Justin’s 25 for 25
June 1, 2016
Dear Friends, Family, and Colleagues:
In my first week at AIDS Legal Council, almost exactly 25 years ago, I took two calls back to back. First, a successful LaSalle Street banker told me that after his landlord found out he had HIV, the locks on his apartment were changed, his possessions thrown in the alley, his car tires slashed. Reeling from that conversation, I took a second call. A man needed a simple will to ensure his meager possessions would go to his niece, the only family member who still spoke to him after he was diagnosed with HIV. This second case seemed comparatively easy, until he handed the phone to his nurse – it turned out the man was hospitalized – who explained in hushed tones that her patient wouldn’t last the night.
Within minutes I found an attorney at a big law firm who promised to “wipe the floor with that rental agency” (she did, and charged nothing, like so many attorneys over the years). Then the legal director and I jumped on the train to see our hospitalized client. He’d been a day laborer all his adult life. Now he was exhausted and emaciated – there was almost nothing left of him. We completed his will, and as we were leaving he said to me, “I think that’s the only thing in my life I ever finished.”
That was a typical day in the early years of AIDS Legal Council. The mistreatment of people with HIV was rampant, pernicious, and widespread. In addition to daily indignities, people with HIV faced extremely uncertain futures. Our clients and colleagues died with numbing regularity.
Today, as I’m about to celebrate 25 years as a legal advocate with the Council – July 1 is the official anniversary date – the outlook for most people with HIV is very different. Someone diagnosed with HIV can now reasonably expect a normal lifespan. This sea change is due not only to advances in medicine but, just as importantly, advances in social service advocacy. It’s taken an army of lawyers, paralegals, social workers, case managers, peer educators, activists, and advocates to stabilize the lives of people with HIV, especially when those lives are hobbled by generational poverty, mental illness, and governmental neglect. Without a stable life, you can’t make regular doctor appointments, adhere to a complicated pharmaceutical regimen, or access the medical care that can save your life.
Once upon a time, the Council helped people die with dignity. These days we help people build better lives. But even with unfettered access to state-of-the-art medical care and expert social services, the odds are stacked against most of my clients. The substandard education they received, the debilitating effects of institutionalized racism they endure, the still-pervasive animus directed against them simply because they harbor a particular retrovirus, all conspire to give them far less than a fair chance at full, productive lives.
But I believe my clients deserve that fair chance – and that I’m obliged to create the opportunity for them to take it. And that’s precisely what we do today. We help our clients secure income, employment, health insurance, education, disability benefits, and medical care. We protect their right to confidentiality. We fight byzantine bureaucracies to make sure our clients can meet their essential needs. Without us, they’d often be left destitute.
We help build better lives – lives that 25 years ago our clients couldn’t imagine.
So why am I writing to you? Because I think the Council’s work deserves your support. In 25 years I’ve never directly asked anyone for money to support the Council. But with this significant anniversary just around the corner, I realize it’s time to ask. And my courage is bolstered by a prestigious award that I received just last month: the Chicago Bar Association named me recipient of the 2016 Liberty Bell Award, the highest distinction for legal advocacy that can be bestowed upon a non-lawyer.
It is my hope that in honor of my 25 years with the Council, you will contribute to my 25-For-25 Campaign and give $25. I won’t grumble if you give more.
If you need more encouragement to open your checkbook or log in to your PayPal account, consider the important expansion of services that AIDS Legal Council recently undertook. The Council is now one of three programs with the Legal Council for Health Justice. In addition to providing the legal services we’ve always provided to people with HIV, we now deliver legal advocacy to children with complex medical and developmental problems, as well as homeless individuals with chronic mental illnesses. As you might imagine, these new clients face many of the same systemic obstacles that have made the lives of our HIV-positive clients so difficult. It’s gratifying to see how many more people we can now help to secure a fair chance at a decent life.
Too often the lives of our clients hang by a thread. One erroneous Medicaid denial can cut the thread. One unjust Social Security termination can cut the thread. One discriminatory doctor can cut the thread. One ignorant landlord can cut the thread.
And when that happens, our clients plummet – and they face futures as perilous and dire as those our clients faced 25 years ago.
There is a precipice over which our clients can be drawn – not just our clients with HIV, but those with a broad range of chronic and stigmatizing conditions. At the Council, it’s our job to be a bulwark between our clients and that precipice. To stand rooted, so that we can promise our clients, “You will not fall. We will not let you.” The support you give helps ensure that the ground beneath our feet will remain firm, so that we can always make good on that promise.
I hope you’ll join my 25-For-25 Campaign today. I would deeply appreciate it.
P.S. I know fundraising letters like this are usually written by people in the development office. But in fact, I wrote this letter myself, because I thought it important to write precisely what I believe. I hope you’ll join the Campaign.