Monday, October 26, 2020

“Advocating is the place to be!” Robert Tolbert RIP #EndAIDSNY2020






Tolbert and Owens, two legends and losses with VOCAL, RIP. 


I met Bobby Tolbert in 2001 at CitiWide Harm Reduction.  He was one of the organizers.  If you had to fill up a bus to go to DC for an action, he was there.  Give a speech at city hall, he was there. Bring some insight, he was there. Show some kindness, he was there.  Over that time, he rejected stigma, fought unjust incarceration, acted up, and became a leader, joining the board with VOCAL New York, Voices of Community Activists and Leaders.   

 

On October 24, 2020, VOCL-NY announced: “It is with a heavy heart we share the loss of Bobby Tolbert, longtime leader & board member.”

 

June 2015,

Bobby Tolbert and I talked about his days a decade prior speaking at City Hall as a part of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee after a police round up.  Instead of being ashamed, he spoke up.

 

The campaign to end aids was just beginning. “We knew from the start that this was going to be a long fight,” he told me. We talked about the five-year fight to get the 30% rent cap passed. “But some people were still left out,” he continued. “That’s why we are here today. The time is now. We can end AIDS.”  

 

And like so many times before, he stood up to tell a story at City Hall.

 

Later in the fall, he sat with me for a longer interview.

 

Interviewer: This is the Bobby Tolbert interview.     So Bobby, what can I refer to you as? 

Interviewee: Bobby.   

Interviewer: When were you born?

Interviewee: I was born October 10, 1952.

Interviewer:   Where were you born?

Interviewee: In New York City.

Interviewee: New York Harlem Hospital.

Interviewer: Cool.  You just finished visiting the mayor today.  Tell me about the fight for housing in New York.  What does that mean?  Tell me about it.  What is the struggle with housing?

Interviewee: I mean, it’s so profound that I just wrote an op ed.

Interviewer: Beautiful.

Interviewee: Mmmhmm.

Interviewer: I’ve known you through the years.  I remember there was one, when I first watched you develop a voice, and I think it’s always powerful how people develop a voice.

Interviewee: Sure.

Interviewer: I’d love hear when you developed a voice.  My sense sort of like I watched you stand up with Bill Perkins to the City Council and tell a story, that other people could have seen this as humiliating.

Interviewee: Mmmhmm.

Interviewer: And with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee I think it was about being picked up by the police.

Interviewee: Sure.

Interviewer: Can you, do you remember that story?  Do you remember what happened there?  I think that you’d been picked up by the police and they’d left you in the car for all day.

Interviewee: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

Interviewer: And it was awful, right?

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewer: It was a bad experience, what had happened?

Interviewee: It was a bad experience and I actually wasn’t even guilty of anything.

Interviewer: Of course.  Of course.

Interviewee: But then, when I lived in Brooklyn there was a neighborhood sweep and they just rounded up as many people as they could cuz, I don’t know, to fill their quota or not.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …but [inaudible] suspected of using a drug or possessing a drug, they picked them up.  They came to my apartment and they picked me up on a bogus warrant and had me sitting in the car while they rounded up the rest of the people they were looking for.  You know, and it was a very tiresome, and a tiresome ordeal and embarrassing.

Interviewer: Yeah.  Yeah.

Interviewee: They came to my apartment in front of all my neighbors and just like took me away.  And I wasn’t too happy about that.

Interviewer: But then at City Council did you turn it, cuz you called the media.

Interviewee: Well there were other, they didn’t just call the media about my situation.

Interviewer: Yeah.  Yeah.

Interviewee: I mean, it, my story was included in the narrative.

Interviewer: Mmmhmm.

Interviewee: However, it wasn’t really pointed out during that time.  There were other, there were other testimonies that were paid more attention to or…

Interviewer: Right.

Interviewee: …I mean mine was just an example of how the system works…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …because they tried to get a grand jury indictment on me and the grand jury wouldn’t have it. 

Interviewer: Right.

Interviewee: And they couldn’t produce no witnesses…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …to corroborate their story so they had to release me. 

Interviewer: The City Council was in some ways able to sort of highlight that people have to get a charge.  You can’t just hold people forever without a charge.

Interviewee: Definitely. Definitely.

Interviewer: And so it was it, anyway to me, but when did you first, everybody in their life, there’s a moment when they see something was wrong. 

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewee: Well really what it was, was I was diagnosed HIV in nineteen eighty-five.

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: So it was about nineteen ninety-seven, or nineteen, matter of fact nineteen ninety-nine…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …and I was at Housing Works.

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: And [inaudible] came, was looking for people to testify about the conditions in SRO and at the time I was living SRO.  This was during the Giuliani administration where he thought that people with HIV were living in the Marriott or the Sheraton Hotel when actually, in actuality we knew the reality of that story where we lived in run down dilapidated buildings that were infested with drugs, tests, and other criminal activity.

Interviewer: Uh huh.

Interviewee: So I testified for the Black [inaudible] Caucus and City Council working that year and I didn’t know how it actually worked at the time…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …but I know when I got home I got many calls from friends and relatives about my testimony and I never knew that many people watched CNN, but they all cued in and thought that I didn’t have a powerful voice.  They wanted to know how I was able to get into that knowing that I was a neighborhood guy.  You know what I’m saying?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Ordinary corner of the neighborhood, nobody special.  But through that it, the testimony itself sent a message.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: You know, and that message resonated…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …throughout and it became a thing.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: And I’ve watched advocates from Housing Works and from that, what was then the New York City AIDS Housing Network, and how they went about advocating for people and how strong their messages were and how strong their voices were and I identified with that immediately.

Interviewer: Yeah.  It’s also a voice that said anybody can participate.   

Interviewee: Yep.

Interviewer: …I don’t care who you are…

Interviewee: Yep.

Interviewer: …if I’m gonna [inaudible]…

Interviewee: Exactly.  And how informed they would be with [inaudible] organizations who actually empower people who are directly impacted by the issue.

Interviewer: Mmmhmm.

Interviewee: So I was able to speak about housing and [inaudible] and light in an SRO.

Interviewer: Mmmhmm.

Interviewee: You know, because I was in it.  I was directly in an SRO so I can tell you town from town what was going on.

Interviewer: Yeah, what was that week like?  What was a week like in an SRO?

Interviewee: Oh my God.

Interviewer: Living [inaudible]

Interviewee: It’s not, it’s not, it’s not conducive to wellness, that’s for sure.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: You know, I mean, there’s no security in your room.  You can’t really possess anything because it’ll be taken away from you one way or the other.  You can’t have a quality of life.  You know, I can’t depend on somebody who’s hygiene practices when we have seven to ten different people share the same bathroom and same kitchen.  You know, their hygiene is not up to my standards, you know.  And that again is not conducive to wellness so…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …you know, a lot of things that, the availability of drugs and, you know, just the incidence of crime that are being committed by sex work or anything, you know.

Interviewer: I remember once at City Wide, of the participants, she had been in an SRO.  She lived in a hotel that had a big bathroom that was, the window was open and I remember they said she killed herself.

Interviewee: Yes.

Interviewer: And I just remembered, I always wondered, I always wondered about that cuz I, when you were up there…

Interviewee: Sure.

Interviewer: …I looked, there were no bars, but it was like the tenth floor.

Interviewee: Exactly.

Interviewer: And I was like damn, that looks…

Interviewee: Accidents can happen.

Interviewer: Yeah, I always wondered if, and there wasn’t a, there wasn’t even a police report…

Interviewee: Mmmhmm.

Interviewer: …there wasn’t any cure.

Interviewee: Exactly.  That’s how people living with HIV were expendable.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: You know?

Interviewer: Damn.

Interviewee: They were expendable.  They were a cost burden to the city so the more of them that died, and as far as, you know, they were actually housing people in luxurious hotels.

Interviewer: Yeah

Interviewee: Because their life expectancy was so short…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …that it would save money, you know, in the long run.  They would house them in beautiful places but…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …they would live for only a month or so, you know.  But then as people started living longer…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …it became a cost burden to them so they started warehousing us in substandard buildings that were for profit.  So maintenance was low and desperation was high.

Interviewer: And, but, but it’s, you’re not gonna live in an SRO.  It still costs the city as much as it would cost to permanently house them.  I mean it’s thousands a month.

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewer: And if they permanently house somebody, let’s say it’s cheap but it’s cheaper than…

Interviewee: [inaudible] got left in housing than the hotel.

Interviewer: So why’d the city do it?

Interviewee: You know, we’ve been asking ourselves that question for a long time and I’ve often asked some of the City Council people why it’s done and officials from HASA also.  Why is this?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: And they don’t really have an answer. I mean, it’s all bureaucracy and politics, you know, so…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …Now that we’ve been advocating for years on this subject, they’re beginning to come around and try to make sense of it all.  Ever since the banks crashed and we’ve been in this financial crisis, you know, the economy has been moving.  They’re more prudent about being cost-efficient.  So they’re beginning to make sense out of what affordable housing means and how it affects people who are marginalized by that.

Interviewer: Right.  Right, right.  Well then, so what else have you been involved in over these years?  So can tell me about, you used to go to Washington for actions, getting up

at five in the morning and yelling?  You’re having a great day.  You’re exhausted.  Like tell me about the, what’s driven you?

Interviewee: Well, I mean, the more things change, the more they stay the same so we’re still trying to empty out the [inaudible] but now the governor has a new, a renewed purpose…

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: …of our [inaudible] needs, backing up a plan to…

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: …I think he identified twenty, twenty, which is part of taking a recommendation from organizations like VOCAL, like Housing Works, like Citi Wide, and other organizations throughout the city to follow those recommendations so that we can end AIDS as we know it…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …in New York.  And hopefully it could be a model for every state in the union and maybe even globally.

Interviewer: Yeah.  Yeah. 

Interviewee: And beyond that, well since New York City AIDS Housing Network is branded into VOCAL, we cover a lot more social issues.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: So I’m involved as a board member in every single campaign that we go for.

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: Like we have the Civil Rights campaign and, you know, Black Lives Matter and getting the right back to vote for parolees.

Interviewer: Right back for…

Interviewee: Yeah.  So we have a parolee rights plan…

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: …for, re-entry plan for parolees and the criminalization of marijuana and things like that on the [inaudible], and I’m also…

Interviewer: So does this decriminalizing, it’s like we’re gonna take war on drugs stuff.

Interviewee: Yeah.  Yeah.

Interviewer: Black men are incarcerate and then when you get out.  You don’t have…

Interviewee: [inaudible] empowered the big picture.  We have that, you know,

Interviewer: I mean we have to stop the war on drugs.  If I were you [inaudible]

Interviewee: Well I think overall that, I mean, that’s one of our campaign goals.  We have a Users Union that works diligently on that.  So we’ve broken it down into specific campaigns…

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: …you know, and so our Users Union takes care of the drug war…

Interviewer: What do they do?

Interviewee: Well we’re advocating right now for an Office of Drug Strategy

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: You know, so that we can help people transition back into a more stable lifestyle…using formula two principles and not trivializing drug use but a public health approach rather than criminal justice.

Interviewer: How does this sorta, you said a union, how is it union?  Unions because of solidarity and support [inaudible]…

Interviewee: Yeah, and that’s what it is.  I mean among the members this is solidarity. 

We have a Civil Rights Union.  We have a Users Union.  We have a Positive Leaders Union, which is for, advocates for HI banding and you get, and they’re all positive and they base solutions [inaudible].  And so we’ve broken down our campaign issues into unions.   We also have a campaign for medical marijuana [inaudible] we’re trying to advocate.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: So a lot of our campaigns here were public safety, public health and a viable approach to the issues without being criminal.

Interviewer: Right.  How are we gonna have this city survive?  That’s one of the things I think, back to the financial crisis we’ve learned the banks are really tearing the city apart.

Interviewee: Mmmhmm.

Interviewer: How does this become a livable city?  You know, I went to the Brooklyn Museum yesterday and they were having the Anti-Gentrification Summit and they had gardeners talking about getting kicked outta the Community Gardens.

Interviewee: Sure.

Interviewer: They had librarians talking about libraries being sold off.  They had displacement activists saying my grandma is getting kicked out of my house.

Interviewee: Exactly.

Interviewer: How do we make Brooklyn a place that people can live in…

What do you think we have to have?

Interviewee: Well we have to have cooperation first of all from, from our government…

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: …who vaguely, well particularly our state government who would, are into a really, what do you call it, a personal interest agenda…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …and, rather than a public interest.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: They’ve bought into a special interest [inaudible]

Interviewer: What’s the pers, is that a conflict?  What do you think that’s a personal interest?  

Interviewee: I mean, not personal but a, a special interest…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …for the wealthy, or corporations. 

Interviewer: Corporations.

Interviewee: [inaudible] people.

Interviewer: Corporations.

Interviewee: rather investing in people they invest in corporations and the wealthy.  You know?  And they essentially bought our economy.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: They have bought our government so they’ve earned it.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: And the government doesn’t run anything.  They just facilitate.  They, every time you see anything that dynamic in that work, that’s why joined a number of different coalitions to help it.

Interviewer: Right.  Right.  Right. 

Interviewee: They’re also on the Board of National People’s Action…

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewee: …whose mantra is people first, yeah.

Interviewee: So we work on big, big ticket issues on a national level like the economy, like green gas and like, you know, the fight for fifteen…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …you know, minimum wage and things that are on the national radar.

Interviewer: Well, when I think about Brooklyn, do you think people can afford being here or anything?  People, what is the, what are they gonna have to do to have this place be livable?

Interviewee: Well it’s gonna take more like, more involvement of the residents, the indigenous residents…

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: …because I’m involved now in a case going on in the city where they’re rezoning.

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewee: And nowadays rezoning has come to mean gentrification. 

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewee: So neighborhoods are gonna be drastically altered…

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewee: …and it’s unfortunate that the people who have inhabited the area for a period of time are gonna be the victims of rezoning. Because they are the place.  This place for their place they lived, and by the time that that place that they were displaced from is repaired, they won’t be able to afford to move back into it.

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewee: And that’s becoming the problem so it’s gonna take more, more civic engagement…People getting into government, being inspired by the fact that they need to survive and let that be the reason why they get, go to community board meetings.

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewee: That they go to for the City Hall.  You know, why they go through town halls and why they lift their voices to actually express their feelings.

Interviewer: Right.

Interviewee: Because city planners are gonna do what they want to do…

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewee: …or whatever, and they don’t need your permission to do it.

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewee: And they’ll tell you afterwards that it’s gonna happen but it’s already a done deal by the time it gets to you.  So it’s, it behooves every genesis if Brooklyn, Queens,

to be involved in the local politics.

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewee: To actually have a voice at City Council meetings with, when they’re talking about taking your neighborhood and turning it into a parking lot or a luxury condo. You know what I’m saying?  So, I mean, [inaudible], it’s just more civic engagement, more in touch…

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewee: …on hands conversations with your leadership.

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewee: Like your city councilman or your state assemblyman or your senator for that matter.

Interviewer: Eddie once said, the council there, they can only remember two or three things at a time.   So you have to lobby them.

Interviewer: That’s why I said, that’s why the, why does the city, the city doesn’t wake up and say hi I want to support a [inaudible] and drug users.

Interviewee: Yeah, yeah.

Interviewer: They wake up one day and they say I’ve got [inaudible] and drug dealers screaming at me everyday.  I’d better support, you know what I mean?  You got some drug user health alliances.

Interviewee: Exactly.

But that’s the beauty of what we do because we’ve been able to organize marginalized communities.  Because they want to organize people…

Interviewer: How’d you guys get things started? 

I mean, you guys are also open.

Interviewee: We give them an identity.  That’s why.  Yeah.  We give them an identity and then we translate it into a rhetoric that they understand.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: And that’s how we do it.

Interviewer: How do you trans, so how do they pay attention?  How do, what’s the model?

Interviewee: Okay.  First I’ll give you an example.

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: In twenty ten myself, one of our other board members, I mean, there were four other people that went upstate and we were convening in a senate subcommittee meeting to help task the Surveillance Access Bill…

And so we met with our sponsor who is Tom Duane…

Interviewer: Mmmhmm.

Interviewee: …and a couple of others who were there in the office, attorneys and supportive drug users,  then had a medical official in the office with us.  And one of the aides was supposed to contain the meeting, but when we walked in…

Interviewer: Mmmhmm.

Interviewee: …I had to go to the meeting.  I actually said no we’re gonna convene this meeting because I want you to get a crowd.  Well what your try, what we’re trying to [inaudible].  So we were able, what we were able to do was learn how to lobby, learn how to birddog, and we learned the language of the legislature.  So when we put our terminology to them, we gave it to them in their language and they understood, not the language that we speak in the street.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: All right, so we were able to translate our message bureaucratically.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: And they got it.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewer: All right.  And they saw the sensibility in the it that time.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Because we explained drug use is a reality.  It’s gonna happen whether you like it or not.  Why not make it as safe as possible? 

Interviewer: Yeah.  Why not?

Interviewee: And we started introducing [inaudible] principles and the whole nine …

Interviewer: How do you tell somebody okay, I just think we need…

and I say why can’t put this, put down a drug, why can’t we just say no?

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewer: You know, Nancy Reagan?  Why should I support a drug user?  I’m enabling them.

Interviewee: Mmmhmm.

Interviewer: I’m supporting a drug user by giving them a syringe.

Interviewee: And we’ll continue to say that until you find out your daughter’s using.

Interviewer: Well my daughter would never use. 

Interviewee: That’s what you think.

Interviewer: Yeah. 

Interviewee: That’s what I think or that’s the popular thinking. 

Interviewer: Right.

Interviewee: That’s the general thinking but the reality is they did, that they will.

Interviewer: They will.  They will.  What do I do then?

Interviewee: What do you do?  You try to make it as safe as possible for your child and you try to make it as safe as possible for everyone’s child that’s in your constituency.

Interviewer: In the community, right?

Interviewee: So we identified his community, or his constituency, with our issue.

Interviewer: Okay.  Okay.

Interviewee: And once they identify with that they realize, you know.

Interviewer: Okay.  Okay.

Interviewee: Okay?

Interviewer: And [inaudible], when he was proud of all these campaigns.

Interviewee: Well [inaudible] that moment in twenty ten…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …because it developed the model that we’ve been using ever since and we’ve been successful to the tune of like fifteen legislative victories back in twenty ten.

Interviewer: Fifteen victories.  That’s amazing.  You got the [inaudible] a long one [inaudible].  How did you pull that one off?

Interviewee: Well that took, it took a lot of patience, lot of determination…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …and it just took a strong will and persistence.  Our [inaudible] persistence beats resistance. 

Interviewer: Right.

Interviewee: So we just stuck with it, the same story, and the sensibility, they finally realized the sensibility and they passed the bill.

Interviewer: Persistence beats resistance.  Cuz you had two governors…

Interviewee: Yep.

Interviewer: …you had, you got two vote [inaudible] twice…

Interviewee: Twice.  Mmmhmm.

Interviewer: …whew.  That, how’d that get you the republican?

Interviewee: Because they began to see the sensibility of the two.

Interviewer: They say…

Interviewee: Like we said, like I said, I identified their constituency with the incident.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Now they think that HIV can’t happen in their…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …and they don’t think there’s people living in their constituency with HIV but the reality is…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …that we can actually identify people who are in your district.

Interviewer: That’s right.  That’s right.

Interviewee: So you owe them, you know, the respect…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …and the attention.

Interviewer: That’s right.  That’s right.

Interviewee: So you vote for them.

Interviewer: So then now, when you’re doing this, one of the things in organizing is we’d like to think we’re always gonna have high-minded goals but what about, what’s the fun part, what’s the hard part in organizing?  What are the…

Interviewee: The hard part is actually getting our people, commitment to the issue.

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: And making them realize how it’s gonna affect them in the future.

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: And making them realize that they can play an important part in a positive outcome if they did it well.

Interviewer: The [inaudible] people don’t see that?

Interviewee: Not a lot, more times than not.

Interviewer: [inaudible]

Interviewee: It’s a sad news that people that do like create an effective core, people like that can actually move movable people.

Interviewer: When you were first doing this, what were you working through?  Was it external or was it internal?  Like everybody’s got struggle.  Is it inside or was it something outside?  Tell me about what you were, as an activist, the first battle of truth.

Interviewee: Since that’s fear, public speaking was the first thing. 

Interviewer: Yeah. 

Interviewee: When I first joined VOCAL I was like totally invisible. 

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: You know, I just wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to be a part of anything.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: I didn’t, but your witnessing how profound the effect was with certain people just rose up.  Inspired me to follow that [inaudible] and inspired me to want to be like them.

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: And the beauty of it was that they use their own stories to display the message.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: It wasn’t given to them by somebody else, it was something from within…

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: …that gave the appearance without.

Interviewer: Use their own stories and now you use your own stories.

Interviewee: I use my own stories.

Interviewer: You always make it very personal.  You make it sound like we’re all best friends.  Specifically.

Interviewee: Mmmhmm.

Interviewer: We all become part of a [inaudible] that you don’t ever make somebody feel excluded [inaudible] sincere.

Interviewee: No.

Interviewer: How does that work?  [inaudible] yell.  I’ve never seen you yell?

Interviewee: No.  You don’t have to yell. You can dislike, really if you [inaudible] it’s all really in the words that you say.  That’s how you say it.

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: It’s the message that you give.  And then it’s a delivery system.  Everybody has their own style, of course, and some people are very effective to treat you with both, speaking boldly and aggressively where others can be totally relaxed…

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: …and just tell their story.  But there’s always a message to hear.  As long as you can get the key point that you’re trying to talk about into somebody’s mind and into their thinking process that you’ve done your job.  And…

Interviewer: So the hard part for you is with standing up.

Interviewee: Mmmhmm.

Interviewer: Now what about, was it [inaudible], as a person as an activist to [inaudible] homelessness, speaking out for people that aren’t always the most, society’s most popular.  Did you ever feel a sense of stigma? 

Interviewee: [inaudible]

Interviewer: [inaudible]

Interviewee: [inaudible]

Interviewer: How do you battle that?  Do you ever feel small?  I know [inaudible]

Interviewee: Very messed up.  Very messed up.  But I found that disclosure is invigorating.

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: When I first started speaking on behalf of people with HIV, I was afraid to disclose.

Interviewer: Oh, yeah.

Interviewee: And there came a point where I had to disclose in order to…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …really get my message across.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: But that was liberating, that made me even more powerful.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Now you know the worst of me and I could give you the best of me now. 

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Mmmhmm.

Interviewer: And then, what about the hardest part with, you know, every relationship goes through a sense of meeting, at some point having a conflict, a fight.  And then the question is, is it gonna go in a good direction after that?  Have you gotten to know each other better, or is it gonna be a split?

Interviewee: Mmmhmm. 

Interviewer: How do you deal with the community battles that conv, the conflict?  How do you…

Interviewee: Okay.  When you…

Interviewer: [inaudible]

Interviewee: …[inaudible] internally? 

Interviewer: I don’t know.  I know, just saying…

Interviewee: I mean, my only fight really is against the system.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: And I only deal with my allies.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: So it is, so I mean there’s a love relationship…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …within the organization, outside of the organization, there’s a question in how do, I don’t think it ever turns into a battle.

Interviewer: Mmmhmm.

Interviewee: It’s just that, if anything it’s a battle of will.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Because I’m gonna, I don’t want to get my issue moved.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: All right?  If you’re gonna put a barrier up in my face, then we have a fight. 

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Okay?  But if you’re gonna be cooperative, then we could become allies.

Interviewer: What about, tell me about your friends.  How do you like tell all your friends, so [inaudible] friends, what do they do?  What’s their goal in all this work?

Interviewer: Okay, I mean, I have groups of friends, you know, on many different levels.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: There’s groups of friends that I’ve gathered through my HIV process status.

Interviewer: Mmmhmm.

Interviewee: There are groups of friends that I’ve gathered through my drug using days.

Interviewer: Mmmhmm.

Interviewee: And there are groups of friends that I meet in my side business, it’s my entertainment.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: So I have, I had different walks of life…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …that I approach in different ways accordingly so I constantly had to metamorphosize myself…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …and adapt to the situation which I’m very good at…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …but the conversations we have are all positive.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: You know what I’m saying?  There are people that I had in my drug use circle.  They’ve [inaudible] grown.  They’ve grown internally…

Interviewer: Right.

Interviewee: …and some of them have stopped using all together.  Some of them still use responsibly.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: And are making very good lives, productive lives…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …while still engaging.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: You know, me?  I prefer, I mean, I have to set an example…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …and I use that very well.  I have to be an example of how changes can be made from total marginalization to tell the matriculates.

Interviewer: Right.  Right.

Interviewee: And so I use my [inaudible] and you’ll see it spelled out in that [inaudible] also.

Interviewer: We, do you also, and I mean one of the things that I loved [inaudible] back in the day was just like coming into the holidays, people are hanging out and…

Interviewee: Mmmhmm.

Interviewer: …we would, [inaudible] somebody was in a jam and say you could stay on the couch, where people took care of each other.

Interviewee: Oh yeah, yeah.

Interviewer: I [inaudible] they still do but I…

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewer: …tell me about that solidarity.

Interviewee: That’s all very prudent now because everybody’s in the same position and they can identify with that.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: You know, and they internalize it. 

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: You know.  And they feel empathy.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: And they know they’re for, but for the grace of God go I.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: You know, so they know, they wouldn’t want to be in that position so why let you languish in that position when there’s a possibility that we could do something better.

Interviewer: Right.  Right.  And the friends, and the friends, for organizing how does friendships support organizing?

Interviewee: Well it gives you a vehicle for communication.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Just familiarity gets you a vehicle for communication and that’s the whole key to organizing is good communication.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Because if everybody’s on the same page, you’re bound to make progress. 

Interviewer: Right.  So it’s a vehicle of communication?

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewer: Well what about, there, when you think about the decisions you’ve made…

Interviewee: Mmmhmm.

Interviewer: …what are the hardest decisions you’ve had to make?  Career, making money, not making money with activism, kids?  Like what were the decisions you had to make as you’ve been doing this?  What did you…

Interviewee: I mean, it all started with the choices I made.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: My decision was based, my decisions were based on my choices that I made before the decisions.  You know, so when I was young I had chose to use drugs.

Interviewer: Mmmhmm.

Interviewee: Okay?  I chose to do certain things in my life.  I mean, I’ve always had gainful employment throughout my life…

Interviewer: Mmmhmm.

Interviewee: …you know, so I mean, I was a responsible person but I chose to do certain things.  But when you make choices that have a consequence, you have to live with that and that’s when you decide. 

Interviewer: Right.

Interviewee: When I got diagnosed with HIV, for the first six months I was in total denial and I made some bad choices.  But after six months I realized that I was much smarter than that and I made the decision to live.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: All right?  So I improved my wellness.  I improved my health.  I improved my quality of life by increasing my intellect.  By investigating and learning about the virus that I had inside of me and how it’s affecting me and how I could do certain things to offset, you know what I mean?  So I became wellness minded, you know.

Interviewer: Right.

Interviewee: I made a conscious decision that I want to live.

Interviewer: Right.

Interviewee: I mean, I could’ve continued on the road I was going.  I could’ve been drugging and drinking and sexing and then doing all the things I was doing and just, you know, gave up.  and it was just a moment…

Interviewer: I mean, I remember a bus driver but getting shot.

Interviewee: I mean there was actually an intense building of frustration.

And exasperation that people were always on the edge at that time, you know what I mean?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Always on the edge.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …and you could either fall into life or into death.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: And it was so easy to diverse that [inaudible] and, you know, so many of us were there [inaudible].  But like I said, when you make choices that force a decision…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …your decision has to be [inaudible] toward wellness and that’s what I did.  I made that choice.

Interviewer: You made the choice, that’s wellness.  What were the biggest pressures as an activist, as a [inaudible] these decisions?  What were the hardest parts?

Interviewee: Well I don’t know.  I think the hardest part is just starting.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: I mean, once you get into it, it becomes a downhill slide then.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: I mean, I mean, cuz issues come up and you’re personally involved in it so you can talk about it.  Like I tell many people, we empower our participants…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …to speak on issues that they may have spoken on before I think because it’s easy for them because are directly affected by the issues.  Now legislators can sit there behind their desk and read about the issue…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …but we can actually astound on it better because we’ve lived the issue.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: So VOCAL New York is like a liaison between the people and the legislature so we can translate…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …what the people say to us to the legislators and what the legislators say to us for the people.

Interviewer: Wow.  Wow.  [inaudible], what’s the thing you’re most said that the two thousand ten, is that the thing you’re most proud of?

Interviewee: I’m really most proud of that because that was our first time actually negotiating.  I mean, when we won that bill, it was…

Interviewer: [inaudible] what did it accomplish?  What did that bill accomplish?

Interviewee: It set the stage, I mean it needed to be refined after that, but it set the stage for our model for victory.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Because we know that we had to learn the language of the legislature…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …and we knew that we had to create allies within the legislature…

Interviewer: Mmmhmm.

Interviewee: …and we knew the protocol.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: You know, so when we learned that, that became our winning formula.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: And, in fact, it wasn’t done by any high-profile politician or any pro bono lawyer.  It was actually done by us.

Interviewer: Yeah.  Yeah.

Interviewee: Mmmhmm.

Interviewer: And you, and you, what it, in convincing people, was it just the conversation or was it one conversation after another?  Was it…

Interviewee: Yes.  Continual conversation.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Convincing legislator at the legislative.  Party bill sponsors.  Finding support [inaudible], you know.  And just going with it.  And like I said, connecting the legislator with the issue.

Interviewer: Connecting legislator with the issue.  Wow.  Have I missed anything?  I’m just trying to think of what like, for you.

Interviewee: Right.

Interviewer: What’s the most part, important part, what you’ve been able to do?

Interviewee: [inaudible] Besides my personal elevation for being just another tour to a board secretary…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …you know, and on the board of another organization, a national organization, it’s been tremendous, a tremendous transition and it is the place to be.

Interviewer: Yeah?

Interviewee: Advocating is the place to be.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Because you can be on the forefront of a lot of groundbreaking decisions.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Like [inaudible] and decisions that are at your base, your general community and the community at large.

Interviewer: Get very optimistic when you see VOCAL cuz I feel that you guys are on top of winnings something, and you know, you can’t get down on this city but…

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewer: …you guys are out here showing you don’t have to.

Interviewee: But it’s not only the top for VOCAL people. You know, I made the analogy today, there’s many sites to see in New York City.  You have the Freedom Tower, you have the Empire State Building, you have the Statue of Liberty, and you have the thousands of homeless people walking around the street.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: And that says although we love the Freedom Tower, I think people would enjoy its splendor more from the window of their apartment…

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: …rather than from a bench in a local park.

Interviewer: Wow.  That’s it.  That’s it.  There’s the Freedom Tower, what else did you say?  The Freedom Tower, Statue of Liberty?

Interviewee: Mmmhmm.  The Empire State Building.

Interviewer: Yeah.  Building.

Interviewee:  And the thousands of homeless people walking the streets.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Mmmhmm.

Interviewer: And the thousand are homeless. 

Interviewer: People enjoy the view more.  That’s so good.  Thank you so much.

Interviewee: Mmmhmm.

Interviewer: I really, it means a lot to me that you talked.  I mean, I just, it’s been great to watch you do what you do.

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewer: Watching you become an advocate, it’s really, really awesome to watch.

Interviewee: Well it’s personally gratifying to me because, I mean, I know that I have influence over a lot of people now.  They actually look to me for direction.

Robert Tolbert, RIP.





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