As an epidemiology nurse in a major medical center in Philadelphia in 1983, Rashidah Abdul-Khabeer saw right away how AIDS was going to affect the Black community. At the time, the national profile for persons with AIDS was white, gay and male, but the first patient Abdul-Khabeer encountered was a Black gay male prostitute.
“The radiologist told the patient he had AIDS, then left the room, leaving me to explain ‘AIDS’ to this young man,” says Abdul-Khabeer. “That’s when I realized: that’s how people are going to deal with AIDS in the Black community: give them words, then walk away.”
Abdul-Khabeer formulated a plan. She began a campaign of public speaking to heighten awareness, but when she realized the AIDS Task Force of Philadelphia was not focused on the Black community at large, “I just stopped and created a new organization.”
“The organization” is the Circle of Care, a program of the Family Planning Council, a private, non-profit organization whose mission is to provide access to high quality health and prevention services to primarily low-income individuals and families. The Circle of Care provides HIV-related care and services to children and their families, as well as to HIV-positive pregnant women. As Deputy Director, Abdul-Khabeer is responsible for the daily oversight of the programs within the Circle of Care, which include clinical and specialty HIV medical care, case management and support services, and perinatal transmission prevention and prevention education.
“In the beginning,” says Abdul-Khabeer, “people died very quickly. We were just trying to stem the tide and keep up with policy, issues, and finding out what resources were being allocated to what community.”
Now she looks back at that time as 15 years of laying the groundwork, 15 years of trying to galvanize the Black community, of begging Black congressional leadership to speak about AIDS. “It took a decade for people to say things, but they are at the forefront now. They had to realize it wasn’t just white gay men, that it was IV drug users, mothers and children.”
Since those early days, Abdul-Khabeer has been involved nonstop in the struggle. In 1985, she founded BEBASHI, Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues, a Philadelphia community-based organization providing sexual health education, case management and support services. Abdul-Khabeer is also a founding member of the Philadelphia AIDS Consortium, the Minority AIDS Project of Philadelphia and the National Minority AIDS Council in Washington, D.C. In addition, she has served as a consultant on AIDS education, services and policy development with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Health Resource Services Administration (a branch of the United States Department of Health and Human Services), MACRO International (an international Washington/Atlanta-based health consulting firm), the Philadelphia Department of Public Health as nurse epidemiologist, and numerous community-based organizations. Her expertise includes community organizing, organizational development, proposal writing, program development, implementation and evaluation, and grants management. In all, Abdul-Khabeer has advocated extensively for social and civil rights for racial, ethnic and sexual minorities for more than 30 years.
“To correct long-standing injustices,” is the answer Abdul-Khabeer gives when asked what motivates her continued efforts. She’s also quick to point out the reactions of the families in the Circle of Care as a constant source of fuel and inspiration. “Our families stay with us. We nurture them. They remain close to us and influence our program immensely. Seeing long-term survivors and babies who survived grow into adulthood and stay in the circle—we are embraced by people who truly walk the walk.”
Abdul-Khabeer has served as guest lecturer and faculty for several educational programs, including the Pennsylvania AIDS Education and Training Center, the Family Planning Council Training 3 Program, the New York Planned Parenthood Nurse Practitioners Training Program, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, Lincoln University, MCP Hahnemann University, Cheyney University, and the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. Additionally, she collaborates in the field of HIV, reproductive health and family planning with the Division of Early Childhood, Women and Youth Health of the Philadelphia Department of Health, and the University of Nebraska’s National HIV Prevention Program.
Throughout all her work and experience, Abdul-Khabeer’s biggest message remains clear. “If you’re infected, stay in care.” And to the community at large: “Knowing your status is critical. You can’t assume you’re not affected because you’re not in some artificial category.”
While testing is readily available, Abdul-Khabeer believes not enough is being done to help people connect on an emotional level (to being tested). She cites the story of a woman who was seven months pregnant and would not get tested because she believed her husband to be faithful…until he left her, after which she tested positive. Abdul-Khabeer also encourages the world not to ignore the realities of communities at risk, citing the fact that many Black families get their healthcare from ER facilities, where it’s not practical to test for HIV.
To others, these obstacles might seem like daunting barriers, but to Rashidah Abdul-Khabeer, the rewards of her work far outweigh the struggle. “I can’t imagine there won’t be some part of my life that doesn’t involve AIDS. To see the diminishing mortality rates is rewarding. We don’t see people dying the way they used to. It really isn’t a death sentence because of care. The longer I can contribute to that, the better I feel. I can’t think of anything I’ve done in life where I feel more positive.”