As the first Maeve McKean Women’s Law and Public Policy – O’Neill Institute Fellow, it is difficult to articulate this opportunity, and what it means to me, my host organizations, and the community. This fellowship is a continuation of Maeve McKean’s life’s work to advance health equity in Washington, D.C. and around the world. While I never met Maeve, I hear stories about her spirit and commitment to community regularly – people always remember her with a smile. My personal goal this year is to honor these stories, and dedicate this year to crafting innovative strategies for authentic community partnership in her memory.

Maeve’s work was deeply rooted in community partnership, and the fellowship aims to continue that legacy. HIPS, a local nonprofit serving communities impacted by sex work and substance use, is the first organization to co-host a Maeve McKean fellow with the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. Through this collaborative model, I have already learned vastly different skills from each organization – while I have been immersed in legislative drafting, campaign strategy, and coalition building at HIPS, the O’Neill Institute has provided space for me to engage in legal research, policy analysis, and grant writing. This model also allows for the O’Neill Institute’s policy research and writing to become immediately and intrinsically informed by the community-based work happening at HIPS, and it allows the legislative drafting process at HIPS to be supported by, and rooted in, the policy research happening at the O’Neill Institute. In my fellowship position, I serve as a valuable channel of communication and collaboration that flows directly between the two organizations, ensuring not only that the work remains connected, but that the people do too.

My first month has been exhilarating in its varied patchwork of first projects. I had the privilege of creating a visual accompaniment to the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition’s (SWAC) Celebration of Life for the transgender women of color who have lost their lives over the last two years in D.C.. I have met with dozens of coalition and community members, learning about their personal missions and goals. As part of the O’Neill Institute’s Infectious Diseases Initiative, I collaborated on research addressing some of the unmet HIV and social needs of Black and Latinx gay and bisexual men. I also attended the Black-Led Policy Forum Strategy Session, where the vision for work that lies ahead for the #DecrimPovertyDC campaign became evident, as well as the SWAC retreat.

On September 25, members of the SWAC coalition came together for the first time in over a year to reimagine, reunite, and re-energize the campaign to decriminalize sex work in D.C. After months of grappling with challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic and responding to urgent needs in the community, this gathering was highly anticipated. It brought together people from all different spaces – sex workers, dancers, lawyers, organizers, researchers, policy analysts, advocates, oral history makers, mothers – around a single shared goal: to become a community that could and would sustain the movement to decriminalize sex work in D.C., once and for all.

This campaign stands on the shoulders of generations of organizers who have fought tirelessly for the dignity, humanity, and human rights of people engaging in sex work. As evidenced by a recent report from the O’Neill Institute, HIPS, and the Whitman-Walker Institute, sex workers in D.C. are routinely punished, incarcerated, and abused for work they often do in order to survive within the systems that have denied them other forms of employment, housing, and other social services. Due to higher levels of state surveillance and violence, Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ individuals are particularly vulnerable to both police and community violence as a result of their work. This criminalization prevents them from accessing justice when they are harmed, help when they are stuck, and healthcare when they are sick. SWAC’s work centers on supporting local sex workers, and decriminalizing the ways in which people survive structural inequality in D.C. – making the necessary cultural shift in order to view and treat sex workers not as a problem, but as neighbors.

For perhaps the first time throughout this marathon of a pandemic, I left the hours-long retreat with more energy than when I had entered. There were no grand speeches or soap boxes. There were no marching orders or committee assignments. Hands extended, hearts open, the day was dedicated to questions like “How can SWAC be a space for caring for one another?” and “How can we make telling stories feel good?” There was music, a celebration of the movement’s elders and history, and plenty of space for dreaming. It was abundantly clear that this is the foundation-building that I have most wanted to learn to do and become a part of. Building trust within a movement is one of the most delicate and unwieldy components of change-making that takes work, thoughtfulness, and time. While I may not have a concrete label for what it means to be a Maeve McKean fellow quite yet, I am rapidly becoming a part of a community that puts its people first — a legacy that I hope and feel would make Maeve smile.