By Olivia Armstrong and Mary Johnson
Jay Ellis Believes the End of AIDS Starts With Empowered Women
December 1 is World AIDS Day: a global recognition to raise awareness of the disease spread by the HIV infection, and the lives it has claimed. HBO supports (RED), the organization at the heart of the fight against AIDS, that funds lifesaving programs and looks to ambassadors to spread the word about prevention and treatment.
Below Jay Ellis of Insecure, recounts his time visiting a (RED) supported program, and offers ways you can get involved this holiday season. You can also read about experiences from Insecure’s Yvonne Orji and Girls’ Allison Williams.
Insecure actor Jay Ellis (who plays “Lawrence Walker” in the comedy) touched down in South Africa to start the production of a movie. Three months of being on set, however, presented Ellis with the opportunity to serve as an ambassador for (RED). Founded in 2002, the organization was developed to help finance The Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Through various partnerships and innovative fundraising campaigns, including this season’s holiday (SHOPATHON) on Amazon.com, (RED) raises money for The Global Fund, which directly supports educational programs like Rise, which Ellis visited. Rise Clubs consist of a series of workshops centered around young women, and cover topics such as sexual health, friendship, alcohol and drug abuse, and financial management. Here’s what Ellis had to say about his experience and how we can all play a part in putting the disease behind us.
HBO: What made you want to get involved with (RED)?
Jay Ellis: I was introduced to (RED) through Dennis Williams [SVP of Corporate Affairs and Corporate Social Responsibility at HBO]. I’ve worked with other organizations in the fight to find a cure for HIV and AIDS and to help people around the world who have contracted the infection. The work they’re doing, the transparency and the focus on the programs and the people really spoke to me because I’ve had a family member pass from AIDS and another who’s lived with HIV. I was sent information about Rise and thought it would be a really great experience to work with them.
HBO: Had you volunteered in this capacity before? What were your expectations going in?
Jay Ellis: I’ve done volunteer work before, but this was my first time volunteering abroad. I wanted to go in with an open mind and learn as much as I possibly could. My being there isn’t for me as much as it is to find a way to help the program itself — whatever I can do, no matter how big or small.
HBO: Why did you want to get involved in the Rise Club program?
Jay Ellis: Young women who come to Rise every weekend range from ages 15-19 years if they’re in school and 19-24 years if they’re out of school. These empowered young women talk about protecting themselves, their friends and communities, and how they can educate people to help break the stigma surrounding AIDS. It was a very powerful thing to see.
HBO: Can you talk more about the goals of Rise Clubs like the one you visited? Were there moments that particularly resonated with you?
Jay Ellis: These women have taken ownership of their communities and have made it their passion and responsibility to improve the self-image and self-esteem of young women around them while talking about HIV, AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, as well as teen pregnancy. They’re basically saying, We’re not just gonna sit back and let this happen to us or let someone else be the savior of our community. We’re going to empower other young women to have these conversations. There’s also so much love and fun in the room — so many smiles. There’s this element of sisterhood amongst them, even when they debate.
There was one young lady who made me think she’s wise beyond her years. She understood that, although the numbers in the room may not be massive — there were maybe 20 women in the room at the time — the work they’re doing will blossom and grow throughout their community in a way that will educate and empower other young women and share their message to men in the community as well.
HBO: What are three things everyone needs to know about the current fight against HIV/AIDS?
Jay Ellis: One: Everyone has a part in this. Whether it’s shopping and contributing to (RED), speaking to your community, breaking down stigma or having safe sex and getting yourself tested. Everyone has a role no matter where you are on the globe. To think it’s something that’s miles away because it hasn’t affected your family is not true.
Two: We’re closer than we’ve ever been to a cure or to a vaccine. There is an end in sight and that’s something the scientific community acknowledges. But we can’t take our foot off the pedal and give up just because we’re close. We need the extra push from everyone to help us get to that point.
Three is just being able to talk about it. I think people need to know we end the stigma around this by having conversations. We have to have global conversations when they’re uncomfortable and at young ages — with loved ones, doctors, the scientific community and the research community. We can’t think that if we don’t talk about it’s going to go away.
To learn more about (RED) and how you can help this holiday season, visit amazon.com/red.