Have You Met Erika? | May 26 2020
Erika Castellanos, one of our GFAN Speakers, took some time out of her busy schedule to share with us a bit more about her work with the Global Fund, the trans community, her family and the impact of COVID-19. Thank you Erika for sharing your work and story with us.
Over the past year, I have been involved in and working on a number of activities, at different levels and in various formats, related to the Global Fund and beyond the Global Fund in HIV and TB. A part of my work consists of being involved with different decision- and grant-making bodies, where I can bring the unique lens of trans communities and ensure that we are present in conversations. However, there are still too few of us involved in these spaces.
Every time I sit around the table at Global Fund Board meetings, it is both a privilege and an enormous responsibility. I can feel the weight of my peers and community upon my shoulders, guiding the words that I say around that table, and I am really proud of that.
GATE & The Global Fund:
In addition, as Director of Programs at GATE I have been leading the implementation of our CRG Strategic Initiative Grant. As a team, we have been providing mentorship and capacity building to trans activists and organizations in areas such as transition and sustainability, monitoring and evaluation, advocacy planning, increasing engagement of trans communities in Global Fund processes, and producing tools and guidelines that will aid trans activists and organizations in their work around the response to HIV, TB and malaria.
These activities have consisted primarily of in-person meetings and capacity building exercises, but we have also been available for one-to-one calls with participants to address questions and concerns and to provide guidance to the community whenever it is needed. In collaboration with local organizations, we have developed guidelines for the monitoring and evaluation of Global Fund country processes and guidelines for the meaningful engagement of trans communities in Global Fund processes.
In Partnership with IRGT, we have also developed the TRANSIT smart guide, which is an accessible guide to the much larger TRANSIT Tool. All developed tools and guidelines are available to download from our website.
I have experienced a myriad of emotions whenever we go to a country or a region for an activity. I smile when we achieve our goals, I rejoice when our community is putting what we shared with them into practice, I cry when listening to their experiences around stigma and discrimination and the hate that they endure daily. I have danced with joy when the resiliency of our communities pushes to go further and achieve more, I am saddened and disappointed by the low and very limited funding made available for trans communities and, yes, I also feel extremely privileged to be a part of this community that, against all the odds, is here to stay!
And yet, there are nights where I can’t sleep cognizant of my privileges: having an education, having a job (that I love), having a family that does not only accept me, but admires and respects me for who I am, and I can go on and on… At the same time, the inequalities that trans people face around the world that keep me sleepless at night are the same drivers that push me to go further, to work harder and to not give up.
Currently, we are working on helping our trans communities in a few African countries to get more involved in the country dialogues and the writing/development of concept notes to be submitted to the Global Fund.
To do these activities, it is really important to listen to country partners. As a technical assistance provider, one can have a million ideas of what might be good for a country or a community, but that may be completely the opposite of what the community needs or wants.
To guide the conversations in these countries, we will be using the TRANSIT Tool and will have open dialogues in a safe space where trans people can feel free to express their concerns, needs and challenges in the HIV response. These activities will not be a ‘one-time and we are done’ thing. After the consultations and trainings, we will continue working with the communities by providing a mentorship program for the rest of the year. This will open a direct line of communication between local organizations and GATE and will allow us to address the needs of our communities as they arise.
In addition, as announced at the closing of AIDS2018, GATE has now established the International Working group of Trans Men and HIV. The members of this group, who are from all regions, are working on collecting evidence and making recommendations around the inclusion of transgender men in the HIV response.
On a personal note:
In my personal life, I feel completely fulfilled and I guess it shows with the non-erasable smile I always have! My family – my husband and two children and myself – have moved into our new home and amidst a few bumps along the way, and we are working really hard to pave our way towards a bright future. I can’t complain as I have everything I could have ever dreamed of for my personal life: I have a loving husband that cares for me and admires my work, two smart beautiful children with whom I never have a dull moment, a house, and I am living in a country where I no longer have to be constantly be looking over my shoulder, worried about my personal safety.
When we go out into the field and interact with the end-users, the beneficiaries and our target populations for whom we are working for, this is the most fulfilling experience for any activist and, as facilitators of these processes, we gain as much knowledge as our beneficiaries.
These activities not only give us the opportunity to equip our communities with the necessary tools, but it gives us a direct link to them. We learn of their challenges, their real needs and their extremely high (but frequently ignored) levels of expertise that only exist within our communities on the ground.
Therefore, I have to say that it is essentially important that, when we go into the field, we remain humble and take the stance of a sponge ready to absorb all the knowledge that our peers wholeheartedly give to us. Regardless of the years of experience we might have or the number of diplomas or degrees we have accumulated, please, please leave your “I am here to save you, to teach you and I know it all” attitude at home!
COVID-19 has come out of nowhere and has turned our world upside down. For the moment, I have not been able to enjoy the richness of meeting trans peers in person, but this has in no way limited our interaction and communication nor our ability to provide aid and mentorship when requested. While, yes, it is a bit challenging working in the current times, I, for one, have enjoyed every minute of it. The additional family time, our togetherness and staying home to be able to do other things for recreation, which for me translates to a lot of cooking and gardening!
It is important to have a balance but also to remain aware that, for many, I might even say the majority, of trans people, COVID-19 has had a severely negative impact upon their lives. It has increased their isolation and decreased their mental well-being, and many have no income.
I wish we could do more. In the meantime, let’s continue to be resilient and we will come out of this situation, perhaps not stronger, but at least still alive and ready to continue the fight for our rights.
You can read more about Erika’s story here. She also kindly shared her story with us last year in this video: