Watching the news and reading the papers, you’d get the impression that members of Congress are lone actors, toiling away on their own, with an expert grasp on every public policy issue that comes before them. And, to be sure, they’re a hard working and well-informed bunch. But anybody who’s spent time on Capitol Hill knows that the real work on all of the hundreds of laws passed and hearings held every year is done by those mysterious Beltway figures called “staffers.” From meeting with constituencies and agency officials to hammering out 11th-hour legislative deals, Congressional staffers do the behind-the-scenes work that literally helps to keep our government running.
Since the early 1990s, when it came time to secure the federal government’s and/or Congress’s involvement in addressing healthcare problems in the African American community, Fredette West was the staffer to turn to. Holding positions ranging from Chief of Staff for Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), to Coordinator of the Congressional Black Caucus’s (CBC) Health Braintrust, to Associate Staff for the House Appropriations Committee, West was at the center of countless healthcare policy battles and accomplishments during the Clinton era—from increasing access to healthcare and expanding services; to ensuring adequate funding for HIV/AIDS, cancer, infant mortality, diabetes, and other illnesses; to increasing the number of minorities and women in health professions, research, and clinical trials; to ensuring healthcare reforms; to the renowned Presidential Tuskegee Apology. “What I have learned over the years,” she says of the experience, “is that if you leave your ‘me, my, and I hat’ outside the door, you can do a lot to help improve people’s quality of life.”
Chief among her accomplishments were the Presidential Tuskegee Apology and the 1998 Minority HIV/AIDS Initiative, which she helped the Congressional Black Caucus develop and shepherd through the Congress and Clinton administration. The Minority HIV/AIDS Initiative was intended to heighten the federal government’s and communities’ response to HIV/AIDS’ disparate impact on African Americans. It began with an effort to have the administration declare a “state of emergency” surrounding the epidemic in Black communities—a status that would help to ensure funding for African American community-based organization prevention, treatment, infrastructure and capacity needs. It resulted in a $156 million dollar appropriation of funds for the Initiative. This was the first time in the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that funds were specifically targeted for the African American community and other communities of color to help them respond to this escalating health emergency. It set a precedent that has allowed the Initiative’s dollars to continue to grow—to $245 million in fiscal year 2000 and $350 million in fiscal year 2001. “They just did not expect all of that work and concentrated focus from us,” she says when remembering the negotiations with Congressional leaders, administration officials, and their staffs.
When she left Capitol Hill following Rep. Stokes’s 1998 retirement, West founded a private consulting firm, FDWest Network Associates (WNA), which provides consultant services and technical assistance to public and private sector agencies. Its mission is to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS and other health disparities, expand leadership and community involvement, and increase access to health care services with emphasis on community education, leadership development, health policy analysis and development, outreach, and resource development. WNA’s consultant and technical assistance services have played a critical role in a number of HIV/AIDS projects and in programs to eliminate health disparities—helping to create and co-manage The Leadership Campaign on AIDS; furthering the work of Crossroads HIV/AIDS Clinic; providing critical assistance in making the One Voice: Gospel Artists Respond to AIDS campaign a reality; the National Center on Minority Health; Caucus on the Elimination of Health Disparities; and many others.
West remains very concerned about the Black community’s reluctance to demand better health, both in terms of public policy and personal well-being. She says it appears that the remnants of slavery, especially its devaluing the worth and dignity of “Black life,” still haunt us. And, its wounds are glaringly revealed in how we value our lives, especially our health. We don’t practice disease prevention and promote optimal health the way we should and must do to improve our health and live longer. As a result, African Americans suffer disproportionately more than other people from treatable and preventable diseases, and worse, die prematurely. “There must come a time when communities and individuals become sick and tired of being sick and tired, and commit to making a positive difference for themselves and generations to come,” she explains, adding, “You know how sick your community is and what it needs. And, honestly, you know personally what your role must be in helping to address the problem.”
The first step, then, is to take care of your own health—know your HIV status and that of your partner, seek treatment if you are positive, learn how to protect yourself and others—these things you must do—to save us. West would like to see more African Americans engage in the legislative and policymaking processes. Either as individuals or as part of advocacy organizations, West believes that African Americans must follow up their vote with sustained contact, educating lawmakers and agency officials about community needs. “The availability of and access to HIV/AIDS services, funding and other resources is all about legislation, politics, awareness and outreach. Make your voice heard,” she strongly urges. “Going to vote only marks the beginning. Your vote means that you personally authorize the candidate to represent you. That person cannot be you. He or she has not lived your blues or cried your tears or celebrated your joys. If you ask for nothing and get nothing, you really have gotten what you asked for. So, please, pledge to get involved and stay involved for yourself, and your community.”