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HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

This post is made possible by support from the Let’s Stop HIV Together campaign. All opinions are my own.


I went to high school during a time when AIDS and HIV were just becoming something that we were talking about. It was a scary time and the fears that teens felt at the time hit my generation pretty hard.

When The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was making the rounds of the United States I was in college and had come home to Chicago to visit my family. It was a quilt started in 1987 by a group led by Cleve Jones in San Francisco with 3-by-6-foot memorial panels commemorating the life, with words and pictures, on a quilt of someone who had died from complications from AIDS. Sewn lovingly by family members and friends of the deceased, it was my first introduction to art as activism. My mother had tickets to go and we went, taking my young toddler daughter with us, at the McCormick Center near Lake Michigan. It’s a place I’d been to a hundred times for various events but this one had all the moveable walls down and the quilts were arranged on the floor with space to walk among them. There were volunteers there walking around quietly and carrying tissues.



Prior to walking in that space I had given my daughter several warnings about appropriate behavior. There would be no screaming or loud talking and we were going to use inside voices, no running and definitely no stepping on the quilts or lying down and taking a nap. She was far too young to understand the gravity of the situation or even of HIV and AIDS at the time, but she knew there was a tone and respectful nature when we walked in that space. I didn’t have to remind her at all.

I remember a special moment I had with a stranger in that space. She was a volunteer who walked around with a box of tissues and I had stopped in front of a quilt that really struck me. The descriptions of this young man who died in his 20s really grabbed me in that moment. Learning about his life and how much he was loved made me start to cry and stare at the quilt for much longer than I should have. The volunteer stopped and offered a tissue and asked, very sweetly, "Anyone in particular?" 

Do you know those moments when you wish you'd say exactly what you're thinking but are afraid it will come out wrong and you do it anyway? I had that with her.

I looked around at all the quilts and made a sweeping motion with my hand and replied, "Everyone in particular."

She nodded and put a hand on my shoulder and we stood crying for a good while together.

At that time, in 1990, I had yet to know of someone personally who would be affected by the disease and it would take less than a few years for that to happen. Every one of them has been young and one of my cousins would live for another 20 years with HIV before succumbing to it. Though, at the time, it didn’t have a name in the 1970s when he got sick. Losing other family members to this has been devastating and yet we’re not where we should be which brings me to this place of helping spread the word along with the CDC for the Let’s Stop HIV Together campaign.


I get on a lot of bandwagons for political and personal reasons but this one is extremely personal to me and I’m happy to share any information to promote awareness and help for a very specific crowd. Today is National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day which is targeted at the 50+ crowd. You can get involved here if you'd like to do something. 

Here are some fast facts for you since I know people look for the bullet points (as if you’re asking yourself, What exactly does Kelly want us to know?):


  • People aged 55 and older accounted for 26% of all Americans living with diagnosed or undiagnosed HIV infection in 2013.
  • People aged 50 and older have the same HIV risk factors as younger people, but may be less aware of their HIV risk factors.
  • Older Americans are more likely to be diagnosed with HIV infection later in the course of their disease.



The one I want to focus on is that last one: if diagnosed with HIV later in the course of the disease it becomes more problematic health-wise. I can’t help, right now, to think of all those commercials for erectile dysfunction that focus on older couples but then fail to mention anything about safe sex. Sure, you're thinking, I'm older and don't have to worry about getting pregnant.

Yeah, but diseases don't really have an age range so take some precautions, friends. If I can sit through the dozens of erectile dysfunction commercials when I'm just trying to watch some football then I think it's okay that we make sure we talk about safe sex at every age. ALL THE COOL KIDS ARE DOING IT.

Here's a few other places to follow today that will use the hashtags #StopHIVTogether and #StopHIVStigma:



Thailand with The Exodus Road

"Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it's an early form of participation in what goes on." - Eudora Welty

Back in June I traveled with other storytellers to Thailand. Prior to getting up to speed on Southeast Asia and a part of the world that's never been a part of my world, I didn't know anything about sex trafficking there or the slave industry. To say it shocked me is an understatement. Naturally, I did my part to find out information about Thailand and we had a briefing day from local Thai residents who shared with us culture and customs and traditions. 


For instance, I hadn't realized how rude it is there to point with your finger towards someone with your palm facing down. When they hail taxis there it is with all fingers extended and a slight wave towards yourself.

Try it. If you're an American, that feels weird, doesn't it?

But, it's important to have some competence in a culture if you're going to visit so these were the kinds of things that fascinated me. 

I have to have full disclosure about something here: I am ordinary person. Sure, I can tell a good story and I have an animated face while doing it. I'm Midwestern, middle aged, and even mixed-race. IT DOESN'T GET MORE ORDINARY OR MIDDLE OF THE ROAD THAN THAT.

If I hadn't become a classroom teacher in my 20s I would have wanted to be an actor who got to try on costumes and personalities, but even my dramatic flair made for good instruction. Most teachers will tell you that. When I went into administration 12 years after my first teaching job I found it still came in handy. Most of all, I mastered my poker face so as not to appear shocked at the things I witnessed in schools. Basically, my being ordinary came in handy because the activisim streak in me is also strong.

I have never lost that naive belief that an ordinary person like me could make a big difference.


As you would expect, what hit me the hardest in my very tender soul was the first night we went to visit a brothel to see the very thing The Exodus Road was fighting. We got some basic pointers and my poker face came in handy when I saw the half-nude young girls dancing and hoping to make more money for the night. 


Make no mistake: these were young girls. Some of them looked so very close in age to the middle school students I had just seen a week prior to getting on a flight and heading halfway across the globe.

You should be doing algebra in a classroom. You should not be doing this.

 I couldn't stop thinking that.


It was their voices that hit me. Young, tender, kind. Their voices, in telling me their stories, will forever haunt me. That's a privileged statement to make for sure. If that's the worst I have to experience with this trip it's still better than what many of them live with daily.

But it was also the voices of the fishermen, grown men who had been drugged and kidnapped and taken out to the middle of the ocean to work for pittance while they toiled away under horrendous conditions. 

I'm an American and a westerner with values that reflect that and as much as I wanted to tell their stories I wanted them to have the automony to tell them. 

I'm also a woman and one of the most jarring parts of the visit was meeting the men they call "lady boys" who dress as women. It can be a dangerous job if they negotiate for sex with a man and they don't know they're actually men. While walking through an area full of brothels the lady boys would bang together noisemakers to get attention and sometimes would reach out and grab my breasts or smack my ass. It occurred to me that even all this way from home I, a woman, felt like these men took my automony from me and assumed they had access to my body.

That right there is a global problem but it still didn't outshine the difficult lives of the women and girls in brothels or the men taken to fish for large companies not of their own will.

Here's why I'm sharing this now: The Exodus Road can continue to do this work with donations as little as $35. That's what it would cost for them to go out and do their work in a night. You can also become a Freedom Partner with them to help rescue the young girls trafficked.

Please visit the stories shared by my storytelling partners Heather, Roxanna, Erika, and Doug.

And consider being ordinary with me to accomplish something The Exodus Road is doing that is extraordinary. 


Writing Roundup for August

I'm doing a lot of either freelance writing or writing to fill in for other people in so many place that I wanted to pull them all together in one space.

First, my friend and the founder of EduColor, José Luis Vilson, took a much needed vacation and let Rusul Alrubail and me take over for the week. I wrote about both microaggressions and macroaggressions of my experiences in the public school system. Here is a part of the second one:

When I go down the list of things that I have had to endure as a Black woman in the classroom as a teacher as well as in an office as an administrator I think the offenses are fairly common.

Has a parent or teacher called me a racist? Check.

Has a colleague told me my curly hair didn’t look as ‘professional’ as when it was straightened?Check.

Have I been summarily dismissed when I try to bring up race as connected to discipline or lack of representation? Check.

School culture can, however, be far more nefarious than those obvious and jarring examples. It took me a long time to notice that how we talk about work ethics and what makes a ‘good’ educator are actually damaging parts of the cog in the institutionally racist school systems. To tell that story, I have to go back a good decade.


I wrote another piece for Tue/Night.

I have spent the better part of two decades realizing that what people don’t know about me is that I am always going to stretch boundaries about issues of equity and race. I’m perfectly happy having difficult discussions. I’d argue that school systems should be glad people like me will challenge them within the system.

Alas, that was not the case.

Instead, I’ve been labeled as ”difficult” and ”hard to manage” when, in truth, the only managing done to me was to move me forcefully to different schools. That’s happened twice in my career. Yet it always came without bad evaluations or disciplinary letters in my file.

So, two weeks ago, I quit and started working on an initiative to respond to Illinois Senate Bill 100 on restorative justice. My reasons for quitting are complicated, but one was that I felt motivated to come up with actionable items to tackle systemic racism, something that SB100 seeks to address by responding to how we as a school system unequally distribute discipline for Black and Latino students.

Arnebya wrote about Being Black at School as well as her own experiences as a parent of public school students. 

A few places did some roundups as well about what people were talking about last week.

Chalkbeat, Teaching Tolerance, and Fortune magazine wrote about the work I'm doing with Being Black at School.

This is all a building up of the work I'm doing on Being Black at School and the partnerships are (already!) happening very quickly with people who want to support this work. Stay tuned, sign up, make a donation. Do what you can for now. 

It's going to be very big.

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