By Laurie Priddy, Western Region Coordinator, PWN-USA-Colorado
I decided to join AIDSWatch 2014 after hearing women from PWN-USA-Colorado discussing it back in December 2013. I was intrigued because it appeared to be something that would further my knowledge about policy, laws and the power of advocacy.
Sharing our experiences, with legislators is imperative. Many times they receive letters without ever seeing us. It isn’t just the visual; it is the expression on our faces, the tone in our voices and the ability to engage our life experiences eye to eye. We break the vision in a legislator’s head of what people like us look like. Our humanness is revealed.
My accomplishments at AIDSWatch varied from professional to a personalized journey. A month beforehand I knew going to AIDSWatch would require me to suit up and remove my faded Levis and T-shirts that I feel comfortable in. I began looking for an outfit that would look like I could be taken seriously as I approached the suits on the Hill. I had my nails done so they didn’t look like I had just chopped wood or been digging into Mother Earth.
The clothes were in place; now to challenge the mind to retain the facts, the facts, the facts, as well as the personal experience.
The first night in D.C., I joined up with other powerful, fierce and confident women of PWN-USA at a restaurant. I remained observant. I wanted so desperately to express important information with clarity as they did. The room was noisy and Naina Khanna, PWN-USA’s executive director, clapped the room to silence. I knew she meant business.
As the evening continued, the women from PWN-USA-Colorado energetically discussed our months of learning about repealing criminalization laws against people who are HIV positive in 33 states, the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program, the Affordable Care Act, syringe access, budget and appropriations, housing and comprehensive sex education. Barb Cardell, Kari Hartel, Penny DeNoble, Rica Rodriguez and Diane Walker were all huddled around each other as if we were getting the plays for a football game. We were getting close to Monday’s game day. Sleepless night. Early morning.
Monday began with us ladies taking a brisk walk to the conference center. The women were pumped up and ready to take on the day and our representatives. We engaged in a conference that shared another briefing of the information we needed to bring to our legislators. My head was reeling with concern as to whether I understood and could articulate the information. Sure this information was about issues that affect my life and that I have been living with for the last 25 years; but more important, it was about ENDING AIDS IN AMERICA, and the 1.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. My shoulders didn’t feel wide enough.
As my friend and mentor Barb Cardell and I began our trek to Representative Scott Tipton’s office, I wanted to jump out onto Connecticut Avenue and run. Between complete confidence from Barb and a cab driver reminding me that legislators put their pants on the same way we do, I felt like I had an astral projection to the front door of Rep. Tipton’s office.
I need to tell you that, when you look at where I came from, where I was standing was probably one of those life-changing moments. I have always been wonderful at screaming, holding signs, putting friends’ ashes on the White House lawn. But today, I was a woman advocating in a professional manner.
We met with Rep. Tipton’s health expert, Dustin Sherer, and began our ask. We discussed the importance of progressive laws in the state of Colorado, such as comprehensive sex education, and that these laws need to be implemented on a federal level. When the health expert asked: “What is the Ryan White CARE Act?” I guided the question to Barb, who eloquently shared history and importance. We also, asked for support of HR1843 and S1790 to repeal discriminatory HIV-related laws. These laws are based on long-outdated and inaccurate beliefs rather than real science.
During this meeting I could see in action the morning conference slide that listed the important steps of a Hill visit: a. organize your meeting; b. make it personal; c. do your homework; d. offer solutions; e. keep it short; f. make your ask (“will you support this” and then wait for the answer); g. follow up.
Each one of the women from our group in Colorado took the lead in other representatives’ offices. Rica Rodriguez, Penny DeNoble and Diane Walker met with Diana DeGette; Kari Hartel and Barb Cardell met with the Honorable Jared Polis; and as a team we went to Senator Bennett and Senator Udall’s offices.
You were never alone in these meetings; you were backed by your sisters sitting at the same table with you, ready to share their input on something they had studied or even just for straight-out support. Another personal moment was feeling so very proud of my sisters from PWN-USA-Colorado in action, sharing their knowledge with such poise and articulation. WOW!
Tuesday morning I woke up early to make sure I had a seat at the breakfast conference with Douglas Brooks, director of the Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP). I walk in the room at 6:30 A.M. and Barb Cardell is already in place for the 8 A.M meeting. I am telling you, this woman is AMAZING!!! She had seats saved for each one of us from Colorado. At this listening session, people living with HIV raised issues that would be taken back to the President. Discussion ranged from Ryan White Part D, to male heterosexual voices, to incarceration, to the reasons we should not change programs that have proven to work, to employment and labor.
This entire engagement raised the awareness for me that we are more than whiners and protesters; we are women living with HIV and participating in powerful change through our strong knowledge and voices, to ensure that we are part of laws that affect our HIV community.
Many of us come from places where our voices never felt strong or where we could not ask for what we needed. I know this to be a myth that my past has tried to put into my journey. I can take responsibility to not listen to old messages of unworthiness. I can know that, when it comes to raising our voices for change, THE RIGHT TIME IS NOW!
Laurie Priddy is the Western Region Coordinator of PWN-USA-Colorado.