It's only natural for Barbara Gomes-Beach, mother of four and grandmother of six, to think in terms of generations, and that's one of the ways she thinks about AIDS. "I'm 59, and we've lost people in my age group," says the executive director of the Multicultural AIDS Coalition. "How many generations is it going to take?"
She's getting everyone involved
Gomes-Beach has been running the MAC since 1991, when she came over from the Dorchester Bay Community Development Corp. She has also run her own marketing and public-relations business -- developing skills that came in handy when she took the helm of the MAC to help fight AIDS in communities of color.
One In Ten: Do you remember the first time you heard about AIDS?
Barbara Gomes-Beach: It was early. I think it was '83 or '84. I had a cousin who was actually dying from the disease. He was about 20 years younger than I was. That's when I started doing some research and reading up on it. He never talked about it.
OIT: What do you think have been some of the most significant developments in the epidemic?
BGB: I was very impressed with what the gay community had done to mobilize itself against tremendous odds. It still amazes me. In some ways, I'm disappointed that we haven't been able to do that to the same degree in communities of color. I say that, and then I have to factor in all those other issues. We're not a homogenous society. We have the issue of poverty, the issue of language, and the issue of many, many cultures to throw into the pot. So there you go; it became a lot more complicated. I think we've done a fairly good job, but we need to do so much more. We have so many barriers, but that doesn't [mean we can] shirk our responsibilities.
OIT: In communities of color, have you had significant victories as well?
BGB: Oh, I think so. It's only been in the last five years that communities of color have had individuals and agencies and organizations spring up, I think, in a very positive way to respond to the issue. One of the other victories has been our ability to put together programs that are culturally competent, that are culturally specific. To say, "Wait a minute. Maybe this flies in your community, but it won't fly in mine, and this is how it will in mine." I don't think there's been enough understanding and patience that [a program] may work in a year in one community, but in the black community it may take two years. Because we have issues of trust, issues of culture, issues of language, maybe just simple economics. If you're struggling to survive, HIV is not on your top 10 list of things you think about. It needs to be.
OIT: You touched on this a bit, when talking about your cousin, but how would you say you've been affected by AIDS on a personal level?
BGB: Since I've been here I think I've gotten highly pissed. I'm real angry, and it's the kind of anger that you need to be very careful that you don't go off the deep end, because you could burn yourself out. It's the kind of anger that also needs to be shared. I need to be able to say to people, "I'm really pissed. And you need to get angry. You need to get passionate about this. Because if it doesn't impact you today, it could very well be your grandchildren that could be impacted." This ain't no shuckin' and jivin'. If you're not involved, you need to be.
OIT: Who are you pissed at?
BGB: That's a good question. I think I'm just pissed in general, because I see all the work that has been done, all the work that needs to be done, and all the barriers to getting the work done. I've very pleased with the new cocktails, the protease inhibitors, but I also have to qualify that and say, "How is that going to benefit communities of color?" I've got people who have no insurance, and let's face it, they're not going to have access to those drugs. Those of us who do have insurance are going to have to struggle to get access to those drugs. So who's benefiting here, okay? This is a larger political issue that we need to work on. We need to throw away the paradigm, and just pour any and all money -- because we have it, or if we don't, we can get it -- and say, "Everybody gets treated. Everybody gets what they need until this is gone." But that's not the way the country is.
OIT: When you imagine five years down the road, what do you see?
BGB: I imagine myself on a beach, sipping a margarita. God, I hope that five years from now, none of us are [working] here. I really do. I hope we can say with certainty that there's no need for a Multicultural AIDS Coalition, that there's no need for the kind of organizations that have had to spring up because of the AIDS epidemic. That's my optimism.
P R O F I L E S, Boston-area AIDS activists: Larry Kessler | Max Essex | Denise McWilliams |
Matt Florence | Ray Schmidt | Ken Mayer | Barbara Gomes-Beach | Brian Rosenberg
T I M E L I N E, 1981 - 1985 | 1986 - 1989 | 1990 - 1996 | The N A M E S | AIDS L I N K S