Student blends college, life as advocate

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VOICES from… the National HIV Prevention Conference

By Sharon Egiebor

Candace Webb could barely contain herself.

Sitting in front of a poster presentation for Advocacy for Young Women of Color Leadership Council, Webb was her own picture of youthful energy. She was animatedly detailing the virtues of her organization’s goals–providing education, inclusion and empowerment messages to girls 13 to 24 years old–to a New York college student she’d just met.

They sounded like old friends catching up. In a matter of minutes, the two young women hashed through mutual concerns of culture and race, of stigma and accessibility and college classes and life.

Webb, a 23-year-old graduate student form Tampa, Fla., promised to send Terry-Ann Smith, a graduate student from Brooklyn, N.Y., contact information for council members in her area.

The 23-member council, based in Washington, D.C., supports adolescents in making good decisions about reproductive health. Members are from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations and income and education levels, said Webb, who has been a member for two years. In the discussion and design of HIV prevention programs, young women of color need to be considered and consulted, she said.

“Young women of color need to participate. How can they design the messages to young women of color if we are not on board?” Webb asked.

The two women were attending the 2005 HIV Prevention Conference. Webb was sharing the success of the leadership council and Smith was learning more about the molecular structure of HIV subtypes.

But for outreach, Smith presents prevention messages to young women from the Caribbean. “My school is predominantly white. They don’t understand how culture impacts HIV. It is a health issue and it is a culture issue,” said Smith, a graduate student at New York University.

“First, in the Caribbean community, sex is not an open topic like it is for Americans,” said Smith, who is working toward her Ph.D. in molecular biology and researching HIV subtypes in Cameron. “Things are on the hush-hush. You do not talk about going to the doctor to get an HIV test. Women do not negotiate condom use. …Having to negotiate your sexual action is not in the context of what we consider good behavior. …You want to be seen as a good person.”

The women also discussed access and acceptability of new female barrier products.

Smith said in her New York neighborhood, condoms are kept under lock and key at the pharmacists and many women are hesitant to ask for them. The potential use of microbicides would face cultural roadblocks, she said.

Webb said new research on female barrier methods should first consider whether the products would be feasible in all communities. “It has to be accepted even if it is 100 percent effective,” she said. Just like with condoms, there is an issue of gender roles and expectations of women.

The two women also discussed balancing advocacy with life.

Webb, who is a student in the College of Public Health at University of South Florida, said she spends her time creating awareness programs and workshops around key national HIV/AIDS awareness days, such as National HIV Testing Day. “My personal life and my academic life are related,” she said.

In her message to other young women, Webb said she talks frequently about self-esteem and responsibility. “I really stress self worth and self love. You have to be responsible for our own destiny. No one else can do it for you. You have the responsibility to make the decision of whether to be abstinent or to have safer sex.”

Sharon Egiebor is a contributing editor and owner of Egiebor Expression in Dallas, Tex.

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