Program offers safe refuge for Black women living with HIV/AIDS

Shanasha Whitson is the WILLOW program coordinator at the Minnesota African American AIDS Task Force (AAATF). WILLOW, which has been around for three years, used to be a four-week program. It was formed by women who are HIV positive for other women who are HIV positive.

Shanasha Whitson
Shanasha Whitson

They sat down and said we need to put something out in the community for women who are HIV positive so they can grapple with this disease. They put together what is now a two-hour video program that goes into depth on ways to improve and manage a healthy life.

“It is a fabulous redirection from the four weeks that we had before. A lot of women had barriers to coming in two or three hours for four weeks.” Whitson has been with WILLOW since last September.

Whitson helps women who are living with AIDS and HIV prevent the spread of HIV, participate in safer sex activities, engage in healthy relationships, set goals and examples for their families, and achieve optimum health. She used to be the HIV case manager at the Minneapolis Urban League, “and I just kinda fell in love with AIDS and HIV.”

“There are so many issues that impact Black women: poverty, the health and wellness of their children and community, diabetes, heart disease, cancer. When I started working as an HIV case manager, I realized that this is one issue that we do not talk loud about.

“There is a small group of individuals that talk loudly about it…but our program at AAATF that just had our 20-year anniversary is probably the only all-AIDS/HIV organization in Minnesota. Our clientele is 99.9 percent African American; our staff is 99.9 percent African American, so our staff is matching the population we serve.”

Whitson said she “just wants to keep the community safe by helping women who are HIV positive become undetectable (no virus detected in their blood), so they are less likely to transmit the disease.”

The WILLOW program aims to give women the strategies and skills to do that through healthy relationships. Whitson works predominantly with African American people, “but we will work with people of all ethnicities,” she added.

“One of the things that are kind of painful for me working with these women is…that I could be one of these women. Women who are educated, women who are not; women who are below the poverty line, women who are not; women who have a husband, women who do not; women who have children, women who do not.

“It is one of the most painful parts but also one of the most inspiring parts, because a lot of these women that I work with look at me and it gives them hope. It gives them inspiration. They say if she can do this, I can do this too!”

Through the WILLOW program, Shanasha makes a lot of referrals to community resources. “One of the main challenges and barriers women face is housing. So they come to me and I help them navigate through these services.

“I love this position because I get to be myself, and these women come in and feel like they can relate to me. Women come into the program because they are HIV positive, but you learn a lot about them, who they are and where they come from.

“I have learned that a lot of these women are not actively dealing with the fact that they have HIV. They are focused on housing, sending their children to college. When they first come in to [see] me, they don’t even talk about WILLOW. They start off with their other problems and concerns. They cannot focus on their health when taking care of all of their families.”

WILLOW is a safe place for women who are HIV/AIDS-positive to come and improve their health and relate to other women who are dealing with similar life circumstances. Their services are confidential, and all African American women who are HIV/AIDS positive are welcome to participate in the program.

For more information about the WILLOW program for yourself, a family member or a friend, call Shanasha Whitson at the African American AIDS Task Force, 612-825-2052.

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