VOCAL Heard: Head, Heart and Bullhorn
Editor's note: As we go to press, VOCAL-NY has just won another much-lauded victory. Last week, after sustained pressure led by VOCAL, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly instructed police officers to stop arresting people for carrying small amounts of marijuana. These costly arrests profiled young Black and Latino men in the poorest neighborhoods. The following article explores the ongoing work of VOCAL-NY, and their several other recent victories.
Entering through the front door of their Brooklyn headquarters, the visitor takes in the sights and sounds of VOCAL's small army of constituent-activists, sitting around a conference table, at work on their own behalf. The stories of their lives are complex; many are former drug users, or struggling with homelessness, have been incarcerated, and affected by HIV. Others are the family members of someone lost to the AIDS epidemic, who pledged to their loved one that they would carry on the fight to end the stigma and devastating health effects of the epidemic. They are there to engage and be engaged. What preparation is demanded for the next trip to press Albany lawmakers about their issues and concerns? Who are allies on this trip? Who in their circle is in need of food or medicine?
These are essential aspects of Voices of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL). "And they're extremely important," said George Bethos, 52, a founder of what, until last year, was the New York City AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN), an organization launched in the late 1990. "Before VOCAL, we'd had so little say in all kinds of decisions, politically, in the medical system, all the bureaucracies that affect the community. All kinds of decision about our lives were being made by people who in many cases were very well intentioned, who had more degrees than a thermometer but had not actually lived the life."
VOCAL Speaks Up
VOCAL members have all felt firsthand the impact of being silenced. And they have fought back, winning victories that have gained state and national attention: A 2000 law expanded access to clean syringes to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C by allowing drug users to pick them up at pharmacies without a prescription. A 2003 FBI investigation and National Public Radio coverage of the illegal placement of those with HIV/AIDS in halfway homes run by a slumlord. In partnership with other housing advocacy groups, the 2006 Safe Housing Act, which grants the right to immediate repairs to hazard-laden housing where the slumlords have been unresponsive.
In the ongoing budget-tightening of this Great Recession--when some lawmakers are more bent on shoring up Wall Street than the Average Janes--VOCAL has dared to confront the politicians head-on. "A New York Times article called them hecklers. "I would call them patriots, heroes, she-roes," said Hugh Hogan, North Star Fund's executive director. "This is the kind of group that makes our democracy what it is. They proudly go to places that others fear. They don't patronize. They don't judge. They build confidence and power. They have an incredible analysis of the powerful and the disenfranchised."
VOCAL's persistence, coupled with its results-driven, constituents-as-leaders movement building has made it a valued grassroots institution whose work North Star has been proud to support since VOCAL's founding in 1999. The foundation's longstanding support is prompted by VOCAL's finesse at rallying low-income communities facing the intersecting issues of HIV-AIDS, intravenous drug-use, imprisonment--and a society that can be wholly inhospitable, if not outright hostile, to those affected by that trifecta of issues. "We've seen VOCAL emerge brilliantly as a major leader on issues where there's a lot stigma," Hogan said. "These are issues that most people in American society don't want to take on."
Last year, VOCAL was selected to be among the first five recipients of North Star's new Movement Leadership grant. These two-year, $25,000 grants are the cornerstone of the foundation's new grantmaking strategy. The grants include a peer-learning program, designed to get community organizing groups talking and working together, as well as sharpening their own work. According to Walter Barrientos, North Star Fund's program officer, "VOCAL works at an incredible fast-pace, with a far-reaching strategy. In their campaigns, they target all of the decision-makers, instead of -- for instance-- one agency, or one senator. Within the Movement Leadership peer group, VOCAL pushes other groups to a new understanding of their capacity, and what is possible to achieve."
This year, North Star Fund honored VOCAL with a Frederick Douglass award at the foundation's Community Gala in May. The honor came on the heels of a year with three major victories that VOCAL achieved in 2010:
- They won a law expanding access to syringes to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, and requiring education for law enforcement.
- In the legislature, they passed an affordable housing protection bill for 10,000 low-income New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS and their families at risk for homelessness. (Governor Paterson vetoed the legislation, but the fight continues.)
- They ended prison-based gerrymandering in New York, which undermined the principle of one person, one vote, in coalition with Citizen Action, the Prison Policy Project, the Voter Enfranchisement Project, and others.
VOCAL'S Strategy Is Multi-pronged
By necessity, VOCAL's advocacy has involved the broad set of AIDS-, prison- and drug war-related challenges that its constituent-members confront. "Racial and gender inequalities, from the disproportionate incarceration of blacks and Latinos for drug offenses to discrimination against LGBT people within the healthcare system," are infused in the issues that VOCAL takes on, said Sean Barry, 29, VOCAL's executive director since late 2007. "For example, in white communities, drug use is more often dealt with as a public health instead of a criminal justice issue."
Not so if you're of color, as are 90 percent of VOCAL's 1,000 active members, people mainly concentrated in New York City's five boroughs, Westchester County and Albany. (Statewide, VOCAL estimates that there are 150,000 people living with HIV/AIDS and over 200,000 injection drug users. ) Not so if you're poor, sick, lack sufficient health insurance or money for rent. Adding the stigma of a prison sentence--and the formerly incarcerated are a core part of VOCAL--further adds to the complexities. "You put your 10, 20 years in and you ought to be able to come out with a clean slate. But you don't," said Wayne Starks, 61, a VOCAL board member.
Against the backdrop of those myriad concerns, VOCAL regularly shuttles members to Albany and Washington, D.C., to make their case. (Last March, 10 VOCAL members were arrested, along with members of Community Voices Heard (CVH) while insisting that New York legislators "Put the people before Wall Street.") Their lobbying included telling Gov. Andrew Cuomo that, budget shortfalls aside, his proposed cuts would push many of them and others who fit their profile deeper into the shadows. Even before the present round of budget cuts, VOCAL had been pushing for such initiatives as voting rights for formerly incarcerated people; affordable housing, including a measure that precludes those with AIDS who get government rent subsidies from paying more than a third of their income in rent (for some, 80 percent of their disability checks now go toward rent); more ready access to clean syringes for heroin addicts (widely recognized as one of the most effective forms of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C prevention); immunity from prosecution for those who report a drug overdose.
And for good measure, members have said, how about some common decency on the part of the welfare caseworkers with whom many members must interact as they inch toward becoming more productive citizens? "Sticking to a plastic chair for 10 hours a day while trying to get Medicaid or a $150 in food stamps--it's such a degrading, exhausting system," Bethos said. "Some people say 'screw it,' and instead do pretty crimes, boosting, small drug sales ... unfortunately, trading sex. Particularly the women are vulnerable to really serious consequences of doing that."
"Poverty and homelessness," executive director Barry said, "are the major drivers of the HIV epidemic, and both of those factors are closely tied to structural racism in this country. When people are unable to meet basic needs like housing or food, it makes it difficult for people to focus on taking medication, visiting the doctor or practicing safer sex."
He continued: "The impact of poverty on the epidemic plays out in lots of different ways. For example, it's harder for poor women to negotiate safe sex when they're financially reliant on male partners who refuse to use a condom or because they fear getting kicked out of the house."
VOCAL is all about ramping up the dialogue, said Wanda Hernandez, 48, another member on VOCAL's board. "I'm HIV positive. I just felt that some of us needed to step up," she said. "I've always been an outspoken individual but I've found a way to use that power, to use my voice in the community and for the community. I'm a part of VOCAL because it has made me who I am today."
That Hernandez feels this sense of pride and call to action reflects the solidarity within VOCAL, said Barry, who, in his youth, got sent to rehab for his drug use while his black friends, from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., went to jail. "I eventually started to get radicalized around those kinds of things," he added.
VOCAL's members have trod their own path into social justice advocacy. "Being judged and stigmatized underlies all their experiences," Barry said. That commonality is "one of the reasons we have people from extremely different walks of life collaborating and struggling together. We've got people from the city's poorest neighborhoods who've spent most of their lives locked up working side by side with white, gay men from Chelsea or the Village who used to have good jobs -- and then both of those groups working alongside women from Brooklyn and the Bronx who've had an extremely hard time in other ways. It doesn't mean racism or sexism or homophobia doesn't come up and create challenges, but people are committed to putting those issues at the forefront of our work internally as well as externally. People build community in an organic, member-driven way."