“We’re treating a disease of the 21st century like it’s 1950,” she says. If anyone should know, it would be a woman who was raised in small-town America.
Sonya Lockett grew up in Baton Rouge, La., a place she calls “fabulous,” and adds, “It’s very Southern with a big emphasis on family and civility. Neighbors helped one another because people were related, by blood or by choice.”
Couple that kind of positive upbringing with a woman like Lockett and the world is gifted with another kind-hearted human being. When asked about why she’s a hero in the struggle against HIV/AIDS, she admits, “Part of it is personal. I have a complex. I want to save the world. Between that and 13 years of Catholic school teaching me to find service in everything you do, your job, your personal life—always be of service somewhere—that’s just who I am.”
Lockett is a 1986 graduate of Howard University. At the time, America was in a panic over AIDS. News of the death of a popular fellow student rocked the world of Locket and her friends. “To hear someone we knew had died and was Black,” she remembers thinking. “We had all thought it was a white gay disease.” The more Lockett experienced life as an adult, the more the pandemic invaded her surroundings. She moved to New York. Other friends became HIV-positive. “This has always been a personal issue for me.”
With a desire to make a difference, Lockett began doing valuable work with organizations such as AIDS ministries in DC. In 1999, she started working for LIFEbeat, the Music Industry Fights AIDS, a non-profit organization dedicated to using the talents and resources of the music industry to reach young people about HIV/AIDS. As Director of Communications and Marketing, Lockett was responsible for the development of strategic partnerships and all communication and marketing activities, including website development, publicity and PSA production. In addition, she produced three highly successful concerts for LIFEbeat featuring artists such as Destiny’s Child, N’SYNC, Jay Z, Jessica Simpson and Alicia Keys.
“That’s when this became a mission,” says Lockett of her work at LIFEbeat. “I learned so much more abut the epidemic from people who had been in the field a long time and from people living with AIDS. It gets you angry when you see what’s not being done.”
For a woman raised on solid ground in a very Southern town, anger meant action. Lockett is now Vice-President of Public Affairs for BET Networks. As such, she develops and implements all of BET’s on- and off-air political and pro-social initiatives, such as the Emmy Award-winning “Rap It Up” and “Speak Now” campaigns.
Rap It Up was launched in 1998 in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation, and served as BET’s call-to-action public education campaign designed to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic within the African American community. The multi-faceted campaign included special programming, public service announcements, online content on BET.com, teen forums, mobile testing, a toll-free referral hotline and educational materials on HIV/AIDS for middle- and high-school students.
“I’m just trying to do the work,” says Lockett of her efforts. “There are others who really, really do the work in the trenches, but we have the platform. We can put the information out there.”
The Rap It Up campaign was nominated for an Emmy Award for Best National Public Service Announcement in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005. It also received numerous other awards, including 15 Cable Positive POP Awards, and nods from the NAACP Image Awards and the Academy of Television Arts & Science TV Cares “Ribbon of Hope” Award.
But accolades are not what inspire women like Sonya Lockett. For her, it’s all about the mission. “Young people want answers,” she notes with urgency. “No one’s being honest with them and honest about sex. They feel as if no one’s talking to them about what’s really going on. There’s been too much abstinence-only education. You have to teach everything. Teaching abstinence is fine, but it’s no good without also teaching about sex, teaching about condom use, dealing with issues of self-esteem in young girls. It’s a conversation we’re not having. No one is listening to our young people.”
It’s a scenario that sounds as familiar as a 1950s television show, when married couples slept in double beds. But count on Lockett to bring us back to the future. She works closely with all of BET’s departments, developing cross-network strategic initiatives that address the issues that most concern its viewers, from politics to HIV/AIDS. She also develops and manages partnerships with major national and international foundations, non-profit organizations and corporations, as well as U.S. government agencies. Additionally, she regularly travels both nationally and abroad to speak about the network’s efforts to reach out to and engage young people on the issues they care about.
When asked how it feels to be recognized for her mission, Lockett says, “It’s like, why the hell am I here? That word hero—I would not ever put that word to me. To me, the heroes are the clients of the underfunded AIDS service organizations, the activists screaming for policy change, the people living with AIDS. So it’s hard for me to accept the hero title.”
Instead of calling herself a hero, Sonya Lockett will simply continue on with her life’s mission of saving the world.