40 Under 40: Luvvie Ajayi Champions Change
Combining a little bit of fun with a good cause is always a great idea. Luvvie Ajayi, 28, along with Karyn Watkins, 29, co-founded the Red Pump Project to bring more awareness to women and girls with HIV/AIDS. The expert blogger also spoke at the first-ever Social Media Week in Lagos, Nigeria this year. Below, Luvvie talks to us about her inspiration and what’s next.
JET: Why did you start the Red Pump Project?
Luvvie Ajayi: The Red Pump Project was founded four years ago, in March 2009 when Karyn Watkins and I thought to commemorate National Women and Girls’ HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NWGHAAD), which is March 10 every year. We both have causes we hold near and dear to us, but HIV/AIDS is at the forefront.
I’ve been doing work related to it since college, and I’ve always wanted to take action in some way. And I have a friend who has 20 cousins who were orphaned by AIDS. Karyn also learned that one of her best friends was infected in 2007. We both wanted to do something concrete so together, we came up with the concept of “The Red Pump Project.”
JET: Why is it needed and how is it different from other HIV/AIDS initiatives?
Ajayi: Red Pump chooses to empower women to make responsible decisions with our bodies. We want to promote HIV prevention through education, and open dialogue about the issues that surround sexual and reproductive health. But we do it by “Rocking the Red Pump®.”
Women love shoes, and red is not only the color of the AIDS ribbon, but it also signifies power. We use the red shoe to signify the strength and courage of women infected and affected with HIV/AIDS. The incorporation of fashion into the message of HIV prevention is our contribution as we hope to show that awareness is always in style!
JET:What would you say is your biggest accomplishment to date?
Ajayi: Award-wise, it might be our Congressional Record from the U.S. House of Representatives recognizing our work. But personally, it’s the times we get emails from people saying that Red Pump allowed them to be more vocal about their struggles with the disease. Or sometimes, people will tell us that they know someone living with HIV, and we allow them to show support. That means a lot because we want people to know that they aren’t alone. There’s no room for stigma or shame in this epidemic, so we stand with everyone infected or affected.
JET: What do you still hope to achieve?
Ajayi: Currently, every 47 minutes a woman tests positive for HIV in the United States. That statistic really captures why we do what we do. Because HIV is 100-percent preventable, we hope to get to the point where infection rates drop significantly.
JET: Is there anything new that you are currently working on?
Ajayi: The Red Pump Project turns 5 next year on March 10, 2014 so we plan on celebrating that with events all over the country. Things like our annual World AIDS Day gala in Charlotte (The Red Pump/Red Tie Affair), as well as our signature Rock the Red show in Chicago.
We’re working on an event right now with the AIDS Foundation of Chicago for Global Female Condom Day, which is in September. More details to come on that.
JET: What is the best advice you have ever given or received?
Ajayi: My favorite poem ever is Desiderata. And the best advice I’ve received is from there. “Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.”
JET: What does an ideal world look like for you?
Ajayi: An ideal world looks like one where we’re all collectively working to make it better. Emphasis on “all.” One where we don’t have to fight for racial or gender justice, especially.
JET: What does success mean to you?
Ajayi: For me, success is being able to live a good life on my own terms. Having full control of my time and dedicating it to my passions. It’s being able to see the world, make an impact and doing it all while rocking fierce shoes!
JET: Is there anything that you would like to add?