VOCAL-NY 20th Anniversary Gala Remarks

by Jawanza James Williams

Abridged from a transcription of remarks given at the 20th Anniversary VOCAL-NY Gala on Thursday, September 19, 2019. Watch an excerpt of Jawanza speaking here.


Call to Ancestors:

I hear the voices of centuries past, singing in chorus, a language my tongue can never speak, but I feel it deep in my bones when Black blood wets the earth, and another opens their mouth, from which crawls the parts of revolution- words for some, movements for others, but all, demanding dignity.

I learned about VOCAL-NY during what was perhaps the most difficult period of my life, when my very mortality was called into question and where the world was fixed between ARVs and the loaded, aimed, and violent Guns of police. In the same breath that I learned my HIV status, Trayvon’s murderer was exonerated, stirring my spirit; and later, marching across the Brooklyn Bridge with thousands, defiant because Eric couldn’t breathe and white supremacy was no longer only about attitudes but about the very fabric of the world we’ve inherited, and is something to be dismantled, taken apart, something tangible—I knew that I’d been reborn in movement, in the service of humanity, and of my own life.

VOCAL-NY made dense what was amorphous, VOCAL-NY gave me a vehicle to move differently.

I remember the early days when Lavern, a leader in the Positive Leaders Union, who has since passed, provided a table of HIV+ community leaders with a political analysis that rivaled the best argument of any strategist, leaving me struck by the reality that: ordinary people engaged in extraordinary work are nuanced—because of their struggles. That the urgency of the crises visited upon our people is not lost to talking points, flash-points of press interest, and does not hang on the interests of profit seeking institutions, but instead: on the people whose very lives hang in a balance that was never set with them in mind; people that have no choice but to lift up their hands and contend with the world as is; and people that have the strength, brilliance, and courage to wrestle with hegemonic forces both seen and hiding, to call for a city, a state, a country, and ultimately a world, where we can be free and self-determined.

We must be housed to be free. We have to be unshackled, unburdened by disease, able and encouraged to participate in this democratic experiment, free of crisis so that our incredible human imaginations can be employed to a degree that has not yet been possible, so that we can imagine new futures.

We will continue to perfect our organizing model, and continue to locate ourselves in movements for human rights, respecting the continuum from which we emerge and contribute to today. We are committed to moving in cadence with the needs and calls of people impacted by the issues that we will see crushed. And the only end for VOCAL is tied with ending HIV, homelessness, mass incarceration and the drug war. If they exist, so will VOCAL-NY. We will continue pulling this state towards the left, bridging rural and urban, crafting an indivisible multiracial front able to successfully challenge power via our own power born of struggle, consideration, people, and love, configured towards liberation.

I want to say specifically to VOCAL-NY Leaders—we are so thankful for you. I’ve struggled to put into words how much you’ve all consistently challenged us to grow and inspired me to recommit my life to this work, every time I hear a story, am offered a token of appreciation, am reminded how volatile our lives are. You must always remember that VOCAL-NY is your organization, it belongs to you, and that there is no future without you. You do a thing in the world that is equal parts concrete and spirit—something ontological, political, fierce and quintessentially human. You are exactly who we have been waiting for. Own that power.

Finally, I am called to urge all of us in this space to recognize the unique responsibility we hold as people of conscience in this particular time. We are at a crossroads in the human experience—our planet is in peril, democracy is under attack globally, toxic ideas like patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, nationalism are putting up a fight as we try to unroot them—and make no mistake, the issues that VOCAL-NY contends with are driven and exaggerated by these inhuman phenomena.

I call on you to continue building with us. I call on you to lock your fingers with ours to push back. I call on you to take up the mantle and fight for the world we all deserve, because power concedes nothing without demand, because we are only as strong as those that are in coalition with us. I call on you to act and give today, because the world we deserve is not possible without all of us working together to make it a reality.