"I have experience": Meaningful employment and the credential creep in the Canadian HIV sector
In Canada You need to PROVE your expertise. You need the DEGREES Education is POWER What power do I have here? Without education? My power is starting to be small. Small/small/small
One of the reasons I gravitated toward working in the HIV sector was its focus on engaging people living with HIV in its workforce. In the HIV sector, we recognize the principles of greater involvement and meaningful engagement of people living with HIV (GIPA/MEPA) in all aspects of the response. The employment of people living with HIV recognizes their right to be engaged in human service work that directly impacts their lives, such as developing policies, delivering services, and conducting research. Their engagement as employees provides experiential knowledge that builds our capacity to empathetically and knowably serve people living with or impacted by HIV.
While GIPA/MEPA has been endorsed in Ontario AIDS service and allied organizations and recognized through good practice documents such as Ontario Accord, some have questioned if these principles are being applied to employment practices. For instance, the Narrators shared that their experiential knowledge as employees was not as valued as they believed it should be. While they were welcomed as volunteers or community advisors, it was much harder for them to get HIV service employment, particularly full-time work that offered job security and financial stability.
Even Narrators with prior work experiences in HIV responses abroad discussed that their professional expertise in other countries was minimally recognized. Too often, the Narrators’ working roles in the Canadian HIV sector remained in lower-level positions, even if they were highly qualified. Listening to their stories made me question: if AIDS service and allied organizations value the “experience” of African immigrant women living with HIV, why do the Narrators’ stories of HIV service work suggest otherwise?
The Narrators’ concerns around the devaluation of their work and lived experience suggest that the credential creep is alive and well in the HIV service sector. Credential creep is the heightened demand for higher educational credentials, such as the preference for university degrees in human service work. This credential creep coincides with Canadian credentialization: preference for Canadian education and work experience over skills obtained abroad. These two forms of credentialism are particularly problematic in community-based organizations as it devalues the community knowledge for which these organizations were founded. It can also contribute to its workers being less representative of the communities they serve. Furthermore, Canadian credentialization contributes to less ethnoculturally diverse organizations. In essence, it institutionalizes Eurocentrism, another form of structural racism (Ngwenya, 2018).
Other researchers have raised concerns about credential creep in the HIV sector. For instance, Roy Cain and Sarah Todd (2008) noted that the bureautic environment required for government funding had pushed many community-based organizations, including AIDS service and allied organizations, to become more “professionalized” in their programming. Part of this professionalization has been the shift towards demanding specific skills and experience from its employees, including professional credentials from its workers such as degrees and diplomas. Professionalization of the HIV sector has challenged the operationalization of GIPA/MEPA principles, including assuring that employees living with HIV can progress in their employment (Cain et al., 2014).
The credential creep in the HIV sector is particularly worrisome for immigrants living with HIV. Preferences for Canadian work or educational experience puts African, Caribbean and Black immigrant women living with HIV at a disadvantage if their HIV or other human service work experiences precede their migration. It can contribute to underemployment and limit employment mobility. The danger of credential creep in the HIV sector is that it devalues lived experiences of African, Caribbean, and Black women living with HIV whose lived and working experience back home can build our capacity to deliver culturally responsive services. A larger issue is that it devalues the “back home” grassroots knowledge that the Canadian HIV sector could benefit from adopting.
The poetic re-telling, “I have experience” illustrates some of the issues the Canadian HIV sector has in implementing GIPA/MEPA as employment principles. It also highlights the challenges of translating lived experience into employment when one does not have the credentials desired by HIV service employers. *Fifi’s work story suggests that the credential creep in the HIV service sector devalues the wisdom she can offer the Canadian HIV response. It also devalues her power – her experiential knowledge and grassroots activism background — as an African woman living with HIV.
I HAVE EXPERIENCE by *Fifi
You ask me about working back home And then working here Do I feel that I have the same POWER? In Canada And. In Africa?
Back home I had the opportunity to speak up To work in HIV As a person with HIV That is the POWER.
But here, in this country? No, it's not the SAME. In Canada You need to PROVE your expertise. You need the DEGREES Education is POWER What power do I have here? Without education? My power is starting to be small. Small small small
I don’t have EDUCATION But I have IDEAS Back home IDEAS were VERY POW-ER-FUL
In Canada Some people want to hear my ideas Ideas from me, a person with HIV They invite me to speak To share my experience After they hear from me. They put me out Close the door.
Ideas are like food They nourish our work Some people eat the food I bring Take my food and close the door.
After they finish, they open the door Wash the plate as if nothing happened. Where is the food that I brought you? Where is YOUR food? You told me you wanted to cook together? I want to eat. There is no food. For me.
I may not have EDUCATION But I have EXPERIENCE. I have IDEAS . Why can we not work TOGETHER? Education is what? Education IS experience.
People like you From the universities, come to me. I can teach you what I know You can teach me. If we work together We could know many things.
I want to share my experience, share my ideas. I want to WORK in the community. It’s not enough, just to be a volunteer, to pay me small money. I want to WORK! Paid work! I have training I have capacity I have experience. Just TRY ME. Give me a chance
*Pseudonyms are used to maintain the confidentiality of the Narrators.
To learn about principles of greater involvement and meaningful engagement of people living with HIV and its application in HIV responses, visit the following:
The UNAIDS policy brief on The Greater Involvement of People Living with HIV (GIPA): https://data.unaids.org/pub/briefingnote/2007/jc1299_policy_brief_gipa.pdf
GIPA in Africa, a good practice guide published by The Global Network of People Living with HIV, based on HIV response in African contexts. https://gnpplus.net/resource/gipa-in-africa-how-does-it-work/
The Ontario Accord is a code of good practice that guides the implementation of GIPA/MEPA in Ontario AIDS service and allied organizations: https://oan.red/ontario-accord/