When Philadelphia received federal funding to end the HIV epidemic, Jose Demarco and his friend, Michael Hinson — both prominent HIV/AIDS activists — worried the money would not materialize in a way that would benefit Black and Brown people.
“He and I immediately thought, ‘Oh, no, this money will never get to our communities. It will only go to the large organizations,’” said Demarco, who is HIV-positive. “So I pulled together a symposium of people of color — trans, lesbian, queer — and we had this meeting about the money and just about queer life in general and about HIV.”
“That’s when we decided that this is a really good thing — that we should be organizing queers of color,” he said. “So Michael and I put our heads together and came up with this group,” Black and Latinx Community Control — a committee of LGBTQ+ people of color working to end HIV and regain control of healthcare in their communities.
Hinson and Demarco continued to work together to plan direct actions and tackle the housing crisis — a special passion of Hinson, who was the president and CEO of SELF, Inc., an emergency housing provider. The pair also hosted symposiums.
“But more than symposiums, we really need to be educating our communities,” said Demarco, who is gearing up to launch the Michael Hinson Justice Institute in honor of his friend, who died in 2022. Over the years, Demarco and Hinson talked about possibilities for this project, but it didn’t take shape during Hinson’s lifetime.
“Mike was one of the best advocates I knew,” he said. “He was incredible — the work that he’s done over the years. I wanted to keep that legacy going by creating a justice institute in his name — where we’re actually giving people the advocacy tools and community organizing tools that they need to be able to push back.”
He said the institute’s first cohort will include approximately 10 to 15 people. They’ll convene in April to attend weekly classes at the headquarters of Colours, a magazine turned wellness and advocacy organization that Hinson founded. It specifically serves LGBTQ+ people of color in Philadelphia.
Students will be provided transportation to and from classes as well as lunch when they gather. They will not have to pay for courses or class materials and, if funding allows, will be provided with a stipend.
“It’s Schoolhouse Rock,” he said. “Political Science 101 for people who never got to have that or aren’t familiar with it.”
“Things are going to change a lot. You can see the changes coming now,” he said about the current political climate. “I want to make sure that we as queers of color are able to look out for our communities and for ourselves.”
“We have to become politically savvy to do that,” he added, explaining the importance of becoming engaged in upcoming elections and learning about the legislative process.
Although he said the institute will serve all people, he hopes to empower those who are most especially marginalized — including people without homes, those who were previously incarcerated, and those living in poverty.
He wants to teach the institute’s students how bills are passed and how to lobby on behalf of themselves and their communities. The group will visit statehouses and Washington, DC to put those new skills to use. After their training, he said the institute will support students as they apply the knowledge they’ve gained to their personal goals in activism.
“I’m so afraid of what the government’s doing, what’s happening right now,” he said, specifically noting that some states — including Tennessee and Texas — have thwarted and slowed HIV prevention efforts.
In addition to HIV advocacy, Demarco believes more needs to be done to combat systemic racism as well as anti-trans rhetoric and legislation, which he said leads to violence. He is also particularly concerned with the stigma surrounding safe injection and overdose prevention sites as well as voter rights and registration.
These are a few of the issues attendees of the institute could learn how to navigate as activists — but ultimately the curriculum will be decided by the community itself, Demarco explained.
Demarco is hosting a brainstorming and planning session where LGBTQ+ community members, leaders of queer-centered and HIV organizations, cis-het allies, and other stakeholders can come together to discuss what they think the institute should focus on in its inaugural year. The event will be held in the City Council Caucus Room on Feb. 7, which is National Black AIDS Awareness Day.
“It’s sort of a kickoff event where I want to bring the whole community together,” he said. “I want to bring the whole queer community into city hall and to actually get folks all working together on the same page.”
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said. “I just feel a little depressed because Mike’s not here to see this. He would have loved it.”
“No one could ever fill his shoes,” Demarco underlined. “We always say it’ll take a village to do that. So we’re looking for that village now.”
The Michael Hinson Justice Institute Community Planning & Buy-in Session will be held at 5 p.m. Feb. 7 at the City Council Caucus Room in City Hall, 1400 John F Kennedy Blvd. For more information or to RSVP, visit michael-hinson-justice-institute.ticketleap.com.