By Elizabeth Harris
Tony Wafford and his I Choose Life Initiative has run a consistent, passionate awareness and testing campaign to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Black community, and on December 1, World AIDS Day 2010, he doubled his efforts in that mission.
Wafford, National Health and Wellness Director for the National Action Network, began commemoration activities by co-sponsoring an all-day HIV/AIDS awareness and rapid testing event at the King/Drew Medical Magnet High School in South Los Angeles.
“Too often, when we recognize World AIDS Day, we’re a footnote in somebody else’s party, and today is about celebrating ourselves…it’s about celebrating the ancestors, those who have struggled, and we want to start off commemorations in the right way,” Wafford said.
I Choose Life teamed up with Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, Cynthia Davis, assistant professor and program director in the Medical Sciences Institute at Drew University, Thelma Mc Clinton, a Public Health Investigator with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the Magic Johnson Foundation, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and Delta Sigma Theta, Sorority, Farwest Region for the forum for some 1,700 students and young adults.
Rapper Y.G., popular for his hit song, “Toot It and Boot It,” made a special appearance as part of his own efforts to promote safer sex and to help underscore the importance for youth and young adults to get tested.
According to event coordinators, that more than 300 youth got tested for HIV/AIDS on the Charles Drew Mobile Testing Van. In return, they received free incentives, including tickets to Y.G.’s upcoming concerts through his “Tickets for Testing” program.
There were also several youth-targeted HIV/AIDS awareness assemblies that featured a PSA, lectures on the basics of the disease and methods for prevention.
According to statistics, South Los Angles is experiencing some of the highest rates of sexually transmitted disease infections in Los Angeles County. Further, the numbers indicate, young African American and Latina females, aged 15 to 25 have the highest rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia in the county. Y.G.’s motto is “Don’t Confuse Art and Entertainment with Life.”
“Sexually active individuals need to know how to protect themselves from these STDs as well as have access to condoms and HIV rapid testing,” Y.G. said.
On Friday, December 3, Y.G. appeared at the Proud Bird Restaurant for the Cali Christmas After-Party, where HIV Rapid Testing was again provided on the mobile testing van.
Almost 30 years since HIV was first detected, it is estimated that on a daily basis, around the world, more than 7,000 people are still being infected with HIV. More than 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV and in the United States 1.1 million people are estimated to be living with HIV/AIDS.
In the U.S., what started out as a disease primarily affecting the gay community, today is a disease primarily affecting racial/ethnic minority populations, with African Americans experiencing the highest rates of HIV infection in the country. Washington, D.C. is the epicenter for HIV in the U.S., where an estimated 1 of every 33 individuals is HIV infected.
Later that evening I Choose Life continued World AIDS Day 2010 commemorations at the African American Cultural Center (Us Organization). More than 100 people gathered for an intimate celebration of the lives of those who have died from AIDS and to affirm their commitment to continue to fight against the disease.
“We’ve gathered here to celebrate because we know the statistics and what they say about how Black people are dying but we’re not here for doom and gloom. We’re here to celebrate those we love and have lost, and those we are struggling to save,” Wafford said.
As Dr. Maulana Karenga, Professor, Department of Africana Studies, California State University-Long Beach and Chair of the Us Organization, and his wife, Tiamoyo, poured libations during the opening candle lighting ceremony, participants called the names of their loved ones and many they admired but never knew.
“We understand that in their being diminished, we are diminished also, and in their being raised up today, we are also raised…so I raise the names of the HIV victims … And we are here to make a commitment to them that we will never forget them, that we will never neglect the people still living with HIV/AIDS, and that we as a community will choose life, teach life, live life, and make it a worthy cause to heal our people in the process of healing and repairing a world that caused the problem for us in the first place,” Dr. Karenga said.
Among several testimonies given during the night was 72-year-old Thelma James, who shared that she has endured and survived living with HIV because of her heritage and faith in God and her community. When she was diagnosed with full blown AIDS, doctors predicted she only had six months to live without medication, but they were wrong, she said.
“I made a decision to take the medication. I made a decision to stick with good medical care, and I also made a decision to be more faithful in my faith than I had ever been in life,” James said.
She said she also made it through by taking advantage of every available opportunity and service that Drew University provided for HIV/AIDS patients. “I tell this story because I want people to know that the myths and stigmas are still out there … Those of you who are not infected, you are affected because what happens to one African America happens to all of us and we all must stand, sometimes in times of inconvenience and discomfort, but if we don’t stand, we’ll fall,” James added.
Actress Yvonne Farrell performed a dramatic narrative from the award-winning play, “What Would Jesus Do.” The play was directed by her twin sister, director and playwright Yvette Farrell, and it highlights the voices of Black women who prevailed in the face of HIV despite it being labeled a death sentence.
“The importance of ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ speaks to the need to view HIV/AIDS through a gender lens,” said Jan Robinson Flint, executive director of Black Women for Wellness a woman’s health and wellness advocacy organization based in Leimert Park.
Dr. Karenga also paid honor to Wafford and commended him for bringing everyone together through I Choose Life. Wafford is persistent and consistent in his commitment to deal with the problem, because it’s not easy to see people suffer and see others remain silent about that suffering, Dr. Karenga said.
He added that it’s important for Blacks to be accountable and it’s time to test and tell, and put an end to risky behavior that lends to premature, painful, and preventable deaths.
“The thing we have to avoid is letting them divide us, claiming who’s suffering more…in the final analysis people are suffering and dying and we have to be sensitive to everybody on every level,” Dr. Karenga said.