Authors: Ashley Judd
In 2001, Kate Roberts had launched the YouthAIDS campaign within PSI to reach the fifteen-to-twenty-four-year-old age group that frighteningly accounts for half of new HIV infections worldwide—the majority of those being girls who are most often sexually exploited. A former high-powered advertising executive, Kate had decided to treat the AIDS emergency as a business, employing the same strategies she had once used to sell soda pop, bubble gum, and cigarettes to teenagers. She would use this technique, known as “social marketing,” to promote. AIDS education, abstinence, and condom use among vulnerable kids. Because young adults, even in the poorest countries, are influenced by mass media and celebrity, YouthAIDS harnessed pop culture and created “edutainment” to make healthy behavior change sexy and cool.
I read that YouthAIDS partnered with grassroots groups and FBOs (faith-based organizations) to provide peer counseling, drop-in centers (safe, relaxed, often entertaining places where lifesaving information is made available), and voluntary and confidential testing services for teenagers, prostituted women, migrant workers—in other words, those most at risk of infection. (I would later learn to add married women to this high-risk group.) YouthAIDS created hip public service announcements for TV and radio using popular local and international celebrities and athletes and was participating in the MTV World AIDS Day “Staying Alive” concerts. Along with other performers, YouthAIDS was supported by rap and hip-hop artists like Snoop Dogg and P. Diddy to spread the message.
… um, who?
Those names were a red flag. My feminist instincts flared, and my enthusiasm sputtered.
As far as I am concerned, most rap and hip-hop music—with its rape culture and insanely abusive lyrics and depictions of girls and women as “ho’s”—is the contemporary sound track of misogyny. I believe that the social construction of gender—the cultural beliefs and practices that divide the sexes and institutionalize and normalize the unequal treatment of girls and women, privilege the interests of boys and men, and, most nefariously, incessantly sexualize girls and women—is the root cause of poverty and suffering around the world. Gender inequality is implicated in every obstacle to peace and poverty alleviation: lack of access to education, along with early and forced marriage; lack of ability to choose the number of and space the births of one’s children; lack of legal rights, including exclusion from inheritance and land tenure; and lack of access to capital and political power. So how could I join a campaign alongside men who make their living reinforcing the exploitation and oppression of women?
I was so fired up, I didn’t even consider restraint in my reply, such as: “Dear Kate, How kind of you to think of me. I’m busy right now—could you possibly ask again in a month? And by the way, I do have some concerns I hope you will be open to discussing.…” Instead I sat down at my computer and fired off a three-page single-spaced manifesto on gender equality and mass media that my Women’s Studies professors would have given an A+. Kate and I laugh about it now, but my language was totally high-handed, as in: “You’re undermining your own message if you’re using misogynistic pop artists to send empowering messages about healthy behavior to impressionable teens. Wise up, sister.”
My ideas haven’t changed since then. If anything, I am more radicalized by every trip around the world I take. But thanks to the example of Bono and others, I have greater personal acceptance of and tolerance for—and in some cases deep personal affection for—the people who create music in those genres, even while rejecting their choices. Bono once invited me to a dinner in New York with Bill Gates and P. Diddy, whose real name is Sean Combs, to discuss the HIV/AIDS emergency and to enlist Sean’s mass popularity to reach millions of kids who imitate him with the message of prevention. I came to know him as a polite and kind family man—not the P. Diddy persona I would never be able to relate to. Equally, I know the man Curtis Jackson, not the rapper 50 Cent. I have never been more shocked in my life than when Curtis took the stage at an event launching his participation in the RED campaign (the amazing cause-related marketing strategy run by Bobby Shriver to raise money for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria) and became 50 Cent onstage. I watched him morph from a thoughtful, soft-spoken young man into a posturing, threatening, “pimping” gangsta, spewing toxic, abusive lyrics. (I was equally surprised to see the crowd go nuts, responding wildly to the performance.) Today, I challenge myself, as Herbert Spencer would put it, to abandon “contempt prior to investigation.” I try to hang out longer in that troubling zone known as ambiguity, while still maintaining my principles. It is a tricky but worthwhile pursuit, one I place squarely in the realm of spiritual practice. But I was not there yet when Kate Roberts sent me her letter.
I spilled my guts to Kate. I would not be part of an organization that used artists who objectified, commodified, and sexualized women and normalized male violence. “Take it or leave it, those are my conditions,” I wrote. And then I stuck the letter in the mail, never expecting to hear back.
Soon after, I received a lovely, heartfelt reply from Kate. She told me she absolutely agreed with me, reassured me that PSI was not that kind of organization—that it was firmly a feminist organization committed to empowering girls and women and helping to change and improve gender attitudes worldwide. Then she described some of her extraordinary experiences working in the field, including grassroots strategies for reaching disempowered women that help them improve their health, which is the foundation for all sustainability. She lost me when she described market-based solutions that help girls attend and stay in school, and allow women to move into the formal economy, but I was increasingly impressed. Even so, I still hesitated.
As fate would have it, the very week I read Kate’s letter, I received a call from Bobby Shriver. He asked me—rather, told me—to join him and Bono on a ten-day “Heart of America” bus tour of midwestern states to raise awareness about the African AIDS and extreme poverty emergency. With Bono and Jamie Drummond, he had recently cofounded DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa)—a nonprofit group that advocated forgiving Africa’s crippling foreign debt so that its people could lift themselves out of disease and poverty (DATA eventually became the revolutionary ONE Campaign).
I thought the bus tour was a great idea, and I would have loved to sign right up, but I felt I had to decline. Dario and I live in his native Scotland for part of the year, and I had made a commitment to our fall departure date. I knew he was keenly looking forward to it; he gets so homesick, and I wanted to keep my word. A few days later the phone rang again, and it was Bono.
It was impossible to resist both Bobby
Bono. This was the team that the following January would secure the largest commitment in history from one nation to fight a disease—from, of all people, George W. Bush (to his eternal credit). Because of their efforts, $15 billion over five years would be channeled into the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEP-FAR). Now Bono was using the same energy and determination to enlist me to build support for the cause in the American heartland. Like Bobby, Bono knows my heart of hearts
will shamelessly call me out on my core values and my faith. I call it being “Bono-ed.”
“Africa is literally going up in flames,” he said in his fervent Irish brogue. “And we’re standing on the sidelines, holding a watering can.” I had heard him use this analogy before, and it always pierced my heart. Now he made it personal. “Ashley, our generation will be known for three things—the war on terror, the digital revolution, and what we did or did not do to put the fire out in Africa. This is not a celebrity cause, Ashley. History, like God, is watching what we do.”
What could I say?
Over the years the relentless, gentle, brilliant Bono has often sucked me into his ecstatic vortex, stirring me to engage in the pursuit of justice, equality, fairness, and peace. Those who know him for his wraparound blue sunglasses, his intense, glorious performances with U2, and his colossal humanitarian efforts may also sense how much fun he is to hang out with. He’s a gifted mimic and can tell stories using an arsenal of voices and gestures. Like his equally special wife, Ali, the Irishman is irresistible. And once he’s dazzled you, he’ll call on your better angels to join him on the front lines of hope.
Now both these uniquely influential men were pressing me to drop everything and spend a couple of weeks showing Americans why they should care about Africans. And this Kate Roberts person, cannily on the same subject, was asking for much, much more.
I was still thinking it over when I returned to my apartment after another long night of filming on the gritty San Francisco docks. I limply pulled off my clothes. I was so dead tired that I briefly fell asleep while leaning against the shower, waiting for the water to warm up. When I startled awake and saw the water running, I automatically stepped into the shower without checking the temperature and, for about the fourth day in a row, was shocked by a frigid blast of Bay Area ice water. Even mice avoid this after a few bad experiences. But this time, instead of bursting into tears and throwing myself another pity party, or calling my husband to whine, or directing my rage at some random thing outside of me (or my own body), something inside me snapped and I was given the absolute gift of getting over my little petty dramas and concerns. I had a fierce word with myself about the two billion people a day who do not have access to safe drinking water, much less the incredible luxury of
water. I matter-of-factly completed the business of my shower and thanked God for my blessings and the unbelievable abundance of my life. And then we began to talk.
As I dried myself off, I finally woke up to what was happening to me. If these diverse, impressive, eminent, committed people were contacting me at the same time to help do something about the world’s most urgent health emergency, giving me an extraordinary opportunity to do service on a global scale for the same vulnerable populations who so moved me as a younger woman, shouldn’t I take that as a sign? I would be surrounded by experts: epidemiologists, PhDs, policy writers. I was being given a golden chance. Shouldn’t I say yes?
When I told Dario that I wanted to join in the fight against AIDS and poverty, to resume the work I had loved so much in college, and that I would like to renegotiate the beginning of our annual stay in Scotland, to my utter delight he was completely supportive. In fact, he wanted to come along with me on the “Heart of America” tour. And Bono still swears Dario was an even better public speaker on the issue than I. The talk Dario gave in Indianapolis was humble, inviting, and true.
I sat down and called Bobby to say, “I’m in.” I wrote to Kate Roberts and told her I was ready to discuss becoming the global ambassador for YouthAIDS. I agreed to meet her in Chicago on the third day of the tour. I felt in my soul that I was finally about to realize my true vocation, and I rejoiced. I knew my life was changing. It was exciting, and daunting, too.