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Vanessa Williams: Committed to seeing the HIV/AIDS epidemic to its end

Vanessa Williams

Vanessa Williams

Vanessa Williams: Committed to seeing the HIV/AIDS epidemic to its end

     The Black AIDS Institute’s Heroes in the Struggle Gala and Award Celebration honors, in a star-studded event and photographic tribute, individuals who, over the past year, have made a heroic contribution to the fight against HIV/AIDS. Below, one in a series profiling the 2017 honorees.

There are two things actress Vanessa Williams is passionate about: her art and her activism.

While those might seem like two distinct areas of her life, the actress, known for her roles in Soul Food, Days of Our Lives and New Jack City, finds that there are similarities. “It’s important that we take the lid off and really look at ourselves honestly so that we can evolve, grow, and really be about loving and accepting all of who we are in our community—our full

humanity,” she says. “That’s my mission as an artist, and certainly it takes on other, deeper meaning in my activism.”

She has a fierce desire to make a difference in the quest to bring about a healthier Black community. “Any time Black people get affected by a disease, we get it stronger, harder and have much more of a propensity of dying from the damn thing,” she says. But she understands how education can make all the difference in the world, and she is dedicated to using her platform to aid in that cause.

A Friend for Life

Williams has been a particularly good friend to the Black AIDS Institute. For the past three years, she has served on the board of directors in the role of first vice chair. From the first day she was introduced to the Institute, “it’s been a natural progression of what to do next,” she says. “How else can I extend myself?”

One of her biggest assets as an advocate is her fame as an actress. “Spreading the awareness is key,” Williams says, and she has used her celebrity to help the Black AIDS Institute shed light on the HIV/AIDS epidemic and encourage people to get tested.

She has done this by hitting the road, attending events such as the Essence Festival and the CIAA Tournament to disseminate information. “We do personal appearances and take pictures with people as they test,” she says. “And then I’ll go on the stage and just talk about why it’s important that you get tested, and how to be a champion of your own health.”

Using Art to Educate

In our celebrity-driven culture, sometimes people are more likely to listen to what you have to say if they already know who you are. So bringing together a group of celebrities to lend their voices to the cause has been particularly effective.

In 2012 Williams directed a series of public service ads (PSAs) for the Greater Than AIDS campaign featuring actors such as Samuel L. Jackson, Tasha Smith and Nia Long. The PSAs shone a spotlight on the impact that HIV/AIDS has on Black communities and were unveiled to coincide with National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. The Black AIDS Institute and the Kaiser Family Foundation were executive producers of the effort.

Not only did Williams find it to be a good bonding experience with some of her Hollywood colleagues, but she was also proud to be able to expose so many people to the truth about how HIV/AIDS is affecting the Black community, and to see them take in the significance of HIV testing and prevention. “It was wonderful seeing the light bulbs go off in their eyes,” she says.

She has also participated in the Test 1 Million campaign, in which Black celebrities traveled to different parts of the country with the ultimate goal of getting 1 million people to get tested for HIV.

Since Williams has embarked on her personal mission to increase awareness of HIV, she has witnessed a lot of progress and is proud to have been a part of the efforts, particularly those strides made by the Institute. “What the Black AIDS institute has been able to do in terms of educating the caretakers and educating the health providers has made so much of an impact,” she says.

However, she is adamant that she’s not trying to do this forever, not because she is tired of being an advocate but because she has faith and confidence that the end of the epidemic is near: “It has been really rewarding and wonderful to be a part of the success and to know that I can be a part of seeing this thing come to an end.”

The Heroes in the Struggle Gala and Award Celebration will take place Sept. 16, 2017, in the Darryl F. Zanuck Theater at 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles. To purchase tickets, become a sponsor, join the host committee or place an advertisement in the program book, click here or contact Wendell Miller at or (213) 353-3610, ext. 105.

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.


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