hange is difficult. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of anxiety. Many white-led HIV and LGBTQ agencies have recently hired their first person of color to run the nonprofit. I’m very proud because so many people fought for this representation for so long. At the same time, I worry about the success of our new colleagues. Will these leaders be judged by a different standard? The sad reality is “yes”.
There is no playbook on how to be the first colored leader of a majority white agency. I know because I was the first person of color in too many rooms at the start of the outbreak. Suki Ports and I would joke that we were a caucus of two at most HIV conferences. At the time, leaders of color created their own agencies because they did not see their reflection in the boards or staff of AIDS and/or health service organizations.
Iniquity has become a flashpoint. It’s taken decades, but change is happening. How should our movement support leaders of color? I talk about race because of its impact on leadership. Our movement needs to fund leadership development for people of color not because it’s politically correct, but because it’s the right solution. It’s not easy to deal with white people. I am always amazed at the fragility of whites. Additionally, too many people of color living with HIV are no longer being cared for. Too few people of color benefit from PrEP. I’m not saying throw the baby out with the bathwater because there’s a lot of good in it. I simply ask for leadership development to support people of color in key management roles in organizations working to end the HIV epidemic.
There are so many sad stories of agencies hiring their first leader of color only to blow it up in everyone’s face. Nobody wins these fights. Agencies need to do some internal work before hiring their first color executive. When you hired a person of color, you hired a person of color. You haven’t solved the racism in the agency, the community, or the planet. Unreasonable expectations derail the enthusiasm generated by new recruits. While I’m grateful to all health departments and community organizations that hire people of color, make sure it’s not just entry-level positions.
Our community is so quick to judge when someone makes a mistake. As an executive director who has made many mistakes, I appreciate that my board understands the challenges of leading while being of color and who understands that people are going to get upset because I lead with race and call the white privilege. This is a very difficult line for leaders of color to toe, especially when new. Many are accused of overusing racism as an excuse but, again, we all live in different worlds with very different realities. As someone who walks both, some of you aren’t as “woke” as you think. It takes work to understand, work that too many people don’t want to do.
Thank you to all the agencies committed to diversity, equity and inclusion. This is an important next step, but there is still a long way to go. Too often, workplace values and systems persist while customers and staff change. Too many HIV meetings take place where the community is diverse, but the government is not. Health services are not exempt from the need to be diversified. Besides color, this diversity must include sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and NMAC means education.
As a highly educated person, I think the education requirements for the job are wrong, especially in the area of HIV. Our work requires staff to know communities that you can’t find in textbooks. Sometimes lived experience is more important than a BA. It’s time to value the community. Another reason I talk about race is that our work lacks it too much. Community-led systems should be supported and valued. Professional standards are not necessarily community standards. Existing systems retain 49% of all people living with HIV in care, but they are not reaching all the people needed to end the epidemic. Again, we need to conserve the good and use new funding to find ways to reach those who have broken down or are not being reached by existing systems. It’s time to expand our business model to include the urban market.
My plea is not just to hire people of color, but to give them the support and resources they need to succeed. Things you take for granted may not be their reality and vice versa. Too many executives of color have had horror stories from donors who are friendly to the movement but less understanding of race or gender identity. Unless you’ve been there, it’s almost impossible to appreciate the trauma these encounters create, having to smile while a wealthy person says, “You’re one of the good people of color.” It really happens. I have too many stories and too many names of donors who just don’t get it.
It comes down to dignity and respect. It’s what we all want and deserve. In the ideal world, everyone would be treated as straight white cisgender men while keeping their community identity and values. Until this day, it is important to understand that our worlds are not the same. Being a color leader is tough, especially when people say they don’t see color. There is no blueprint for how to run a predominantly white agency as a genuine person of color. But understand that you will be judged on the basis of values that are not yours and/or that you may not even know. Pass these life lessons on to the next generation. Hopefully there will be a time when no one is judged by the color of their skin. A boy can dream! Thank you for the privilege of saying difficult things.
Yours in the fight,