By Dionne Calhoun, Communications Director

For those of you who have embarked upon an endless journey to help empower those within your respective communities, I ask that you stand with me today to salute those leaders who serve to inspire, educate, empower and improve the quality of life for D.C. residents.

I had the pleasure of attending The Women’s Collective (TWC) “Youth, Chat and Chew” event and to learn about the advocacy work of the young women who lead the TWC, including: HIV/AIDS education, testing and prevention; access to care; sexual reproductive health curriculum; community outreach, referral and support services; special events to raise awareness and encourage the importance of getting tested and creating platforms to bring young women together so that their voices are heard.

Each attendee at the “Youth, Chat and Chew” event gave a brief introduction about their work with TWC. The Youth Program Associate, Chantil Thomas, was roundly praised for her tireless dedication and commitment to serve women and youth, always with a smile on her face. Thomas then rose to speak and was overwhelmed with joy as she stated, with tears in her eyes, “I could not have done this without the help of the staff” and the one who paved the way for her – Patricia Nalls, founder and executive director of TWC. Patricia Nalls wiped tears from her eyes while everyone in the room stood up and applauded her for her dedication to empowering women, girls and families, especially those living with and at risk for HIV/AIDS.

Patricia Nalls was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 after she lost her husband and three-year-old daughter from AIDS within six months of each other. Nalls shared her story of being ashamed with the diagnosis which led her to isolate herself from help and support. “I stayed in self-imposed exile for several years before I realized I wasn’t dying and I wasn’t actually living either. And living with HIV is what I had to do for my children’s sake and mine,” said Nalls. With a new perspective on life and a growing frustration with many years of not finding appropriate services for women, Nalls set-up a private phone line in her home for those living with HIV/AIDS to call for support, but kept it a close-held secret because of the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. The phone line grew into a support group where women shared their personal stories, laughed and cried and provided recommendations for HIV care and services while relying on one another for strength as they coped with their health status. In 1995, Nalls founded TWC with the goal of supporting women and their families and with the hope of creating a “woman-focused” organization. The board set-up training sessions, identified funding opportunities and eventually tied in policymakers, local providers and the District of Columbia Department of Health.

Nearly twenty years later through the vision of Patricia Nalls, TWC has evolved into a strong body of women who are committed to empowering the lives of women and girls each day. Through Patricia’s vision comes a new vision - from Chantil Thomas, a former teacher and D.C. public school graduate with a passion for music. She developed a sexual reproductive health curriculum with a focus on HIV/AIDS which is currently offered at Cardozo Senior High School, Luke C. Moore High School, Hospitality High School, Bell Multicultural High School, The Washington Metropolitan High School and Youthbuild Public Charter School.

Thomas developed a curriculum using music to resonate across cultures and “to meet the needs of youth and young adults where they are.” Each workshop is titled after a hip-hop song to engage students. Thomas also highlighted a workshop targeted for middle school students; “Between us Girls” which is a social, emotional, sexual reproductive wellness curriculum that focuses on self-sufficiency for young girls.

TWC, under the leadership of Chantil Thomas, also empowers and educates young women and girls through special events such as “Girls on Fire: Blazing the Way and Passing the Torch,” an event to celebrate National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and to honor female trailblazers in the community featuring local artists, a fashion show, free HIV testing and giveaways.

Just as Patricia Nalls is praised for her leadership in empowering the lives of women, girls and families, she has developed a team of other women and young aspiring leaders to carry the torch to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the city, reduce barriers to care and services, meet the needs of women and girls “where they are” and improve their overall quality of life.

*This post is part of an ongoing series of posts by Councilmember Grosso’s staff to support professional development. All posts are approved and endorsed by Councilmember Grosso.