Angels of Harlem

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Angels of Harlem
Singer Alicia Keys & U.S. Representative Charles B. Rangel, Along with Community Luminaries, Spread Their Wings of Hope to Address the High Rates of HIV/AIDS in Their Harlem Hometown and Beyond
Text & Photos by Sean Black

Rep. Charles Rangel listens as Alicia Keys speaks at Harlem Hospital Center.
Rep. Charles Rangel listens as Alicia Keys speaks at Harlem Hospital Center.

On August 22, Harlem Hospital Center opened its doors to local residents with the purpose of sparking frank and urgent dialogue about the alarming rates of HIV infection, the harmful stigma surrounding the disease, and the disproportionate impact it is having on black and Latino communities in Harlem, as well as in other urban neighborhoods and cities across America. Presented by Greater Than AIDS in partnership with its national EMPOWERED campaign, the townhall-style event gathered over 400 individuals, comprised mostly of its target audience—concerned and enthusiastic, young people of color.

Stephanie Brown spoke about living with HIV: “With stigma and all of the negativity that I was given, it [fueled] me to go out and to educate...I refuse to live my life as a secret and I shouldn’t be ashamed of my status.”
Stephanie Brown spoke about living with HIV: “With stigma and all of the negativity that I was given, it [fueled] me to go out and to educate…I refuse to live my life as a secret and I shouldn’t be ashamed of my status.”

Joining voices with the fourteen-time Grammy Award-winning artist and advocate Alicia Keys and the Honorable Charles Rangel (D-NY) were Harlem Hospital’s executive director, Denise Soares, former NBA All-star, Minister Vin Baker of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, president and CEO of CARE USA, Dr. Helene Gayle [A&U, April 2007], Def Jam Recordings hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, and EMPOWERED ambassador Stephanie Brown. Distinguished guest Dr. Hazel N. Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference and national NAACP board member, also spoke.

“Because you are here, you recognize the importance of what we are trying to overcome,” opened Congressman Charles Rangel as he addressed media in a preliminary briefing. Representative Rangel is a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and represents New York’s 13th District. Committed to the fight against AIDS, he recently introduced the Communities United with Religious Leaders for the Elimination of HIV/AIDS (CURE) Act. The Act would authorize the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health to provide grants to health agencies, as well as community and faith-based organizations for education, outreach, research, and testing activities related to HIV/AIDS prevention.

Rep. Rangel; Minister Vin Baker of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and former NBA All-star; Keys; Stephanie Brown, Greater Than AIDS ambassador; Russell Simmons
Rep. Rangel; Minister Vin Baker of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and former NBA All-star; Keys; Stephanie Brown, Greater Than AIDS ambassador; Russell Simmons

According to the CDC and reported in the “Findings” section of the Act, “racial and ethnic minorities accounted for almost 71 percent of the newly diagnosed cases of HIV infection and that although Blacks are only 14 percent of the United States population, they account for [nearly] half (44 percent) of all new HIV infection cases in 2010. They are 8 times more likely to have HIV than Whites.” Greater Than AIDS pointed to local data derived from a 2011 report that the rate of HIV diagnosis per 100,000 population in Harlem was four to five times higher as compared to the nation overall.

“The statistics are unbelieveable and so many of us say ‘No! Not me!’ Yes! You too! Me too!..All of us!” rallies a vibrant and passionate Keys. “We definitely can’t be ignorant. It’s unacceptable. Doing our part to further this dialogue is so important and crucial for us to arrive at an AIDS-free generation.”

Keys, who helped to create the EMPOWERED Campaign with Greater Than AIDS is now leading its Community Grants program, administered by AIDS United to award grants of up to $25,000 to community-level projects that focus on women and HIV. Committed to this fight for many years, she is the co-founder and Global Ambassador of Keep a Child Alive, a non-profit organization that provides AIDS treatment, food, and other support to children and families affected by HIV and AIDS in Africa and India.

“Life is not over and all the same dreams that a person has can be achieved. There are a lot of misconceptions and misinformation…that if we are diagnosed life is over. At one point that may have been the case, but now this is a treatable and a preventable disease,” shares Keys.

Sylvia White, Chief of Staff at Harlem Hospital Center, joins hands with members of her team to pray for the health of their patients and for a successful community event.
Sylvia White, Chief of Staff at Harlem Hospital Center, joins hands with members of her team to pray for the health of their patients and for a successful community event.

Unfortunately, while growing up, HIV was not part of artist and activist Stephanie Brown’s household conversations nor the conversations amongst her friends. “Being fifteen and deciding to step into that world of maturity to have sex—my biggest fear was pregnancy.” Brown, who found out seven years ago that she had contracted HIV through unprotected sex, continues, “I wish, at that age, I would’ve gotten the message that STDs were still real and relevant. Had I known that, I would have probably educated myself more. So, if you want to step into this world of maturity the best thing [for you] is to have the tools to prepare yourself for the real world of sex.”

Continuing the openness and candor in the discussion, Moderator Jeannine Amber, senior writer at Essence Magazine, turned to Dr. Helene Gayle and posed a question on the topic of sexual orientation, a subject that is being discussed with less reticence among many faith-based organizations.

“The stigma around same-sex relationships is something that we have to break through,” warns Dr. Gayle. “We have to accept people with a range of sexual behaviors and we have to be able to make sure that we are not stigmatizing people because stigma drives people underground; driving them away from information, driving them away from health services.”

Encouraging others to do the same, Keys took a rapid HIV test, administered by Vanessa Austin, Public Health Educator in HIV/AIDS Services at Harlem Hospital Center.
Encouraging others to do the same, Keys took a rapid HIV test, administered by Vanessa Austin, Public Health Educator in HIV/AIDS Services at Harlem Hospital Center.

Poignantly addressing this issue as well, in a caveat to Minister Baker’s redoubled commitment to the youth of his ministry, Ms. Keys affirms, “We tend to be really, really judgmental of each other and we need to stop being like that. How can you be yourself if you are afraid that, by telling your family or your best friend that you might be gay, or that you might be positive…they aren’t going to love you anymore and not help you through this process. Why would anyone tell anyone if that is the treatment they are going to get? Disowned? Treated negatively and wrong?…If we could just start loving each other and accepting each other for who we are?”

Following the ninety-minute community conversation, Ms. Keys, Congressman Rangel, and Dr. Gayle all participated in confidential HIV testings in a successful effort to encourage attendees to find out their HIV status.

To learn more about EMPOWERED log on to: www.greaterthan.org/campaign/empowered.

Sean Black is an Editor at Large at A&U.