I grew up in a house of strong Black women. My grandmother, Phyllis, was the center of our family. She taught me how to cook, the importance of compassion, what it means to be a part of a family, and perhaps most significantly the importance of showing up to the table. In our home, that meant not just showing up to the dinner table on time, but truly being present, celebrating our successes, but also humbly acknowledging and owning our failures.
I’m writing this open letter to our community on behalf of Cascade AIDS Project (CAP) to acknowledge that our work with the Black community in Portland has been lacking. Our time for showing up at the table is far overdue, and I am deeply sorry that CAP has not been historically more responsive to the black community.
To that end, I am reaching out to you today with humility and respect to take responsibility for our missteps of the past, to validate the experiences you may have had with our organization over time, and to humbly ask for your help in rebuilding a relationship of mutual trust and respect so that those in the black community who are living with or impacted by HIV can more easily learn about and access the services they need in the culturally responsive manner that they deserve.
After extensive conversations with community stakeholders, CAP hired an external consultant, Sirius Bonner, to bring expertise and a critical eye from outside of the organization to help us implement and improve racially affirming organizational practices, particularly as they apply to employing and serving the black community. This decision was made as part of understanding feedback from those we serve and from the experiences of past and current employees that taught us that we cannot rely solely on our Black staff to bear the workload of making CAP more welcoming place for Black people.
As a part of this process and our organizations ongoing and deeply held commitment to racial equity and to improving our ability to affect health equity across communities, we closed our doors and engaged in critical but difficult conversations about privilege and power in healthcare and the racism, discrimination and historical trauma faced by the black and brown communities of Oregon throughout time. We provided training on microaggressions, implicit bias, and established a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee which has recently begun to conduct our annual equity audit and the drafting of an equity plan to guide our organizations work through a racial justice framework.
For some, this will be a lot of new information, history, experiences, and context that undoubtedly challenges some core beliefs about the fundamental fairness of our nation. For others, it will be an opportunity to build on a foundation of knowledge and lived experience in a new environment with a different set of people. For all of us, there have and will continue to be varying moments of discomfort... and that's okay. In fact, I personally believe that growth and strength come only through continuous effort and learning to sit and work through that discomfort in our own time and way. This is emotional, difficult, but critically important work--especially for an agency that prides itself on social justice.
This is a moment in history where we cannot afford to be silent or complacent. We have an opportunity to begin to articulate a collective vision for addressing HIV in our communities that is grounded in racial and social justice; and builds on the inherent strengths in our communities. It is an opportunity to uplift a new generation of leaders and highlight innovative programming that is community-born and driven. It serves to remind decision-makers at all levels that a community lens is paramount. As the founders of the AIDS movement knew there should be nothing about us, without us. CAP has a responsibility and a newly held commitment to leading with race.
For me, leading with race means CAP knowing when to step up or step back, and learning how, where, and when the community needs us to provide services in the lowest barrier ways possible. The first part of this journey has been working with Sirius and understanding where we go next as an organization, all while we continue to diversify our board of directors, staff, volunteers, and those we serve. I’m attaching to this letter her unedited report with recommendations for our organization over the next three years.
At first, this report was not easy for me to read and it was a lot to absorb. If I'm honest, I have been a bit overwhelmed as I’ve processed the information and our conversations, but above all, I'm committed to the importance of this work for CAP and the communities we serve.
The next immediate step in our journey has been forming a new partnership with the Urban League where CAP will be subcontracting with them to hire an employee that will provide medical case management services to members of our Black community living with HIV through funding from the Minority AIDS Initiative. We chose to work through the Urban League because we know that they are better positioned than we are to reach members of Portland’s Black community who need our services. We cannot let our ego or pride get in the way of serving our community in the most effective way possible--and sometimes that means taking a step back to let others lead.
As a Black, gay man living with HIV in Portland, I am proud to see CAP owning our past, doing the hard work in the present, and making the commitment to show up in the future.
So, here I am pulling up my seat at the table, trying to make my grandmother proud by showing up, and I’m asking for your help, because CAP cannot rebuild this bridge alone.