat and Eat” LIHEAP/SNAP provisions and also restricts the state “Categorical Eligibility” (Cat-El) option, which helps states get nutrition assistance to low-income people more efficiently. The Cat-El option allows states to increase the asset limit or eliminate the asset test for families who receive a cash (or non-cash means-tested) benefit. Restricting this option would have a harsh impact on seniors and people with disabilities who have high medical bills. Potential impacts of proposed cuts include: $90 less in benefits each month for 850,000 households, which include 1.7 million people in 15 states (mostly cold weather states) using the “Heat and Eat” provision; eliminating SNAP benefits altogether for 1.8 million people in over 40 states; and up to 210,000 low-income children losing access to free school meals through the Cat El restriction. The House Committee bill also eliminates SNAP incentive payments to states for excellent and improved administrative performance, and cuts funding for SNAP’s nutrition education program (SNAP-Ed). The full House is expected to take up its Farm Bill before the July 4th recess.

The cuts to SNAP in both Farm Bills would dig deep into the refrigerators of low-income Americans, coming on top of another already-enacted cut to benefit levels that’s coming in November. In November, temporary increases approved in the 2009 economic recovery act will expire for 47 million people – this will mean about $25 less in monthly food stamps for a family of four.

Take Action: Contact your Members of Congress and urge them to oppose both the Senate and House SNAP cuts. Go to Food Research and Action Center’s (FRAC) Legislative Action Center for more on the latest on actions you can take to protect SNAP and more information on the proposed cuts.

Jim Weill has been President of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) since February 1998. Jim has devoted his entire professional career to reducing hunger and poverty, protecting the legal rights of children and poor people, and expanding economic security, income and nutrition support programs and health insurance coverage.

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) is the leading national nonprofit organization working to improve public policies and public-private partnerships to eradicate hunger and undernutrition in the United States. FRAC works with hundreds of national, state and local nonprofit organizations, public agencies, corporations and labor organizations to address hunger, food insecurity, and their root cause, poverty.

The Choreography of Silence

Charles blog

By Charles Stephens, AIDS United Southern Regional Organizer

Through Facebook, over a series of messages back and forth, his sister told me it was a “rare blood condition.” He wasn’t yet 30, about 26 at the time, and had been found in his apartment. Found. Unconscious. A mutual friend was the one that told me he was in the hospital.

He was living in Washington, D.C., by this point. I reached out to his sister on Facebook to find out what was going on, and she told me it was a “rare blood condition.” She didn’t say much more about his condition. I didn’t ask.

Charles and I met when he was a senior in high school and I was a sophomore at Morehouse College. He started attending a young black gay men’s discussion group that I facilitated at the time. This was around 2000. He was ambitious, articulate, thoughtful, but very introverted. We hit it off immediately.

In the course of our hanging out, I would find out that he had a very religious family. I never asked what it was like, to grapple with his sexuality in the context of a religious family. I figured it must have been difficult for him. I assumed because he did not talk about it, that he was all right. I would learn later that was not the case. In a way, I was complicit in his silence. At 19, I didn’t yet have the tools to discern or the language to ask about those matters.

Years passed and we kept in touch. He went to college in Virginia and my volunteer job turned into a staff position. I began building a black gay men’s program.

One of our friendship rituals was to go to a local park and gaze into the lake and talk about our futures. We rarely talked about the present, and never the past.

We didn’t discuss personal and intimate things, mostly our ambitions. Perhaps there is a vulnerability to sharing your dreams, but not the same vulnerability in sharing your struggles. The thing is I would have been a shoulder for him. I always thought he knew that. But he didn’t.

A year or two later, I found out he had been in the hospital. That he almost died. A mutual friend confided this to me one night while we sat in his broken down car waiting for a tow-truck. “He has full-blown AIDS,” my friend described it. I flinched a bit at the language, but was horrified at what he shared with me. Should I reach out? Was I supposed to know this? What was I supposed to do with the information?

I finally decided to reach out, even if he would be mad at me, but I decided to risk it. Before I could call him though, he reached out to me first. It was over email. He didn’t reference his hospitalization, he only indicated that he had done some soul-searching, realized homosexuality was a sin, and decided that he no longer wanted to be gay or be connected to our friendship circle. He described his time in the gay community as essentially being frivolous and pointless and said he had not benefited at all. He communicated wanting to be left alone, I was heartbroken. Before I could figure out to do with his most recent communication, he had left to go back to college.

The years following our relationship remained strained. He moved back to Atlanta for graduate school. We never again hung out separately; it was always in a group. My sexuality had become increasingly politicized and he seemed to insist upon not being political at all. This created a tension between us. He never brought up what happened, about him renouncing his homosexuality, and neither did I, not really knowing how to begin the conversation.

After staying in Atlanta for a while he moved to Washington, D.C. It was there that he started getting sick again. And then about three years ago, I found out he was in the hospital. I reached out to his family to find out what was going on, that was when his sister told me about the “rare blood condition.” I thanked her for telling me and started contemplating how to get up to Washington, D.C. to see him. I wondered if I should visit, not knowing how his religious family would respond to me. Before I could put it all together, he died, not even 30. As has been the case within my circle, I was the one to announce the news. The burden of communicating such things often falls to me.

Silence is not singular. It’s a constant negotiation. That has always been my thinking on the third Friday in April, the National Day of Silence a campaign organized by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network). I’ve also never been able to think about homophobia, internalized or structural, without thinking about the other silences young black gay men must manage and navigate. It is impossible for me to think about HIV stigma without thinking about anti-gay stigma, and vice-versa. And though I recognize the specificity of each, I also see where they overlap. I think about Charles in particular, because his silence was so pronounced around both issues: he was silent about his sexuality and silent about his HIV status. This silence, or white noise, followed him wherever he went. In a culture where young black gay men are stigmatized for being young black gay men, how can silence not feel like the best option? But we must communicate that silence, yes, creates temporary safety, but it also causes suffering.