Health Hero: Improving the Health and Lives of Women in NOLA

Deon Haywood’s organization helps the most vulnerable.

The New Orleans-based organization Women With a Vision (WWAV) was co-founded by Deon Haywood's mother and several other black women in 1991 to help prevent HIV/AIDS and address substance abuse among the most vulnerable in the community: poor women, sex workers and transgender women.

With an array of programs including HIV prevention, clean syringe initiatives, skills training to improve economic outcomes and health education classes, the organization has flourished, even taking on policy work. In 2012, WWAV was a prominent force in getting a bill passed in Louisiana that took sex workers off the sex offender list. And with so much going well for WWAV, last May they were struck with tragedy when an unknown assailant purposely burned down their headquarters. sat down with Haywood to talk about how the organization is doing post-arson, the policy work they are doing and the need for people to speak up for themselves. It’s been a year since the arson, how are you all doing?

Deon Haywood: The fire was beyond devastating and there hasn’t been much progress in finding out who committed the crime. All we know is that a white male was seen fleeing the scene.

But we’re doing well now and we really want to thank everyone who supported us and made it possible for us to continue to do our work. We have a temporary office, but recently bought our own property here in NOLA. It needs a lot of work, but it’s ours.

But I will say this, when people target you like that, that means you are doing something right.

Why is including sex workers in your mission so important?

We feel strongly about addressing sex work with no judgment.

What we know is that sex work is something that just happens — its not organized. It’s a means of survival and a product of the criminal justice system and other structural issues. Think about it: If you are struggling with addiction, most likely you will end up in jail before receiving any type of service. You leave jail with a conviction, which makes it difficult for you to find a job and almost impossible to apply for services and assistance. Sex work turns [into] a means of supporting yourself and your family. And we cannot forget about them.

Can you talk about the legislation that WWAV helped get passed?

Before the law changed, sex workers had to register as sex offenders — a label printed on their driver’s license or State ID. Imagine trying to apply for a job with that. And even though the law changed, there were still women on the list before the law changed. A few weeks ago, we got the final judgment in a class action lawsuit that will take over 700 women off that list, and we are really excited about that.

Moving forward, we are looking at changing the “Good Samaritan” laws and how they affect people who overdose on drugs. As of now, if you call the police or 911 when someone is overdosing, you can be charged with reckless endangerment. And what we know is that lives [are] being lost because people are afraid to get medical help for people in need because doing so jeopardizes their own freedom.

Part of your work is getting your clients to be spokespeople for themselves. Why is that so important?

We hate the term empowerment because it implies that I am going to give you something. So we wanted for our clients to use their own power to speak to their issues. And post-Katrina it became clear to us that they had everything they needed to speak for themselves and to politicians. And this is crucial in a state where Bobby Jindal [Louisiana’s governor] is refusing the Medicaid expansion in a state that is extremely poor and has the highest HIV rates.

And we have seen our clients speak up and out and feel good about who they are and it’s an amazing thing.

Learn more about Women With a Vision here.

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(photo: Courtesy Deon Haywood)

(Photo: Deon Haywood)

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