Creating Ambassadors: AIDSWatch 2011

There are no better advocates for government support and sound HIV/AIDS policy than our clients and program participants.  They understand the complexities of living with the disease, of navigating our difficult health care system, of overcoming extreme challenges.  They are, simply put, the best ambassadors we have to speak to people in power.  Their influence is unique and unmatched.

Right now in Washington, D.C., San Francisco AIDS Foundation clients are joining their peers from agencies across the country for AIDSWatch 2011.  You could call it a boot camp for learning how to become an advocate on HIV/AIDS funding and policy.  The participants are briefed on how to take their personal stories and frame them to work in concert with the important issues facing lawmakers right now.  Then they undergo a full day of advocacy training, role-playing visits with lawmakers to push for adequate funding of HIV/AIDS programs. 

The congressional agenda is packed with big items this year.  AIDSWatch participants will learn the very latest on the implementation of President Obama’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy.  It’s the first-ever comprehensive plan to target the disease on a national level.  San Francisco AIDS Foundation played an instrumental role in the development of the Strategy, and San Francisco is now one of 12 metropolitan areas tasked with creating a plan to implement the Strategy at the local level.  During AIDSWatch a small group of people, including a delegate from the foundation, will participate as Randy Allgaier Advocates, named in honor of the late San Francisco activist who actively campaigned for the National Strategy.

Also on the agenda at AIDSWatch is the Republicans’ new budget-cutting proposal in the House.  Based on the rhetoric from the campaign trail last fall, the plan could result in deep cuts to many federally-funded HIV health and prevention programs, and the defunding of health care reform.  And finally this week, Housing & Urban Development administrators will hold a listening session for AIDSWatch participants.  Clients will testify about unmet housing needs in anticipation of the reauthorization of Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (HOPWA), which provides critical assistance to keep people stably housed and healthy.  Participants will have the opportunity to discuss how the program can more accurately reflect housing expenses in high-cost urban areas like San Francisco.

After the clients are briefed on the issues and trained as advocates, they go directly to work.  They have meetings scheduled on Capitol Hill with senators, representatives, and staff at the California governor’s office in Washington, D.C.  They will navigate the halls of power armed with the tools they need to shape and influence decisions that will affect their lives.

At its core, AIDSWatch is about teaching clients and program participants how to speak on behalf of countless people across this country living with HIV/AIDS who don’t have a voice.  By creating ambassadors for our work and sending them to meet directly with lawmakers, we are putting a face to our programs and services.  We are establishing connections at the highest levels of power that impact the health and well-being of our nation at a very personal level.  It is the essence of grass-roots advocacy. 

Past clients who’ve attended AIDSWatch continue their work today, fighting for appropriate funding in the face of record deficits and potentially devastating budget cuts.  With your support, they are making a difference because they know the power of sharing their wisdom and making their voices heard.

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