The Red Pump Project

Photo Courtesy The Red Pump Project
It’s no surprise that The Red Pump Project sponsored a Sex and the City 2 event. The sweet-on-Manolos lead character Carrie Bradshaw believes in the power of shoes. And so do Chicago-based Luvvie Ajayi and Karyn Watkins, cofounders of the national nonprofit.

“Women love shoes,” Luvvie says, matter-of-factly. (The cofounders prefer first names.) “Red shoes always make a powerful statement when you wear them. We wanted to use that energy to talk about HIV from a power standpoint…to empower women to talk about [HIV] more. So, that’s our conversation-starter.” And as the project’s tagline reminds: “Awareness is always in style.”

The Red Pump Project took its first steps in 2009. “We’ve always been interested in social justice issues, especially AIDS,” says Luvvie, about the impetus that spurred her and Karyn to start raising awareness about HIV/AIDS. “For me, that started in college. I did a couple of projects on HIV and AIDS, and, Karyn has a friend who was diagnosed with HIV in 2007.” Both were concerned about the high prevalence of HIV among women and girls.

The federal government’s Office on Women’s Health states that one in four Americans living with HIV are women, and estimates that a woman tests positive for HIV every thirty-five minutes in the United States. According to the CDC, rates of diagnoses of HIV infection among adult and adolescent women are highest among blacks/African Americans, whose rate of diagnosis is more than nineteen times as high as the rate for whites. Additionally, the rates of diagnoses of HIV infection among women of all nonwhite races/ethnicities, including Asian, American Indian/Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, for example, were higher than that for white women, which is startling when you consider that white women are the majority. (Data was culled from thirty-seven states with confidential name-based HIV infection reporting since at least January 2005.)

 Chatting one day, Luvvie mentioned to Karyn that she had “an idea to do something around HIV and red shoes.”

Karyn reminded that National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day was coming up. “So we decided to launch our idea then,” says Luvvie.

One week ahead of that March 10 date, Luvvie and Karyn sent out a call for bloggers to “Rock the Red Pump,” that is, to post the Red Pump badge on their sites to raise awareness about the impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls and encourage women to take action.

In one week’s time, 125 bloggers responded and a new social-media effort was born. Both were pleased and surprised by the blogosphere’s response.

“Our goal was set at 100—and we even thought that was stretching it,” says Luvvie, adding that they thought fifty bloggers would be the more realistic response.

As bloggers and social-media professionals, both of the cofounders are experts in everything Web 2.0. “We thought it would be something different for the blogosphere to participate in because every [blogger] has a platform, with an audience, with an audience that could be harnassed. It was a natural thing for us.”

For the second annual awareness day, the Red Pump Rockers more than doubled in number. Male bloggers have joined in, as well. Overall, the message is attracting bloggers of all stripes: Participating blogs’ content ranges from entertainment and lifestyle to politics to dating and relationships. On this day, the Red Pump Project is also now encouraging women to wear red shoes. “They don’t need to be red pumps,” assures Luvvie. “They can be red flats, red slippers….” Men can rock red ties.

The Red Pump Project does not only exist in cyberspace. The nonprofit also delivers its message on the ground.

For example, as part of the project’s national outreach, forty ambassadors across twenty states commemorate major HIV/AIDS awareness days with events, fundraisers, and/or testing drives as well as identify local organizations dedicated to HIV/AIDS, particularly those with programs specific to serving the needs of women and girls.

Some of the events so far have included Rock the RED: Youth Skate Jam in Charlotte, North Carolina; a joint event in Alabama with The National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inc.–Greater Huntsville Area Chapter called Stomp the Pump; and a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference panel in D.C. in September titled, “SisterSpeak: Reducing HIV/AIDS in the Black Community”; among others. Luvvie and Karyn themselves recently represented the project at the Chicago AIDS Walk/Run.

Upcoming events include The Red Pump/Red Tie Affair, a benefit gala in Charlotte, North Carolina, on December 1, and, in commemoration of World AIDS Day, Rush University Medical Center’s Section of Infectious Diseases and The Red Pump Project are sponsoring an evening of storytelling, spoken word, and music called “Behind the Red Curtains: Monologues on HIV” in Chicago, Illinois, on December 3.

One event in particular had Luvvie and Karyn kicking up their heels. Last year in March, to celebrate the project’s one-year anniversary and to honor National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, The Red Pump Project launched the Rock the Red fashion show. Hosted by Danielle Noel Riley (Miss Black Illinois 2010), the evening drew about 250 attendees, who were treated to the designs of Melanie Lyke of Rockett Mansion, Kortnee Quiza of Verse Boutique, Amber Johnson, Kahindo Mateene, and New’d Chicago. In the final model walk, the Red Pump Project debuted its specially designed T-shirts.

At the show Luvvie and Karyn were surprised with an honor, a pair of Congressional Records from the U.S. House of Representatives. But The Red Pump Project shined its biggest light on Rae Lewis-Thornton, presenting her with the first Red Pump Living Legacy Award. Lewis-Thornton is a longtime AIDS advocate, who, when she came out on the national stage about living with HIV/AIDS in the early nineties, helped to broadcast the dialogue about AIDS in African American communities.

“It was important for us to honor someone who’s also talking about the issues publicly, and we’re all inspired by any woman who has told her story and has made an impact. We chose Rae because she’s been telling her story for more than fifteen years. She’s our first Red Pump Rocker,” says Luvvie about the trailblazer.

The Red Pump Project will continue to focus on women and girls.

“Now we’re seeing that the face of AIDS is more women than men. Women are getting diagnosed at higher rates than men are,” says Luvvie. “We wanted to reach out to women because women are caregivers. Whenever women get sick it affects everyone around us.”

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November 2010