Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph has had our whole hearts since she made her Broadway debut back in 1981 as Deena Jones in the original Dreamgirls (aka before Beyoncé). So we couldn’t help but get a little choked up during her powerful acceptance speech for the well-deserved Emmy she earned for playing the hilarious Barbara Howard on ABC’s Abbott Elementary.
But in addition to being a shining star on the stage and screen, Ralph is also a tireless advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness who is laser-focused on minimizing the impact of the disease on women of color. Although men are the largest group of people diagnosed with HIV, Black women represent an overwhelming majority of new diagnoses among women, according to the CDC. In 2018, Black women accounted for 4,000 of the 7,000 women who were newly diagnosed.
During her stint on Broadway, the actress lost many of her close friends and colleagues to HIV/AIDS. So in 1990, she founded the DIVA Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on creating awareness, erasing the stigma and providing support to people living with HIV/AIDS, particularly women and children of color. Since its launch, the DIVA Foundation has provided financial support to many AIDS advocacy organizations with boots on the ground, including The Safe Place for Pediatric AIDS, Minority AIDS Project and the Black AIDS Institute.
“It’s amazing how deep the silence is, and how deep the silence seems to be killing folks quicker than the disease,” Ralph said in a 2022 interview. “I was talking with folks at the [AIDS Memorial Quilt] project, and they said to me, ‘The AIDS Quilt is 50 miles long, and only half a mile is people of color. Because people of color don’t even want to admit or acknowledge they’ve lost their loved ones.’ We’ve got to stop that.”
In addition to her work with the DIVA Foundation, Ralph serves as an ambassador for Change the Pattern, an initiative dedicated to honoring Black and brown lives lost to AIDS in the American South, which represented more than half of new HIV diagnoses in 2020. Change the Pattern also brings parts of the AIDS Memorial Quilt to southern communities, along with panel discussions and interactive experiences to help educate residents.
Ralph is also producing the upcoming documentary Unexpected, which introduces viewers to some of the personal stories of Black women living with HIV. ‘I am honored to amplify Masonia and Cici’s story and put a spotlight on HIV in the South; what’s happening there needs our attention and it needs it now,” Ralph told Variety.
In her 2022 Emmy acceptance speech, Sheryl Lee Ralph sang proudly, “I’m a woman, I’m an artist, and I know where my voice belongs.” And as she continues to use her voice to create awareness around HIV/AIDS, it’s clear that she’s absolutely right.