By: Sidney Skipper
Sidney Skipper on his visit to Washington DC to present research findings from The PLHIV Stigma Index Detroit-
He’s from Ethiopia. A gentle English accent falls effortlessly from his lips. I’m in our nation’s capital, Washington DC, to attend a meeting with colleagues to discuss our grant proposals for AIDS United’s Positive Organizing Project grant, on HIV related stigma. He’s the taxi driver bringing me to my hotel along the tree lined avenue of the Potomac River. Across the shimmering river, coming up on the right, I see the staid, white, elongated, majestic, marble columns of the Lincoln Memorial. The taxi cruises past it, and I gaze at it in awe as it disappears in the distance. When we arrive at the Palomar Hotel, I step out of the taxi into a cool spring day, blue skies dotted with bulbous puffy clouds, smiling at the thought that I just left one inch of snow in Detroit. Walking into the grand hotel lobby reminds me of my early years in the Theatre when I toured Europe and the Caribbean. I walk a lobby like it’s a catwalk, all the way up to the check in desk. He’s Nigerian and has kind eyes, and then I realized that he’s giving me a room on the 15th floor via a glass elevator. Did I mention that I’m afraid of heights?
The AIDS United offices are not far from the hotel. In the taxi ride there the next morning I see cherry trees lining the road that were in blossom last year when I was here. I ring the bell to enter the AIDS United office building. The facilitator of the meeting invites me in and graciously guides me to my morning tea, in a room that smells like coffee brewing. The smiling face of a beautiful brown skin woman in a crew cut is the first of my colleagues that I meet. She is a Health Outreach specialist at Chicago’s Women AIDS Project which has been empowering women living with HIV since 1988. Slowly other colleagues begin to enter the room. Each one brings years of HIV/AIDS expertise in with them. We shake hands, introduce ourselves and put on a name tag.
Michael Kaplan, the CEO of AIDS United opens the meeting on a welcoming note. The first person to present is a tall together brother from Indianapolis that leads Brothers United Inc., which focuses on addressing the impact of Indiana’s expanded Medicaid program on people living with HIV. Brothers United also works towards establishing a statewide consumer advisory board for HIV related issues by engaging both clients and lawmakers. The next person to present titles his presentation, The Winter Gathering of Maine. When he speaks of being able to look out of his living room window at the ocean, the isolation of Maine seems to be an unlikely place to bring people living with HIV together to build community, education, advocacy and strong allies. But when he glowingly tells us about how the AIDS United POP grant made it possible for his team to develop a Peer Advocacy and Peer Ally Group of HIV positive people in Maine. Maine didn’t seem so isolated after all. Sitting next to me is a New Yorker, dreadlocks, stylishly dressed and well spoken. He’s VP for Community Mobilization at Housing Works in New York City. They are dedicated to building a new generation of positive leaders, speaker bureau training. Facilitating leadership roles of the most marginalized of our community not just “at the table,” but, “setting the table,” as the well-spoken brother with dreadlocks so eloquently puts it.
I glow during the lunch break while conversing with a warm pretty young blonde that left her new born baby girl to grace us with her presence. She’s a Field Organizer in Atlanta for The 2015 Youth HIV Policy Advisors (YHPA) program. They have trained hundreds of youth advocates at the Capital to testify at HIV hearings on Capitol Hill. She can’t wait to get back home to her darling baby girl. She has us all laughing at her new mother stories. She says last night at the hotel was the best sleep that she’s had in months. After lunch our Transgender colleague from Philadelphia presents. She has smooth caramel colored skin, hour glass shape, almond eyes and shoulder length black hair parted on the side. She’s stunning. She starts nervous but captivates us with her finesse and beauty as she speak about Mazzoni Center: Trans Leadership, Advocacy and Engagement. Their Sisterly L.O.V.E. workshops take a holistic approach to working with the Trans communities by acknowledging that HIV is one of many issues that impact Trans women. Positive Women’s Network; Philadelphia Chapter, are the next to present. I have had the pleasure of meeting many talented women affiliated with the National PWN. Their members are champions of stigma and are on AIDS Service Organizations (ASO) organizational boards.
My presentation comes last in alphabetical order. Its titled, The People Living With HIV Stigma Index: Detroit. After hearing the presentations of my colleagues I felt somewhat humbled, so slowly I began by saying………….. Myself and ten amazing people living with HIV and our allies piloted the stigma index in Metropolitan Detroit back in 2014. A diverse group of seventy individuals living with HIV were interviewed. Once the interviews were complete, measurements of internalized stigma, perceived stigma and social isolation were analyzed according to age, race, gender identity, economic hardship and a few other parameters. Based on these findings and out of all of the social determinants of health surrounding HIV infection, those of us on the leadership council chose five advocacy priority areas that we wanted to concentrate on.
At the top of the list is, internalized stigma, because 60% of our respondents stated the they felt ashamed of their HIV status, 46% felt worthless, having low self-esteem. Our second advocacy priority is HIV related stigma in the Faith based community. The Faith Based Community can play a vital role in tackling HIV stigma by offering spiritual support. To that end the stigma index Detroit is collaborating with Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer of the United Church of Christ, to host a two day seminar, titled, Framework For Dialogue, where we will bring together members of the faith based community and people living with HIV, in a conversation about HIV stigma in the faith based community. Our third advocacy priority is HIV Criminalization. 88% of our respondents stated that they did not trust Michigan courts to give them a fair hearing if they are accused of not disclosing their HIV status to a partner. Our next advocacy priority is Youth Education and Advocacy. The population of Detroit is 80% black. The CDC has predicted that 1 out of 2 black MSM with be infected with HIV in their lifetime if things don’t change. Our last advocacy priority is Transgender Issues. Trans women have the highest rate of HIV infections in the country.
We shared an overview of our findings in a series of, hour long, Stigma Index, Lunch and Learn power point presentations, at the four major ASOs in Metropolitan Detroit, at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center, I am a US Navy veteran, and at the University of Michigan. In December 2015 I attended The National AIDS Conference in Atlanta where I co-facilitated a roundtable on GIPA and the Stigma Index. In February of 2016 I was invited to appear on a local TV program and given ten minutes to speak about the Stigma Index. And this Thursday I am invited to a meeting at the White House on HIV Stigma: Translating Research into Action, Reducing HIV Stigma to Optimize HIV Outcomes. Our mission for this grant period is to continue supporting people living with HIV in Metropolitan Detroit, by encouraging leadership training for people living with HIV and others in the community. Educating them about HIV stigma, and building networks and safe spaces and support systems that will self-empower them. I close my presentation with a call to action: