“This is a national crisis. Our community can wait no longer.” These were the dramatic words voiced by California Congresswoman Maxine Waters in 1998, as she sounded the AIDS alarm. As chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, the fiery Democrat and her colleagues joined with other community leaders and took the dramatic step of declaring the HIV/AIDS epidemic in communities of color a “state of emergency.”
Congress answered her courageous appeal with the Minority HIV/AIDS Initiative, a comprehensive, $136.9-million package of grants and programs targeted specifically on African Americans. But Congresswoman Waters hasn’t let up: On July 21, 2001, she sent a letter to the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee urging an increase in the total for this initiative to $540 million. Thanks to her plain-talking, no-holds-barred style, to date she has managed to cajole, wrangle and arm-twist 86 members of Congress to sign her letter. “I don’t have time to be polite,” she says.
The tireless, committed Maxine Waters doesn’t have time, period. A member of Congress for over a decade, she is widely considered to be one of the most powerful women in American politics today. She has gained a reputation as an outspoken advocate for African Americans, children, the poor and, particularly, people with AIDS.
Several months ago, she introduced H.R. 933, the Affordable HIV/AIDS Medicines for Poor Countries Act, which would help make lifesaving medication available to those living with HIV/AIDS in developing countries. “Because so many people around the world are dying, it is important for those of us who make public policy to find new ways to stop the rate of infection and death,” she says.
Maxine Waters has always been a fireball. Born in St. Louis in the late 1930s, the fifth of 13 children, she began working as a bus girl in a segregated restaurant when she was just 13. After moving to Los Angeles, she worked in garment factories and at the telephone company before earning her degree at California State University at Los Angeles. She began her career in public service as a teacher and a volunteer coordinator in the Head Start Program. She took part in many political campaigns, knocking on doors and handing out leaflets, before she was elected to the California State Assembly in 1976. In 1990, she became the second Black female elected to Congress. She is now serving her sixth term, after being re-elected in 2000 with an overwhelming 87 percent of the votes in the 35th District of California.
Congresswoman Waters became a passionate warrior in the fight against AIDS in the late 1980s, after Rev. Carl Bean, the founder of the Minority AIDS Project, asked her to speak at a fundraiser. “I remember going to a gay bar on Pico called Catch One and meeting so many young men who had HIV or AIDS,” she recalls. “Those were the days when there was not much support for people with AIDS. Many had been disowned from their families and kicked out of their homes. It was then that I understood the point of what was happening and became determined to use my office to raise funds.”
Despite her national visibility and acclaim, the congresswoman also remains involved in the AIDS struggle at the grassroots level. As president of the Alliance of Black Women’s Organizations, for the past three years she has led an annual march through the neighborhoods of Los Angeles in June, on National HIV Testing Day. Dressed in all black, the women of the Alliance walk the streets of Los Angeles to distribute information and talk directly to people about the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS.
Sadly, she knows that devastating impact all too well. Her older sister, who resides in New York, has been living with AIDS for a number of years. “My sister is in poor health, and I worry about her so much,” says Congresswoman Waters, who is married and has two adult children and two grandchildren. “It is very painful to see her suffer, but she is a strong person and a fighter.”
Congresswoman Waters says that she is in the battle until the epidemic is over. “This is very gratifying work,” she says. “When I travel through the country talking with people who work on AIDS projects and those who are infected, they show such appreciation and gratitude for what I do. That is very inspiring and very satisfying.”