Cover Story: 2000 Person of the Year: Victoria Straughn

Person of the Year sounds like a pretty fancy title. Seems formal, an award one applies for and goes through a rigorous judging process to win. Sounds like the kind of recognition that's always

Feb 1, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Victoria Straughn addressed mortality rates among African Americans during last year's Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of Aids.

Person of the Year sounds like a pretty fancy title. Seems formal, an award one applies for and goes through a rigorous judging process to win.

Sounds like the kind of recognition that's always being given to local business leaders, politicians and media celebrities. Maybe it even sounds a little cheesy.

Like most things at CityBeat, however, Person of the Year is not what it seems.

There's no application and judging process here. I consult our writers and editors for recommendations and narrow down the candidates until I focus on someone who, in my mind, embodies the paper's goals — building a better city for all people who live here, embracing change with an open mind, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

The Person of the Year endures nothing more than a series of interviews. I don't tell them they're being selected Person of the Year and actually fib a bit to gain their cooperation. (That caused some uneasiness last year when I realized I was lying to a Catholic nun, Sr. Alice Gerdeman, about her Person of the Year interview.)

But the subsequent cries of "What?!" from the surprised Person of the Year and "Who?!" from readers make the secretive process worthwhile.

The main reason CityBeat selects a Person of the Year is to recognize Cincinnatians doing important work on the community level — work that often involves complex issues, is geared toward long-term change and can be very thankless. If a story and a cheesy title gives that person a little hope that someone somewhere appreciates what they're doing, maybe he or she will stick with it. And maybe that dedication ends up pushing this city forward.

On the other hand, selecting a single Person of the Year fails to recognize the dozens and dozens of Cincinnatians doing similarly inspiring work throughout the area. I guess that's what the other 51 issues of the year are for.

The bottom line is this: If highlighting the tireless, nearly anonymous work of one Cincinnatian intrigues and excites readers to seek out that person or other like-minded community builders, the Person of the Year concept is a success.

I think you'll find the 2000 Person of the Year, Victoria Straughn, intriguing and exciting as well. Like previous selections, she's both unique and representative at the same time.

There are hundreds or thousands of Cincinnatians engaged in the fight to treat HIV and AIDS, as Straughn is at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. There are also hundreds or thousands of Cincinnatians working on the grassroots level to solve police-community tensions, racial profiling, substandard schools and other important issues, as Straughn does.

There might even be a good number of Cincinnatians who work on HIV/AIDS issues during the day and build social and political coalitions in their spare time, as Straughn does. But I can't believe many people combine her skills, determination, dedication and selflessness.

Straughn is a walking, talking series of contradictions. She says she hates politics but works every day in one of the most political fields going, treatment for HIV and AIDS. She's not active in any particular church but works hand-in-hand with local black churches to help educate African Americans about AIDS. She's involved in lots of grassroots activist groups, some of which she started herself, but is almost as proud of being a licensed nail technician.

She admits she can come across as a very serious person — her friends teasingly call her Angela Davis after the 1960s radical — but says she loves comedy.

Officially, Straughn is the HIV Early Intervention/ Prevention Specialist and head of HIV/AIDS Outreach Education at UC's Infectious Diseases Center. Unofficially, she's the best kind of leader — she leads by example.

The New Face of AIDS
Believe it or not, deny it or not, AIDS is now the No. 1 killer among African Americans age 25 to 44. More than accidents, more than purposeful actions, more than any other disease.

The black community, Straughn says, has failed to grasp the significance of the damage caused by AIDS.

"When HIV and AIDS first broke, the media attention focused on the image of the skinny, white, gay man," she says. "The gay community worked hard to slow the spread of the disease within their population. Now other groups have become the real face of AIDS in this country."

That new face, she says, is often urban, minority, low-income and heterosexual. But too many people — the media, the medical community, the politicians and those at risk of contracting HIV and AIDS — are reacting too slowly to the new dynamics.

Straughn is blunt when discussing the reasons why HIV and AIDS have hit the black community so hard. Her bluntness leaves no room for wriggling — it comes down to personal responsibility, or a lack thereof.

Crack cocaine's infiltration of Cincinnati's black neighborhoods, she says, has done "major damage." Often it leads to reckless behavior — sexual, criminal and otherwise — that puts those under crack's influence directly in the firing line for contracting AIDS from sex partners.

One of Straughn's biggest concerns is the prison system, where crack dealers, users and hangers-on — predominantly black males — are left to their own devices regarding HIV and AIDS.

"It's very tough to work with the prison system," she says. "Ohio tests prisoners for HIV when they enter the system but not when they're released."

The major concern, she says, is prisoners engaging in "certain behaviors" in prison that they leave behind when they return to society. They get reacquainted with wives and girlfriends, who often are unwittingly infected with HIV.

Tossed over this scenario is a wet blanket of denial in the black community, Straughn says. Many ex-cons are ashamed to explain their sexual or drug behavior in prison, she says, and many infected women are ashamed to tell family or friends.

Just as difficult as prevention issues can be, treatment faces roadblocks in the black community, too.

"Often we try to start a treatment program with someone and she'll say, 'Get in line behind trying to get a job, feed my kids and find a decent apartment,' " Straughn says. "And so lots of people avoid treatment either because of denial or because of practical issues like they don't have time for treatment."

Again, the new face of AIDS presents new problems.

Upper-middle-class, gay, white males — society's stereotype of a person with AIDS — developed access to treatment, information and political influence in the 1990s, Straughn says. Those efforts dramatically improved the community's chances of dealing with the disease.

Today, however, poor, straight, black females — some with children, many with the added pressure of welfare reform's push to be employed — have little access. They have no political influence, Straughn says, and avoid dealing with "the system" because they don't trust it.

And that's where organizations like the Infectious Diseases Center (IFC) come in.

The center has three primary components: primary care for persons with AIDS, clinical trials for drugs and treatment therapies and education outreach, Straughn's main duty.

She calls the center a one-stop organization for persons with AIDS. It offers a full-time financial advisor, a nutritionist, an interpreter for the deaf and other part- and full-time staff who help find state or federal grants to pay for a patient's medications and who refer patients to AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati (AVOC) support groups.

Straughn's daily routine involves working with the Cincinnati Department of Health to provide HIV/AIDS education, testing and counseling at the city's community health clinics. The nurses and technicians who man these clinics are trained to provide testing and to refer persons with AIDS to the Infectious Diseases Center.

"The community clinic personnel are our eyes and ears," Straughn says. "They know the communities better than anyone."

She puts together classes and seminars for the clinic's health professionals and occasionally leads larger education programs in the communities. Her goal for 2001, she says, is to offer quarterly programs in fewer, more central locations in order to increase her efficiency.

But, she says, her primary goal is to maintain HIV and AIDS education and testing at the community level.

"Although persons with AIDS are living longer because of better treatments, there's still no cure," Straughn says. "Prevention, testing and early treatment are still crucial. And we take these messages and these ideas to the people, where they are. That's the only way to break misconceptions, denial and distrust."

One of the places people are, at least in the African American community, is church. For five years now, Straughn has been active in an ambitious effort to engage local African American churches, ministers and congregations in the Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS.

Black churches can be part of the problem or part of the solution, Straughn says with typical bluntness. Ministers and their churches wield "a lot of power" in the black community, she says, and how they play HIV/AIDS issues has great impact on how African Americans in general deal with them.

"Churches face the basic problem with AIDS of whether their help with education and treatment somehow condones the behaviors that caused AIDS," she says. "So we try to get them to focus on specific, concrete problems they can do something about."

Examples she cites include helping provide daycare so women can make a doctor's appointment or hosting monthly HIV testing at church facilities.

"The predominant AIDS support structure is still left over from what the gay community built, and now we need our own support," Straughn says. "Churches can minister to people in so many ways. Women get AIDS from drug-abusing men or wait on men who are in prison. Is that their fault? Does it have to affect so many children and teens? That's the approach churches can take, rather than trying to decide between condemning or condoning AIDS."

This year's Black Church Week of Prayer is scheduled for March 4-10, with highlights to include Red Ribbon Sunday, a youth fair at Swifton Commons and the Community HIV Town Hall Meeting.

Straughn is one of week's three chairpersons and is personally organizing the March 10 HIV Town Hall Meeting. Her event's main speaker is scheduled to be Dr. Alim Muhammad, a Washington, D.C. physician who promotes getting more black doctors involved in treating AIDS. Straughn says she'll be sending event invitations to every black physician in Cincinnati.

She's also invited young black poets — including several from the local poetry collection 144,000 — to perform during the HIV Town Hall Meeting. It's another way, she says, to reach African Americans where they are.

"If it works," Straughn says of the event, "people will walk out of there full of information and hope."

If it works, it'll be because Straughn and others managed to bring together a diverse collection of interests — conservative and liberal black churches, Nation of Islam mosques, the city health department and AIDS-related groups like AVOC, Lydia's House, Early Prevention and Intervention Program (EPIP) and Straughn's own Infectious Diseases Center — to deal with real-life problems in a real-life way.

Coalition building like this is one of Straughn's best assets. And it's been crucial to her development as a leader.

Growing Grassroots Coalitions
Straughn doesn't dance around anything. She's straight to the point: Local black leadership on political and social issues is out of touch.

As usual, when she sees a need for someone to step forward and make something happen, she says, "It might as well be me."

"On issues like police brutality of blacks, lack of city investment in neighborhoods, our public schools and more, black leaders are very absent," Straughn says. "It's bothersome to me and many others that our so-called leaders aren't involved in action and education. They're not proactive on anything."

She says the leadership that Cincinnati's white community is comfortable dealing with on African American issues — the NAACP, the Baptist Ministers Conference, black members of Cincinnati City Council — more often than not let down the people they're supposed to be leading by playing defense. In their place, Straughn and a number of others are forming grassroots movements to address important issues before they get out of control.

Straughn started a group called Concerned Citizens for Justice to deal with issues between the Cincinnati Police Division and the black community. She says her group works closely with the recently formed United Black Front, which has been holding hearings on charges of racial profiling by local police.

She says she often finds herself sitting up late at night designing a flyer for a group meeting or researching police or economic issues. And that's usually after a long day of meetings or training sessions on HIV and AIDS.

But it's impossible, she says, to stand on the sidelines when injustice is rampant.

"Government, I think, is pro-corporation and anti-people," Straughn says. "But when you see your own family at risk from government policies regarding education, police and more, you get afraid. I don't want to wait until these problems come to my door. I always tell people, 'Don't wait until it comes to your house before you get involved.' "

And that's the beauty of grassroots activism, she says — there's always some way to get involved. If people are interested in schools, get involved with the school system, she says. If they're interested in welfare reform issues, get involved with that. If they're interested in their neighborhood, get involved with community councils.

Straughn says that too often the African American community has waited for its leaders — both elected and self-appointed — to solve all the problems, only to have nothing get done. Meanwhile, she says, the gap between the haves and have-nots is only widening.

"You have to make the system work for you," she says. "If you don't like something, get involved with organized resistance and change it."

She firmly believes that grassroots organizing and coalition building are the best paths to change. And she's a one-woman coalition builder — she belongs to the African American Chamber of Commerce, the Cincinnati League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union and Grassroots Leadership Academy.

Straughn laughs about her involvements, saying sometimes there aren't enough hours in the day to do it all. But she says she's simply trying to understand how the city works and how to bring about change.

Change, after all, is the ultimate goal.

But with the issues that Straughn has dedicated her life to — AIDS, race relations, economic and social justice — profound change is difficult to come by. When asked how she avoids getting swallowed by such large issues, she doesn't hesitate.

"Small victories is what I'm looking for," she says. "I want to see change in my lifetime on these issues, but it won't come all at once. So when I deal with other people on some of these things, I try to empower them with a taste of a win."

What's her idea of a small victory?

"I'd love to see some police misconduct dealt with and real proactive measures put into place," she says. "City council can look at Cincinnati in general and put action plans into place to bring all of our communities up to standards, not just downtown. When Cincinnati Public Schools got their tax levy in the fall, that was a small victory. Now I'd like to see them keep their promises to renovate schools, update curriculum and go back to neighborhood schools and eliminate busing."

In order to win some of those victories, of course, Straughn has to get others on her side, including city officials, politicians and school administrators who are inside "the system." Many grassroots leaders eventually turn from outsiders to insiders — i.e., Jim Tarbell, chosen as one of CityBeat's 1999 Persons of the Year (see sidebar on page 21) — to accomplish their goals, and Straughn can envision the same for herself.

She's heading a coalition of grassroots activists to seek out new candidates for Cincinnati City Council this fall. With Charles Winburn and Phil Heimlich ineligible to run again due to term limits and with Charlie Luken poised to run for mayor, at least three council seats will be wide open.

To be on the November ballot, council candidates must declare by Feb. 22, after which Straughn and friends would like to host a series of meet-the-candidate nights. In past elections, she says, candidates basically don't campaign between the February deadline and September.

"This is a new era for Cincinnati with these open seats and with three other brand-new, young council members (Alicia Reece, Pat DeWine and John Cranley)," she says. "This is the time to get people on city council who answer to the community and to the neighborhoods. I want to find good people and give them exposure through these early candidate nights."

Straughn admits she's been approached by a number of people to run for council herself. She laughs when she says she hated politics growing up but says she's learned "to play that game," particularly with the political ramifications of AIDS prevention and treatment.

Still, she'd rather remain behind the scenes right now. But maybe not for long.

'Each One Teach One'
Straughn explains this need to get involved as always having been part of her. Her parents pushed her and her siblings to make a difference, she says, and to understand "that it's OK to work hard."

"My mother had two sayings when I was young," she says. "One was, 'Each one teach one,' meaning each of us had an obligation to leave no one behind. The other was, 'Keep reaching.' She'd tell us to reach for the stars but if we fell short it was OK to get the moon."

As the fifth of eight children, Straughn says she was the family's peacemaker as a youngster. But, like many middle children, she remembers being determined to stand out and make her mark.

Asked if there was a "light bulb moment" when she figured out she wanted to change the world — or at least impact her own community — Straughn smiles. She recalls joining a cultural study group after graduating from Hughes High School and checking out African American history and culture for the first time.

"High school history classes were always so boring," she says. "And all of a sudden I was learning this rich history and realizing that history is more than the past, that it can be the future too if you use its lessons to move forward.

"You know, we're taught in school to be spectators to history. High school graduates don't even know how to vote. We need to teach our young people to be participants. After that study group, I finally learned the difference between being a spectator in our society and being a participant."

Straughn's career choices led her to the Barrett Center for Cancer, where she worked in labs and other research areas. When UC opened the Infectious Diseases Center in 1988 at the old Holmes Hospital site, she moved there to work in the labs. She helped start the center's HIV/AIDS outreach program a few years later.

As she gained confidence in joining social and political causes, she says, she began seeking out opportunities to learn about "the system" and about leadership. She enrolled in the Grassroots Leadership Academy, a city-funded program that puts ordinary citizens through the wringer in an effort to encourage new community leaders.

Straughn completed the course in April 2000, graduating with the program's fifth class. She attended classes every other Saturday for nine months and also completed a seven-week internship in Councilwoman Minette Cooper's office.

She says the experience cemented her future as a participant.

"The main lessons they teach are to empower citizens to form coalitions and to work within the city's existing power structure for change," Straughn says. "It sort of summed up everything I'd been learning in my life up to then."

The people she met through Grassroots Leadership Academy — budding leaders from churches, community councils, nonprofit agencies, council members' staffs — are now Straughn's conspirators in bringing about change. She can't help but have her fingers in everything these days.

"A good friend of mine is involved with the local Democratic Party, and another is involved with a union and with tutoring in the schools," she says. "And I have close friends who are ministers or who are involved with their churches. We all share information, which is how I keep up with the issues affecting the black community and Cincinnati as a whole."

Still, Straughn says, she often stands out among her friends as being particularly dedicated.

"My nickname among my friends is Angela Davis," she says, trying not to laugh. "They say I'm a revolutionary. I accept the comparison graciously, but I can't walk in her shoes. Maybe someday."

For many of us who care about the future of Cincinnati, that day can't come soon enough. ©