Legal Advocacy and Assistance in Mississippi


Legal Advocacy and Assistance in Mississippi

Without Southern REACH, there would be a ‘huge unmet need’

“We don’t do what we think people need. We do what they tell us they need. If they say, ‘For example, if we’re having a really big issue with housing,’ we figure out how we can help support that need via legal representation or policy changes.”


—Linda Dixon Rigsby, Health Law Director


Southern REACH: Tangible Results that Improve Lives

Funding from the Southern REACH initiative has expanded the Mississippi Center for Justice’s capacity to address the impact of policy issues on people living with HIV. In turn, this effort strengthens and supports the Center’s legal work in the areas of housing and employment discrimination, as well as confidentiality rights. Funding also has enabled the Center to create the Mississippi AIDS Justice Project (co-sponsored with the Southern AIDS Coalition), which is an annual convening of area advocacy partners.

Once a year, the Justice Project brings together people and agencies who serve the HIV community to discuss and strategize about unmet legal needs. “We identify those needs and then work with partner organizations to build statewide capacity for identifying systemic barriers to accessing justice,” says attorney Linda Dixon Rigsby. “Then we develop advocacy strategies to overcome those barriers.”

Participants in this annual convening have included federal agencies, state agencies such as the Mississippi State Department of Health, and various AIDS service organizations, as well as individual lawyers, doctors, social workers, and clinicians. The goal is to leave each convening with concrete deliverables and outcomes.

The goal is to leave each convening with concreate deliverables and outcomes.

Deliverables from past events have included:

  • Technical assistance on securing health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The Center worked with Harvard University Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation to analyze plans offered on the Mississippi Health Insurance Exchange (e.g., including benefits and formularies for each). Researchers from Harvard then conducted a training session the Center organized for local social workers and other providers who might be in a position to educate people living with HIV about their options. The idea was to help people living with HIV make knowledgeable decisions before choosing a plan or even make better use of plans they already have.
  • Training for area service providers on HIV/AIDS issues. The Center worked with Duke University Legal Project to develop a manual specific to Mississippi law for area attorneys interested in representing people living with HIV. The Duke team also traveled to Jackson to do live training [about those HIV legal issues]. In addition, Human Rights Watch conducted a training session to educate participants about how and why the Center’s HIV/AIDS advocacy work is a human rights issue.
  • Brochures that educate the public about the legal rights of people with HIV. The Center identified three top legal needs: employment discrimination, housing discrimination, and privacy rights. Then it developed easy-to-understand pamphlets to inform people living with HIV in the area about their rights and to show them what discrimination looks like. The Center continues to use and distribute the brochures throughout the state.

Extending the Reach of Southern REACH

The impact of Southern REACH funding extends well beyond the deliverables stemming from the annual convening, however. The funding strengthens the Center’s ability to build a legal advocacy network — one that is continuously evolving into a structured coalition that identifies and reforms policy.

That policy work, in turn, supports many of the Center’s activities. For example, it played a critical role in informing the development of the Center’s Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP), which provides free civil legal services to people living with HIV who have experienced employment or housing discrimination. The Center worked with the University of Mississippi Medical Center, the Mississippi State Department of Health, and the Jackson Medical Mall Foundation to enable a lawyer to work directly with clinical HIV staff. “Legal assistance isn’t something that you would normally find in a medical setting,” says Rigsby.

“Legal assistance isn’t something that you would normally find in a medical setting,” says Rigsby. “But if a person, for example, isn’t medication compliant, it may be because they don’t have housing. And the reason they don’t have housing may be because they’ve been evicted because someone learned they had HIV.”

Southern REACH has a unique multiplier effect because the funding allows the Center to address varied policy issues and priorities in a strategic way. “To be able to create a coordinated approach among service providers and advocacy partners has been huge,” says Rigsby. That magnifies the impact of their work, adding increased visibility to the needs of people living with HIV in the South. “The White House even invited me to moderate a panel on HIV back in DC,” she says.

“The White House even invited me to moderate a panel on HIV back in DC.”