WILLOW Women on the HIV Front Lines, Part 4: Vanessa Johnson
By Vanessa Johnson, JD, with Jacqueline Peters | April 28, 2016
Director, Ribbon Consulting Group
Jacqueline Peters: This is the fourth in a series of posts about women who have chosen to become trainers and facilitators for the CDC’s WILLOW program. I hope you’ll take a look at Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 as well. These women are inspiring!
People who meet Vanessa for the first time are struck by her calmness and serenity. If you ask people who know her, 99% of them will talk about the same qualities. Vanessa doesn’t get rattled. She never raises her voice. She always has a positive outlook. And if things get off center, she has a subtle way of “bringing it back” without you noticing.
She is constantly on the go and never complains!
Vanessa is also very generous with her time and always has a kind word for others. She is passionate about her work in HIV prevention.
Vanessa is an excellent trainer. I leaned on her experience to guide me through my first WILLOW Training of Facilitators experience. I communicated with Vanessa by email and phone for over a year before I met her in person. But when I saw her at the 2015 US Conference on AIDS in D.C., I immediately recognized her. She was exactly as I imagined her to be!
My personal fight with HIV is tied to the loss of family members, friends and co-workers in the 25 years since I was first diagnosed myself. It is in their memory, and because of my own motivation to live the best life I can, that I am involved in the field. My journey has taken me beyond the disease itself. I am exploring and advocating for the essential services we need to keep our communities disease free and offer protections for people who are still severely stigmatized.
For those of us who are women living with HIV, it’s important to know that the burden of preventing HIV should not lie solely on our shoulders. At the same time, we do bear responsibility for taking care of ourselves. We need to take steps to prevent other sexually transmitted infections and co-morbidities, such as hepatitis C, which can negatively impact our health. We need to make thoughtful decisions about birth control and pregnancy, the health of our relationships and our social support networks.
In addition, thanks to the effectiveness of current HIV treatments, along with PrEP and other prevention strategies, the idea of women living with HIV being able to have healthy sexual lives is now a reality, not a long-distance dream.
WILLOW—Women Involved with Life Learning from Other Women—is the only current CDC High-Impact HIV prevention intervention for women living with HIV in the United States. As a WILLOW trainer, what has been important to me personally and professionally is the humanity, womanhood and self-care that are a focus of the program.
WILLOW gave me the gift of remembering and acknowledging my humanity. It helped me see that living with HIV is even more of a reason to protect my basic human rights. It has allowed me to celebrate being a woman. It has helped me acknowledge the important roles I play in the lives of many people. Because of WILLOW, I also engage in better self-care so I can continue to see women such as myself grow and prosper.
Vanessa Johnson is co-owner of Ribbon Consulting Group, specializing in organizational development and community building. She also serves as the National Training and Leadership Development Director for the Positive Women’s Network USA. She can be reached at email@example.com.