AIDS, Intersectionality and the View from Harlem

December 4, 2014

The AVAC staff works with partners around the world. But we come to work every day in New York City. We live in many boroughs, we hail from different countries and we offer up our prayers and hopes in different ways.

Today we are united in our sorrow and anger at the reality of a world, a country and our home city that has failed to deliver justice equally to all men and all women, regardless of the color of their skin, who they love or how much money they have.

We are united, too, in our to-the-core belief that black lives matter. Black men’s lives matter. Black women’s lives matter. The lives of black children matter.

Such a simple statement ought not to be the stuff of placards. But right now it is. And this reality has a profound effect on every aspect of the world—including work on HIV and AIDS. There is no health, for individuals or communities, without justice. This means equity in access to high-quality, non-discriminatory information and services. But it extends beyond the clinic—to the streets, bars, churches and courtrooms. Where states discriminate or persecute, whether by statutes that criminalize behavior of HIV status, or by selectively enforcing laws in a way that leaves segments of the population more frequently imprisoned or in handcuffs, that harms everyone. Trust in hospitals, clinics and health services falter. Fear—often justified—prevails.

On World AIDS Day, at the Apollo Theater, just five minutes from AVAC’s office—a vibrant coalition of activist groups, service providers and politicians launched a plan to end AIDS in New York State by 2020. Without justice in the execution of laws and the practice of policing, this plan cannot succeed. We look to the local politicians who launched this plan to systematically address the intersectionality between race, poverty, criminalization and policing that drives the epidemic in so many communities in the city and state we love. We support and draw strength from individuals and coalitions working on these very same issues in cities and communities throughout the United States and around the world.

In global health the word “we” gets used—often with good intentions—to signal a broad solidarity, a shared identity. And there is a lot of solidarity and sharing in the fight against AIDS. But many times, even with the best intentions “we” conceals a presumption of identity: the color of your skin, the level of your education, the location of your birth, the leanings of your politics.

Strong movements celebrate diversity and acknowledge what is difficult and beautiful: We are not all the same. This is why AVAC uses “we” with care, and largely about the team that works and plays and grows together here in New York every day.

Which is how we’re using it today.

We are in solidarity with the families of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, and with the families of many other men and women whose names we do not know. We are marching, praying, singing and putting our children to bed with an extra squeeze at bedtime during these difficult days. And we stand with all of our partners who do this work in so many countries and communities around the globe. Together, we will continue linking health, HIV, racial justice, poverty alleviation and criminal justice reform. Together, we will continue doing the work that needs to be done.