Through their work with the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s HIV & Health Equity program, Vanessa Castro and Curtis Clinch understand that to truly champion health equity for everyone within the LGBTQ+ community, those in advocacy and public health spaces must make genuine connections with community members, especially in communities most often underserved. They both strive to do that daily in their respective roles: Castro is the program’s associate director, and Clinch is the program’s associate marketing director.
Through their collaborative work, Castro and Clinch help connect those in need with HIV care and treatment and preventive efforts to halt the spread of the virus among Black and Brown communities. They also combat HIV-related misinformation and disinformation by working with community-based organizations, community leaders and advocates to encourage increased testing efforts and dismantle the societal barriers created by bias and stigma, which can prevent many from knowing their HIV status. The work Castro and Clinch do in their respective roles and collaboratively has the potential to save lives. Because of this, their work is as aspirational as it is personal and consequential.
At the center of both Castro’s and Clinch’s work is a personal interest to reach those deep within the intersectionality of LGBTQ+ identities who often are overlooked in mainstream HIV advocacy spaces, such as transgender and non-binary people of color. HRC Foundation initiatives, such as GENERATE, ESCALATE, and ACTIVATE, are designed to connect Black and Latinx communities – particularly gay and bisexual men and transgender and non-binary individuals – with the resources and tools to advocate for themselves and their communities to help reduce new HIV transmissions.
In the HIV advocacy space, tough days can come too often. Castro and Clinch work through multiple initiatives and efforts with many community and advocacy leaders, knowing that the overall need is incredibly dire. As Castro puts it, “every day is an opportunity to do something that can change a person’s life for the better.”
“I believe that we can help transform communities by investing in and equipping local champions with the critical support and resources,” said Castro. “As a realist and an optimist, I recognize some challenges oftentimes make the journey to transformation feel incredibly difficult, but the next generation of changemakers help fuel me to keep going.”
Many of the initiatives that Castro and Clinch work on together connect Black and Brown activists and advocates to HRC’s resources and institutional power to provide them with the tools needed to help end HIV and HIV stigma in their communities. In these people, Castro said, she “has seen how determined they are to support their peers, find innovative solutions to the issues they face and create a welcoming community where they are safe and loved for being who they are.”
“It is inspiring to see so many people come together, united in the common goals of addressing the impact of HIV on their communities and empowering each other to improve their community’s health and well-being,” said Castro. “They help me feel inspired to move mountains to ensure that we continue to move the needle to achieve a more equitable world together.”
For Clinch, empowering future changemakers is important as well. Part of supporting tomorrow’s leaders is helping them understand where division and separation occur in the public sphere, especially when it is imposed through legislative efforts.
“There are so many groups and people in the world who use fear and try to divide us,” said Clinch. “I’ve met with so many people who’ve mentioned my work and, in general, the work all of us do at HRC, has changed their lives. They also need to be able to advocate on a political level and understand how certain legislation perpetuates division and further restricts access to care and treatment. There is power in knowledge.”
While it may not always be apparent, direct attacks on the overall health and well-being of LGBTQ+ people, including those living with HIV and taking preventive measures to prevent new transmissions, continue. Recently, conservative lawyers in Texas attempted to ban federal funding for PrEP on the basis of religious freedom.
There are also new health emergencies impacting people living with HIV in unique ways, including COVID-19 and the MPox (monkeypox) outbreak. Policymakers at the local, state and federal levels continue to fail to meet these moments in ways that prioritize LGBTQ+ Black and Brown communities most impacted. In talking about dealing with these new challenges, Clinch said they were “unexpected but also something that provided me with a new outlook working in the health equity space.”
“There is nothing more important than our health, and with so many policymakers and groups working against our physical, mental, sexual and emotional health, I feel a lot of responsibility to make a difference for LGBTQ+ people. If not us, then who?” said Clinch.
It is through intentional and genuine connections with community members and community organizations that the HIV & Health Equity program has been able to design and build community service campaigns tailored to fit the needs of those directly impacted by the ongoing HIV epidemic.
“The mission of our program is to empower communities of color, especially Black and Latinx communities, with the tools and resources to transform their communities positively,” said Castro. “It’s important for us to see and hear about how that comes into fruition through our collaboration to develop public education and awareness campaigns where our community sees themselves reflected in the work. That includes efforts such as creating support groups for young people recently diagnosed with HIV.”
Castro said she finds inspiration in working with advocates who “stand up to injustice to create a society where all of us are thriving, not just some of us.”.
Both Castro and Clinch envision a world where access to resources and care, whether it be for HIV, MPox or any other public health issue, is available for anyone and everyone.
“‘I’m convinced that love is an action that we can commit to doing every day,” said Castro. “The world feels heavy right now, but when we come together to lighten someone else’s load we are that much closer to equity.”
HRC Foundation’s HIV & Health Equity program is in part supported by a multimillion dollar grant provided by Gilead Sciences to help assist communities disproportionately impacted by the HIV epidemic in the United States, particularly communities of color.