Honoring Clients as Teachers

AIDS 2012: The International AIDS Conference on the state of AIDS around the globe will begin in Washington DC on Sunday July 22nd. It has me thinking back to a time when the AIDS crisis was just beginning. Fresh out of law school, I found myself on the front line in the fight against the discrimination faced by those early victims of the disease.

Science was racing to discover, name, and treat this mysterious disease. It was a scary time because scientists weren’t sure how the disease was spread.  Many feared it was as contagious as a cold. People who worked with AIDS patients worried about whether they would somehow take this deadly disease home to the ones they loved.

As a newly hired lawyer in DC’s Office of Human Rights, I handled the AIDS discrimination complaints and became a part of the AIDS education team throughout the DC area. I met many courageous people willing to share their stories and help educate the public by putting a human face on the disease. Many of them passed away within a few months of sitting on panels next to me at conferences or speaking at events that we had arranged.

The one hour class I designed – to educate employers and managers about their legal responsibilities not to discriminate in the workplace – swelled to three hours of intense interactions exploring some of life’s deepest and most difficult challenges: making a living for your family and facing down the fear of the unknown. In these workshops, I learned how to use the stories that arose “in the moment” to help move our shared education effort forward.

For example, I remember an intense training with health care providers in which one participant thought that the antidiscrimination law was unfair.

“My brother had a car accident a couple of years ago and the team at our hospital was great,” he said. “They saved his life. They do wonderful work. How can the law ask them to risk their lives with this thing?”

I asked him a surprising question: “What if your brother came to you tomorrow and said, ‘Look man, I have something to tell you. Remember the car accident? Well I had to get blood to save my life back then. Now I’m HIV positive.’ How would you want the hospital to treat him?”

He paused, thought deeply and finally said, “They’d better take care of him. He’s my brother.”

His love for his brother helped him see past his fear. The “what if” exercise had helped him see the situation with new eyes. Then we moved into the difference between decisions based on fear and those based on facts. Experiences like this serve as the foundation for the In-This-Moment action scenarios I use in training today.

This was not what I thought my first legal job would be like. But life in the trenches is rarely as we imagine. I quickly became a committed workaholic. By night, and early morning, I read the most recent findings released from the CDC on the latest discoveries. I was glad for my experience working as a phlebotomist before I went to law school. By day, I spoke to groups presenting the new facts as they evolved; we talked about our complex emotions and the constant challenge of making decisions based on facts, not fear.

I told the story of my first field visit to a client diagnosed with AIDS and being offered cake and Kool-Aid by his loving grandmother. I knew my client must have used the utensils she gave me many times. For a moment, I was afraid. I reminded myself that I had spent months reading that no caregiver had become ill after changing or feeding a baby with the virus. That quickly pushed me past the point of fear and I enjoyed cake and Kool-Aid with my client. Each of us working in the area at that time faced similar moments of truth and had to choose between facts and fear.

I spent the next few years serving on committees, speaking, handling discrimination complaints, going to memorial services, and following the science. My church choir sung at one funeral after another and I volunteered on hospice teams for people I had come to know through this difficult work.

As the international conference returns to Washington this month, I look forward to catching up on the advances being made by those still working on the front lines of one of humanity’s biggest challenges.

I am honored that my career began in the trenches helping clients with HIV/AIDS. I worked with extraordinary men and women who fought not just the physical effects of the virus, but the fear and discrimination that came with it. I think of them often, and I’m grateful for the lessons in courage and dignity that they taught me.


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