Deon Haywood: Winnovating Intersectional HIV/AIDS Activism
I remember when the Trayvon Martin verdict came in around 10:00pm on July 13th, 2013*. Even though for some time I had a sense that Zimmerman would be set free, the crushing feeling of defeat I felt that night made me realize I had held onto some small hope that this society would deliver justice. In the aftermath of the verdict, many of my friends and peers reached out to me to discuss the trial and its implications, but I found myself initially unable to voice what was going on inside of my head and my heart. I was going through a cycle of emotions ranging from anger, to betrayal, to fear (and back to anger) that made it difficult for me to articulate myself and my emotions, and left me unable to think of what the next steps could be. Luckily for me, there was a solidarity rally held in Washington Square Park the following day that I was able to attend with a few of my friends. The rally featured a string of
community members and activists speaking, as well as communal song and mourning over the loss. Although the sense of community in the park initially raised my spirits, my mind only felt at peace when Deon Haywood got on the stage to speak. Haywood, bringing to the stage years of intersectional social and community activism, stepped to the microphone and proceeded to voice what I (and no doubt others) had been feeling, but unable to articulate in the immediate aftermath of the trial. Further, Haywood refused to accept that the rally in the park was the action that the injustice of the trial called for:
“I want a revolution. I want [it] and I’m calling for a revolution, not in a very violent way. And I want to make sure people understand that. Sometimes, when you say revolution, in this country, we fear that in some way this means violence. What it means is to have a plan. I have no desire to change the minds of people like George Zimmerman, I will NOT waste my energy on that because I’ll be dead and gone and my grandchildren will be still trying. But what we all can do is lend our energy to [fighting] those systems and the ideology that makes us think a certain way”
(You can read more excerpts of her speech here)
I left the rally feeling inspired to action and empowered to have real conversations about the verdict, the American ‘justice’ system and society at large. I was even able to go home and process in the best way I know how, penning a poem called the 7 Deadly American Sins/A Tribute to Trayvon (*watch a video of the poem to find out why I referred to it as the Trayvon Martin verdict rather than Zimmerman’s verdict earlier in the post). Looking back, I know I would have been unable to address the trial and its aftermath in the manner that I did if it has not been for the words of wisdom and unapologetic call to action made by Deon Haywood that day.
Deon Haywood is the Executive Director of Women with a Vision, Inc, a community based, social justice 501 (c)(3) non profit based in New Orleans, Louisiana that explores ‘the complex intersection of socio-economic injustices and health disparities’. WWAV was “created by and for women of color” to address the layered and
intersectional issues facing women in communities of color, envisioning “an environment in which there is no war against women’s bodies, in which women have spaces to come together and share their stories, in which women are empowered to make decisions concerning their own bodies and lives, and in which women have the necessary support to realize their hopes, dreams, and full potential”. The organization was founded in 1991 by a grassroots collective of African American women in response to the impact of HIV/AIDS in communities of color. Though the group originally focused on community outreach and health promotion, they have expanded over the years to address policy level initiatives that affect women and communities of color in the state and beyond. Since their inception, the organization’s major focus areas have grown to include Sex Worker Rights, Drug Policy Reform, HIV Positive Women’s Advocacy, and Reproductive Justice outreach. With this expansion, the organization has seen continued community and policy level success, especially with the ‘NO Justice Project. Haywood oversaw this successful campaign to end the 203-year-old Louisianan “Crime Against Nature” (CAN) law in March of 2012. This project resulted in a federal ruling of the CAN laws as unconstitutional, and saw the removal of over 700 women from the sex offender registry in the state.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Deon Haywood about the work the non-profit organization continues to do in its community. This holiday season, the Winnovating team is profiling Winnovators whose causes readers can support in the spirit of the holidays. After reading this interview with Ms. Haywood, you may be persuaded to include Women With a Vision on your holiday giving list and donate to their cause (donations up to $5000 will be matched until December 31st, 2013 as part of a holiday drive to raise funds to renovate WWAV headquarters after an arson attack):
Tell us about Women With a Vision. What inspired the formation of the organization?
Haywood: Women With A Vision (WWAV) was started by a group of women in New Orleans who were working in social services or similar fields and it is going on 23 years old now. I came to the agency early, at about 19 years, doing HIV prevention work, so I’ve been around a long time. When HIV hit the scene, most of the education was geared towards gay white men or the gay community period. The[se women] decided if [HIV] was something that was transmitted through sex and drug use, then they needed to come together and start something that specifically targeted HIV prevention in the African American community, and that’s how WWAV was started.
What motivates you to continue your work?
Haywood: Everybody at Women With a Vision…we are fighters. Everyone who walks through our door is
committed to this work, is all about change, all about justice and not just saying ‘that’s not right’ but ‘what are we going to do about it?’ At WWAV, it’s never about what we’re going to do to fix problems, but what can we do as a community. We may be the catalyst to change or offer support, but we are that group that works with women who are like us. We know the struggle of living as women, what it means to be targeted, what it means to be criminalized, and if not us personally, then someone in our family. We are not visitors to our process, we are of it, and we use this to center the stories that are most important. If you think about the media, about the stuff people see everyday, in reality how often does that stuff relate to everyday people and what’s really important? It doesn’t, but WWAV does.
What is Winnovative about your work?
Haywood: We are Winnovative not just because we believe in what we are doing, but because what we are doing is not based on a model that someone else created. From the start, WWAV was really about working with people and getting to know what they needed. We ask, “What do you want and how can we assist you?” and then we get it done. We don’t want to give [people] anything; we want to make sure that the people in our communities have access to the information and the tools they need to fight or to do better. We have an understanding that we need to position ourselves to share their stories…our stories. When we worked on the ‘NO Justice Campaign’, people told me to my face, ‘y’all are gonna fail. You are a small, black-run organization and y’all don’t have money…you can’t do it”. Someone even told me I was committing agency suicide. When people say these things, what I hear is ‘you as a black woman, as a queer woman, have no power’. People are telling me that someone like me can’t make a decision to help people who look like me, and that just doesn’t work for me. I feel like historically as an African American woman, this is who I am; we are not supposed to be silent, we are not supposed to sit back and watch it happen, we are supposed to actively take part in changing the course. That is why we are Winnovative and that is why we win.
What do you see as the biggest obstacles for other potential Winnovators?
Haywood: The hardest thing is staying true to yourself. I would never have imagined that would be difficult for someone like me; but when I talk to friends and others who are doing similar work, I realize that staying grounded is so hard and important because you are faced with it everyday. It would be easy to model what people
know, it would be easy for me to not bring up the issues that make people uncomfortable, but if you really believe that what you’re doing is right, then the hardest thing to do is realize that there is reason you have that burning inside of you and you can’t let anyone take that away. I tell people, I don’t get excited when its Friday because I’m still working, I’m constantly thinking about the world around me and understanding my connections to it and to women around the world and understanding that this means I’m never off. This kind of work can burn you out and we need to practice self-care. I feel like for women of color, especially black women, that is the most difficult thing because we don’t really know what that is.
What would you create if you had no boundaries or obstacles?
Haywood: I like to think I’m a dreamer, but I’m also a realist. If I could create anything it would be something that would change stigma, I mean really change the way people think about others. I used to joke that I wish I could be like [the witch from] Bewitched and twitch my nose and change people’s perceptions.
What is your favorite quote?
Haywood: It’s not so much a quote so to speak, but the book My Face is Black is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations by Dr. Mary Frances Berry. The book is about a formerly enslaved
woman who organized around healthcare and reparations in her community right after slavery. I’ve read all the feminist books, all the people everybody said I was supposed to read, but that book was everything to me because it reminded me that [agents of change] are just everyday people who just know that shit is wrong. When I need to be motivated, I think about that book or Shirley Chilsom because I love being reminded that what we are saying right now isn’t different from what our foremothers were saying. When I think about Fannie Lou and all those women who were really just everyday people in the community who fought for something, that’s my biggest motivator.
What are you currently reading?
Haywood: OK…So I thought about whether or not I was going to be honest with this question. I am reading some lesbian pulp fiction.
I tell people that [as an activist], you have to have a release because what we do is so serious. Everything I do is work. When, and if, I watch TV, something is going to remind me of work or if I go on Facebook or online, something is going to remind me of work. I have a granddaughter who is currently 6 years old and she came to me one morning and said “Can I have some change for the mission?” and I went off! I was like, “Listen…do you know what missionaries do? Let me tell you what they do when they go to other countries and so on and so on” and she looked at me like…”All I want is some change to give to the New Orleans Mission** that gives to the homeless people under the bridge…calm down!”. So for me I want to read something fun, something that can make me laugh that most people wouldn’t understand and right now, I’m reading lesbian pulp fiction.
**A homeless shelter in New Orleans
What would consider your theme song?
Haywood: I have three: Erika Badu AD 2000, Mos Def, Umi Says, and any old new Orleans bounce song, like from Partners N Crime. And I don’t know if I think Drake is the best rapper, but I love that song ‘Started From the Bottom’. When people ask me these questions, I try to make sure I am showing all of myself because I think it’s a myth and stereotype that as activists there’s things we can’t or shouldn’t like. It’s amazing to me because I was talking to a friend and I said ‘I think people see me in a certain type of way’ and I told that to my partner too, and she was like, “No shit”. I’m having this experience with people and its new to me because I don’t know if I ever thought of myself in that way.
So how do you think of yourself?
Haywood: I am Deon Haywood. My family calls me ‘D’ and I’m from the 3rd ward. When I think about my life, I realize I’m the person that wasn’t supposed to be here by society’s standards. I had both of my kids by the time I was 16, and I would love to tell you I was all in love but I wasn’t. It was more that I was struggling with my sexuality. So [there I am], a black single mom, but even more, a teenage single mother and I’m black and I’m a lesbian? That’s 3 strikes, and I’m from the south?
So there go another 8 strikes
Haywood: Haha right. So when I think about those things, that’s why I like that [Drake song]. My son says, ‘I am so proud of you, we started from the bottom now we here!’ I really want people to know that I’m just that chick from up the street. I don’t try to be anything more, I probably am, actually, I’m a lot, but you know, I’m also just everyday people who want things to be different and believes they can help with that.
If you could bring back one person from the dead who would it be and why? (Don’t worry they would be fully functioning and not a zombie!)
Haywood: Yeah no zombies, I couldn’t handle that. I would bring back Gladys Bentley, the 1920s blues singer who was an out lesbian and wore men’s clothing, because most people can’t tell me anything about her. If I brought up anyone else in black women’s history, there are books to tell me about their lives, but I want to hold the conversations with those who paved the way for them, the people we don’t know about. I want to bring back those women who knocked down walls but no one is talking about because they weren’t ‘the voice’. I would bring her back just so I could have some Makers Mark, or some other whiskey, and we could just talk.
Why should people give to Women With a Vision this Holiday Season (and throughout the year)?
Haywood: If you believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to have everything they need in life, then you would support an agency that works with people, not for a handout, but to make change and to challenge and speak out against the things that most people won’t. When I think about the work we are doing at WWAV and I
talk about not compromising our beliefs, I mean not compromising on our belief in the whole person. I can talk to someone about HIV, but if they are worrying about being beaten in a violent situation or if they are worried about eating, who wants to talk about HIV? It’s not immediate! I get so tired of sitting in meetings with people who comment on why black women don’t do this or ask why don’t trans*gendered people do that…I had to tell someone once that most trans*women in NOLA don’t catch the bus, and people are like, “huh? They don’t catch the bus?” and I’m like “NO! It’s not safe. You can’t just sit there and think ‘oh there’s transportation, they can get around [to these services] so why don’t they?” Recently, I was in a meeting with a man from the public defenders office and we were talking about criteria for this program we are working on. We were talking about life skills, money management and all the other things people want poor women to have and he said, ‘Oh testing, yeah, they need to be tested’. I asked him, “Why do you think that? I want to understand [that statement] as a black woman because this program will be working with majority black and transgendered women. I want to know how you as a white male feel like, ‘Yes! Make sure they get tested’ because that tells me a lot about how you think about them, how you think about us”.
A lot of times people say things about putting in work on yourself, your self esteem, self acceptance etc., but why are we not challenging people’s biases when we all have them? That to me is what our work is all about, challenging the stigma, and not just by the individual, so if you believe that people should have an opportunity to speak and tell their stories, if you beleive that you cannot simplify women’s lives; that our lives are more complicated than just HIV (because I can’t talk to you about HIV if I’m not talking to you about housing, economics and all the things that impact our lives), then you would support WWAV.
If you would like to support the amazing work of Women With a Vision, please consider making an end-of-the-year, tax-deductible donation to the cause. As an added bonus, one of the organization’s donors has agreed to match every dollar up to $5000 donated to WWAV through December 31st so your donation will go twice as far! The goal of the WWAV holiday drive for funds is to raise money to cover some of the costs associated with renovating the Vision House (WWAV headquarters) that was ransacked and torched on May 24, 2012 in an aggravated arson (see video linked earlier in the post for more information).
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