“AIDS in Black America needs to be seen as a global problem. The media needs to focus on the domestic crisis in America as part of the overall global crisis,” says Congresswoman Barbara Lee.
The Congresswoman is on a mission to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in her own backyard as well as the world beyond. Whether introducing legislation in the halls of government or getting tested publicly to inspired her constituents, this honoree stands tall as a strong and courageous voice in the struggle. She even leads one to wonder: what if every member of Congress cared about AIDS like Barbara Lee?
Her accomplishments in promoting effective, bipartisan measures to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and bring treatment to the infected have earned her international recognition as a leader in the fight against global HIV/AIDS. It’s a mission born years ago in the heart of the representative of the very urban Oakland, California. “My motivation goes way back to the early ’90s,” she says, sighting a variety of issues surrounding the AIDS crisis. “I protested with ACT-UP and got involved in legal issues. I was part of the moment early on, raising awareness.”
In 1998, Congresswoman Lee led the effort to declare a state of emergency for Alameda County. “I wanted Oakland to be on the radar,” she says. “Because of that, we were able to develop strategies and focus our attention and resources.”
As the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Task Force on Global HIV/AIDS and a Senior Democratic Whip, the Congresswoman has introduced pivotal legislation and worked with representatives in both parties to ensure the effective adoption and implementation of laws affecting global HIV/AIDS. She’s called on the clergy, the NAACP and rock star Bono to assist her efforts the struggle.
“Since the 1980s, in Oakland, there are 4,000 dead and 6,800 people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS,” she notes. “African Americans make up 40 percent of that population.”
Legislative actions spearheaded by the Congresswoman include creating the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS and sponsoring legislation that allows impoverished countries to purchase generic, cheaper AIDS drugs. She also introduced legislation to lift the ban that prevents people living with HIV/AIDS from traveling or immigrating to the United States. “It defies reason that, because of this misguided law, we cannot host an International AIDS conference in this country,” says Lee, who has attended every International AIDS Conference since she was elected to Congress in 1998. “This law is unjust and unnecessary and it is time to change it. I will continue to push our nation to go further and further.”
Congresswoman Lee’s work in the fight against global HIV/AIDS extends beyond her role as a legislator. She has urged organizations and local governments to recognize the growing HIV/AIDS crisis and has met with American and foreign dignitaries to find creative and alternative ways to combat the disease. As a member of the United States delegation selected by the Bush Administration, the Congresswoman attended the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS in New York. She has also participated in a number of local and international conferences, such as the XV World AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, where she has spoken on the need to establish comprehensive sexual education programs to meet the needs of all people, regardless of their lifestyles.
One might think all her work would make the Congresswoman feel good about her efforts. “I won’t feel good about this until AIDS is stamped off the face of the earth,” she says about such things. “The real heroes are the folks I’ve had an opportunity to serve, or people I’ve had an opportunity to work with like Phill Wilson and the Black AIDS Institute, and the people at the grass roots level. The grass roots level is critical.”
She’s been tested several times publicly, and she’s making sure the world doesn’t forget the plight of African Americans when it comes to the global pandemic. “African Americans are a subgroup, Africans in Sub-Sahara Africa are a subgroup, Africans with AIDS in the Caribbean are a subgroup. We’ve got to help them all.”
Because of her determination to make global HIV/AIDS a priority within the United States Congress, the Congresswoman has been recognized by a myriad of prominent organizations. Among them is the Family Health International Institute, which awarded her the HIV/AIDS international service award at the Barcelona International HIV/AIDS Conference in July 2002. She has also received the InterAction Congressional Service Award for her work. Locally, Congresswoman Lee was honored with an HIV/AIDS Community Service Award from the Alameda County Office of AIDS and the African American State of Emergency Task Force in December of 2001.
By increasing awareness, investing in education, and looking for new methods to stymie the spread of this disease, the Congresswoman wishes to bring light to the devastation HIV/AIDS has wrought and to bring hope to the people who battle the disease today.
With so many battles on so many fronts, perhaps a lesser person might feel overwhelmed by the tremendous job that needs to be done. But Congresswoman Barbara Lee is a greater person who’s focused on the future. She wants to rid the world of abstinence-only educational, for example. She also sums up the future of the struggle with AIDS with two simple but powerful: “tremendous optimism.”