House of Hope
Providing Optimism, Congresswoman Maxine Waters & Her Peers Forge Ahead for Housing & Healthcare as Democrats Take Back the House
Text and Photos by Sean Black

If your inbox was anything like mine on and around November 6, then you are probably feeling a similar modicum of hope as we now move into what we pray is the last half of our Trump-era reign following the 2018 midterm elections.

For those of us living with HIV, grateful albeit dependent on costly daily medications, we’ve been witnessing a challenge to our country’s founding promises and an erosion of human rights at federal and statewide levels that cuts right into our own homes and neighborhoods. There is an identifiable bigotry that seems to be settling in with a belligerent smugness.

Black AIDS Institute at LA Pride

A few months back, I was visiting my family in Central Florida, a Bible-belt-adjacent and very conservative part of the country and was asked about my “life.” I mentioned the opportunity of spending time this past summer at L.A. Pride with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). One of my brother’s in-laws immediately brought up the Congresswoman’s provocation (to some) to rally people to publicly confront Trump Cabinet members over the separation of immigrant parents from their children. Tension and a brief argument ensued. Defending her call to action, I was quickly reminded, in an elevated tone, that the home I was visiting was “A Republican Household.” As I got up to leave, I was asked to stay to talk it through, which I did. My relatives aren’t cold-hearted people but rather generous, hardworking pillars of their community. They have stood beside me through the loss of friends to AIDS, my own struggles with addictions. They have many times welcomed my trans friends into their homes, well before the current trans movement was where it is today.

When it comes to political ideology, however, we differ greatly. Mine are like many of our relatives and loved ones who lack the understanding of how hard it actually is to exist when you are marginalized, and void of agency granted by a privileged birthright. The rest of the evening was uncomfortable, to say the least. As citizens and non-citizens, or better yet, simply people living in the United States, we all make different judgments based on our own lived experiences, self-interests and prejudices. However, the threat that my medications may one day become withheld or no longer available to me because I don’t look, dress or love accordingly terrifies and angers me. So, as far as I am concerned, I am part of the black, LatinX, and trans communities, as well as being HIV-positive and gay. In jobs I have held previously I have confronted members of the opposite political party and addressed them with kindness and respect, hoping they would see our broader humanity by example. I have had to restrain myself many times when I have wanted to take more aggressive vocal or assertive action.

With Representatives like Maxine Waters in Congress, I feel I have a voice and that there is hope. She is a brave catalyst in waking us up. After Trump’s 2016 inauguration, she was one of the first politicians to call for his impeachment and she has been rallying her constituents to “push back” ever since. Many, like myself, commend her for the bravery and resiliency which she instills in others.

Black AIDS Institute’s Phill Wilson and Rep. Waters

A letter in support of the Congresswoman over the urging of people to protest the President’s staff in public spaces was signed over the summer by nearly 200 black female leaders and allies outside of Congress calling on top congressional Democrats to defend the Congresswoman.

“As one of the signers of the letter in support of Congresswoman Waters, shares Sheryl Lee Ralph [A&U, August 2015], longtime friend of Rep. Waters. Ralph, an Original Dreamgirl, is the founder of The DIVA Foundation, a national not-for-profit organization launched in 1990 to memorialize and pay tribute to her many theater friends lost to AIDS.

“I feel that any attempt to muzzle her voice is an attempt to muzzle ALL of our voices. In this critical moment in the history of this nation, where financial greed is the dominating force, Congresswoman Waters has been the clear, focused and unwavering voice fighting for those most in need. Our democracy is under attack. Thank God that our fearless Maxine is there to speak up and stand up for us all. It is our duty to support her. When we support her, we support ourselves. The Congresswoman was a big supporter of mine when I started as a young HIV/AIDS activist and it wasn’t popular to speak about the disease. I will never forget her commitment,” solemnly states Ralph.

Thankfully now elected back into public office into her fifthteenth term in the 43rd Congressional District of California, Congresswoman Waters represents a large part of South-Central Los Angeles including diverse cities Gardena, Hawthorne, Inglewood, and Torrance.

Due largely to a surge of voters, many first-time and younger Americans, Democrats regained the House majority after an eight-year loss. Invigorated or simply fed-up voters ushered in new policy-makers as well, like Democrat Mike Levin in California’s 49th District replacing retiring Republican Rep. Darrell Issa as well as Jahana Hayes, 2016 Teacher of the Year, the first black woman elected to represent Connecticut in the House of Representatives, maintaining the State’s Democratic hold. Hayes’ personal history of triumphing over socio-economic barriers through her commitment to education then maximizing her impact to others through her lauded vocation reassures progressives that all is not yet lost.

With the House majority victory, ranking member Congresswoman Maxine Waters will ascend to the role of Chair of the House Committee on Financial Services, where she has vowed to continue to address critical reform in the housing and home loan practices to circumvent a recurrence of the 2008 housing crisis as we still recoup from its disastrous economic consequences.

When I interviewed Congresswoman Waters at L.A. Pride this past summer, she was joined by longtime friend Phill Wilson [A&U, February 2014], founder and CEO of The Black AIDS Institute. Flanked by his staff and supporters, Rep. Waters was immediately recognized by young Pride-goers, who gathered near the iconic politician known for her resilience and 2017 “reclaim my time” fame.

“I am excited over the voices of the Millenials who have decided that they have a say and a stake in this great democracy,” shared Waters when speaking with A&U. “And I am especially excited to see that they are going to fight for their place at the table. I am going to do everything I can to give support to them.”

“Being an American for me means that I have the right to be who I want to be, I have the right to express myself how I want to express myself, and most of all it means that I am free,” stated DeAndre Ford at night before the polls closed on Election Day. Senior Office Manager for APLA Health & Wellness Gleicher Chen Health Center located in Baldwin Hills, California, DeAndre is an HIV-negative ally serving the HIV community and has been with the organization almost fourteen years. “Voting is as important as your health—you have to take an active part in it to get the best possible outcome.”

Turning eighty this past August, Waters commenced her career in politics in 1977. Her longevity has resulted in some of the boldest legislation that California has ever seen. She has stood beside those without voice or silenced and has been advocating for international peace, justice, and human rights for almost forty-two years—for more than half of her lifetime.

Preceding Election Day, Waters appeared on MSNBC to discuss the backlash in Trump support presumably resulting in the Dem win of the House.

“We have been very successful talking about our issues; talking about healthcare, which is a very important issue in this country.” Waters continued, surmising that the people’s concerns over housing, Medicare, Social Security and the infrastructure all are contributing factors to the House majority win for Democrats.

She has been a staunch supporter for mobilizing youth, particularly with The Institute, with a track record dating back to the mid-eighties, when she founded Project Build, an organization empowering L.A. youth living in housing developments on job training and placement. “I believe in them [youth] and I think that they are truly key in our future,” continued Waters, now beefing up security over death threats fueled by demeaning attacks by our Bully-in-Chief and his right-wing Administration.

Phill Wilson says, “Maxine Waters (Auntie Maxine) has been an advocate and champion for marginalized and disenfranchised people her entire life. She was the first Black elected official I know to fight for people living with HIV/AIDS, people at risk for HIV, LGBTQ people. Maxine doesn’t just talk the talk. She has been walking the walk and fighting to end AIDS in Black communities since since 1986. As chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, she literally made the Minority AIDS Initiative happen. She has been a personal mentor to me and many other AIDS activists. Without Auntie Maxine, there would be no Black AIDS Institute. She has marched with us, traveled the world with and for us, fought for us, visited us when we were in the hospital, and attended our funerals. She is truly a hero in the struggle.”

Rep. Waters and LA Pride goers

Backing Black AIDS Institute’s focus on expanding access to healthcare services as they have recently opened three clinics in areas with the highest rates of HIV infection is a top priority for Waters. She spearheaded the development of the Minority AIDS Initiative with Wilson in 1998 and under her continuing leadership, funding for the Minority AIDS Initiative has increased to approximately $400 million per year today.

Waters’ upbringing was in sharp contrast to our current President’s whose slurs about her intelligence are disgraceful. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, and raised by a single mother along with her twelve siblings, she began working at age thirteen in factories and segregated restaurants. She moved to L.A. in 1961 and worked in garment factories and at the telephone company. While working, she attended college and, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts, officially commenced her career in public service as a teacher and a volunteer coordinator in the Head Start program. She is married to Sidney Williams, the former U.S. Ambassador to the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. She is the mother of two adult children, Edward and Karen, and has two grandchildren.

A matriarch to her own family and to many, Congresswoman Waters has always supported comprehensive and equitable healthcare policy. At Pride she resounded her claim, boldy declaring. “I think it is very important that we focus on comprehensive healthcare for everyone so that people are not getting sick, are not without primary care doctors and not left without knowing where to go. I think that the AIDS community has done a wonderful job in highlighting these issues, not only about HIV but in healthcare in general. I support Obamacare—I am going to continue to support it and eventually we are going to have healthcare for everybody under one system.”

Sean Black is a Senior Editor of A&U.