Changing Lives; Phenomenal Woman Rae Lewis-Thornton
Emmy Award Winning AIDS Activist Rae Lewis-Thornton rose to national acclaim when she told her story of living with AIDS in a cover story for Essence Magazine. She has been living with HIV for 28 years and AIDS for 20. In the last eighteen years Rae has traveled worldwide in an unending crusade challenging stereotypes and myths around HIV/AIDS. In addition to the December 1994 cover story for Essence magazine, Rae has been featured in countless magazines and newspapers: O- The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Woman’s Day; Ebony, Jet, Emerge, WOW, Poz, Lifelines and HIV Plus magazines, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Washington Post and Dayton Daily News newspapers, to name a few.
As a contributing editor for WBBM-TV, a CBS-owned and operated television station Rae won the covenant Emmy Award for an ongoing series of first-person reports on living with AIDS. Rae has also been featured on several national television documentaries, news shows, and television specials, such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dateline, CNN, 106 and Park, Black Entertainment Television, (BET), the Montel Williams Show. She was featured on NIGHTLINE with Ted Koppel numerous times in news articles entitled, Rae’s Story: AIDS–The Next Wave and AIDS At Twenty Years.
Prior to Rae’s motivational speaking career, she was on her way to a promising political organizing career. Having served as Senator Carol Mosley Braun’s 1992 Senatorial Campaign Advance Coordinator, Illinois State Youth Coordinator for the 1988 Dukakis Presidential Campaign and National Youth Director for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 Presidential Campaigns, Rae was forced to retire in 1993 as a result of her health.
Rae Lewis-Thornton has made her mark in Social Media in less than a year. She is the recipient of the British Academy Golden Tweet Award in Public Service for 2010 and The 2011 CBS Chicago Most Valuable Blogger in Medical, Health and Fitness. She uses Twitter effectively to continue her crusade to educate, reduce the spread of HIV, as well as, challenge stigma and shame around HIV/AIDS. She held the first HIV/AIDS Tweet-up in the US in July 2010 and is now taking her Tweet-up’s nationwide. In December 2010 Rae organized a Twitter Book Club, RLT Reads. Along with Twitter, she uses both of her Facebook pages as a daily platform to educate both on HIV/AIDS generally and her personal struggle of living and managing HIV/AIDS.
In March 2010, Rae launched her first-person Diva Living With AIDS Blog. The blog has had unprecedented success. Her blog is transparent, candid and educational and the response has been phenomenal. The Diva Living With AIDS Blog is syndicated both on The Body.Com, the largest HIV/AIDS on-line resource in the country and Black Doctor.Org, the largest African-American on-line medical resource in the country. Recently, Rae launched the Tea With Rae Project on her Diva blog, where she blogs about tea and tea products weekly. Tea calms and comforts Rae in her chaotic life of living with AIDS, thus, the Tea With Rae project is wellness for the body, mind and spirit. Already fifteen tea companies have joined her Tea With Rae Project including premiere tea companies such as, Teavana, Boston Tea Company and Tea of Republic
In 2009 Rae launched a line of bracelets, RLT Collection that she designs and make herself. Celebrities such as actress Sheryl Lee Ralph and Kim Coles, as well as, Judge Glenda Hatchett wear RLT Collection.
Patricia Miswa: Can you share your story with us?
Rae L. Thornton: I was diagnosed with HIV when I was 23 years old. I learned of my status after donating blood to the American Red Cross and they informed me that I was HIV infected. It was very early in the AIDS pandemic. There was no treatment and a lot of misinformation still floating around about HIV. Stigma was very high in the United States and that led me to keep my infection a secret out of fear of discrimination.
When I made a transition to AIDS in 1992 the secret became too much to bear and I disclosed my status to friends and family. A year after that disclosure, I started speaking about my life living with HIV. Shortly thereafter, I became the first African-American woman to tell my story on the cover of a national publication; Essence December 1994. Since then I have become one of the most recognizable and documented women in the United States living with HIV/AIDS. I’ve been featured on Oprah, Nightline, Dateline and countless news and documentaries.
As an Emmy Award winning AIDS Activist, I’ve spent the last 20 years speaking about HIV/AIDS. Challenging stereotypes and myths about who and how one becomes infected with the HIV. I’ve used my life to show that AIDS is a nondiscriminatory disease. Speaking very openly and candidly about the impact of HIV on my life has been the epic-center of my work. My transparency has been the one tool that I’ve used well to allow people a glimpse into the day to day life of what it is like living with AIDS. As well as, how I got to this place as a heterosexual, drug-free woman.
In the last two years, as the topic of HIV/AIDS has become less sexy in the United States, I’ve turned to other avenues to share my message. The fact is, every 9 1/2 minutes a person becomes infected with HIV in the United States and African-Americans are leading in the cases. We are 52% of the HIV cases yet 14% of the US population.
While I still speak across the country, I use Social Media very heavily. On Twitter, I educate from the time I wake until bedtime. Giving people a glimpse of what one’s life is like with HIV. In my Blog Diva Living With AIDS, I give more detail information of the impact of HIV/AIDS. My daily post on Facebook, are honest and forthright.
I understand that God has called me to do a work for such a time as this. I’m honored and humbled to be in this place in history. My work will not stop until the day I die and I am willing to use whatever avenues I can to do the work.
Patricia: I recently came across a report which stated AIDS as the leading cause of death for African-American women ages 25–34, as an Aids Activist and December 1st having been The Worlds Aids day, what advice of awareness can you give to women?
Rae: First and foremost, If you are not HIV infected then do everything you can to prevent it. While I’ve made the best out of my life, it’s a hard life. This is not the life I would wish for you. This means that women must put themselves first over the love of a man or the desire for the love of a man. I believe the false sense of security about love and monogamous relationships keeps us in denial about our real risk. If we are truly honest, we have no idea what our partner is doing when they are not with us. Hoping that what you think you know is true, is not what you should rest your safety on. The bottom line for me, if he is not your husband, the rule should be: no condom, no sex. Secondly, go get tested for HIV. It is proven that the earlier you know your HIV status the longer you will live. Early diagnoses and treatment are key.
Lastly, for those living with HIV, my life is an example that you can live. Don’t let HIV/AIDS stop you from living a full life. Get in treatment and stay in treatment, it will mean the difference from how long you live or how soon you die. Find a support system to help you carry the load. Sometimes the support may not be our families, but there are support systems there for you and you should tap into the resources. No one should live with HIV alone.
Patricia: You created The PROTECTED Project™ campaign to promote the use of protection during sexual encounters in order to prevent STD’s and particularly HIV/AIDS, what other messages does the project put across.
Rae: The Protected Project was designed to bring attention to HIV/AIDS and promote prevention through personal responsibility. The bottom line, HIV is preventable. The message is simple; preventable diseases, like STDs and HIV/AIDS, heavily affects African-Americans and people of color. By promoting personal responsibility, open communication, and education around HIV/AIDS we can change the course of this these diseases. While prevention is the focus of the protected project, we also promote testing and early detection. When people know their HIV status they are less likely to infect others.
Patricia: Apart from the HIV/AIDS awareness, you also design jewelry. I got a chance to look at your RLT jewelry collection, one word, Royal. I loved the various collections and especially the Onyx Stack piece. When did you start designing jewelry?
Rae: I started designing bracelets almost four years ago. I had the idea to make pretty AIDS Awareness Bracelets so that women would want to promote AIDS Awareness in the same way they do Breast Cancer Awareness. However, in a matter of months, my years of savvy fashion since kicked in and I discovered that I had a gift and a passion for designing bracelets. Within six months of making my first bracelet, I launched RLT Collection, A full line of fashion bracelets. Additionally, I design 2-3 Diva AIDS Awareness Bracelets that completes the current collection. The common theme in the Diva AIDS Awareness Bracelet is the red angelic crystal that is incorporated into the design. This way the AIDS Awareness Bracelet stays fresh and exciting. Red has historically been the color for HIV/AIDS Awareness.
Patricia: What kind of jewelry do you make and what inspires your collections?
Rae: I decided to focus primarily on bracelets because it is my favorite piece of jewelry. But most importantly it’s a universal accessory. Almost every woman has or will wear a bracelet in her life time.
Women inspire my collection. I tap into the different personality and styles of women at my base line. From there I let the gemstones guide my work. Each season I choose a gemstone as the primary theme for the collection and I design bracelets with and to complement that stone. The gemstone for this season’s Fall/Winter Collection is Onyx. Each bracelet complements this gemstone. However, for my Cruise Collection I chose several gemstones. Trying to stay with my theme, A bracelet For Every Women, the variety of gemstones allows me to spread my wings in designing.
While I have some permanent collections, like the Imani Bracelets and Pearls, all of my bracelets are limited editions. Once gone, there are no more and I’m off to find new and exciting gemstones to inspire me. I always want to keep the collection diverse and exciting.
This year I launched my RLT Signature Bracelets which features three gemstones in the center. RLT Signature Bracelets can be worn by themselves or paired with any bracelet within a particular RLT Collection. The three gemstones will distinguish RLT Collection Stackables from this popular style. The number three has so many positive meanings in cultures around the world, but of course it also symbolizes the RLT my name Rae Lewis-Thornton’s and the name of the Collection.
Patricia: What is your favorite piece from your collection?
Rae: I simply love all of the bracelets in my collection; however, what I wear the most is the Onyx with the African Turquoise center stones from my Fall/Winter Collection. The African Turquoise is exquisite and complements the onyx. I wear black at least 3-4 times a week. This bracelet is a way for me to add color and still be in sync with my basic black wardrobe.
Additionally, throughout all my collections, I have designed RLT Signature bracelets with pearls in the center with various gemstones. Pearls are my favorite gemstones and I’ve shown with these particular bracelets that pearls can be worn everyday and that they complement every gemstone on the planet. It is a more versatile stone than any other.
Patricia: What new directions do you hope to move in the future? Do you have big plans, new ideas or designs you will be exploring soon?
Rae: This was the first year that I invested everything I had into RLT Collection from resources to energy. My first Trunk Show was amazing. I’ve shown the world and myself that I’m not only capable but that there is so much potential for the growth of my bracelet line.
I’ve put RLT Collection on the map and I plan to increase my territory. I want every woman wearing my bracelets and it’s as if I have a hunger to make it happen. That means, the designs will get better which I hope will translate into sales. I have a bracelet for every woman and I want every woman wearing my bracelets.
Patricia: You are an amazing woman and your story is an inspiration to many, is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Rae: In 2012, I will be 50 years old having lived half of my life with HIV/AIDS. 30 years with HIV and 20 with AIDS. In my life, HIV/AIDS has taken center stage in one way or the other. At one point I saw death staring me in the face. I remember when my T-cell count was 8 out of a 1000 and there was no exception that I would live, but there was hope. God created a miracle from my hope; and each day, I understand that my life is a blessing. I dare not squander God’s life, so I press my way, with a prayer that my life will give hope to others.
While my life’s purpose is speaking and challenging stigma, shame, stereotypes and proving hope around HIV/AIDS, through RLT Collection, my bracelet line, I’ve shown that one is not limited by the bounds of this disease. I’ve shown that you can not only survive with HIV/AIDS but you can thrive. You just must be willing to stand tall and fight long and hard.
Find out more about Rae Lewis-Thornton, her jewelry collection and read her reflections from her Website, Facebook or Twitter page.