Strong, Fearless, Committed

cynthia davis

A Memoir by Cynthia Davis

As told to Greg Wilson

I grew up in the 50s and 60s, so HIV was not even on the scene at that time. In the late 70s, I was well into my 30s when it became evident that HIV was a retrovirus and that it was sexually transmitted. It was identified primarily in the gay community and the injection drug-using community before its spread across the general population. There were only STDs that we were knowledgeable about, like gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, but not HIV.
Once HIV had its break on the scene, and because by then I had two bachelor’s degrees—one in sociology and one in biology—and my master’s degree, I was very knowledgeable about HIV, how you can protect yourself from getting infected with it. And because of my background in reproductive health, teen pregnancy prevention, it was easy for me to get into doing HIV primary prevention. The community trusted me because of my background and my history of doing community-based interventions with very vulnerable populations and developing the expertise where I could go into the community and develop these relationships. I was always transparent, open, and non-judgmental.

I’ve always wanted to work in the Black community. The word got out about what I was doing while at the American Indian Free Clinic in 1983, and someone from Charles Drew University called me to see if I’d be interested in coming to work for them and do the same thing in South LA. They had just gotten a grant to develop a program, so I started to work for the Department of Family Medicine at Charles Drew in South Los Angeles in August of 1984. We started this state-funded project focusing on at-risk Latino and African American youth in South LA to prevent high rates of unplanned pregnancies, STDs, and HIV—which had just come on the scene in the early 80s.
I was forced to learn more about this new emerging disease. I put together this curriculum and integrated it into my teen pregnancy prevention curriculum, where I then integrated a component on HIV and AIDS. A colleague of mine named Judy Spiegel referred me to Phill Wilson, who was a Black, gay man living with HIV and AIDS. In 1984, I went into the classroom and would bring somebody living with HIV, like Phill Wilson, with me so that kids could begin to personalize HIV and put a face on it, versus just theoretically talking about it. I was doing this before anybody in the LA Unified School District was doing any kind of HIV education in schools. It was very successful, the kids were very receptive, they could relate to the personal testimonies shared by the HIV-positive speakers I would bring into the classrooms with me. I remember I would go into the classroom and say that HIV is not a gay disease, it’s a human disease. It affects human beings.

In 1985, I was approached by Charles Drew University asking me to transfer from teen pregnancy prevention and to begin focusing on this national CDC-funded program called the National Information and Education HIV Education Project. It was one of the first grants in the nation to target the African American community on a nationwide scale for HIV primary prevention. It was a partnership between Charles Drew University and the National Organization of Black County Officials, which was based in Washington, D.C. It was a major nonpartisan, nonprofit organization consisting of over 2,500 African American elected officials from throughout the United States. I became the program director of this national CDC-funded project, whose goal was to educate Black elected and appointed officials and school board members about the urgency of HIV and AIDS in the Black community. I provided trainings to these officials, as well as gave them seed money to develop local programming based upon the needs of their respective communities. I traveled around the country meeting with these people, educating them about the impact HIV/AIDS had on the African American community.
I was a married woman with a small child, so the Black community was open and receptive to me. Homophobia did exist; a lot of them had feelings of homophobia and fears that people were coming in trying to recruit their kids to become gay. Being that I wasn’t gay, they didn’t feel threatened by me coming into the classroom or coming into their churches, talking about HIV/AIDS. People just accepted me as somebody who was highly educated and informed and wanted to educate and protect them from getting infected with HIV. This program was funded from 1985 through 1992.

In 1987, The AIDS Healthcare Foundation was established, and I was invited to join the board of directors in 1988 to help them build a hospice in South LA. They wanted to build a hospice directly across the street from Martin Luther King hospital, but there was some community opposition about this “gay organization” coming into South LA. So, for a couple of years we went out in the community educating the community about what a hospice was all about—because most people didn’t even know what hospice meant—and educating them about how Black people were being negatively impacted by HIV. Within two years we built the Carl Bean hospice, a $5 million, state-of-the-art, 25-bed hospice that opened, I think, in 1989/1990. I was just so impressed with what AIDS Hospice Foundation, which is what AIDS Healthcare Foundation was called at the time, was doing. I’ve now been on the board for 32 out of its 33-year history, and that’s how I got started. It was very inadvertent; it was nothing that was planned, it was simply God’s plan.

In the 90s, there was a special initiative developed by Karen Bass, where she had this relationship with the School of Public Health in Havana, Cuba. She was able to get some funding from the California Wellness Foundation to send health professionals from South LA to Cuba to learn about their Cuban health care system and their models of care to see if we might be able to replicate some of them in South LA. That’s how I made my first trip to Cuba. Given that South LA had really high morbidity and mortality across the board for all the major health indicators—from diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cancer, etc.—Cuba for decades has had a well-established healthcare system, with limited resources that have been able to address primary prevention needs of the Cuban population, where they’ve been very healthy and they’ve had maybe the lowest maternal, infant mortality rate in the world.
This was a three-year initiative where CEOs of nonprofit organizations, as well as 330 clinics, were able to go to Cuba for several weeks to go on tour and visit these different sites throughout the island. I was able to go to some of the sites where they were doing HIV-related interventions with MS as well as women, sex workers, youth, etc., as well as their sanitarium, because back in the 80s Cuba actually quarantined people who had HIV/AIDS. They were chastised by the world because they were quarantining people who were HIV-infected, and they were able to contain the epidemic on the island. So there was a sanatorium where they would send these people. I got to visit the sanitarium, interview some of the staff there, and by the time I was there in the 90s, they no longer quarantined people. When we came back to South LA we had to do a couple of presentations in the community in terms of what our findings were, and I was able to share that information with the community.

In 1991, I shifted into the HIV testing arena with the major grant we got from the Magic Johnson Foundation and was able to establish the first local HIV testing program pilot demonstration project in LA County.
I feel that God has been working through me all these years because, as one person, I’ve been able to have such a tremendous impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Over the years, by dedicating myself to HIV primary prevention, education, and advocacy, I’ve been able to live in my purpose. I couldn’t have done this without God directing my life and allowing me to serve the community—it’s not to serve myself. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had a job that I’ve loved over the years, and I can see with my own eyes the impact that I’ve had. It’s been a very rewarding experience for me to be able to have that kind of impact in our community and to reach those numbers of people from elementary age to seniors—reaching these people across the lifespan and around the world.
I always say if HIV had been around when I was in college in the late 60s, we all would have been wiped out because it was at the height of the sexual revolution. People were experimenting with drugs and nobody was using protection. If HIV had been around, a whole generation would have been lost.
At the height of the epidemic, I saw a lot of victim-blaming, people being judgmental and pointing the finger. You know, this whole concept of men on the down low. Tthere were a lot of politics involved because there was so much money that wasn’t reaching our community. There was a lot going on which was very disheartening. There was hardly any focus on youth and women’s issues, it was primarily white, gay men and, to a lesser extent, Black gay men, because, again, the people setting the policy and controlling the money were all affluent, white, gay men at the federal, local, and state levels. It was a battle to get any kind of funding to come into the minority community.

In terms of where we go from here, I have made it a point to mentor a host of younger people, especially people who come to Drew for higher education who have an interest in the medical field of public health. I mentor young people to encourage them not to give up on their dreams to become doctors, epidemiologists, and physicians’ assistants, and to let them know the power of one person and that one person can make a difference. I’ve used my life as a lesson for them. I encourage them to think about what their legacy is going to be when they retire or pass away; what are people going to say about what they did to give back to the community or to save a life?
I know what I have done and what I have contributed, because I’ve dedicated my life to this and I’ve been a workaholic, trying to save the world from HIV to some degree at the expense of my own family, because that’s all that I could think about and do for the last 47 years. Maybe I could have done things a little bit differently, but I can’t dwell on the past, I just have to look forward, given that I’m 71 years old now. Now it’s time I step back and pass that torch on to the next generation of people who are going to try to dismantle this structural racism, this discrimination that’s still going on.
A couple of years ago Michael Weinstein said that one day we’re going to see that AIDS is eliminated, and I do believe that in my lifetime, that there will be an end to HIV/AIDS, especially with all of the technology and all of the medical treatments now available.

This Los Angeles Black AIDS Monument is important for our community because of all the people who passed away from HIV and AIDS over the last 40 years. It acknowledges their lives, their energy, and their work. There were so many people that I’ve known over the years, not only in LA but globally, and it’s important for the people like me who’ve done the work, in lieu of all of the struggle, the politics, and the backroom deals—we’ve stood our ground to fight the fight. When you think about all the people who passed in LA County from the late 70s to date, a lot of them had no advocates, early on when there were no treatments for HIV. A lot of them were abandoned, and we want to acknowledge those people’s lives.
I want to acknowledge Jeffrey King, the fact that he came up with this idea and that this is something that we should do as a community. I don’t know why no one had thought about doing this prior to the 40th anniversary of HIV coming on the scene in the U.S., but I feel it’s long overdue. I’m so glad he asked me to be involved with this project; it’s a beautiful thing, and I was impressed with the unveiling of the fountain and the sculpture. The Carl Bean house is a very special place, a special ground where we are able to acknowledge their lives, their worth, their families, and their legacy.

Greg Wilson is the author of Metamorphosis of a Heart. He can be reached at

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