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Annabel Simpson and Devon Fore spent the summer of 2015 as interns at N Street Village. Annabel is a political science and sociology major at Baylor University. Devon is peace building and development major at Eastern Mennonite University.
Working at N Street Village, specifically in Bethany Women’s Day Center, has grounded the significant difference in meaning between “homeless people” and “people who experience homelessness” into our minds, hearts, and souls. Working with, and getting to know the women made it impossible to see them as their current housing situations, as people in the larger everyday society often do. People are complex, they demonstrate many characteristics, carry diverse stories, have many fears, hopes, and goals. No one is just one thing and the way that this became evident through our time at Bethany’s was both awe inspiring and heart breaking. How in the world do we as people just overlook the complexities that come along with being a human being? Maybe because it is easier than taking the time to understand people’s diverse narratives.
It has been hard for us as well.
While hearing stories of trauma and resilience is taxing, it is also enlightening, the stories allow us to remove the labels that we place on people and learn about their whole being. Miss C isn’t a homeless woman; she is a (seamstress) and a wife for 60 years this upcoming September. Miss D isn’t just living in a shelter; she is a radiant soul who works hard and will soon be a nurse. The ability to overlook what is on the outside or what appears to be on the outside is a gift that N Street gave us and that we will continue to use in our everyday lives.
One specific attribute of the stigma of homelessness that we have seen and hope to conquer is the lack of dignity these women often experience. For example, people often donate clothes for the homeless/low income community,which is great. But the condition that they are received in does not always reflect the condition that the women deserve. After hearing these women’s stories, it is apparent that one’s financial success is not completely a factor of merit, ambition, or tenacity, but is severely affected by the circumstances one is born into and the opportunities they are given, not just the ones they make for themselves. To want to separate yourself from individuals who experience homelessness and poverty is a very human thing to do. No one wants to relate to this group, because if there is common ground between us, then what is to stop this from happening to me as well? However, acknowledging this vulnerability isn’t a weakness, but a strength and serves as a connection to bring more respect and love to those who are in need. The woman who goes to nursing school and then sleeps at a shelter is no less worthy of the same dignity and respect than the CEO passing her by on the way to work. These women don’t deserve torn and stained sweatshirts any more than the staff at Bethany Women’s Center does.
We will be forever grateful for the women we met, the lessons we learned, and the experiences that we had at N Street. There is no simple or concise way to write about the impact that this experience had on our lives and it is hard to imagine we won’t be benefitting from these women’s teachings years from now. If we want people to take one thing away from this piece it is that people are people. We all have fears, needs, and vulnerabilities and we hope that we can all learn to keep this in mind when we are judging someone as inherently different or less than us.
You don’t often find red velvet cupcakes and contraceptives on the same table, but at the Napoleon Bistro on March 7, The Red Pump Project proved that sweets and safe sex talk make a perfect pairing.
Cupcakes and Condoms is “a sweet afternoon of desserts and girl talk about sexual health,” said DC ambassador and event organizer Brittani Menina. “A lot of African American women, once diagnosed (with HIV), are not going for treatment or care.”
The Red Pump Project hopes to reduce stigma and promote education so women affected by HIV and AIDS can seek the help they need.
Cupcakes and Condoms, unlike other Red Pump events, is a woman-only forum to encourage frank discussion about the questions and challenges women face regarding sexual health. The panel, which featured four health advocates and HIV researchers, addressed a range of topics from HIV transmission misconceptions to masturbation in a lively exchange.
“With everything else, we protect our kids,” sexual health researcher Candace Sibley pointed out. “They don’t ride a bike without a helmet. But when it comes to sex, they’re bombarded.”
“Girls think, ‘[HIV is] all around me, so at some point, I’ll get it,” added Jennifer Sinkfield, an HIV researcher at Children’s National Medical Center. She believes this desensitization may lead young women to be lax about safe sex because they don’t trust condoms to protect them.
A Cupcakes and Condoms attendee, also named Jennifer, was gratified to learn how to broach “The Talk” with her three daughters, who range in age from 5 to 16. “I want to have information to give to her so she doesn’t get an STI or HIV,” she said.
Cupcakes and Condoms attendees also got the chance to explore a lesser-known safe sex option. This happens to be Brittani’s favorite part of the afternoon.
“Most people don’t know how to use [female condoms],” she said with a sly smile. “You get a lot of faces.”
You get a lot of laughter, too, as it turns out. After demonstrator Bria Hamlet unfurled the condom, she produced a plastic vulva model to a chorus of cheers. After answering crowd questions (no, the condom won’t slip out; yes, it’s just as sturdy as the male version), she passed samples around so women could practice applying them on their hands.
It’s a racier version of a common sleepover trope, and many women were laughing as they poked the latex into place. With the scheduled events concluded, guests broke off into groups to talk or sought out panelists for additional questions.
Missed the festivities? The Red Pump Project now has ambassadors fundraising and leading events in five cities. March 10th is National Women and Girls HIV Awareness Day, and the organization urges people to #RocktheRedPump with feisty red footwear and conversation with partners about how to keep things sexy and safe.
About the Author: Jessica Sillers is a Washington, DC-based writer. She has volunteered as a teacher's assistant in Faridabad, India, and on a farm in Ireland. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org