In his #1 New York Times bestselling book Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time, Greg Mortenson says, “Educate a boy and you educate an individual. Educate a girl and you educate a community.” And in reference to her Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, Oprah Winfrey commented, “When you’re changing a girl’s life, it’s not just that life. You start to affect a family, a community, a nation.”
Through the Central Asia Institute, Mortenson’s non-profit, in which he is the co-founder, and as a direct result of Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls, entire communities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and South Africa- where both Winfrey and Mortenson have established schools- are slowly moving away from marginalization and progressing towards self-empowerment, proving just how important education and awareness is in regards to women. And while it’s true that the United States government provides its citizens with free education, there has still been a lack of awareness, understanding, representation and conversation around the factors that affect the choices women make in regards to their sexual health.
Choices that have led to an increase in the rate of HIV infections in women living in the United States from 8% in 1985 to 27% in 2005. And it’s undoubtedly a lack of education and low self-esteem, creating the inability for women to establish sexual boundaries, that has led to this sobering rate increase- proving that there is a high degree of marginalization and disempowerment facing women and girls in this country as well. And so where duty calls, heroes emerge.
Right now, here in Los Angeles, F
ilmmaker Jamila Gaskins is gearing up, preparing to blaze the trail paved by Winfrey, Mortenson and countless others in an effort to create change. She’s producing the upcoming documentary Project 1, which will chronicle her 12,000-mile bike ride across the country, taking viewers into the lives of women who have been impacted by HIV and AIDS in major cities like San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore and Washington DC. “Right now, I’m making calls to clinics, individual women and activist around the country and finding out what’s the barrier between education and being actively involved in preventing HIV,” Jamila says. “Meanwhile, I’ve finished putting together a treatment and proposal for the film so that I have something to show to possible directors.”
For her first feature-length film, Jamila is looking to co-direct, combining the storytelling element with her passion for fitness, and using such tools to create instantaneous activism in the cities she’ll be visiting. “The cycling element is key because I didn’t want to do something where we go through production, the film comes out after months of post production and then people start talking about it. I wanted to create conversation and get people active in their communities while we’re in production because at that point, you’re affecting change immediately.” And with the self-imposed pressure of immediacy looming, I don’t take for granted Jamila’s willingness to set aside time to chat with me about her latest venture.
Originally from Flint, Ohio, having dreamt of being a filmmaker since the age of ten, and armed with a degree from Kalamazoo College in Theater Arts, Jamila began preparing for this intensely personal debut project after finishing the 2005 Adidas Dublin Marathon. “I came to the cause back in 2004 after my uncle tested positive for HIV,” she says, “and in support of him, I started training for the Adidas Dublin Marathon the following year. But when I started researching HIV and AIDS as it related to women, I realized how uninformed I was, and it made me want to start looking at what the factors are that make us so vulnerable and why the numbers are so high.” Jamila found that the factors varied based on level of education, income, culture and religion, and- in large part- disregard by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The CDC focused on people under the categories of men who have sex with men, hemophilia, people who have blood transplants and organ donors, and then all the people who have sex with those people. And women were included in the people-who-have-sex-with-those-people category. But if our rates have been steadily climbing, then why weren’t we talking specifically about women?”
With men who have sex with men making up the majority of cases of HIV infection in the 80’s, the focus, research and prevention methods were understandably geared towards that group. And considering that women who tested positive for HIV in the early 80’s were typically listed under the category of “prostitutes,” so-called “respectable” women were not viewed as high-risk. But in reality, women in general were and have always been at risk, and even more so today with 280,000 women living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. alone, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
“I remember while training for Adidas Dublin, I went downtown to pass out information about AIDS Project Los Angeles and there was a woman who called it ‘faggots disease,’” Jamila recalls. “And I realized that people need a different perception of HIV, how it’s transmitted and who’s affected. Because when somebody is able to use blanket statements like ‘faggots disease,’ they’re not talking about specific people, they’re talking about a faceless group. But if we can actually have conversations between two people who have names and faces, it will start to change our perception about what’s happening in the rest of the world.”
Jamila has been concerned about what’s happening in the rest of the world ever since her days as a victim’s advocate. A survivor of molestation and rape herself, Jamila turned her pain into power when she took a stand for other women who’ve been offended, championing their transformation from victim to empowered fighter. And it was this experience that ultimately served as the precursor to Project 1. “My experience with victim’s advocacy is why I’ve been able to make Project 1,” she says. “I’m looking at self-esteem and self-worth and how that affects choices that young girls and women make because if you’re unable to validate yourself, you might look outwardly for that. And in this case, we’re talking about how you might get that sexually because somebody saying that they want to be with you might say to you that you’re worthy, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that. And my way into the women’s stories in Project 1 comes from having been in that position.”
Jamila will officially begin this epic journey across the country on January 3rd, 2016. Meanwhile, her next step is to begin the fundraising process for Project 1, separating the cycling aspect from the filmmaking in order to have more options when partnering with different entities. In doing so, she’s looking to raise funds through sponsorships and endorsements from individuals and/or businesses wanting to be involved in the cycling portion- then accepting donations from those who are interested in the filmmaking aspect. “And in addition to the logistics of creating a national HIV/AIDS awareness ride, I’m working to incorporate health fairs and cycling events in each city as a way to give back for allowing me to tell the stories of these heroic women.”
Another way Jamila plans to give back is through the film’s website. Project 1’s online presence will provide a safe space for women to share their stories without judgment, providing an outlet and, in due course, increased awareness and education.
“Sometimes you don’t even realize you have a story until you read someone else’s. Or you feel alone and disconnected, and you hear or see an experience that connects you,” she comments. “And then there’s always power in speaking your truth.”
In Jamila’s case, speaking her truth entails creating a dialogue centered around HIV prevention and awareness as well as a conversation exposing some of the choices that women make regarding their sexual health and why they make them. Through her previous work as a victim’s advocate, and now with the upcoming Project 1, she is standing for the transformation of women in her community, and as far reaching as communities around the world, but first, starting with herself in the creation of this documentary film. “Now, in dealing with raising money, I have to be able to go to people and say, ‘I’m worthy of your trust,’ and not have my self-worth tied up in whether or not that person says ‘yes.’” And what helps is whenever I start thinking that I need to do more, or this isn’t going to work, somebody comes along and- without even knowing I’m struggling- says, ‘I love what you’re doing; I think it’s fantastic and keep going.’ And so I do.”
For more information on how to donate to Project 1, please visit https://www.fracturedatlas.org/site/fiscal/profile?id=1193, or contact Jamila at firstname.lastname@example.org.