Remembering Barbara Joseph

Content From: Harold J. Phillips, MRP, Senior HIV Advisor and Chief Operating Officer for Ending the HIV Epidemic, Office of Infectious Disease and HIV/AIDS Policy, U.S. Department of Health and Human ServicesPublished: March 31, 20203 min read


Barbara Joseph
Photo courtesy Deborah Levine, National Black Women's HIV/AIDS Network

In a period of so many losses, we are now mourning the passing of long-time HIV advocate Barbara Joseph, a Texas native who fought tenaciously for improved services for African American women living with HIV. She provided guidance and direction for many of us over the years and participated in the initial stages of developing the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America. She passed away on Sunday, March 29, 2020.

When Barbara was diagnosed with HIV in 1990, there were few resources and services, specifically for African Americans living with HIV or AIDS, and the situation was even worse for African American women. She decided to change that by going public with her story, with the hope that her candor would help others.

In a 2011 interview with POZExit Disclaimer, Barbara explained why she was willing to brave the stigma and discrimination that came with revealing her status: “If you can save one life [by sharing your status], then you’ve done what God wants you to do.”

But she didn’t just save one life - she saved many lives over the years with her honesty about her HIV status and her determination to help others. In 1999, she founded Positive EffortsExit Disclaimer (PE) to provide culturally competent and linguistically appropriate HIV-related services for African American women, as well as for black men and Latinx men and women. Her message was always clear: Ending the HIV epidemic would require us to address the prevention and treatment needs among black women and meaningfully involving black women in planning and implementing those efforts.

Christopher Bates, former director of the HHS Office of Infectious Disease and HIV/AIDS Policy (OIDP), worked with Barbara for decades in the national response to HIV and AIDS. “She was concerned about everybody,” he said. “If you were impacted by the virus, she advocated for you, no matter what your race or ethnicity was. She was a true star, and the world is going to be a little dimmer because of her passing.”

The Rev. Debra Hickman worked with Barbara for many years as they formed the National Black Women’s HIV/AIDS NetworkExit Disclaimer. “Barbara had a determination like no other person I’ve ever met. She always spoke her mind and meant what she said. She worked diligently to ensure that black women living with HIV or AIDS got the answers they needed to handle what they needed to handle. She had a beautiful heart, and she was, and always will be, a wild woman warrior.”

We offer our condolences to Barbara’s family and to the wide circle of friends and colleagues who will miss her. May those of us she taught and inspired over the years continue the fight and make her proud.