The power of one young girl’s dream.
Hydeia Broadbent was an AIDS baby, having contracted the virus from her biological mother. By her fourth birthday, she wasn’t expected to live beyond another year. By her eighth birthday, she was sharing her story at speaking engagements such as the 1996 Republican National Convention, and on TV talk shows, such as the program another young girl was watching with her mother one day.
That other young girl was Jurnee Smollett and after that show, life would be never be the same for the child actress. She was only a few years younger than the girl talking about AIDS on television, but the impact was immeasurable. Right away, Jurnee and her mother tried but failed to make contact with Hydeia. Later, fate intervened. In 2001, at age 13, Jurnee was asked to participate in the very first Heroes in the Struggle event, where one Hydeia Broadbent was being honored.
“My world changed and we’ve been best friends ever since,” says Smollett, the amazement still resonating in her voice. “Because of Phill Wilson and the Black AIDS Institute, I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to have someone so inspiring in my life. She’s a modern day hero. It all started with her.”
While another hero may have provided the catalyst, Smollett, an adult now, has become a force in her own right in both the struggle with HIV/AIDS and in Hollywood. She began her career modeling diapers and doing a Pepsi commercial with Joe Montana. Her television appearances include Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, Full House, Cosby, Wanda at Large, and On Our Own, where a crew member’s AIDS-related death greatly impacted the actress, who was only seven at the time. As an adult, her performance in Eve’s Bayou received critical acclaim and her latest movie is The Great Debaters with Denzel Washington.
Jurnee’s work in the fight against AIDS has been equally prolific. She is the youngest board member of Artists for a New South Africa, a nonprofit organization working to combat HIV/AIDS, advance human rights and equality, safeguard voting rights, and assist, educate and empower children orphaned by AIDS (as well as other at-risk youth). Jurnee has been involved with ANSA since she was 12 years old and performed alongside Stevie Wonder, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Alfre Woodard, Ted Danson, Sidney Poitier and Blair Underwood at the organization’s highly acclaimed event honoring Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which celebrated ANSA’s 10th anniversary and the fifth anniversary of South Africa’s freedom. Over the years, she has become one of the group’s leaders, and in November 2007, Jurnee co-planned and hosted ANSA’s most recent gala, Shaking the Blues, featuring The Roots, Erykah Badu, Alfre Woodard, Taj Mahal, Anthony Anderson, James Pickens, Jr. and many others.
In 2006, Jurnee became ANSA’s pioneer presenter for Positively Speaking, a program of the Los Angeles Unified School District HIV/AIDS Prevention Unit that brings people who are infected or affected by the disease into middle and high school classes to tell their stories and lead discussions. As someone with two close friends living with the virus, Jurnee does her best to destigmatize AIDS by talking frankly with students about risky behaviors, while educating them about prevention, testing and treatment. Through the program, Jurnee has spoken with thousands of students.
“My mother was very raw,” she says of her own childhood. “Any topic I wanted to discuss, we discussed. I could talk to her like a big sister. She de-stigmatized taboo subjects and a lot of the mystery around things like sex and drugs was taken away. It kept me grounded.”
That frankness is benefiting the kids of today.
“I try to relate to the students, open up a dialogue, make it a conversation they’ve never had,” says Jurnee, who easily assumes the big sister role. Many students, male and female, thank her afterwards, including “one girl who came up to me and told me she and five of her friends were going to get tested now.”
As part of her ongoing commitment, Jurnee took part in a delegation of ANSA artists and board members who traveled to South Africa to witness first hand the devastating impact of the disease. While there, she met many of the country’s leaders and heroes, including: former President Nelson Mandela; Archbishop Desmond Tutu; Ahmed Kathrada, anti-apartheid leader and former political prisoner; Albie Sachs, Justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court; and Zackie Achmat, Chairman of the Treatment Action Campaign. Jurnee also visited a number of ANSA’s grantee organizations including Treatment Action Campaign, AIDS Foundation of South Africa, Ingwavuma Orphan Care, Philani Nutrition Centre, and Tygerberg Children’s Hospital. The final destination of the delegation was Ingwavuma, one of the three pilot communities in ANSA’s It Takes a Village orphans’ and vulnerable childrens’ program.
The actress’ work has also taken her to less exotic locales like Mississippi, where she described the students as initially quiet and perhaps uncomfortable talking openly about HIV/AIDS. But awkward moments don’t last long with an ebullient spirit like Jurnee Smollett around. Sure, her movie star looks and sweet personality help to break the ice, but it’s her sheer determination to change people’s lives that is truly infectious. And as sure as her career in Hollywood will continue to shine, so will the lives of those in need—with a star like Jurnee lighting the way.
“I hope it ends with my generation,” she repeats more than once, like a personal mantra.
The power of one young woman’s dream.