Cynthia Davis

When AIDS became known to the world in 1981, Cynthia Davis was graduating with her master’s degree in public health from UCLA. It took her several more years working in public health before she became directly involved in HIV/AIDS-related primary prevention, research, and care. But once she started, she never looked back. In 1984, Cynthia began to work for Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science to develop teen pregnancy prevention programs targeting at-risk Black and Latino youth in South Los Angeles. With the cases of HIV/AIDS only continuing to rise, she worked on integrating an HIV primary prevention component in her sex education curriculum. Looking for resources, she discovered a local AIDS activist and one of the founders of the AIDS Hospice Foundation (now the AIDS Healthcare Foundation), Phil Wilson. Phil was living with HIV, and Cynthia had the idea to personalize HIV by bringing him into the classrooms where she taught sexual health education and reproductive health. By putting a face to AIDS, Cynthia took an important step in helping to reduce the stigma, fear, and shame associated with the disease.

With the beginning of her foray into HIV/AIDS education, Cynthia began to learn about the devastating impact that HIV/AIDS was having in minority communities throughout the country. There were fewer resources, and greater stigma, shame, and discrimination. By 1985, her role at Charles R. Drew University took a turn when the CDC-funded a collaboration between the University and the National Organization of Black County Officials (NOBCO), a national non-partisan and non-profit organization representing over 2,500 Black elected and appointed county officials. This CDC funded prevention program was called the National HIV/AIDS Information and Education Project. Its purpose was to target Black elected and appointed county officials to educate them on HIV’s impact in the Black community. With her previous experience working with HIV/AIDS primary prevention education and personalizing the disease, she became the director of the project. From 1985 to 1992, she was able to travel the country, providing technical assistance and expertise to county officials, both in urban and rural areas, on what HIV/AIDS was, the impact it was having in the community, and how to slow the spread.

With a connection to Phil Wilson and the AIDS Hospice Foundation (founded in 1987), Cynthia took her work further and joined the AHF Board of Directors in 1988. Her focus in those first few years on the AHF Board was to help build the Carl Bean Hospice, AHF’s second hospice and the only HIV/AIDS hospice in South L.A. She defied the excuses people were making at the time that it would be difficult to hire staff to work in a hospice in South L.A. due to the gang problems and homophobia. The Carl Bean Hospice opened its doors in 1992 as a place to give a dignified death to those dying of HIV/AIDS-related causes. To Cynthia, there was no question of whether or not to get involved. She saw the devastation around her.

As for her perspective on the future, Cynthia believes much more work is to be done. With the current lack of focus on HIV/AIDS primary prevention, she states there has been a “medicalization of HIV and AIDS” with profits generated by the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare industry. Until there is a change in dismantling structural and institutionalized racism in the States, the HIV/AIDS-related health disparities impacting the Black community and other communities of color, after 44 years, will not be ameliorated.

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