When Kari Hartel’s 9-year-old daughter Liana garnered her first speaking engagement at Rise Up!, an annual Denver, Colorado, event, Hartel knew she was up to the challenge. Liana, who has known her mom is living with HIV since she was still a toddler, was ready to take the stage at an event for National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day alongside performers like Kiawitl Xochitl and April Chavez.
“When we sat down to figure out what she was going to say,” Hartel recalls, “her first response was, ‘I think HIV is great.’ After I picked my jaw back up and said, ‘I don’t think you can say that,’ she said, ‘Mom, I love you and it doesn’t matter to me that you have HIV. It could happen to anyone and we get to do and see some of the most amazing things because you tell people that you are living with HIV. So I think it’s great.’”
Hartel says she couldn’t really argue with that. “So it was what went into her speech. She then finished it off by saying, ‘Do you know that some of the people I love the most in this world are all living with HIV?’”
The proud single mom says she’s “raising an amazing daughter who will go on to change hearts and minds about so many of the social justice issues that she is already so passionate about.” Her daughter is just one of the people “who challenge me to do better and be my best self.”
Besides being a mother, 35-year-old Hartel is also one of the anti-criminalization activists that scored the biggest win of the year.
While many states have criminalized HIV by requiring disclosure of a positive status prior to sexual contact, Colorado used HIV as a sentencing enhancement to certain charges if the defendant is HIV-positive. For example, charges for sex work or solicitation of a sex worker were bumped from a misdemeanor to a felony if the person arrested knew they were HIV-positive. Recognizing that these laws add to HIV-stigma, penalize those who know their status (thus reducing the incentive to get tested), are often used to criminalize transgender women, and disproportionately impact people of color, Hartel’s group has been trying to overturn or modernize them.
The Mod Squad, as they became known, are a group of HIV-positive women in Colorado (including Barb Cardell — #67 of our list of 75 Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016 — and Penny DeNoble pictured above with Hartel, L-R). They have spent years researching, wording, introducing, and lobbying to eliminated felony charges for sex work and modernized language in the Colorado’s health code regarding sexually transmitted infections. In June their work paid off. The bill passed the state legislature and was signed by the governor, making Colorado only the second state in the U.S. to update their HIV criminal statutes.
“Persistence pays off!” Hartel says. She believes the key to legal reform is, “A core group of advocates, activists and allies who are passionate about changing the laws... Everything else is details and will be worked out as you move along, as long as you have a solid core. That being said, it takes persistence, time, and dedication coupled with a little luck. This was certainly not a sprint. It took us four years to get this accomplished.”
Hartel’s fellow activists continue to sing her praises. “I really saw Kari soar as an advocate and activist,” Cardell says. “She and I drafted the legislation and she ensured that pregnant women, youth, and sex workers were never left behind. She spent many nights after her daughter went to bed on the phone, revising and redrafting legislation. Her testimony in support of the bill — and especially the need for minors to have safe access to prevention services — was fierce. She took on several conservative Republicans in committee hearings. She not only held her own with them, but in some instances [unmasked] their ill-conceived and privilege-based beliefs that … [all kids] have caring parents and don’t need access to medical care without parental notifications.”
A founding chair of Positive Women’s Network USA Colorado, Hartel remembers testifying at a state Board of Health hearing, demanding community involvement in decisions impacting HIV care, testing, and treatment. They not only got it, the action “was the beginning of a great working relationship with the department,” Hartel says. “We often raise a ruckus. When there is an issue that needs attention, we hold a ruckus — stand on street corners with signs, write letters, and show up to speak with elected officials.”
At one such meeting, she says, another attendee leaned over as she and her fellow activists walked into the room and said, “’Uh oh, they’ve got their shirts on. Somebody is gonna get their ass kicked!’ To me that is an amazing honor. It shows [PWN USA Colorado] is a player and a game changer.”
When not raising a ruckus, Hartel works as a client advocate and retention specialist at a family-centered comprehensive HIV clinic, and has worked with hundreds of people over the last seven years, especially women and kids, working with those clients “so that they can find their own voice and take their own seat at those tables.”
It’s that kind of approach that leads Cardell to gush, “She is a game changer with an activist’s heart and a policy wonk’s mind. She speaks truth to power every day, in every meeting. This might not make her the most popular community representative but she is certainly one of the most honest. People always know where they stand with Kari and she will always tell you, in great detail, the strengths and weaknesses of a program or a policy.”
Most of all, Cardell says, Hartel is “an incredible mother raising a fabulous daughter who is an advocate and activist at 9 years old.”
“I made the decision when my daughter, Liana, was about 2 that I was going to be open about my status,” Hartel explains. It wasn’t a simple decision. She worried about how being open and public could impact Liana even though she is HIV-negative. “I knew that I was prepared for people’s ignorance, but I worried that she might pay for it.… In the end I decided that I would be open and honest about my status but only disclose in social setting when there is a purpose. When we’re at her school or hanging around the neighborhood, there is really no need to disclose…. But, if they find out, they find out. I refuse to live in shame and