I’ve been very busy lately with photographing various HIV events here in Los Angeles. This is how I had the pleasure of meeting Nina Harawa. She was one of the guests in attendance at the Leadership Awards put on by the Los Angeles Women’s HIV Task Force which I wrote about recently. She is also the reason I was able to photograph and video the Breaking the Silence event in Los Angeles.
I know you’re wondering what is Breaking the Silence and let me start by saying, no I did not complete my HIV documentary that shares this name. However it is because of this, plus the fact that so many people I admire and respect were involved with this event that I said yes I would capture it. However what I would later discover is just how amazing Nina truly is.
On October 17 my friend Carlos and I made our way from Hollywood toward Charles R. Drew Magnet High School in Los Angeles to cover Breaking the Silence. It’s an annual event for Black women and Latinas designed to help them address wellness, health, relationship and sexuality issues.
I have not been to this area of Los Angeles in a very long time. Not since I was around 13 years old and my cousins lived down the street at 124 and Wilmington. I share this story with Carlos on our drive over. We spoke about how as a kid I attended the Jazz at Drew event and even spoke of the King/Drew Medical Center and Hospital which is now closed, but construction on a new medical center is under way and is much needed for this area.
Carlos and I were joined by over 400 women of all ages, incl;uding youth for an 8-hour conference that featured guest speakers, breakout sessions, role play and an interactive performance piece from T.A.D.A. (Theater Actors Discussing AIDS) created by my friend Michelle Simek and featuring my friends Shellye, Andrea and Lynenia . Additionally the participants left with a self-esteem kit “lovingly” assembled by Shellye and Zoyla who were guest speakers.
Featured guests included author Gail Wyatt, PhD. Who spoke about child sexual abuse on women, risky behaviors, as well as the long term affects this could have on women’s mental health and wellbeing. She spoke candidly about sexual habits and even sexual behaviors that many view as normal.
Celebrity guest was Cookie Johnson, the wife of basketball and Laker legend Magic Johnson. After a clip from a recent documentary, Mrs.Johnson took to the stage to discuss how they’ve been dealing with HIV in their relationship as well as offering valuable life lessons to women concerning their health, self-respect, love, HIV and AIDS.
For me this was a very important part of the conference when it comes to people of color. Especially Black people, because some like to believe that Magic Johnson has been cured of HIV. Cookie’s presence blew this right out the water. Just looking at some faces of people in the audience I could see “you sank my battleship” type expressions on their faces.
“One of the most difficult challenges for women is maintaining their own health while addressing a myriad of other demands – as mothers, wives, girlfriends and workers,” said Dr. Nina T. Harawa, Associate Professor of College of Medicine, Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science and Event Chair. “Sexual health is an important but rarely talked about aspect of this. The event is about breaking this silence in order to both highlight unhealthy patterns in our communities and to facilitate dialogue and information sharing that promotes healthier approaches.”
Nina is unlike any leader I’ve ever met. While she is brilliant, very accomplished and has an unmatched record of compassion and great care as well as a commitment to healthcare and HIV services for populations hardest hit by HIV and AIDS, she is not arrogant, nor does she display any insecurities about who she is and what she has accomplished by asking people to address her as Dr. Harawa or reminding people how many letters she has behind her name. She’s down to earth and content to allow other people to shine.
Moreover she commands the respect of her team and colleagues by being a kind, gentle, educated and socially aware leader. She knows the strengths of her team and allows them to blossom under her leadership. My Ma use to say you can judge a great team by its outstanding leader and that the sign of a true leader is one who is willing to take advice and delegate leadership responsibility to their team. A good leader fully understands that there is no “I” in team.
As I’ve said many times before, you cannot help people you don’t speak to and you certainly cannot help people you don’t care about. Under the leadership of Nina, this conference IS what others should strive to be. It is held in the heart of populations hardest hit by HIV and AIDS as well as those who do not have adequate access to care. It’s FREE, offers FREE childcare, located in their neighborhood, speaks to them, not above or at them. It is FREE from judgments, guilt or shame. It is respectful, but most of all it is UNDERSTANDABLE!!! It provides real life answers to real life situations facing women of color in a supportive environment that is respectful, but challenging. It meets people where they are.
Lastly, Nina made certain that the people presenting and offering suggestions and resolutions looked just like the people they were speaking to. They live in neighborhoods just like the one where the conference is located, they fully understand what struggle is and that when you don’t have money to get on the bus this is not an excuse, it is a barrier. When you don’t have food to eat or a place to stay you are not lazy or worthless, but deserving of love, respect and help that meets your immediate needs. They were kind, informed and fully aware of the situations facing these women.
I feel strongly that this conference should be the ONLY conference for woman of color here is Los Angeles and until we retire the old guard with their old ideas that have never worked and replace them with real, effective leaders like Nina, issues such as poverty, homelessness, access to care, HIV and AIDS as they pertain to Black and Latino populations will never change.
It’s time for new ideas, new leaders who truly care about the final outcome. It’s time for real change, real progress It’s time for Nina and conferences like Breaking the Silence.