Dec 1, 2010

By: Sheila Johnson

Too often we fail to see -- and worse, fail to face -- what's happening right in our own backyard.

As global ambassador for CARE, a leading aid organization fighting global poverty, I traveled to Africa and South America, where the impact of the AIDS epidemic is heartbreaking. Yet the more time I spent overseas, the more I thought about the issue we still face right here at home. December 1st marks the 22nd year recognizing World AIDS Day. On this day, I'd like to urge all Americans to consider how HIV/AIDS is impacting our own country, beginning in our capital city.

I've lived in the Washington, D.C. area since the early 1970's. I've driven and walked around many neighborhoods in the District. I know this city. At least I thought I did until a few years ago, when I learned a startling fact: Our capital has an HIV/AIDS rate that's higher than Dakar, the capital city of Senegal in western Africa, and higher than Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. For more than two decades, Washington, D.C. has suffered a growing AIDS epidemic that's affected every part of the city, especially minority communities. How could I, as an African American woman, not know this? I was embarrassed by my own ignorance and became determined to bring much needed attention to this crisis.

The AIDS crisis doesn't appear on the media's radar screen like it once did. The subject no longer commands the headlines it deserves. But I thought otherwise. For the past two years, I've worked on a film called The Other City, hoping to shed light on this issue.
This is a documentary on AIDS in D.C., and the Washington that assumes a starring role is not the city of monuments and museums, of powerful lobbyists and long-time politicians. It is the Washington of ordinary people and their extraordinary struggles living with a disease that is really more than a disease. AIDS is about poverty. It's about lack of access to health care. It's about homelessness, drugs, sexism, racism, and, it's about homophobia. All of these difficult issues are ones that those affected by HIV/AIDS grapple with every day.

While filming The Other City, I met many people impacted by HIV/AIDS and witnessed firsthand its devastating effects on the community. I also had the privilege of spending time some of the extraordinary individuals who are working tirelessly on the front lines of this battle. They are unwavering in their efforts to lower the number of new HIV infections. And they give hope to the thousands who are dealing with HIV/AIDS without the even the most basic support and resources they deserve and need.

I'll never forget the time we spent at The Women's Collective with a group of HIV-positive African American women, many of whom were unknowingly infected by their partners. One woman told me the only mistake she made was getting married.

Over the course of six months, we filmed inside the needle exchange van operated by Ron Daniels of Family Medical & Counseling Services. A significant percentage of new HIV infections can be traced to a dirty needle. Ron, who's HIV-positive and a former drug addict, makes sure that drug users have clean syringes. It's a controversial strategy, giving clean needles to drug addicts. But research proves it keeps people from getting infected. And, whenever he can, Ron helps users get into a detox program.


NOTE: The Other City is an award-winning film produced by Sheila C. Johnson. It will premiere on Showtime on December 1st.


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