September 22, 2008
Renewing the Denver Principles
by Sean Strub
Another mark of this disempowerment is how people with HIV have disappeared from the boards of directors of AIDS organizations. Several years ago, I gave a World AIDS Day speech bemoaning the fact that some of the largest and best-known AIDS organizations in the country had diminished or only nominal HIV-positive representation on their boards of directors.
And even of those few HIV-positive people on the boards, it should be noted that they are individuals chosen by HIV-negative board majorities. Sometimes the people with HIV chosen to serve on boards are also employees of other AIDS-related agencies. Both are factors which sometimes can cloud or compromise priorities.
Many of these groups were founded by people with AIDS—founded to confront a status quo that was killing us. It still is, but some of the organizations we created to combat that status quo have abdicated their responsibility.
What’s more, they have cast those of us with HIV out of their boardrooms. That has been costly indeed. Concurrent with the decline of HIV-positive representation on these boards has been a decline in our number amongst the senior staff, as well as a decline in advocacy—a “toning down,” with some of the toughest issues relegated to backburner status.
In too many instances, prevention programs with integrity and results became secondary to those that could get funded. Complicated and controversial issues, like fighting criminalization, have been downplayed or ignored. The loss of positive representation on the boards of directors constitutes a de facto abandonment of the Denver Principles’s mandate to fight the epidemic in partnership with people who have the disease.
Representation on boards is, of course, only one measure of an organization’s commitment to empowerment. I acknowledge that it is an imperfect measure. But it is indicative of something that has gone terribly wrong—and which we must fix.
Measuring a provider organization’s commitment to empowerment is not an easy task, but I think it is time that we set out to do so in a systematic fashion.
I have a modest proposal, which is that we establish objective, quantifiable empowerment standards by which we can measure adherence to the Denver Principles.
This isn’t about saying this group is good and that one is bad; it is about providing a yardstick against which agencies and administrators and boards of directors and the community could measure performance.
It is about articulating what “empowerment” truly means in the challenging real world of nonprofit governance, resource constraints and delivery of services to communities already burdened by poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, homelessness, addiction and mental health issues.
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