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As I was riding the Pink Line to 200 W. Jackson Blvd at 5 a.m., I had no clue what HIV Advocacy Day was going to bring. I was nervous, because this was my first time having a chance to potentially meet face-to-face with my legislators, Representative (and Majority Leader) Barbara Flynn Currie and Senator Kwame Raoul. I knew that I had a lot on my heart to share; I knew that this would be my chance to exercise my civic duty and use my voice as an advocate.
Little did I know that the voices of my fellow advocates were the ones who would have an impact on my spirit.
I knew as soon as I got to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC) that it was going to be a powerful day filled with laughter, tears and smiles. On the way to Springfield, I shared stories with AFC Director of Communications Brian Solem about being co-chair of the AFC Associate Board as well as my experiences outside of AFC. I even had an early chat about our Congressman, Danny K. Davis, with fellow advocate Corey. Once we got fueled with bagels and fruit from Josh Oaks, AFC Digital Communication Manager and got training with free-flowing laughs from AFC Community Organizer Maxx Boykin, I knew that I was ready for Springfield.
When we arrived in Springfield, we joined crowds of advocates from across the state. Our bright yellow Advocates Assemble t-shirts were just one of the many colors that brightened the state building. Legislators, staffers and constituents were shuffling around us, and we all had high hopes to be able to meet our elected officials. Our group chanted “Advocates Assemble” to give us all the boost of energy that we would need to perform our best!
Our group leaders organized us, and we all had a game plan to meet our legislators either in their offices or on “the rail,” which is a brass partition around the grand doors to the House and Senate chambers. There, constituents and lobbyists alike send “slips” into the chamber to beckon a legislator out of session to briefly meet with them. Although I wasn’t able to catch Senator Raoul and Leader Currie, I was able to leave my personalized information and as accept the business cards for their legislative aides.
While I wasn’t able to meet with my legislators, I was blessed to be in a small group of advocates from AFC, Equality Illinois and ACLU Illinois that had been invited to meet with Governor Bruce Rauner. I figured that Bruce Rauner didn’t want to hear us or have any concern about our issues, but he listened! A transgender college student shared their amazing testimony; one of our AFC Board members, Terri Friel, shared her experience of her brother passing away from AIDS-related complications; one of our seasoned advocates Roy spoke on behalf of veterans who are living with HIV. Both Terri and Roy spoke passionately about the need to pass a positive budget and adequately fund HIV/AIDS programs and services.
In fact, Terri and Roy articulated directly to Governor Rauner, “Soon people could die if this impasse persists, as agencies will be forced to stop serving and close their doors." I was awed by the courage and strength of my brothers and sisters in the movement. Even though the governor chose to fight us with ammunition and rebuttals, I believe we really struck a nerve in his heart!
My first reaction when Maxx picked me to be in the group to meet with Governor Rauner was, “Why would they pick me?” However, after thinking about it, I figured, why not! I live on the South Side of Chicago, where we’re not just home to the White Sox and Harold’s Chicken. We’re also home to some of the greatest health inequities in Chicago — and some outstanding resources for people who need help, including a new Howard Brown Health center on 63rd Street, the Alexian Brothers’ Bettendorf Place on 84th and Saginaw for HIV-positive Chicagoans needing shelter, Teen Living’s Belfort House in Bronzeville for homeless LGBT youth, and the South Side Help Center for education and resources in the Roseland community.
For one day I was advocating for the people in my community who don’t have a voice, and I encourage everyone to do the same. Advocacy Day was powerful, and you can still e-mail, call or tweet your legislator and express your views. One of my fellow advocates said, "When we speak up for an issue, we have the power because we voted in our elected officials." Please continue to speak up and speak out for what you’re passionate about!
Please consider registering for the next AFC Advocacy Day on Tuesday, May 10. Trust me, your voice is powerful and matters, so use it!