AURN chats with Dafina Ward, JD, executive director of the Southern AIDS Coalition, about how its partnerships help to spread awareness about the HIV/AIDS endemic in the South.
The South makes up about 38% of the US population, but it represents 52% of HIV diagnoses. According to AIDSVu, the disproportionate burden of HIV in the South is experienced the most by Black women, and Black and Latinx members of the LGBTQ+ community.
There have been positive advancements in the fight against HIV/AIDS such as overall numbers being down, but we still have a lot of work to do to make sure that people have the education and access to care that they need. That’s where Dafina Ward, JD, comes in—and the work she’s doing with the Southern AIDS Coalition (SAC).
The Southern Aids Coalition is a non-profit organization run by an ambitious team that’s passionate about working toward ending the HIV endemic in the South through partnership with other organizations that help move the company’s mission forward. One of its recent endeavors is a partnership with the National AIDS Memorial and Gilead Sciences for Change the Pattern, an ongoing act of remembrance and HIV/AIDS awareness that centers around a memorial quilt. Each quilt patch represents a life lost from HIV/AIDS. The quilt gets moved around the country, but lately it has been in various parts of the South.
Here, AURN chats with Ward, SAC’s executive director, about Change the Pattern, how systemic racism propels the HIV/AIDS crisis, and how education about the crisis can help lead to better outcomes.
AURN: You often hear about the populations that are most severely impacted by HIV/AIDS and it’s heartbreaking. But there are a lot of factors at play, especially when it comes to policies, education, and legislation. So, what’s your take on why the Black community is hit so hard?
Dafina Ward: Whenever I talk about the disproportionate impact of HIV in the South, particularly on Black folks, I always start with this map that the NAACP created back in 1908. They hired photographers and created a lynching map of the United States, and colored states based on the rate of racial violence in the country. And so, the states where you likely get the deepest shades of lynching history and racial violence are the same states where you see the highest rates of HIV. It’s impossible to separate the history of racism in this country from where we are seeing HIV and other health disparities. We can talk about all the other reasons it could be happening—there’s plenty of them, but the system was created in a way for Black people to be relegated and not have access and resources.
AURN: It’s wild how much people still don’t understand or dismiss how racism actually works systematically.
DW: The CDC finally publicly acknowledged that racism is a huge public health threat, period. If you don’t deal with the racism, which we know is systemic, it gets into every nook and cranny of a person’s life. If you don’t deal with that, then you can’t deal with the health disparities that have resulted in this country, and so that, for me, is first and foremost because where you have HIV, you have lower income. Where you have HIV, you have less likelihood that people are gainfully employed in jobs that provide an adequate wage for living, and it’s less likely that there are strong schools or comprehensive sexual health education, or Medicaid expansion. And it’s more likely there are going to be higher rates of HIV. So, that is what it is. Then if you start to drill down into subpopulations within the Black community, or even Latinx communities, you start talking about people of transgender experience—particularly transgender women, same-gender-loving men, you know, gay or bisexual men; you start getting more marginalized, so that is where we are. We have to deal with our stuff. We have to deal with our systemic issues if we’re actually going to shift and make moves. As far as Change the Pattern, that’s really why this partnership is so important.
AURN: Speaking of Change the Pattern, tell me about the campaign and the traveling quilt.
DW: Southern AIDS Coalition in partnership with the National AIDS Memorial was able to pull together this initiative called Change the Pattern, which is bringing together southern communities. The AIDS Memorial quilt was started in California 36 years ago, and it was started by folks who were sick of people that they loved—and lost to AIDS—being ignored. They were determined to make sure that elected officials and decision makers in their communities didn’t forget people because their lives mattered, and their stories mattered, and there was shame in how they lived their lives. That’s where the AIDS memorial came from.
Each panel of the quilt tells the story of somebody’s life, and now the panel is the world’s largest public art display at 57 miles long. What the National AIDS Memorial realizes is, if we lay out all that quilt, all those 57 miles, it’s mostly white people. Where are the legacies of Black and brown people lost to aids-related complications? Where are all the southern people whose lives have been lost because we know that the rate of AIDS-related deaths in this country is far higher in the South than any other region. The South isn’t just seeing the most HIV cases, we’ve also got to see higher rates of AIDS-related deaths because people don’t have access to the health care they need. So, Change the Pattern is bringing activations across the South, bringing the AIDS Memorial Quilt to different communities for these beautiful large public art displays, while also inviting the community in to make the quilt for people that lived in their communities.
AURN: Where have some of your travels taken you with the quilt, and what’s the Rosa Parks connection?
DW: We’ve been to Jackson, Mississippi, in October. Then we were in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, for World AIDS Day on December 1st, which we learned is also the anniversary of the day Rosa Parks wouldn’t give up her seat. So, to be there with the quilt displayed at the corner of the bus stop on World AIDS Day, which is also what they call ‘Rosa Parks Day’ in Montgomery, was something. We were also on the campuses of Dillard University in New Orleans and Southern Baton Rouge, working with HBCU students and leaders to talk about Change the Pattern. It was so beautiful seeing students come in and work on the quilt and have real conversations. So many of them were saying they didn’t even know HIV was still a thing because they were babies born in the 2000s.
AURN: That is wild, especially for people who remember the 80s.
DW: When we looked at the data from Louisiana, more than 90% of the people who saw the quilt were seeing it for the first time. It’s really powerful. When we come with the quilt, we bring programming and conversations. We bring opportunities for the community to convene and talk about what’s needed to address HIV in their community. It has been a really powerful partnership generously supported and funded by Gilead Sciences, and that’s what Change the Pattern is all about. It’s about changing the pattern in the South to make sure that our policies and our practices will create a region that will create better health outcomes and end the disparities of HIV in Black and brown communities.