Prevention: Leading With Love
Nikkisha napoleon | HIV Testing Coordinator
Before Hurricane Katrina, my professional goal was to earn a juris doctorate in Family Law, and possibly author a few poetry books in between my busy schedule. As a childhood survivor of physical abuse, I was deeply committed to the law profession because I was genuinely compelled to provide abused children with strong supportive representation in the courtroom. I wanted to ensure that every child that I represented had a hand of love to hold onto, and the much needed resources to heal from the trauma that they endured. However, over the course of three years, my focus began to shift. I became conflicted as I set out to continue my journey, and wrestled inwardly with my overall professional decisions. Although I earned a dual bachelor’s degree (English and History), I began to garner a deeper and intense connective pull towards the field of Public Health. This shifting wasn’t some happenstance decision; I am a firm believer that it was a higher calling, a mission that would expand my growth mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
On the campus of Southern University at New Orleans, I was actively involved in several student organizations, and formed great campus friendships. In the late 90’s, I met Raja, an openly gay man who had the most infectious and bubbly personality. Raja was smart, humorous, and all things joyful and beautiful. He and I immediately developed a strong friendship, and after four months of being campus buddies, he disclosed to me that he was HIV +. He also informed me that he never received treatment, because he was too afraid to go to the clinic. Raja thought it was intimidating and stigmatizing, and was afraid that someone might expose his personal status to his family–a family that had already disowned him. As a friend, I offered to personally take him to the clinic, and after long tiresome talks for months, he agreed to seek treatment. Raja was consistent with his medication, appointments, and the picture of perfect health for two years. However, his health began to decline rapidly, and unfortunately he received an AIDS diagnosis. After several consistent days in the hospital I encouraged him to share his status with his family. I thought, “Maybe they would have a change of heart. Maybe they would support him through this journey. Maybe this would be a time for atonement, love, support, and healing.” However, my advice backfired, and unfortunately, Raja’s family pushed him further away. Raja passed away in the fall of 2004, when the leaves were turning a crisp ginger-orange and medium brown. His family didn’t mourn the changing stages in his life, and didn’t think his life or death was worth the wasted teardrop. His father perceived him to be this ‘Great Sinner’, and his death was punishment from God. Due to their personal biases and ingrained stigma, Raja’s family failed to reach out to him with a hand of love. They didn’t want to bury him. So, a few close friends and other relatives honored the beautiful light that he was, and raised funds to bury our loving friend.
It is through Raja’s journey that I began to volunteer with local HIV organizations and became involved in the HIV field. However, a few years later, after Hurricane Katrina gave New Orleans a 1-2-3, knock out hurricane punch, my family and I were faced with the devastating news that my sister was battling an AIDS diagnosis. My sister, like so many New Orleans residents living with HIV, were tangled in this web of unethical treatment and medical injustices. Medical facilities in other states refused to treat them, making access to medical care problematic. My sister passed away in July 2008, the coldest summer day in New Orleans. She was known as the family’s child magnet, the comedian, and the most delightful feather jewel. Her untimely death, coupled with the weight of physically and mentally rebuilding after two life storms, pushed me to broaden my work and become an HIV advocate. I adopted poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks’ quote as my daily mantra, “First fight. Then fiddle.” Therefore, as a mother, grandmother, sister, daughter, aunt, mentor, mentee, and friend to thousands of women that left this planet too soon because of AIDS complications, I stand on their shoulders. I fight. For every HIV positive New Orleanian denied access to HIV healthcare services, and HIV medication after Hurricane Katrina, I extend my hand like a welcoming garden. I fight.
I firmly believe that for such a time as this, we are called to champion the cause of marginalized communities, amplify the voices of people of color, and work as agents of change to shift the paradigm of inequities in healthcare to reduce stigma and empower our communities to take charge of their sexual health. My priority as an HIV Testing Coordinator is to ensure that I not only welcome my clients with love, but lead with love, compassion, understanding, and empathy. This fifteen plus year journey in the HIV profession has been humbling and sometimes tiresome, yet an enlightening professional and personal experience. My job isn’t to simply conduct HIV tests, distribute condoms, counsel, write referrals, or link clients into medical care. This is a sacred mission where I have been chosen to educate families about sexual health, and provide clients with the tools to empower their communities. This is a divine assignment where I always lead with a hand of love.