Today on World AIDS Day many people around the world will discuss the fight against the spread of HIV and then move one. But for those whose loved ones lost their battles with the disease, the fight for change and to find a cure never ends. The harsh reality is that HIV and AIDS continue to pose a huge threat to the Black community.
After losing many dear friends to HIV and AIDS, actress and activist Sheryl Lee Ralph, 57, felt compelled to fight for awareness and a cure. In response, she created the Divinely Inspired Victoriously AIDS Aware (DIVA) Foundation, which allows her to travel across the country to help spread awareness about the disease. Ralph explains why she considers this a “season of knowing” and what you can do to help join the fight.
ESSENCE.com: When did your passion for HIV/AIDS awareness begin?
SHERYL LEE RALPH: I got involved in the fight against HIV and AIDS as an original company member of Dreamgirls on Broadway. It was the greatest time in my life, and then it became the worst. That was when I saw my friends literally drop dead of this mysterious disease, and it was awful, because I saw them die under stigma, shame and silence. When I was losing friends left and right, I knew that I had to do something to forever raise up their memories, so I created the DIVA Foundation.
ESSENCE: What’s the most valuable part of the activism you do?
RALPH: I enjoy being able to inspire conversations about the disease. As I travel across this country, I am truly shocked at how little people know or don’t want to know about HIV/AIDS. There are still a lot of people who don’t even know that HIV is one thing and AIDS is another. Some want to hold on to the misconception that it’s only a gay disease. I have always said that early detection is the key. Not only can I provide education about HIV/AIDS and how to prevent a positive diagnosis, but by partnering with products like the OraQuick® In-Home HIV Test, members of underserved communities will receive free tests as part of the “Make This the Season of Knowing” campaign. That’s a pretty fulfilling project to be a part of.
ESSENCE: What do you most want Black women to know or understand about HIV/AIDS?
RALPH: HIV is significantly impacting our community, and we need to stand up against it. Black women are 20 times more likely than White women to become HIV positive and five times more likely than Hispanic/Latino women. Knowing your status is vital to you, your health and the health of those around you. A single person is not going to end this epidemic; together we must unite in the fight.
ESSENCE: What can we do this holiday season to give back and promote HIV/AIDS awareness?
RALPH: I say to everybody, “Get tested.” Establish your sexual footprint. Parents should take the time to talk to their kids about sex and the responsibility of protecting themselves and their partners from STDs. There is no excuse not to know your status with an in-home test like OraQuick available at every drugstore and you can have your results in 20 minutes. If you can’t afford the $40 test, visit your local clinic. Get out there. Get involved, and don’t be afraid to talk about it. Silence is the best way to ensure that HIV/AIDS remains a crisis.