Why did it seem that all the women who were present at this conference felt it was the best one they'd ever attended? Was it solely for the obvious reason that we were in Hawaii? It certainly didn't hurt, they have what is called "The Aloha Spirit", which I felt as a sharing of love, pride & caring.
The conference, held on September 28th & 29th on the island of Oahu, was a thoughtfully planned two days of panels and presentations designed to educate, enlighten and involve anyone affected by HIV/AIDS.
Presented by The HIV Coalition for Hawaii's Women, Children, and Families, this was the first major women's conference held in Hawaii.
The conference was titled "The Ripple Effect." The presence of HIV in a woman's life touches all elements of her existence. Her journey is a dance - movement through the universe - sometimes experiencing interconnectedness, sometimes isolation. HIV creates a rippling effect as her life is transformed by disease. And in turn, her transformation impacts the lives of many others.
The Planning Committee was especially sensitive to the HIV positive women. There was a conscious effort made to include infected women on panels. At other conferences, we may not be included, and instead, an "expert" panel of "Health Care Professionals" would present. Those of us who are positive know, in fact, that we are the experts. Most of our information comes to us in anecdotal form through women's support groups and the few newsletters out there for women. The conference team seemed to recognize this, and planned its five tracks and panels with us in mind.
There were three keynote speakers. First was Lisa Tiger, a beautiful, young woman of Seminole, Creek and Cherokee descent. Since Lisa found out she was HIV positive at the age of 27, she has dedicated much of her life to speaking and educating about AIDS. Her life has been filled with many personal tragedies and triumphs, which she freely and honestly shared in her keynote address. Lisa left us all standing on our feet wanting to hear more.
Doctor Alexandra Levine was the second speaker. She is well-known to many HIV positive women, as she is one of the earliest AIDS researchers. Dr. Levine has done work on cancers related to HIV/AIDS and development of an AIDS vaccine. She also started the Women's Interagency HIV Study, the first comprehensive study of women and HIV. Dr. Levine gave an informative presentation and overview of the disease and its evolution.
The third keynote speaker, Suki Terada Ports, is the founder of Family Health Project in New York City. Suki is involved with several AIDS organizations and has worked extensively for and with HIV positive women. Suki's wry sense of humor combined with her extensive knowledge commanded the attention of the audience as she addressed such issues as the history, politics and ignorance surrounding AIDS with respect to culture and gender.
The goal was "to strengthen all realms of the lives of women with HIV, or at risk for infection, through educating, support, linking together, and building bridges among those involved in women's care, self-management, and healing."
The conference was designed with 5 tracks:
A. Life Management;
B. Treatment Strategies & Philosophies;
C. Direct Services;
D. Education/Prevention &
E. Policy Issues/Program Development.
The presentations covered a wide range of concerns. There were several personal stories told by HIV + women, our perspectives were well-voiced. There were many panels which were specifically for the Asian-Pacific Islanders, a group not normally included on a broad basis. These included: AIDS and Asian-Pacific Islanders, Immigrants and Refugees; Research in Women - The Hawaii Experience and; Asian-Pacific Islanders Safer Sex Social. It's hard to think of AIDS in paradise, but it's there, as it is everywhere.
One of the best panels was titled "Sharing Our Sexuality." It began with three very different HIV positive women sharing their stories. The panel opened up for audience participation, and participate we did. This wasn't a presentation on "How To Do It Now That You Are HIV Positive." Instead, it addressed the emotional issues surrounding our sexuality. The chairs arranged in a circle, contributed to the ease with which we spoke and listened to a subject which obsesses us all, but is rarely discussed honestly.
Perks and People
The respite room quickly grew popular, as there were massage therapists there ready to give a massage at a moments notice. What an absolutely fabulous idea.
The conference planners scheduled plenty of Hawaiian entertainment for us in the evenings. The first night, Cynthia Medina arranged for a large group to attend a Hula extravaganza. I can only describe it as a"magical experience." The women, children, and men who drummed, danced and played the ukulele were mesmerizing. I think we all came back wanting to be Hula Dancers.
The last night of the conference we were all invited to attend a reception at The Bishop Museum, considered by many to be the best Polynesian anthropological museum in the world. The Museum, hosting the HIV Traveling Exhibit, stayed open late to allow for viewing by all who attended the conference. We were also the guests for a night of multi-ethnic food and entertainment. We had a wonderful evening, beginning with the soul-stirring drumming of Hawaii Matsuri Taiko. This Japanese drum troop has to be one of the most exciting groups ever!
The following morning, Cynthia once again arranged a "field-trip," this time, to Oahu's premiere snorkel spot, Hanauma Bay. Set in a volcanic ring, the curved bay is home to thousands of tropical fish who feed on the coral reefs in the sapphire and turquoise water.
Okay, so maybe it's not too hard to figure out how to have a great conference. Just take a bunch of women who have learned how to live their lives moment by moment and put them all together in Paradise. Then, with detailed planning, create a forum where they can all learn from each other, teach each other, cry with each other and understand each other. Then, take them to the bluest water imaginable and have them spend a few hours staring into the face of brilliant multi-colored fish.