Stepping Back, Leaning In

Gabrielle Horton (Twitter: @gabhorton); Incoming Master’s in Public Policy Candidate, University of Michigan

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July 5th: Alton Sterling.

July 6th: Philando Castile.

July 7th: Five members of the Dallas Police Department.

And on July 8th, I served my last day with the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office, where I oversaw our Public Engagement efforts in South Los Angeles. The timing of these brutal murders, two of which were documented on smartphone video cameras, and subsequent protests –  including in Los Angeles (where Black Lives Matter protesters continue to occupy City Hall for a second week in a row) – have continued to weigh heavily on my heart and mind.

As the departure date for South Africa drew near, I found myself relieved to be free from work duties, which would have surely kept me buried sky high with briefing papers and emails ensuring our office’s proper response and presence in this ongoing narrative around law enforcement, communities of color, and violence. I even started to mentally frame the 21st International AIDS Conference as a vacation of some sorts, where I would simply join the rest of the ELCA Young Adult Cohort for a week of HIV/AIDS workshops and then return back to “reality” when I got back to America. I figured that 11,000 miles away with complete strangers could in no way match the horror I witnessed on my iPhone screen just days before; and could in no way compare to the haunting dreams of gun shots and bloodshed that I had to shake loose night after night. I was convinced that this experience would finally allow me the peace of mind – even if for just eight days – to box up and shelve away my American Blackness, and check back in once the wheels touched down at LAX the following week. And while I generally understood the racialization – and even the Africanization – of the HIV/AIDS epidemic to a certain degree, I was in no ways prepared for the level of intersectionality of this epidemic, which has so profoundly shed light on my identify as an advocate for urban communities of color, and a tireless advocate in the pursuit of justice, access and equity for all. Both the Interfaith Pre-Conference and formal #AIDS2016 Conference have reminded me of the critical need for those of us “fighting the good fight” to become comfortable occupying new and even different spaces within the struggle. This experience has allowed me, as a heterosexual, middle-class Christian Black woman from a major international city, the unique opportunity to actually sit back and absorb the wealth of knowledge from countless other advocates – men, women, and gender non-binary folks; those of Lutheran, Catholic, Muslim, and Buddhist faith; and  those hailing from other faraway lands including the Philippines, India, Zambia, Guayana and everywhere in between. The diversity of sessions ranging from transgender and human rights, to the role of disruptive technology in promoting HIV awareness among the MSM (men who have sex with men) population, to summer camps for HIV+ adolescents in Goa, India, have proved to be incredibly enriching and heartfelt.

As you could probably imagine given the severity of the subject matter and the rising number of HIV/AIDS-related deaths disproportionately affecting descendants of the African Diaspora, it has been far from an “umbrella in my drink, sitting poolside” kind of vacation. And that is perhaps the truest blessing of it all. It is in these new and sometimes uncomfortable spaces where I find myself listening and hearing more than I speak; shattering my own walls of judgment and preconceived notions; and wholeheartedly exploring what I mean when I call myself an ally to marginalized communities. It has become abundantly clear to me that regardless of how far from home we may find ourselves, and how new our surroundings are, our very core – our values, morals, and faith – never wavers.

Gatherings like the #AIDS2016 Conference only reinforce the critical need for those of us of faith and/or in the public sector to learn how to effectively navigate new roles under the larger advocacy umbrella because at some point each of us will need to step back in order to fully lean into the full and far-ranging narratives of resilience, hope, and love that sets the foundation for our work as justice seekers in the 21st century.

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