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This Positive Life: An Interview With Joyce Turner Keller

October 12, 2010

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So what's the kind of work that you do? Tell us the full name of your organization.

It's Aspirations Holistic Tutorial Services.

It's in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Can you talk about the work that you do?

Basically, what we do, my god, we're all over the place. We started out as an HIV/AIDS agency to do testing and counseling and the regular HIV/AIDS services, inclusive of children, teaching and serving. But Aspirations has grown into an HIV/AIDS education agency and we focus on the fight against hepatitis, other chronic illnesses. We're basically youth-focused. Our focus is the youth because this is where we got to start, from the ground up. To save the next generation, we need to empower the next generation. We have a teen pregnancy prevention program, self-esteem building. Since 2000, we've had all of our students who have stayed with Aspirations, are not sexually active, and, no, we do not teach abstinence only. We educate our young kids. We empower. We mobilize. We encourage our young people to be the best that they can be. Our young people are certified in AIDS 101, group facilitation, cultural competency, outreach, recruitment and retention, conflict resolution. We're teaching our young people how to become responsible teens.

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Sometimes parents don't want their children involved with HIV. "They're talking about sex? They're talking about HIV?" So how did you get parents to consent to saying, "We want our kids to know this information. We want them to be involved in what you're doing.?"

Because we started a summer program where we were bringing kids in, providing tutoring and then you give somebody something free. Kids stay with me all day during the summer. They sign consent forms saying their kids can be taught and these are the things your kids may be involved in. As long as you're doing it free from 6 o'clock in the morning to 6 o'clock in the evening and they're free? You got that. You get permission.

I want to talk about your work in black churches with HIV. There's been a lot of talk about AIDS ministries, how they're popping up everywhere, having faith communities ramping up HIV. How true do you think that is?

In Baton Rouge, I can't say that it's very true. They'll do it when it's funding attached to it, but the stigma is still there. I'm speaking very boldly because there is a coalition of ministers in Baton Rouge who ended up inviting me to an event, a meeting. I met the lead pastor who's leading this charge, but when I said I wanted to talk about HIV, he said, "You can come to the meeting, but you really have to be quiet." So it's being subtly done. They're not addressing HIV/AIDS openly.

They're doing it through health fairs. They disguise it in something else to slip a test in. But to openly really address it on the basis and the realm that they need to, they're not doing it. And I say they're not doing it, and hopefully they'll disagree with me by calling me out and doing it. Now there are a couple of churches who will allow you to do HIV/AIDS events, but those are few and far between. It is not on the scale that we need it to be, based on the number of people that are infected and living with this disease in our churches. I made the reference yesterday. We were on the panel. The reference of HIV and I alluded to what's not being done in our community by the ministers, who need to be getting it done, based on the platform that they have and the other people that they have on Sunday. Well someone in the audience made a statement about the white man who helped the churches on TV. And then I came back, "Well, we've got Eddie Long. We've got T.D. Jakes. And we have Fred Price." I started naming off ministers that I know, African American ministers that are on TV.

They are powerful.

"HIV just made me stronger, more determined, more focused. HIV has changed me in the way that I knew I had faith before, and now it's just given me this 'I can' attitude."

They are powerful men on TV with people, millions of viewers every Sunday. But I have never seen one of them stand up and say, "Let's take up a collection for HIV-positive research. Let's provide some HIV/AIDS housing." I haven't heard that on TV, but I heard them say, "This is what we're offering. Send this much and this is what you're going to get for your dollars.

How has HIV changed you?

It just made me stronger, more determined, more focused. HIV has changed me in the way that I knew I had faith before, and now it's just given me this "I can" attitude. I don't believe HIV has changed me in a way that I don't continue to procrastinate. I know that there are things that need to get done and I don't expect anyone else to do it. AIDS has changed me in a way that it has caused me to look at myself in a different light, to just be honest with what I see in the mirror and just put that face forward.

One last question. What advice would you give someone who has just found out they're positive? When you come across women who are newly diagnosed, what advice do you give them?

To find a good support system. Be careful as to who they disclose to if they aren't ready for the world to know. I would tell someone who's newly diagnosed, "You don't have to tell anybody you don't want to know. It is not open for public knowledge." I would tell someone that you don't have to disclose. What I do and the way I do it is not the way everybody should do it and I would tell them to think long and hard about to whom they're disclosing and when they choose to disclose because if you disclose and you have a partner, your partner may not be able to handle it. You disclose to children -- If you disclose in families, sometimes children suffer the brunt of whatever it is you're dealing with, based on the stigma and discrimination that they're going to face on the playgrounds or what they hear from other people. I would just tell them to weigh every option and know that this is not just about them, but everyone around them is living with this disease that they're attached to.

But you're not scaring them from disclosing. For you disclosing was huge.

Yeah.

You felt that that was --

It was necessary. Because of the calling that's on my life. Like I said, I was in the business of saving souls. My god, I'm not saving a soul if I can't save a life. I needed to save lives before I could save souls.

What is some other advice you would give to newly diagnosed?

Get into treatment. Get into treatment. Don't be afraid to talk to your doctor. Become very proactive in your own health care. Make sure that doctor understands where you're coming from. Don't allow anybody or anyone to dismiss you and say that what you're feeling is not what you're feeling and that it isn't real. You be very proactive in your own health care. Make sure, make sure you know what it is, what medicines you're on, keep track of any side effects, write everything down. Just get into a good support group. Become educated. Go attend conferences, attend conferences. Get into different training. Just because you're HIV positive, you don't have to become an activist like me, but be aware that you're going to become a teacher and educator sooner or later.

And with that, we have to bring this interview to a close. It's been such a pleasure.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

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