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Women Overcoming the Shame and Stigma of HIV

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By Tamara E. Holmes, NNPA Contributor –

For years Del'Rosa Winston-Harris kept her HIV diagnosis a secret. When seeking HIV/AIDS resources, she says, "I went to places that were way outside of where I lived so no one could identify me." When a friend ran into her at the hospital and asked why she was there, "I said, 'I'm here to get my cancer checkup,' " the 49-year-old recalls. "My biggest concern was that I couldn't tell anybody."

A fear of disclosing one's HIV status is not unusual because stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS is ingrained in American society, says Bambi W. Gaddist, Ph.D., executive director of the South Carolina HIV/AIDS Council. Most people would rather look the other way than acknowledge how many people are living with HIV, Dr. Gaddist says. "After 30 years of AIDS, people are still asking, 'Is that a problem?' " And, unlike diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's, there's the often unspoken rationalization that those with HIV brought the disease upon themselves.

"HIV is a human immunodeficiency virus that's causing a fight inside my body, yet people have made it about lifestyle," says Elveth Bentley, 46, of Atlanta. As a result of that widespread perception, many women hide their HIV status, fearing that people will judge them for having sex or succumbing to an addiction.

But, AIDS activists are hoping to change that. In March, SisterLove, an Atlanta-based reproductive-health organization that focuses on HIV/AIDS, launched a mini documentary series called "Everyone Has a Story," which features interviews with Black women who have HIV sharing the realities of life with the disease.

"We want to get more HIV-positive women talking and disclosing and really stepping into leadership where HIV/AIDS is concerned in the community," says Tiffany Pennick, a spokeswoman from SisterLove. The documentary series is part of the organization's 2020 Leading Women's Society program, in which 2,020 HIV-positive women will be trained during the next decade to help other women across the world better manage their sexual and reproductive health.

The Power of Disclosure

Both Winston-Harris and Bentley participated in the documentary series, which covers such experiences as disclosing HIV status to family members for the first time, finding a support network, and dealing with strained family relationships. While both women are now more comfortable sharing their status with loved ones and strangers alike, the documentary gives them an even larger audience for their stories.

Winston-Harris began the process of disclosure after watching a friend who'd kept her diagnosis a secret die alone. Realizing how isolating the stigma of HIV could be, she had an epiphany.

"The idea of dying alone is one thing, but living alone is another," she says. "I realized somebody had to speak up and let people know this is a disease that anyone can get."

For Bentley, the road to disclosure began as she noticed how damaging shame could be. "You lose your sense of identity when you begin to buy into the stigma," she says. "You let the disease define you." She also saw that self-defeating behaviors often accompanied shame, such as avoiding the doctor's office or HIV clinic because of a fear of being seen.

Since disclosing their HIV status, both women have felt empowered and seen their lives improve. "I've learned how to communicate and socialize with any kind of person," says Winston-Harris.

I can meet people where they're at now. Pre-HIV, I didn't know how to do that."

Bentley feels the same: "If I tell you about my HIV status myself, I've taken the power from you to say anything about it. What can you really say that I have not already said?"

There's also a political benefit that comes from sharing one's struggle with HIV. "When we get more women to do that, then we will see a social movement like we've seen with breast cancer," says Dr. Gaddist. "Until we get to that, we'll never have a social change."

For those who are struggling to move past the stigma of their diagnosis, Winston-Harris and Bentley share some of the insights that have helped them overcome the shame;

Forgive yourself. Before you can learn to ignore others' judgments, you've got to get past your own, says Winston-Harris. "I can remember being so angry with myself," she recalls. Once she stopped blaming herself for her HIV status, talking about it became easier.

Find purpose in your story. Whether you're using your voice to educate others about HIV or to build intimacy in your personal relationships, understand why it's important for you to share your story with others, advises Bentley. When you feel fearful about opening up, let that purpose motivate you.

Know that it's a process. While disclosing your HIV status will likely get easier over time "it's still uncomfortable," says Bentley, particularly when you're talking to people whose opinions matter to you. "The unknown is always uncomfortable, but you find your voice more and more each time."

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes frequently about emotional health and wellness.

Maryland HBCU Legal Case Over Funding Concerns Pushes Forward

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By Shernay Williams, Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American newspapers –

Donique Warden, a junior at Coppin State University, remembers a time when the school library stayed open until 2 a.m. “Now it closes at 11 and I don’t even get off work until 11 p.m.,” she said. “When I asked librarians about it, they said it’s because they don’t have the money to keep it open that late anymore.”

She says “it makes no sense” that she has to purchase almost half of her books from other schools because they aren’t stocked in Coppin’s library. The sports management major said her friend at Morgan State University also criticizes her school because resources for facilities like the library are “slim to nothing.”

In spite of all the new buildings, in 2011, many students are still reflecting on the disparities that exist for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in Maryland.

The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Higher Education and a cluster of current students and alumni from Maryland’s four HBCU’s say Warden’s experiences demonstrate inequity in state funding. The group is suing the state and the Maryland Higher Education Commission for upwards of $2 billion, a sum their funding expert estimates was collectively withheld from Coppin, Morgan, Bowie State University, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore between 1984 and 2009.

“If these institutions had not been discriminated against for all these years or if Maryland had taken the steps to enhance them, there’s no reason why they couldn’t be comparable to (traditionally White institutions),” said Michael D. Jones, civil rights attorney representing the coalition. Jones contends the funding disparity has led to fewer resources, aging facilities, and ultimately, lower retention rates at HBCUs.

The case’s six-week trial is set to begin June 27.

The matter has been in litigation since October 2006, after the coalition was angered that the state boasted of full compliance with a partnership agreement established in 2000 with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that dictated Maryland’s HBCUs achieve parity in funding, facilities and academic program development. The lawsuit alleges that the state is in violation of the agreement and the requirements of the agreement have not been completed.

The eight plaintiffs that filed in addition to the coalition are predominately comprised of Morgan graduates and students, one Coppin graduate and a student from Bowie State University. The HBCUs themselves are not parties in the case.

Program duplication is also at the center of the complaint.

Jones said during the pre-1954 era of segregation, it was vital for Black and White institutions to offer the same academic programs because Blacks were not allowed to attend White institutions. Yet, when colleges were forced to integrate and “level the playing field,” the Supreme Court mandated that states eliminate all vestiges of segregation, including uneven funding levels and duplicate academic programs.

Plaintiffs say the legal case is fighting for HBCUs to be given the opportunity to offer unique, high demand programs; have state-of-the-art facilities and be allocated funding to make their universities more appealing, particularly to prospective students from different racial backgrounds.

The AFRO’s calls to the Higher Education Commission for comment were directed to Assistant Attorney General Catherine Shultz. I n an e-mail, Shultz forwarded a memorandum that detailed the state’s position in the case.

The state alleges they have satisfied all requirements under the partnership agreement and severed any discriminatory policies that are traceable back to segregation. In memos dated April 22, the state contends the plaintiffs “conjured up” racial disparities in Maryland’s university funding system, adding that even if inequities exist, they were the result of the long-term effects of the state’s previous practices, not their current policies.

The defense also argues that HBCUs have received enhancement funding during the last several years, even raking in 55 percent higher on average than other institutions, with the exclusion of College Park. They’ve filed a motion of summary judgment to settle portions of the complaint out of court.

Some HBCUs, including Coppin State University, have begun to receive “back funding” they were previously denied during the years, which has allowed their campuses to undergo a physical renaissance, but Jones says “the key phrase is that these HBCUs are starting to get funding.”

“When we say that they are entitled to additional funding, we are factoring in that they have been getting additional funding in recent years. But the point is that it is starting and not even Maryland officials contend that it is enough.”

He said former secretary of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, Dr. James E. Lyons, admitted HBCUs were underfunded, and members of the state’s appointed HBCU assessment boards found that the recent enhanced funding was “essentially not enough to get HBCUs out of the hole they were in.”

“I don’t see how the state can diagnose a problem but withhold a cure,” Jones said. “If you know that it’s related to funding than they should fund it.”

Dr. Earl Richardson, who is not a plaintiff in the case but fought for similar resources as the former president of Morgan State University, said Maryland’s HBCUs should receive the same investment as other public universities. “But you can’t do that by providing the same percentage increase for those that have it and for ones that don’t,” he said. “The gap that has historically existed between HBCUs and other public colleges only gets wider and you are putting more into the already advantaged before you have leveled the playing field.

“Unless you have comparable facilities, comparable resources, comparable funding and a mix of programs to attract the very best students as well as some on the margin, than these schools are not going to be able to compete."

Warden concurs. “I love my school and I just wrote a story about the importance of HBCUs,” she said. “But I feel like something needs to be done.”

Obama Aims to Reconnect with Loyal Black Voters

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By Starla Muhammad, Special to the NNPA from the Final Call –

CHICAGO - In 2008, Barack Hussein Obama was elected with overwhelming support from Black voters. More than 90 percent of Blacks voted for him in the presidential election and his victory was a source of pride.

However, while the president's approval ratings are still high, recent polls show a decline in popularity. Announcing his plans for re-election in April, maintaining strong support among Black voters is key. Unemployment among Blacks is still high at 15.5 percent despite the overall unemployment rate decreasing.

Critics say President Obama may be taking the Black vote for granted as members of the Democratic Party have been accused of for years. “Where previous Democratic administrations have treated Black communities with benign neglect, Obama's policy is best described as depraved indifference,” wrote Glen Ford, executive editor of Black Agenda Report in a recent online posting.

With that perception in mind, the Obama administration recently launched a series of town hall meetings targeting Black communities across the U.S. Almost simultaneously, the White House launched http://www.whitehouse.gov/africanamericans, as a way for Blacks to get information on policies, programs, and initiatives the administration says help the Black community.

The town hall meetings, themed, “Winning the future,” are open forums, which allow the public to ask questions directly to White House personnel. Michael Blake, director of African American and Minority Business Outreach from the White House Office of Public Engagement was in Chicago, in mid-April, for a town hall meeting on the city's South Side.

Along with Mr. Blake, the event featured and Congressman Danny Davis Jr. (D-Il) and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and was moderated by radio host Matt McGill of WVON 1690 AM. Hundreds packed a standing room only overflow room at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church to voice opinions about the White House agenda for the Black community.

One area of success shared Mr. Blake, was the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) through the U.S. Commerce Department being awarded $7 billion in grants to advance the growth of minority owned businesses. However, this includes Black, Latino, and women-owned businesses. What remains unclear is what dollar amount was received by Black-owned businesses.

Questions remain as to why information has been so slow reaching the Black community. One problem could be that the Obama administration has not allocated enough resources to spread word of their accomplishments, which directly impact Black people, even Mr. Blake admitted that this “office of African-American affairs” is comprised only of himself and an intern. Additionally, Mr. Blake said, he only sees President Obama “every few weeks.”

Congressman Davis reminded the audience President Obama took office when the country was about to go to “hell in a hand basket.” Mr. Davis told the audience he was not present to be an apologist for the White House or President Obama but said were it not for steps taken by the administration; he is not sure whether the banking system would have survived.

“If we didn't do the health reform that people are trying to erode and wipe out, just in my congressional district alone the health reform bill improves healthcare and access for 350,000 people,” said Rep. Davis to applause.

Blake said though there is a long way to go, progress has been made he said that has benefited the Black community. “People are still hurting right now and we're not where we need to be and we're trying to get to where we need to be, but as Congressman Davis will tell you, it's hard right now working with some folks that don't want to work with you,” a clear reference to the Republicans, he told the audience.

The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan warned President Obama prior to his election about the forces that govern domestic and international politics. He has also encouraged President Obama to use his prominent position to speak for the weak and speak for the poor who supported him overwhelmingly. In a previous interview with WVON's Cliff Kelley, Farrakhan said that as a Black man, President Obama does not wish to address the concerns that God wants the American government to address, such as the lack of justice for the weak, poor, and Brown, Red, Black and poor White.

A vocal group attempted to pose questions to Blake regarding President Obama's decision to go to war with the North African nation of Libya, however, the meeting was ended abruptly before they could receive answers.

Before ending the meeting Blake urged audience members to contact his office at 202-456-4772 or email him at africanamericans@who.eop.gov to share their concerns.

Sharpton-West Feud Highlights Black Frustration with Obama

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Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American newspapers –

A war of words between the Rev. Al Sharpton, Black civil rights advocate, and Black scholar Cornel West has revved up recently after West made comments criticizing President Obama.

In an MSNBC special news program, West, a Princeton University professor, claimed that Obama is no longer working in the best interests of African-Americans, but is instead protecting the interests of the financial sector.

“I worry about you, brother, because you can be easily manipulated by those in the White House who do have the interests of Wall Street oligarchs, who do have the interests of corporate plutocrats who you opposed,” West said to Sharpton. “But you end up being the public face and Barack Obama ends up being another Black mascot.”

Sharpton countered that West needed to put the same pressure on his friends in Congress who have not pushed hard for a jobs bill and that any criticism of Obama was “hogwash,” leading to a shouting match that ended the show.

TV and radio talk show host Tavis Smiley, a close friend and colleague of West, also offered harsh criticism of Obama.

“The president knows his base in Black America is shaky,” Smiley said on his radio show recently. “You can't play that history card more than one time.”

David Swerdlick, a political analyst and journalist, said that the criticism of Sharpton and Obama is unfair given the challenges the president had to face.

“After firing his top general in Afghanistan for insubordination, enduring the ‘Ground Zero mosque’ controversy, and dealing with the Gulf oil spill, Somali pirates and a banking collapse that was waiting in his inbox on Day 1 of the job, President Obama is running low on juice,” Swerdlick wrote.

The Obama administration, perhaps sensing frustration, has launched whitehouse.gov/africanamericans, part of a concerted effort to show what the White House is doing to address the needs of African Americans ahead of the 2012 presidential election.

Nigerians Anxiously Await Final Count in Third National Poll

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network –

Nigerians cast ballots recently for state governors and legislators. It was the last election scheduled for last month since presidential and regional polls held earlier. Parliamentary polls were held April 9 and a presidential election took place April 16, which was won by President Goodluck Jonathan.

Results are expected within 48 hours of the 5 p.m. local time closure of polling stations, according to the West African nation’s Independent National Electoral Commission.

Polling went off quietly, unlike the earlier vote for president when some 600 people lost their lives in violence sparked by irregular voting practices that even drew criticism from international observers. So far, local news reports note numerous cases of ballot-box snatching in northern Katsina and Kano states, as well as several states in the south, including Akwa Ibom, Imo, Delta, and Rivers.

In Bayelsa state in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, violence and the hijacking of election materials led to the arrest of 13 people, authorities said. Six ballot-box snatching cases were reported in the main northern city of Kano, said electoral official Abdullahi Umar Danyaya.

While voting may be peaceful, published vote totals may be the spark for retaliation from groups seeing their numbers undercounted. Forensic exams of the ballot papers have been sought by the candidate of the Congress for Progressive change in Enugu State, Rosita Okechukwu.

“No electorate throughout history rewards a political party which failed to provide common infrastructure like electricity,” said Okechukwu. “It will be inconceivable that the Nigerian electorate rewarded PDP for decade stretch of failed promises. On Forensic Test and Biometric Technology we depend to prove our case; not on propaganda.”

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