Lori Ann inherited her idealistic view of the world and her "be better, do better" attitude from her mother, who was a psychiatric nurse at a mental institution founded in the early 1900s for the "Negro insane." Very early in life Lori Ann came to the conclusion that people possess the desire to create change for themselves and will take necessary steps towards change if given the tools and options to do so. Arming and empowering women of color with those tools and options has been one of her greatest accomplishments, she says.
While working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Lori Ann was moved to action by the startling statistics documenting that women of color are disproportionately becoming infected with HIV. She was instrumental in the implementation of the CDC sanctioned S.I.S.T.A. (Sistas Informing Sistas on Topics about AIDS) curriculum, which has proven to be highly effective in the state of California. Using a laid-back, "girls talk," conversational style to relay safer sex messages and negotiation skills to women -- specifically Latina and African-American women -- the S.I.S.T.A. curriculum presents the naked truth to it's participants in such a way that they can't help but take heed.
It is Lori Ann's belief that HIV is everybody's problem and, therefore, a great deal of her efforts are dedicated to dispelling the myths about HIV. "It's easy to say that HIV is Africa's problem ... or to put the blame on 'those' people," she says, a great deal of frustration evident in her voice. "We must put the real issues on the table and raise awareness so that people will want to know their status and get tested."
A sincerely compassionate and down-to-earth woman, Lori Ann credits her African heritage for the humanitarian spirit that is so deeply rooted within her. "Traditional African societies were communal societies, and that spirit lives in me," she says earnestly.
How long have you been doing prevention education?
I have been doing prevention education for about five years now.
Can you describe how your work has changed since you first started?
I started out working with the African-American community around such issues as tobacco cessation, nutrition awareness and cancer prevention and then, later on, I got involved in HIV/STI prevention education more specifically. I went on to develop and implement the S.I.S.T.A. curriculum countywide and I also arranged to have it delivered in Spanish for Latina women.
If I were to follow you over a week, what would I see you do at work? Please give details of all the things you actually do.
As a prevention educator, I review health education materials used for HIV/AIDS education throughout the state of Maryland for federally funded programs. I was a member of the Maryland State HIV/AIDS review panel for the Maryland State AIDS administration in Baltimore.
Currently, in my new position, you would see me supporting individuals with developmental disabilities, studying and learning their day-to-day activities.
What's the best thing about your job?
I have a passion for prevention education because it is a way to encourage people to make subtle changes in their health behavior. Those small changes can make a huge difference over time. I love the fact that I am raising awareness and getting people to get tested!
What's the worst thing about your job?
The worst thing about prevention education is being misunderstood in terms of putting controversial information out about HIV or dispelling controversial myths about the virus. It's easy to think that HIV is Africa's problem. It is easy to put the problem on someone else. HIV is everybody's problem!
What have been your greatest successes in your work?
My greatest success has been in getting women to get tested!
What is the biggest challenge you face as a prevention educator? Would other educators give a similar answer?
The biggest challenge that I face, as a prevention educator, would have to be dispelling the myths surrounding the virus. I am sure that other prevention educators would agree with me to some degree.
For the most part, what do you think is the biggest risk factor for HIV?
Unprotected sex ... particularly anal sex. Maybe not one thing, though ... sharing needles is a big one as well.
Do you think that the prevention efforts are sufficient? Anything you would change?
Prevention efforts without promoting the methods of condoms, dental dams and needle exchange would be ineffective. I would oppose focusing so much on the push for prevention with positives. In order to be effective, prevention education should focus on a combination of both prevention with people who are HIV positive as well as those who are HIV negative. I would definitely propose a funding reallocation that would increase prevention efforts amongst youth!
What is the most important thing you have learned from the people you work with?
The most important thing I have learned is that people do really care about their health. They will take baby steps, if not a giant step, if someone takes the time and offers the options for alternatives. If you give people the options and the tools, they will take a step. I have also learned to never write people off!
How do you maintain a positive outlook and avoid burning out?
To avoid burning out, I take breaks and change the pace! I believe you have to try something different if necessary. I worked in Kenya with an organization called Operation Crossroads Africa, assisting physicians and nurses in taking care of people there with HIV/AIDS. That was definitely a change of pace as well as a life-changing experience.
If you weren't a prevention educator, what would you be?
If I weren't a prevention educator, I would be a nurse practitioner because I enjoy making a difference and helping people. I possess a humanitarian spirit and have an idealistic view of the world. I think it's important to make changes through your work rather than complaining about the world.
What do you think is the biggest problem people living with HIV face today?
The stigma associated with the behavior that one engages in to contract HIV/AIDS!
Who would you dedicate this award to if you could?
My grandmother Florence. Everything I have ever done in life I attribute to something my grandmother said or did that made me better.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Severna Park, Maryland, which is a suburb of Baltimore. I actually still live there!
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
A psychiatrist, I went to medical school for two years, but I left to get a public health degree.
What kind of work did your parents do?
My mother was a psychiatric nurse for 20 years. My father was a laborer. They are both retired now.
When did you decide you wanted to be a prevention educator?
I decided I wanted to be a prevention educator when I did my fellowship with the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] in 2001. I felt so isolated from the community and found that it was difficult for public health professionals to get a true idea about what was going on in the community if they were not a part of it. The action is where the people are. The CDC is important for people to do the research and get funding, but I found that I need to be where the people are.
What other jobs have you had?
I worked as a youth counselor for 11 years. That's how I worked my way through school.
Who were the most influential people in your life, both professionally and personally?
Personally, the most influential person in my life I would have to say is my mother, who was a psychiatric nurse and often took me to work with her. I grew up on the grounds of Crownsville State Hospital, a mental institution in Crownsville, Maryland that was founded for the "Negro" insane in the 1900s. I was heavily influenced by the healthcare workers there, who were also African American. My mother never gave up on my ability to be better and to do better.
Professionally, the most influential person in my life, I would have to say is my father's best friend, Donald Roane, who is a retired family doctor. He has given me plenty of good advice and has been a touchstone for me as far as guidance is concerned.
What do you do in your spare time?
I go to plays and to happy hour in D.C., when I get a chance. I enjoy the Kennedy Center, ballets and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. I also like listening to reggae and going to summer festivals.
Do you have a partner? Pets?
No ... I am currently single. I was dating someone who happened to be HIV positive ... but that did not work out. I would entertain the thought of children if I were married. I have a four-year-old Yorkshire terrier named Sasa Badu, which means peace now!
Where do you live? What kind of community is it? What do you like/dislike about it?
I live in Severna, Maryland. It is a quiet, communal place to live with a lot of history. The only thing that I dislike about it is that it is not diverse or progressive enough. It is way too conservative compared to Baltimore or D.C. in its thinking.
If you had any place to live besides where you live now, where would you live?
I would have to say Atlanta because it is one of the most progressive cities in the country, along with D.C., as far as professional opportunities and development for African Americans.
What's the best vacation you ever had?
Botswana, Africa in 1988. I stayed in a village called Molepole, about 50 kilometers east of the capitol of Botswana. We would travel by train to Gaborone during vacation from work. It was the most fun that I've ever had ... standing on the edge of Victoria Falls! It was the most exhilarating thing that I have ever experienced.
What's the biggest adventure you ever had?
That same summer in Africa, we got stuck in a sand dune in the back of a truck for a weekend. That was an adventure!
What's currently on your bedside table for reading?
Change Your Life in 30 Days by Rhonda Britten.
What book would you say has had the most impact on you?
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison -- the greatest American novel ever written!
What kind of music do you like to listen to? Who are the artists you listen to the most?
I love reggae and jazz! However, my favorite artists are Prince, Erykah Badu, New Edition, Arrested Development and India Arie.
Anything else you think it would be important that people reading this interview know about you?
I believe that my humanitarian spirit comes from Africa. Traditional African societies were communal and that spirit lives within me. I guess, in theory, that would explain why I do what I do.
I also want people to know that they should not be afraid of people with HIV. They should not treat them as the "lepers" of society. People with HIV/AIDS are just people and typically HIV/AIDS is not the worst thing about them. I say that from experience.
Interview by Keith Green