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Marsha Martin Wants You to Know – HIV is Not Over

When most people experience a higher calling, they focus their energy on one project until their passion burns out. Marsha Martin dedicated herself to three projects. And, she has been doing it for nearly 40 years.

Marsha’s fierce determination to defeat HIV/AIDS means she plays important roles in Get Screened Oakland (GSO), Global Network of Black People Working in HIV (GNBPH), and East Bay Getting to Zero (EBGTZ), three different projects sponsored by Community Initiatives that call for action to ensure progress in the healthcare, especially for people of color.

In a time when COVID-19 monopolizes the headlines, it’s important to remember healthcare inequalities continue, especially when it comes to people of color struggling with HIV/AIDS. Exposing the treatment lapses that have existed for this same community when it comes to HIV/AIDS shows how these disparities have been perpetuated.

Marsha’s work to educate the greater public and healthcare providers has been validated by the work of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Health.

Since 1984, Dr. Fauci has been advising six presidents on HIV/AIDS. He’s seen how various populations have been treated over his tenure and recently indicated that he believes the coronavirus pandemic points to yet another sign of systemic racism against black people. During a press conference on April 14, 2020, Dr. Fauci stated: “I see a similarity here because health disparities have always existed for the African American community. Here again with the crisis, how it’s shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is because, yet again, when you have a situation like the coronavirus, they are suffering disproportionately.”

We asked Marsha a few questions about her involvement in HIV/AIDS advocacy and learned about her experiences over the last four decades, including the changes with HIV/AIDS, project successes and how she approaches fundraising challenges.

How did you come to be involved with HIV/AIDS causes? 

I began my work in the field of HIV by accident. At the beginning of the epidemic, in 1981, I was living in New York City and working on homeless issues. During the early days of HIV, there were no answers and everyone was afraid of the disease. People who had been diagnosed with HIV were losing their jobs, they were being kicked out of their housing, they were losing their employment, were rejected by family and friends, and they were becoming homeless and entering the emergency housing system.

In 1981, I became the director of the New York City Mayor’s Office on Homelessness and Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Housing. By 1983 to 1984 we had to set up special housing programs for people living with HIV while establishing special wards and clinics for people who were sick. At the same time, we had to create safe spaces for people who might be at risk. This involved developing syringe exchange programs, hazardous waste/red bag disposal systems, and drop-in centers for sex workers and condom distribution programs.

People were dying within six months to 24 months of diagnosis. It was a very difficult time and an extremely difficult death for most.

What’s ONE thing you wish other people knew about HIV/AIDS?

The most important is: HIV is not over. 15 million more people need treatment, nearly 5000 people become infected every week and nearly 1 million people die from HIV every year.  Every day, men AND women become infected with HIV due to a lack of information about HIV. [That this still happens with all the knowledge out there] is amazing, really.

You’re passionate about your work to help people become more educated about HIV/AIDS—can you talk more about the experiences that led you in this area?

I was an active member of the Riverside Church in New York City during the ‘70s/’80s/’90s with a very active LGBT ministry beginning in the late ‘70s, so when HIV hit, Riverside Church opened its doors to people living with HIV. It joined with other churches in Harlem and opened an AIDS Ministry.

One of the people I worked closely with was a man named Jack. He told me in the first two years of the epidemic he lost 44 friends. I have never forgotten that. What must that have been like—to lose so many friends over such a short period of time?

I do this work for all of us who lost friends and family members to HIV. And I do this work to educate others so they do not have to live a life of worry, fear, stigma and health challenges.

What was the most exciting day your project(s) experienced in the last year?  

We participated in the press conference for AIDS 2020 last fall on September 30, 2019, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and Bay Area Mayors London Breed (San Francisco) and Libby Schaaf (Oakland). They were there in support of ALL of the HIV service agencies, health-related organizations, and people living with HIV in our greater Oakland community. Together, the four women announced and invited everyone to attend the conference, originally to be held this summer in both Oakland and San Francisco, with 20,000 of their HIV colleagues from across the globe.

How did you get involved with AIDS 2020?  

I have been attending and participating in the International AIDS Conferences since 1998.  Congresswoman Barbara Lee has wanted to host an AIDS conference in Oakland and now that we have agreed to partner with SF to do such, this is the opportunity to support Barbara and showcase some of the great work underway in Oakland to meet with colleagues from across the globe to discuss the challenges as we seek to end HIV as a public health challenge by 2030.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, AIDS 2020 has shifted to be held virtually to help safeguard people’s health and the community in general. AIDS 2020 Virtual will still highlight the communities of our host cities, San Francisco and Oakland, exploring the tale of these two cities through science, innovation and activism, while celebrating the Bay Area’s dedication to health equity in its “Ending the HIV Epidemic” initiatives. Please visit the AIDS 2020 Virtual page for more information.

What partnerships have been key to your projects’ success?

All of the programs offered through GSO, GNBPH and EBGTZ are partnership programs. Early supporters of GSO were Kaiser Permanente, Flowers Heritage Foundation, Ramsell Corporation, Chevron, and Levi Strauss. Many Oakland-based faith communities and churches of ALL denominations joined Mayor Ron Dellums in support of GSO. Walgreens partnered with us to support the East Bay AIDS Walk.

Considering that “People believe HIV is no longer a crisis” and that HIV continues to be a threat, what IS your most effective message when it comes to fundraising?

We are not done yet. We have achieved a great deal: between 15-20 million people are on treatment worldwide; the number of pills necessary to treat HIV has been reduced from 50 to one a day and prevention of HIV is absolutely possible by taking one pill a day. At the same time, 15 million more people need treatment, nearly 5000 people become infected every week and nearly 1 million people die from HIV every year. We need YOUR HELP to get to the end.  We know more now and we are doing more now. We just need to redouble our efforts so that no one goes without life-saving treatments and prevention resources.

How has fiscal sponsorship helped you achieve your goals?  

GSO/GNBPH/EBGTZ could not/would not exist without the support and services of a fiscal sponsor.

What words of wisdom would you like to share with the Community Initiatives community? 

Stay true to your values.