HIV Justice Coalition: Preparing for the Next Chapter – Chloe Owens

On October 26, the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition met for its final strategic planning meeting of the year. Just over half of the group was present in Kansas City and engaged in a full day of activities and conversations looking ahead to the next legislative session and beyond. The underlying theme of the day was centered on recognizing where we began to determine where we’d like to go.

For some, this was their first time engaging with other members face-to-face, one of the challenges that comes with statewide coalition building. With that in mind, the group started the day playing a fun, get-to-know-you activity called ‘Anthems’. Everyone wrote down their theme song or a song that motivated them, and songs had to be matched with each member. Through laughter and great tunes, new bonds between members were formed – as well as a new playlist to motivate our work.

LaTrischa Miles and Diane Burkholder, the group’s co-founders, grounded our work by telling the founding story of the coalition. It was in 2011 that they learned about Missouri’s HIV criminal statutes and began convening stakeholders in Kansas City to determine what could be done to change the law. Their story served as a foundation for each discussion the coalition had for the rest of the day.

The most pressing conversation was around internal structure and processes, such as how decisions are made, what are our member and leadership succession plans, what is our best means of communication, do we need a formal leadership structure, etc. The coalition had a chance to work together to determine how they could begin to address these challenges. That collaborative problem-solving resulted in some important decisions being made, including:

  • The coalition will work to create a set of bylaws that detail how they operate,
  • The coalition will meet in-person four times in 2020 – two times during the legislative session focusing on the work to change the law and two times after session has concluded focusing on the health and structure of the group, and
  • The coalition will utilize voting to make decisions and detail specific procedures for voting in its bylaws.

During the meeting, the coalition also had a chance to review a proposal for a steering committee. The coalition has operated with three committees whose chairs have served as the steering committee. With their guiding principle of MIPA in mind as well as numerous conversations with coalition members, I presented an idea for a leadership committee composed of, in the majority, persons living with HIV who would be charged with overseeing the progress of the coalition. There was pushback on the proposal and valid concerns. Would this isolate people living with HIV within the coalition? What is the real purpose of having a steering committee, and is that right for this coalition? How are the accountability standards tailored to support people living with HIV taking on leadership roles, as opposed to hurt them? Would this turn into yet another opportunity for an organization to say they centered impacted people without truly investing in their leadership and listening to their thoughts and opinions? 

We decided the conversation needed to be rescheduled to a different day so we could dedicate more time to talk about what is truly best for the coalition. When an organization supports a grassroots-based group, it must be mindful of how it shows up and how it asks those involved to participate. Empowering others is a balance between challenging them to take on new roles and responsibilities while providing the needed support and resources for them to be successful. Too much of either will have negative outcomes by setting up people to fail or doing all of the work for them. As I move forward with the coalition, the question I’ll be asking myself is, “How am I achieving this balance? How am I empowering our members?”

All in all, our members accomplished a number of tasks at the meeting. They created norms, drafted preliminary mission statements, met in their committees, and determined the topics for the next coalition call. Even though we didn’t cover each item on the agenda, people walked away saying they felt like the time we spent together was productive and necessary. Overall, with agreements and challenges both added to the equation, the day was a success, leading the coalition into the next phase.

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