By Olivia Armstrong and Mary Johnson
Yvonne Orji Knows the Fight Against AIDS Happens on the Ground
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 Yvonne Orji, of Insecure, recounts her time volunteering with (RED), and offers ways you can get involved this holiday season. You can also read about experiences from Insecure’s Jay Ellis and Girls’ Allison Williams.
Yvonne Orji, known to Insecure fans as “Molly Carter,” spent time in South Africa as a (RED) ambassador. 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 programs on the ground. Here’s what Orji had to say about her experience, and her thoughts on next steps to help make AIDS a disease of the past.
HBO: What sparked your interest in (RED)? Why did you feel compelled to take this trip?
Yvonne Orji: I’ve been interested in (RED) for awhile and Dennis Williams [SVP of Corporate Affairs and Corporate Social Responsibility at HBO] connected me with the organization. I love the work they do in terms of getting people who are [holiday shopping] to buy gifts people actually want, and that money is used to help alleviate and eradicate HIV/AIDS around the world. It’s great for people to give out of the kindness of their hearts, but because we’re in a consumerist society, it’s also great to have the opportunity to give and get. It’s a win-win.
I used to work in public health and the issues were sustainability, how the funds were being delineated, and if the funds were actually helping the people we think they’re helping. (RED) works on the ground to directly impact the people they’re trying to help. Being able to go to South Africa and observe the communities of young women being helped, I could see the tangible sustainability and efforts first hand. A lot of the times, you think, where is my money going? On the ground, it was refreshing to see a staff passionate about the communities they were helping.
HBO: Can you talk about your past work in the public health sector?
Yvonne Orji: I worked for a company called Population Services International, a social marketing company advocating healthy behaviors. We had a big branding campaign with celebrities to help educate about the proper use of mosquito nets, for example, to help prevent malaria. When I was in Liberia in 2008, it was right after the war, so a lot of people were susceptible to teen pregnancy and contracting HIV and other diseases. I worked on the preventative angle. Going back to Africa with (RED), I was interested to see what’s changed about the programs on the ground. With (RED), my parents are getting a return on investment from my masters degree in public health because if I wasn’t acting, I’d probably still be in the public health sector.
HBO: Can you talk about the programs you attended in? What can we learn from them?
Yvonne Orji: I went to three programs, including Keeping Girls in School, Women of Worth and a youth-focused health center. The health center had patients who were getting tested, seeking treatment if they were HIV-positive or receiving counseling. There was no stigma or shame, because this is where people knew they could get help. It was also refreshing to see there were a ton of different ARV (antiretroviral) treatments. When I worked in Liberia in 2008, ARVs weren’t as readily available, but this health center in South Africa had a stockpile of drugs for its patients. Another milestone is the focus on counseling, which makes it clear AIDS is no longer a death sentence. If you know your status early, you can get treated and live a rich, fulfilling life.
In my time with Keeping Girls in School, we went to a high school and the conversation focused on HIV prevention. Being a performer, I worked on asking the group questions through role-play exercises — how to navigate conversations with your partner if you’re not ready to engage in intercourse. It was a really safe space and sometimes, as a teenager, that’s all you need.
Women of Worth [which fosters an open dialogue about income-generating skills, gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health] works with those who are vulnerable in their communities and are seeking employment. In a session I attended, women were learning how to write resumes and prepare for a job interview. The communities they’re from have few jobs to go around, so we worked on training them to be the most viable candidates. Maybe they’re in school or aren’t at the moment, or maybe they have kids; so training them to have self-confidence in their skills is important. Outside of the workshop that day was a mobile testing center, so those taking part in the program could also check their HIV status.
One of my favorite sessions at Women of Worth was talking with a man who’s passionate about including men in the conversation. While there’s a focus on what women can do, we also have to teach men what consent is, and how to know if they’re ready for sex. Attacking these issues from both sides will help women and men come to an educated understanding that the onus is on all of us to create change.
HBO: What are three things everyone should know about the fight against HIV/AIDS?
Yvonne Orji: The first thing to know is there’s still a fight. It’s easy to think it isn’t an issue when you or your community isn’t directly affected, but it’s an issue all over the world. The second thing is there’s something you can do at any level. If you don’t work in public health or volunteer overseas, the beauty of an organization like (RED), is that you can buy things you would normally buy anyway, and the product is associated with funding these programs. Finally, HIV affects more than just the person who is infected with HIV. It’s not just on the surface, it’s structural. If we have the ability to stop HIV before the infection takes root, it can save families and communities.
To learn more about (RED) and how you can help this holiday season, visit amazon.com/red.