A GoPride Interview

Ann Hilton Fisher

Ann Hilton Fisher: It’s connecting people to healthcare, it’s trying to battle some of those barriers – make the world a better place.

Thu. June 7, 2012  by Terrence Chappell

It’s connecting people to healthcare, it’s trying to battle some of those barriers – make the world a better place.
Ann Hilton Fisher

ALCC's Ann Hilton Fisher is an ardent fighter for the underdog

Ann Hilton Fisher is self-aware – a quality most are unable to claim. However, she isn't just aware of her own privileged background of a good family, financial stability, and good schools, but she's aware of the inequalities that exist beyond her own world – a quality only found in leaders. Fisher's multi-awareness and sensitivity matched with her intrinsic drive to help her fellow man in need doesn't come from a place of duty but from a place of passion – making her an ardent fighter for the underdog.

From her tenure at the Legal Assistance Foundation where her case load ranged anywhere from battered women to car reposition to her current role as the executive director of the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago where she was responsible for getting thousands of people access to Medicaid, it's simply about making the world a better place through both successful individual and systemic work according to Fisher.

The ALCC takes on anywhere between 1,300 to 1,400 cases a year; of course, each with its own story, bureaucratic red tape, and implications. Rather or not a case's end result affect the individual or the masses, Fisher and her team approaches each one with the same vigor, tenacity, and pragmatic reasoning. According to Fisher no phone call gets ignored, no question goes unanswered, and ultimately no case falls between the cracks.

"We may not like our answer, but we'll pick up the phone and have one," declares Fisher. Above all, it's Fisher's passion and good ole past time family values that keep her taking cases and answering phones – after all, she is a child of the 60s.

TC: (Terrence Chappell) You have a well-curated background in social justice and public service. Were you that kid on the playground defending other kids who were targeted by bullies?

AHF: (Ann Hilton Fisher) I'm a child of the 60s, and it was the passion of my youth as it relates to the Civil Rights Movement. It was sort of the thing that caught my mind and caught my interest in the early 60s when I was in high school. I went to college intending to do public service work of some kind.

TC: How was it growing up in the 60s, with your background, and having this passion for social justice?

AHF: I was a high school kid in a small, mostly white town in upper Michigan. So, my participation in the Civil Rights Movement was mostly wearing a black and white equal sign on a button. But it was the cause that just spoke to who we were as a society. My parents very much were members of the NAACP and just felt very strongly about the cause.

One of the core values that I grew up with is that we are all here to make the world a better place.

TC: So, it seems as though your passion led you to being a lawyer?

AHF: I got a job out of college working for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission as a civil rights investigator, which was directly in line for what I wanted to do in Detroit. At the time, there were a lot of people going to law school. I didn't have a particular passion to be a lawyer but it looked like a tool. I was up against lawyers all day, and I always felt like they were saying, "I know something you don't know. I know a secret language you don't know. I'm the lawyer and you're not." So, I went to law school at night and worked during the day. I never became a lawyer looking to work at a big firm. It was always to do something connected to social justice.

TC: What sort of cases were you working on at the beginning of your career?

AHF: On the advice of a friend, I went to the Legal Assistance Foundation, which at that time, according to my friend, they were doing the best individual work and best system's advocacy of any legal services program in the country, and that sounded right to me. I've always liked that combination of the individual and the advocacy. I went into a neighborhood office. I worked on the West side. I worked on Madison and Cicero and then on Kedzie and Arlington doing all the things legal services lawyers do: battered women, car repositions, apartment evictions, and some other big cases. I burned out really fast doing that.

TC: But you stayed.

AHF: Yes. They [Legal Assistance Foundation] started an HIV law project and they asked me to be a supervisor of it. So, I went from general neighborhood poverty law, disability law to HIV law. And that was my transition – back in 1994. And then I was recruited to be the executive director here [AIDS Legal Council of Chicago] in 1997.

TC: Your past work experience could have landed you anywhere. Why AIDS Legal Council of Chicago?

AHF: That's what I love about this agency. One of the things that I always stress is that this was a great agency before I came. In 1994, Legal Services Foundation was almost eliminated and part of the deal that saved Legal Services was no more class actions, nothing else on behalf of prisoners, no more legislative or administrative advocacy. So, my whole goal of wanting to do the individual and impact work became impossible. Many of us left Legal Services at that time to places where we could do the impact work. What I loved about coming here is that I could still do both.

TC: What sets ALCC apart from other similar agencies and organizations?

AHF: I love the model here. The clients come into our door and from them; we know what the problems are on a particular issue or case. From there we can start figuring out how to solve them. We're not like some agencies that will only take big, sexy cases.

We're taking 1,300 to 1,400 cases a year – sexy or not sexy. Many of the cases you would snooze to hear about them. But they are very important to our clients. We're always looking for the connection. Is this something happening to more people? Can we solve this for not just this client but for others?

TC: As ALCC's executive director, what are some issues you want to tackle around HIV/AIDS?

AHF: We need to protect people's confidentiality. Absolutely protect the right to refuse treatment and avoid stigmatizing people because I'm concerned that once you start talking about community viral load, frankly what you're often talking about are black gay men who already about as stigmatized as they come, particularly if they are living on the South side and not in Boystown. I want to make sure that this is done in a positive way not a negative way. I think it can be done in such a way. I plan to be on a national panel with the people of Illinois Department of Public Health. I plan to attend the AIDS Law conference a part of the International AIDS Conference that's coming in July in D.C. I'm on the American Bar Association AIDS Coordinating Committee and we're working on a white paper about this. I'm just really trying to stay ahead of this. This is a real game changer in the sense we could really make a difference. But it's so easy to get it wrong where we're showing pictures and saying you're the reason why HIV is the problem in your community.

TC: What impression do you want people to have of ALCC?

AHF: I want people to think of us as the community-based, grassroots organization with all the passion and determination from which that implies that is nonetheless a grown-up, well-run, well-sustained, enduring program. We started with that grassroots feel and we still have that grassroots feel.

We're accessible. We're smart. We're no none-sense. And we're successful. You can reach out and we'll be here for you.

TC: Nice. ALCC is also gearing up for some summer events as well. Would you mind expanding on those?

AHF: Yes. Our summer event, which is always a great, fun party at Sidetrack; this year's theme is J-pop and it will be on August 15. Sidetrack does a great job for us and it's always a blast. We just always have the most fun with videos, music, and a silent auction. We're also always looking for people to join our AIDS Run/Walk team, which is happening this year on September 30.

TC: Out of all the cases you've worked and rallied around, which one stands out?

AHF: We got a call from a client's employer, who was an HIV service provider on the West Side saying that they have just done a criminal background check on him [the client] and his rap sheet was three pages long, which they knew. They were hiring him because they wanted him to be out in the community. But on his Illinois State police rap sheet, it said for caution HIV positive and they [employer] thought jeez should this be on there?

TC: How did you navigate through that one?

AHF: Illinois has a really good AIDS confidentiality law that says no one is supposed to disclose anyone's HIV status. So, this client got in touch with Justin Hayford, who is a terrific paralegal who has been here far longer than I have. We looked at it and said that's not right. Part of the instinct in that case is that oh my God we're going to file a class action and we're going to really tackle this. We've always been the pragmatic organization, which is if we can solve it, let's just solve it. Justin actually called Representative Sara Feigenholtz, who put us in touch with the lobbyist for the state police. Justin explained to them all these reasons of why it's illegal. And the lobbyist for the state police said thank you very much. We got a call the very next morning from somebody in operations at the state police that overnight they have reprogrammed the computers. They had taken the HIV status off of something like several-hundred people's reports – by ten the next morning. We heard about the problem one afternoon and by ten the next morning, we solved it state wide.

TC: That was fast.

AHF: Obviously it's not always that easy (Laughs). It's not always a couple of phone calls and you can solve it. A lot of our work is just the nitty-gritty of dealing with the American healthcare system. If you ever had to file an insurance claim, you just know how crazy it is for people. We started doing some individual problem solving. But then we started to work with other advocacy groups, in particular the AIDS Foundation. We do a lot of work hand- in- hand with them. Because I'm a lawyer, I can go look up the rules and the regulations. For instance, some of the things they have to do; they have to have your viral load every six months. But there's no reason that they need to know when you first got HIV every six months, or that you have to do a new application every six months.

TC: I'm sure advocating for policy changes for HIV/AIDS took a bit more than just a phone call.

AHF: It took about probably six or eight months but they've issued new regulations, they've changed their policies. They have now made it much easier to recertify and things are moving smoothly. Again, it's not headline kind of stuff but it's really important. It's connecting people to healthcare, it's trying to battle some of those barriers – make the world a better place.

TC: How has the face of HIV/AIDS changed as it relates to your work?

AHF: A lot of AIDS organizations were founded by the gay, white men of Boystown who were being hit so hard by the epidemic, but we very quickly realized that it was just as much as a disease of poverty. Since 1991, the majority of our clients have been minority group members.

TC: You were also very influential in getting thousands of people access to Medicaid. Could you walk us through that experience?

AHF: We were working on ways to make Medicaid spend-down better. It was not my idea; it was the idea of Tom Yates, who is an attorney at what's now called Health and Disability Advocate. He said federal law would let us raise the Medicaid limit from 328 to 100 percent of the federal poverty level, which at that time was about six or seven-hundred dollars. And he said if we could do that than half those people who are spend-down wouldn't be on it because they would now be below the Medicaid limit. So, instead of proving that your income was below 328, you could just prove that it was below 700, and you'd be able to get Medicaid. It seems impossible now. It certainly seemed hard enough then to go into the Illinois legislature and say your ought to open up the Medicaid doors to another 40,000 people.

TC: Because of the efforts and ideas of you, Yates, and your team, thousands of people of more now have access to Medicaid; so, not so impossible after all.

AHF: We did it. We put together a campaign called the 100% Campaign to raise Medicaid to 100% of the federal poverty level. We worked on it over many years – three, four, five years. And we got it passed. I will say we got it passed with substantial bipartisan support. One of our sponsors was Christine Radogno, who is now the senate minority leader and it was signed by a Republican governor, George Ryan – how fast how political divides have happened. The people really saw this as a way that would help seniors. So, it wasn't just people with HIV. It benefited people with all sorts of disabilities.

TC: You said it took you about five years to get this bill passed. Could you take us back to that moment when you found out that the bill you and so many others worked so hard on for so long was written into law?

AHF: It was just terrific. I remember walking home that day, coming off on the blue line and going towards my house and thinking that this was one of the three best things I've done in my life; one of the three things where I've really, just really made a whole lot of difference to a lot of people.

TC: What are the other two best things?

AHF: The other two were when I was doing disability law. One of them was a lawsuit that helped get about 3,500 people with mental retardation out of nursing homes. The other was a class-action lawsuit that got the Chicago and Illinois' nursing homes programs really up and running. They were federally required programs but they weren't really operating the way they should be at the time. So, I filed a class-action law suit, which really beefed up those programs and got them doing what they were supposed to do for people.

TC: So, it seems as though your passion and focus is for fighting for the underdog?

AHF: Absolutely. I'm just conscious of how privileged I am to have grown up healthy, financially secure, and well educated; to sort of have grown up in white middle-class America. My first job was in Detroit and you don't have to look too far in Detroit to see the tremendous gaps. I've always felt some sort of obligation to give back, to recognize the privilege I've had of being white, of being well educated, healthy, and middle-class, and all those things. I will say this. A life in public service is the key to personal happiness.

TC: What do all your friends who went the corporate or big law firm route say to that?

AHF: I know a lot of lawyers and friends who went into big firms and got ridiculously wealthy and are always worried about the next promotion, the next thing, or the next expensive whatever. And to leave my office, go home in quite Oak Park, but of course I live in Oak Park or Evanston (laughs). I don't pretend I'm not a cliché.

And to be able to turn down my street and realize that the lights are going to be on, I wasn't going to be evicted, my kids are going to a good school; I wasn't going to get beat up. This job just makes me so aware everyday of how good I have it.

TC: In your line of work, it's very easy to become jaded from discrimination, poverty, and just overall inequalities. It seems as though you go to work and every day is a first day as it relates to a client's story.

AHF: I never get tired of hearing the stories. Our clients' stories are just incredible. It's just this incredible variety of stories. One client may by a homeless person and the next client may be a doctor who just found out he's HIV+. It's one, terrific amazing story after another.

TC: What do you want your legacy to be?

AHF: I want this organization to continue to be a terrific resource for people living with HIV in Chicago like it has always been in the past.

Interviewed by Terrence Chappell. Terrence Chappell serves as editor-at-large for ChicagoPride.com where he writes Chappell Confidential, a social and nightlife column. He grew up and still resides in Chicago's Auburn Gresham neighborhood and remains active in the LGBT community. Chappell founded Professional Young Gays (P.Y.G.), a social and business networking initiative designed to connect young, business-minded gay men and women.