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Damien Hirst
HIV Aids, Drugs Combination, 2006via Damienhirst.com

I worked for Trump’s HIV Advisory Council: here’s why I quit

‘Donald Trump took away my hammer, and he’s begun to demolish everything me, my colleagues and the previous administration worked hard to build’

It was the honour of my life to be appointed to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) by the Barack Obama Administration, and the decision by me and my colleagues to resign under the Trump administration did not come without deep contemplation and an attempt to give this president and his policies a chance. However, after the passage of the American Health Care Act in the House, it was clear that this administration was not interested in the advice of actual healthcare professionals and advocates, so we left.

I left.

When fellow PACHA resignee Scott Schoettes reached out to the group to say, “I’ve had enough, who’s with me?” I didn’t jump at the opportunity to resign right away. In fact, I struggled with the thought of giving up my seat at the table, but even more importantly, I didn’t want to disenfranchise all of the people living with HIV who I advocate on behalf of, who encouraged me to stay because, “We need you there.” Honestly, I never could have imagined that I would be ‘there’ to begin with – not just serving under a Donald Trump presidency, but any presidency.

I had studied cancer for most of my academic life, until 2008 when I trained for a year in Buenos Aires, Argentina working with HIV patients. My experience was both powerful and pitiful – powerful in that HIV introduced me to the social determinants of health like poverty, gender-based violence, LGBTQ discrimination, and substance abuse, which broadened my purview of public health and made me a better care provider. Pitiful in that I realised that all of the healthcare in the world couldn’t cure HIV as long as diseases like poverty, racism, gender-based violence, LGBTQ discrimination, substance abuse and stigma existed. It was then that my focus shifted from ‘cure HIV’ to ‘cure poverty’, and my work shifted from the hospital and laboratory to the community.

I eventually found myself directing the HIV/AIDS strategy for a major mainline Christian denomination with a membership of over 4 million people, and a health and hunger infrastructure that spanned the globe. This work allowed me to connect with people infected and affected by HIV on an intimate level, and I quickly ascended in the field as a young clinician of colour committed to community and faith-based HIV/AIDs advocacy. Nonetheless, when I was nominated in 2014 to join the highest advisory council on HIV/Aids in the US, I was both honoured and humbled – but I didn’t actually believe I’d be appointed. 

After all, I had only been officially doing HIV/AIDS work for a few years and still had much to learn; but it was the foresight of the Obama Administration that understood the need to have a diverse representation of experts and experiences at the table to best serve people living with and impacted by HIV/AIDS – so, at the age of 32, I found myself among the world’s foremost HIV doctors, scientists, advocates and survivors influencing national HIV/Aids policy in the United States, because there was actual HIV/AIDS policy to influence. The Obama Administration provided us with the tools we needed as an Advisory Council to do our job and do it well.

The Trump Administration has since taken those tools away.

President Obama introduced the country’s first-ever National HIV/AIDS Strategy in 2010 and updated the strategy in 2015 through 2020 with much guidance from PACHA. The Trump White House has removed that strategy from its site and has yet to staff the Office of National Aids Policy at the White House where the strategy’s implementation was overseen.

President Obama gave healthcare to everyone with the Affordable Care Act, including Medicaid expansion for thousands of people living with HIV who otherwise were not able to afford or qualify for care due to their health status. President Trump presented a budget with deep Medicaid cuts and celebrated the passage of the House American Health Care Act (AHCA) that will leave more than 20 million Americans without insurance over the next ten years.

President Obama prioritised public assistance programmes for food, education and housing for low-income families, benefiting people living with HIV. President Trump has waged a war against the poor with his budget cuts to social welfare programs and a tax reform plan that puts money in the pockets of the wealthiest and takes money away from those who need it most, including people living with HIV.

“I tried to work with this president, understanding that I did not serve him but the American people, but he took our tools away and I can no longer do my work effectively”

Finally, President Obama valued the advice of experts and staffed his administration with the best and brightest of their respective offices. The Trump Administration is one built on “alternative facts” and appointees who possess little to no experience or expertise in their respective roles.

And yet, we tried to give this administration a chance. I tried to work with this president, understanding that I did not serve him but the American people, but he took our tools away and I can no longer do my work effectively. A builder can show up to work every day to do his job, but if you take his hammer away he can no longer build with the precision and accuracy that he has been trained to build.

Donald Trump took away my hammer, and he’s begun to demolish everything me, my colleagues and the previous administration worked hard to build. I walked away from the job because I no longer had the tools I needed to successfully build and was not satisfied with just showing up – but I will not walk away from the American people, and will continue to work on behalf of people living with HIV, where obstruction and destruction are not a part of the job description.

Ulysses Burley III is the founder and principal of UBtheCURE, LLC, a proprietary consulting company on the intersection of faith, politics, health and human rights