It’s National HIV/AIDS Day: See How One Chicago Activist Is Striving For Lifetime Prevention

Talk about your work with HIV/AIDS education and prevention and the documentary you produced.

HIV prevention is my passion and through that passion I had the opportunity to interview almost over 70 HIV positive adolescents throughout the state of Illinois and they were less of interviews sand more conversations around what it’s like to be positive and be a teenager, what it’s like to be born into a world where HIV has always existed. My perspective is different. When I was in high school the big concern was, are you gonna get pregnant or are you gonna get an std. this generation now has never been in a world where HIV has never existed so our approach must be different and mindful of that. Their world is completely different than the world that existed 25 yrs ago.

The documentary Mirror to the Heart, which I executive produced really celebrates young people [in the United States and South Africa] that are doing work in their communities and it also highlights the challenges that still exist around HIV as it relates to that stigma. It’s a shame that 30 years into this epidemic we’re still dealing with the stigma associated with it. When I talked to those youth they all said the same thing, “Thank you for doing this, our voice needs to be heard.” One young lady said, “I can’t be on your camera, and I can’t talk on your tape recorder because my brother is a basketball star. He’s very popular and he’s about to get a scholarship and I don’t want my experience of something that I did to shed a bad light on my brother,” so the silence is killing them. Thousands of people are suffering in silence. It’s hard enough being a teenager. We already know the challenges of puberty and coming into your own and fitting into that click or deciding to walk you own path but to be challenged with a disease that you are going to be affected with your entire life⎯that’s a lot for them to handle and then on top of that the ridicule, the downright awful angry jokes⎯that’s a lot. So my hope is that this documentary begins to shed light on what’s really going on in this world with our young people. We have a lot of successes that we need to celebrate more but we also need to overcome the challenges. HIV is 100% preventable, so why not begin to educate ourselves around the virus and understand that it’s OK not to have sex and to wait, understanding the consequences of using drugs and alcohol and saying that it’s OK we know what we do. And that’s for kids and adults. Sometimes it’s so easy for adults to be judgmental and forget about what we did when we were teenagers but we know what we did so why not take a teenager by the hand and say, “You know what, let me go into this confidentiality testing facility with you. Let’s get tested together.” We have to begin to have those types of interactions with our young people.

Who’s primarily affected by the disease?

Across the United States, African Americans make over 50% of HIV cases. And when you begin to look at the overwhelming majority of individuals who are infected with HIV within the African American community, most of them are men. African American women, their rate of infection is a lot faster. African American women continue to become infected at alarming rates and so it raises an issue for a number of reasons because the way the virus is transmitted culturally⎯the way our community is structured in terms of predominately who are the heads of our households, then when you think about relationships in the family what we can’t continue to let this virus be transmitted and the silence to go on. Unfortunately, in the community we’re challenged with a lot of relationship issues. We’re challenged with a lot of social issues and when you capture that and then you layer it with the stigma of HIV in one community, that’s devastating. We also know that almost over a fourth of the people who are HIV positive don’t even know they’re infected so even if your intention is not to infect another person, If you’re positive and don’t’ know it then we know that you’re less likely to practice behaviors that would reduce the likelihood of you transmitting the virus to another person. When we don’t get tested what usually occurs is we go into the doctor because were not feeling well and then what happens is we’re further into the disease than we need to be. We need to get tested because early treatment is more successful and more sustaining of the virus.

What’s your theory on why the disease is hitting the African American community so heavily because statistics show that it’s not just African Americans engaging in unprotected sex or other risky behavior that can expose them to it?

I’m glad you raised that point because through the Brothers And Sisters United Against HIV/AIDS Initiative (BASUAH), I’ve trained over 500 African American youth throughout Illinois to be peer educators and what I continue to emphasize is African American youth are no more promiscuous. In many cases they’re less than their White counterparts or other races but with this virus, we have to take into consideration a number of factors. We have to take in to consideration the size and the scope of our community. If your social network is smaller, then the virus doesn’t have far to spread. If I’m only engaging in having sex with people in my neighborhood and I don’t travel outside of that area then the virus will continue to spread and be transmitted in that area. And then a lot of times when we talk to young people, we have conversations where they say, “I’m only having sex with one partner.” That may be true but if my one partner and I are together for 6 months and then we switch and I’m together with another partner for another 6 months, you’re monogamous with a partner but you had more than one partner. And that’s not just true for African Americans but if used in context with the size and the scope of the community⎯with the community being so much smaller than other communities⎯then you will understand. Also, there’s the cultural piece and the stigma. We in the community still have not had honest dialogue around certain lifestyles like homosexuality. And with that until the secrecy of a lifestyle comes to light then we won’t have honest dialogue when it comes to transmission of the virus.