A Summer to Remember

My Reproductive Rights Activist Service Corps Internship at Women With A Vision in New Orleans

By Sean King, Mount Holyoke Class of '14

My RRASC internship with Women With A Vision in New Orleans, offered me the most memorable experience I have had thus far. The 10 weeks I spent with the organization became a major stepping stone on my road to activism.

WWAV was founded in 1991 by a grassroots collective of African American women seeking to respond to the spread of HIV/AIDS in communities of color. Since then, they have advocated relentlessly for HIV/AIDS prevention and testing, substance abuse resources, and education on a range of women’s health needs. The organization’s mission is to improve the lives of marginalized women and their families and communities by addressing the social conditions that hinder their health and wellbeing.

My internship with WWAV began in the wake of tragedy. On May 25, while I was still at home in New York, I received a phone call from my sister asking if I had heard the devastating news that WWAV’s offices had been destroyed by an arson fire. Fear and sadness filled my body, as I worried about the organization and its clients (and my summer internship).

On my first day, WWAV’s executive director, Deon Haywood, and her staff greeted me and jokingly commented on my choice to bike while wearing a sweater under Louisiana’s hot sun. I looked into the room that had been burned the worst; all that remained were black ashes. Cleaning supplies and bottles of water were placed on the main table, and we quickly got to work. An immense amount of tears were shed for the office building, but none were for the end of the organization. No one in the office that day doubted that WWAV would continue its work to serve the community that desperately needed it.

I wanted to intern at WWAV because I thought it was a passionate grassroots organization that worked with and lived for its community, and after my first day at the cleanup I knew I was right. By the end of the work day, my dapper outfit was dirty, but I never felt more like an activist involved in a cause.

After the cleanup, Deon and her staff dove into crisis management mode. My first project, which later led to the launch of WWAV’s media and communications department, was creating the blog WWAV After the Fire. I had never created a blog before, but I put my best foot forward and learned a new skill. The blog allowed the public to stay updated on WWAV’s progress, and also created a platform for the many voices of WWAV to be represented. I was surprised when even I, the new intern, was asked to contribute a piece on my experience after the fire. Since then, the blog has become a key aspect of how WWAV reaches out to the public as well as the basis for creating a new media and communications department.  Aside from creating the blog, I wrote posts, created videos, and helped to update WWAV’s other social media platforms. As a media and communications intern, I discovered a passion I never knew I had: passion for connecting social media to social justice. I also redefined the way I think of myself as an activist.

Before all the RRASC interns ventured off to our respective internships this summer, CLPP’s senior programs manager, Corinna Yazbek, left us with a few words of wisdom: “Working in a non-profit entails many different jobs, and all are very important.” Though I did not have frequent interactions with WWAV clients due to lack of space in our temporary offices, I still felt very involved. Through blogging, creating videos, and posting to social media, I was able to alert the public on our progress and share important information. I learned that activism can be done in many ways.

The biggest highlight of this summer was having the opportunity to attend AIDS 2012, the international AIDS conference in Washington, D.C. Updating the public on the conference was both rewarding and tiring. Attending an event where tens of thousands of attendees from hundreds of countries and organizations came together to address the same challenge, I began to realize that HIV/AIDS is a global issue.

The most inspiring event at the conference for me was participating alongside others in the March to End AIDS. Millions of people have died from HIV/AIDS, millions have been infected, and millions are at risk—for those millions we marched.

Another amazing moment on that trip was when Deon told me she saw an activist in me. As we were sitting and conversing at the Positive Women’s Network event she said, “Shaun, right now you’re an infant in the activist world, but I can’t wait until we have these same conversations ten years from now and see how your mind has changed.”

As an African American Studies major at Mount Holyoke College with a concentration in African American women, I am learning about the history of black women in America as well as present day conditions that affect black women. Last semester I took a course about black female grassroots organizers during the early and mid 1900’s, including Fannie Lou Hammer, Julia Cooper, and Ella Baker. Having studied these amazing activists, it was surreal to find myself a few months later working for Deon Haywood, whom I believe is a heroine for New Orleans and black women in the South. My academic studies were suddenly connected to real world experiences.

Though my summer internship is over, I am excited to continue my RRASC internship with WWAV this fall! In order to build on and continue the work I began this summer, I will be making more videos, blogging, and creating a media and communications manual for the interns and staff that will continue the department after me. This has truly been a life-changing experience. I am not only an intern at WWAV, but I have become a part of the family. When I leave WWAV I can do so with the joy of knowing I helped create something that wasn’t there before and that will greatly help the organization.

During my time at WWAV, I have discovered myself. I have been exposed to new skills and passions, and have become convinced that I, along with countless others, need to join and continue the fight for social and reproductive justice. I look forward to retuning to the Valley for my senior year and sharing all the knowledge that I have had the privilege of receiving.

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