Years ago in Tennessee, a cousin's diagnosis with HIV set Thomas Washington on a quest to learn more about the disease and to help those affected. Washington said his family had been sheltered from knowing much about HIV/AIDS, and so were community youths.
"It was alarming," said Washington, now an associate professor of social work and CSULB research fellow. He can remember people developing AIDS rapidly losing weight and having a stricken appearance. His cousin died 10 years after diagnosis.
"There were countless people being alienated from their family members because of the fear and the ignorance surrounding HIV," Washington said. "They didn't know how it was spread necessarily -- whether they could catch it from sitting on the toilet seat after the person or drinking from the same cup." Washington began volunteering for support organizations including Memphis-based Friends for Life.
In HIV/AIDS work, Washington said a major problem continues to be "gaining access to the minority community." Many researchers visit a community, conduct their studies, and depart never to be seen again, he said. As a result, Washington said he has "to build the rapport to help them understand that I am not just about collecting data."
Washington said the most rewarding aspect of his work is being invited to speak about HIV, engaging people's attention, and getting them involved. "If I can help prevent one new exposure, then I can see that my job -- my work -- can make a difference," he said. He is also encouraging people to volunteer for HIV vaccine studies.
At the recent 2011 National African-American Men Who Have Sex With Men Leadership Conference, Washington won the Gerald Ludd Award in recognition of his work on HIV/AIDS and other health disparities affecting African-American MSM.