‘Elections and voting are tools to change our circumstances’

Senior Strategist and Advisor Ernest Hopkins shares a message of hope before the 2020 presidential election.

Editor’s note: SFAF Senior Strategist & Advisor Ernest Hopkins shared the following message of hope with our staff at a time when many members of Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities are experiencing uncertainty, anxiety, and even violence related to the 2020 presidential election. We’ve decided to publish this piece to the “Our Voices” collection to share these perspectives with our readers.

Dear colleagues,

After last week’s All Staff meeting, which I found both powerful and deeply moving, it feels appropriate to share some perspective and encouragement as we enter the final days before the 2020 election.

Racism was my first threat, then homophobia, then HIV, and now COVID-19, all cumulatively sitting on my back and shoulders, compressing my breaths and ability to move, live and love freely in the world. I know many of you are feeling similar pressures too. We hold the anxiety of caregivers who understand the disproportionate impact of the structural violence on Black and Latinx communities and the real harm imposed by inhumane and unjust policies and funding decisions on society, our families, clients, and neighbors.

As a Black, gay man, and native Washingtonian, I’ve often felt out of sync with the opinions of my government. I recall being 11 years old, sitting by a hotel pool during a Miami Beach vacation, listening in horror to a white kid my age from Pennsylvania express awe and wonder that I lived in D.C. nearby President Nixon, who that kid idolized. In a conversation with my 90-year-old Mom last night, she recounted her memory of my Grandfather being forced to pay $2.00 to vote in Clarkton, NC, during her childhood, and mentioned how she’d never missed a vote since becoming old enough in 1948.

Elections and voting are tools to change our circumstances, and we should do all we can to use these tools to our advantage. However, life teaches us that electoral defeat doesn’t mean you have to lose and feel defeated.

The HIV epidemic in the U.S. has taught us that an enraged community — faced with government inaction — can mobilize public opinion and translate it into political power and remarkable achievement. HIV and social justice advocates are perfectly poised to lead the nation in this pandemic moment, regardless of the electoral outcome next week.

Since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, stigma, homophobia, and racism have defined the politics of HIV. Our victories for people living with HIV and vulnerable to HIV have been hard-fought, frequently in political eras when our values and politics were out of favor. We wrote the playbook on how to win during times of adversity. Today, America needs our expertise and wisdom, forged from our painful history.

I look forward to working again with elected officials who embrace my country’s goals and vision. That is an aspirational goal that guides rather than defines the trajectory of my efforts and my ability to thrive.

It’s been a long journey from when my Grandfather had to pay the “poll tax” to now — it’s made me tough, clear-eyed, and nimble when facing roadblocks to my goals. The journey to justice has taught me the necessity of calm in the face of danger, and crisis, and made me resilient enough to redirect initial disappointments and fury at decisions I disagreed with, to constructive action for the survival of my tribe.

Every election cycle is another opportunity for the U.S. to redeem itself, and align the ‘American Dream’ with ‘I Have a Dream,’ and honor the blood, sweat, rigor, genius, and the creative joy of my ancestors as authentic, essential, architects of this country. Voting is my way of honoring that past sacrifice and investing in the future we all deserve.

As we enter the final days before the election, I hope you’ll find hope in knowing that progress is a result of our resilience. We have always gotten through even the hardest times, and we will again.

Yours in the struggle,

About the author

Ernest Hopkins

Ernest Hopkins has been engaged with legislative policy affecting the lives of People Living with HIV/AIDS for more than two decades. He has led national advocacy coalitions, testified before congressional committees, and advised Congress on legislative initiatives. He is the recipient of the Congressional Black Caucus Leadership Award, and leads national policy and legislative affairs at San Francisco AIDS Foundation.