A conversation with Carla Davis about reducing stigma

Around National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, AIDS United caught up with Carla Davis, the corrections navigator at the Core Center in Chicago, Illinois. Held every March 10, NWGHAAD is an important opportunity to discuss the unique needs of women and girls living with and impacted by HIV.

Check out our conversation below.

What is your role in the Women Evolving Project with AFC?

I was hired to work on the Women’s Evolving program, which is a collaboration with AIDS Foundation of Chicago, to deliver bundled interventions to Black women living with HIV who are formerly involved in the justice system. I do outreach and encourage Black women to enroll in the Women’s Evolving program that can help improve their housing, help with jobs and their HIV care. I love what I do because I can relate to the clients. From my experience — and I share this all the time — when I first got diagnosed it was reassuring for me to see someone who was working in the field, doing the type of work that I do, coming from the background of living with HIV. I put the human experience to the work, that real life experience.

How did you get involved in this work?

I first started working as a peer at Austin Health Center of Cook County, Chicago, where I had the experience working with clients and had that human connection. I want to do what the first lady I worked with who was a Peer did for me. I told her how she impacted my life and that she will always be a part of my story. Just because I was diagnosed, that didn’t mean that my life was over. Meeting her and her sharing her story was good for me because I didn’t know she was positive, but I only saw her as an employee at The Core Center. She’d asked me “are you scared? They will take good care of you.” And I was scared. I felt like this person standing before me looks healthy, and it changed my whole thinking. The seeds were planted. The Core Center peers are really engaging with clients, assisting them with appointments, taking them to the mental health person.

National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is a day to raise awareness about the impact of HIV on women and show support for women living with HIV. What does that mean to you?

For me, National Women and Girls Awareness Day is important because it arms women with knowledge to be proactive, to understand our sexual health. This is a big stage. We’re able to talk about HIV on a federal level and not just state or city. It’s big, as an African American woman with HIV this day and all days always me to talk about when I first got diagnosed, when I didn’t want anyone to know, let alone the whole world. Now I want to talk, to be open and gradually reduce the stigma and talk about HIV.

Why is it important for women and girls to talk about HIV?  What are some ways to start the conversation? 

Personally, if we’re able to normalize the topic around HIV it reduces the taboo to even talk about it. It becomes easy to talk to my husband, family, my church and community. We just have to talk about it like an everyday topic. I usually start the conversation by sharing my memory of how it felt, the fear of being diagnosed and how someone helped me. Talking about HIV should start at home. Talk to our kids, in sex ed classes at school, and talk with our friends. I don’t want to talk about HIV every day, but I think until it has become a part of our everyday life — it’s like if I come and tell you I have cancer you treat me with compassion and care, but if I come with HIV your whole demeanor changes because of lack of education. If we normalize it, we can make people aware of what HIV is and is not, the risks and reduce the judgment.

What does it mean to meaningfully involve Black women with HIV in this work?

It means inviting me to have meaningful conversations with people in power about policy changes and shaping services for others. It’s about me helping doctors understand how peers like me can help others because I am living proof that if I can take my meds, make my doctor appointments be spiritually and emotionally fit, I can impact someone else.

How can we operationalize MIPA principles in our work? 

Always having a say, making sure my voice is heard and that what I add matters. My story helps others. I also think that agencies should invest in my professional growth. Yes, I started as a peer, now a navigator, but I want to do more with my life and grow professionally.

Black women are disproportionately affected by HIV, in terms of new diagnoses and HIV health outcomes, compared to women of other races/ethnicities.  How can we address this disparity?

More public awareness, even with the challenges of enrolling in the WE program, our flyers have to represent all people who might get HIV because that will reduce the stigma associated with HIV when we’re doing outreach. We need to have other strategic ways to present this program and others for women with HIV. If we normalized HIV, it wouldn’t be an issue. I don’t automatically share my story; I feel out the space to make the person feel comfortable. I go to groups to talk about what I do, like the women’s Clinic or in huddle meetings at the Core Center, so that others can see what I see now in myself.

What would you want to say to others living with HIV?

Everything happens in the time it’s supposed to happen. I think about the first time I was diagnosed and wouldn’t have imagined I’d be in this position now to help women who are newly diagnosed. Every person that God put in my path had something to do with my story. I struggled, the fact that one person said something, planted the seed, it took root and is growing. Every person that has real life experience is placed in a position to help others and can promote more successful stories so that they can carry the torch.

Everybody has a story. I LOVE WHAT I DO, I LOVE THE PEOPLE I WORK FOR!