December 1 is World AIDS Day: a global recognition to raise awareness of the disease spread by the HIV infection, and the lives it has claimed. HBO supports (RED), the organization at the heart of the fight against AIDS, that funds lifesaving programs and looks to ambassadors to spread the word about prevention and treatment.
Below, Allison Williams of Girls recounts her time on the ground, and shares how you can get involved with (RED) this holiday season. You can also read experiences from Yvonne Orji and Jay Ellis of Insecure.
Allison Williams of Girls and Get Out, traveled with (RED) to partake in various HIV/AIDS programs in the East African country of Zambia. Founded in 2002, the organization was developed to help finance The Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Through various partnerships and innovative fundraising campaigns, including this season’s holiday (SHOPATHON) on Amazon.com, (RED) raises money for The Global Fund, which then directly supports educational programs. Here’s what Williams had to say about her latest trip and why we can’t take progress for granted.
HBO: When did you first get involved with (RED)?
Allison Williams: I’ve been to seven African countries, three with (RED): Rwanda, Kenya and Zambia. I was in college the first time I tried to work with (RED) and in love with Ghana from afar. Since then, I’ve learned more about how the organization works. Three years ago I had a meeting to let them know this is something I really care about. I studied it in school, I think about it all the time, I read everything that comes out about it — and I want to help. Last fall I went on my first trip with (RED) to Kenya, then Rwanda and they were generous enough to take me again to Zambia.
For the first trip, I brought my filmmaker friends who also work at NowThis, and they captured footage of our trip that did a great job of bringing that experience home to the U.S. There’s nothing quite like being able to get to know a new country through working with (RED) because you end up going to places you never thought you’d go and meeting phenomenal people. Because of the nature of what (RED) does, the conversations turn very personal very quickly and you form these bonds that would otherwise take weeks. In some cases, my first question is: “When were you diagnosed with being HIV positive?” You get right down to business. It’s pretty unusual, yet completely enlightening. And being able to come back with these stories that can then reach a wider audience is something I do not take lightly.
HBO: Can you talk about the programs you participated in?
Allison Williams: (RED) partners with companies; when those companies’ products are sold, the donations go to The Global Fund which, for (RED) goes directly to programs fighting HIV/AIDS in the countries they sponsor. So on these trips we get to visit the different organizations that get funding from the iPhone case you buy, for example. It’s profound to follow the money and see what it’s doing. It could not be a happier story. Many of the clinics I’ve been to have shelves full of ARV (antiretroviral) treatment and every kind of medicine patients could need. I’ve also been to youth centers where the goal is to spread awareness about HIV and STDs, as well as safe sex and family planning. I’ve learned how to put on a female condom, which is something I had never seen demonstrated before. I’ve met children who were born HIV-negative to mothers who are HIV-positive because of ARVs. I’ve also been to schools. I was recently at an all-girls Catholic school in Zambia, and the nun in charge is a complete badass who is empowering her girls to carry the mantle of an AIDS-free generation with pride and care.
HBO: Was there a moment from your last trip that resonated with you in particular?
Allison Williams: I’d be remiss not to mention Connie, who’s somewhat of a (RED) celebrity. Her story is heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time. I met her and her daughter, Lubona — her fourth child. Her first three children passed away and Connie, who is HIV-positive and has since been on ARV treatment, was able to have her daughter, who is HIV-negative. She’s about five and wears a lab coat all the time. She took my heartbeat, so she’s basically a doctor.
HBO: What are three things everyone should know about the fight against HIV/AIDS?
Allison Williams: The first thing is to understand how it’s transmitted. I am still shocked by people’s responses — people who I consider to be well-aware — asking if I hug people who are HIV-positive. You can’t contract AIDS from hugging someone.
Next, do not be complacent. We’re seeing a resurgence of HIV in some places in the U.S. One of the concerns of the success of the movement to end AIDS is young people won’t be adequately intimidated by the idea of having a HIV/AIDS positive diagnosis. It’s not an epidemic in the sense it was in the 1980s, because it doesn’t carry that horror and proximity with it; the concern is young people won’t be as cautious when having sex. They should use protection and get tested regularly. The challenge is to take this generation that’s been born HIV-negative and keep them that way, rather than starting the cycle all over again because of a lack of information or funding. Just because the number of new transmissions has decreased doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods. It’s not like polio, where there’s a vaccine, so it has to be continually monitored.
And for those of us who are HIV-negative, to stigmatize those who are HIV-positive only hurts a cause like this one. I’m sure there are people in everyone’s lives, directly or indirectly, who are HIV-positive and you’d never know — they’re just living with it. They take a combination of pills that keep them alive and the side effects of those pills have become livable — you may never know. It sounds obvious, but it’s remarkable how often that isn’t obvious to people.