Grammy Award-winning artist and advocate Alicia Keys rallied with community leaders and residents of Harlem on Thursday, hosting a community conversation aimed at tackling the issue of HIV/AIDS. Hosted by Harlem Hospital together with Greater Than AIDS, Ms. Keys was joined by Congressman Charlie Rangel (D-NY); Denise Soares, the Executive Director of Harlem Hospital; Minister Vin Baker of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem; Dr. Helene Gayle; Russell Simmons; and Greater Than AIDS ambassador Stephanie Brown, in an open and honest discussion with residents of Harlem about HIV/AIDS, its impact in the community, and the stigma that often surrounds the disease.
In Harlem, as nationally, people of color have been disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. The large majority of people living with HIV in Harlem are Black or Hispanic. In 2011, the most current year data is available, the rate of HIV diagnosis per 100,000 population was 4 to 5 times higher in Harlem as compared to the nation overall.
Speaking to an energetic crowd of over 400 at Harlem Hospital, the speakers stressed the urgency of addressing HIV/AIDS in communities of color. The event brought together different parts of the community– faith and political leaders, social and health care advocates, artists and young people – to break down the barriers of stigma, fear and ignorance and promote HIV testing and treatment for those who are positive. Following the community conversation, Alicia Keys, Congressman Rangel and Dr. Gayle joined with community residents to get tested as part of a free on-site HIV screening being offered by Harlem Hos pital.
“There are serious misconceptions out there that keep HIV/AIDS in the shadows,” said Keys. “Each and every one of us has to come together to change that. There is no reason that Black and Hispanic people should continue to be affected like this. By talking about HIV/AIDS honestly and openly, we can overcome stigma and fear and start a real dialogue that allows us to know, learn and share the truth.” Earlier this year, Ms. Keys joined with Greater Than AIDS to launch EMPOWERED, a new campaign to rea ch women in the U.S. about HIV/AIDS and highlight their power in changing the course of the epidemic.
” We cannot sit idly as this epidemic continues to spread,” said Congressman Rangel. “In fact, the fight against HIV/AIDS is one of my highest priorities in Congress. Recently I introduced the Communities United with Religious Leaders for the Elimination of HIV/AIDS (CURE) Act . It would authorize the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health to provide grants to health agencies, and community and faith-based organizations for education, outreach, research, and testing activities related to HIV/AIDS prevention. I urge my colleagues in Congress to put politics aside and act on this important issue. But all of us, from all corners of society, need to do more. I will continue to fight for those afflicted with HIV/AIDS and will work tirelessly until the day we have a cure.”
“We know AIDS is caused by a virus that attacks the immune system. But societal factors are among the leading reasons why some populations are more impacted by HIV than others,” said Dr. Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE USA. “We know there are a variety of reasons why communities of color are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS. They are some of the same reasons that our communities are disproportionately impacted by other diseases—social and economic factors, including poverty. For example, African Americans are more likely than whites to be uninsured, less likely to be privately insured and have access to high quality services, and are more likely to postpone medical care due to lack of transportation resources and other competing needs. But these types of underlying societal factors can be changed. They must be changed, by all of us.”
“The faith community plays a crucial role in this conversation,” said Vin Baker, a former NBA all-star who is now a minister at Abyssinian Church in Harlem. “We need to encourage our families to talk about HIV and AIDS, to remove the unnecessary stigma around it. And most importantly, we need to support our brothers and sisters who live with it.”
“We have a responsibility to ourselves, to our friends, and to our community to become educated on the impacts of HIV/AIDS,” said Russell Simmons, hip-hop icon and co-founder of Def Jam Recordings. “And the hip-hop community has an important role to play in that. We have to make sure we promote love and tolerance, not fear and stigma. We have to stand in solidarity with our HIV positive brothers and sisters. As Alicia said, artists have a responsibility, we’ve got to fight for others.”
EMPOWERED, the cross-platform public information campaign Ms. Keys developed with Greater Than AIDS, speaks to both those affected by HIV/AIDS and allies in the fight about what can be done to change the course of the disease. It includes outreach through public service ads, social media and community programs. With a particular focus on women, EMPOWERED encourages increased knowledge and understanding about HIV and AIDS, open communications with family and friends, use of protection, regular testing and adherence to treatment for those living with the disease.
“When I got infected, I wasn’t educated at all about HIV,” said Stephanie Brown, an artist and advocate who serves as an ambassador for Greater Than AIDS and EMPOWERED. Stephanie, who learned she was HIV positive at 19, joined the campaign earlier this year. “It was rough. Thinking about the idea that nobody wants you, it was like this whole new life I had to start living. At first I didn’t even want to start treatment. But it was what I had to do. What made me start fighting back though was the silence, the fact that no one was talking about it. That’s when I decided to share my experience and speak up for myself and for others who can’t. That’s why I joined EMPOWERED. Sympathy needs to be taken out of HIV. We need to start getting mad about it.”
During the 90-minute forum, audience members were encouraged to engage with panelists and ask questions about HIV/AIDS and the launch of the campaign. One audience member asked Keys: “What do you hope will come out of this campaign?”
“I want HIV to become something we talk about often and openly. I want it to be something that’s not awkward. I want the next generation of kids to grow up and wonder why it ever was,” she responded.
Keys is also leading the EMPOWERED Community Grants program, administered by AIDS United, to give up to $25,000 grants to community-level projects that focus on women and HIV. She is co-founder and Global Ambassador of Keep a Child Alive, which provides AIDS treatment, food and other support to children and families affected by HIV and AIDS in Africa and India.
For more information about the EMPOWERED campaign, visit www.greaterthan.org/campaign/empowered .
SOURCE Greater Than AIDS