Women with a vision demonstration

Women With A Vision (WWAV) is a community-based, nonprofit organization focused on improving the quality of life for marginalized women, their families, and their communities. Founded in 1989 on a New Orleans porch by a collective of Black women, WWAV responds to the social conditions that systemically impact communities. 

Currently, the organization works to address issues such as sexism, queerphobia, and stigma against sex workers and drug users. 

Women With A Vision executive director Deon Haywood sat down with Verite News to talk about the organization’s role in New Orleans. 

How did WWAV start? 

Haywood: Danita Muse, at the time, was an out Black lesbian in the South. She birthed this brainchild as a Black woman who saw the need for help in [the Black] community around HIV and how nobody was willing to help. Nobody was really looking at the needs of Black people or what it would look like for us once HIV really hit our community.  We brought harm reduction to Louisiana. 

At the time, nobody wanted to talk about harm reduction, because people couldn’t wrap their brains around that you’d want to help someone who’s using drugs. That you want to keep people as healthy and whole as you can until tomorrow. Because that’s how we think of harm reduction, it’s a way to help people use drugs in a safer way until tomorrow, because tomorrow’s another day, and tomorrow might be the day you don’t want to use. 

Women With A Vision staff, (Left to Right) Jamonique Williams, Elyse Degree, and Michelle Wiley, pack harm reduction kits. The kits include clean syringes, water, alcohol wipes, and Narcan. Credit: Women With a Vision

How did you get involved with Women With A Vision?

Haywood: I’ve been involved with Women With A Vision since I was 19 years old. I worked for the National Council of Negro Women as a peer leader for a program to help teen mothers. I was a teen mom at the time too. Then the NCNW got more involved in community work around HIV, and that’s how I got involved with Women With a Vision. In the beginning, it was just my mom, Catherine Haywood, and the primary founder, Danita Muse, who I had a great working relationship with. I was brought on as their first full-time employee in 1994. 

Women With A Vision executive director Deon Haywood. Credit: Women With a Vision

Why is Women With A Vision needed in New Orleans?

Haywood: We worked against the Crimes Against Nature by Solicitation statute, with our NO Justice Project.  We didn’t know what it was going to take, but we took it on and got hundreds of people taken off of the sex offenders list that were unconstitutionally put there. 

Before we did that, people said “Oh, you’re going to talk about sex work openly?” and I say “I don’t know why y’all act like sex work isn’t a part of our lives and our history as a people and city.” [For example] Storyville [was] where free women of color found financial freedom working as sex workers. Louis Armstrong, New Orleans’ son, was raised in a brothel, but we don’t acknowledge that his mother was a sex worker. 

We have a niche. We have a role to play and it’s important. We show up for people in ways that most people don’t. Even though more people are mentioning sex work and incarceration, and the conditions under which Black women, queer folk and transwomen are arrested, are people actually fighting for it? At WWAV, we’re using our voice and giving the people we work with the space to use their voice. 

Deon Haywood, center, distributes candy, hand sanitizer and Covid-19 testing kits at a Night Against Crime Event. Credit: Women With a Vision

What is harm reduction? How does WWAV practice this?

Haywood: Harm reduction, to me, is a multi-use approach to life. We use it for everything. I think people use it and don’t realize that’s what it is. [For] people in violent partnerships, we ask them if they have a plan for if they leave. Do they have their birth certificate, important documents for their children, or $20 hidden somewhere? We know $20 isn’t a lot, but it’s better than leaving with nothing. Now, post-Roe [v. Wade], we have been using harm reduction and helping people come up with plans for themselves if they find themselves pregnant. We have a non-judgmental approach. I’m not questioning why you’re involved in sex work, but I’ll get you what you need to do it safely. 

Why should people who don’t identify the same way as your clients care about the work that Women With A Vision does?

Haywood: That’s one of the biggest problems we have in the country right now. People think because they live in Slidell, or Lakeview or certain neighborhoods in Uptown that none of this is about them. But if you keep ignoring [oppression], it’s going to keep coming for you. We see that in the moment of post-Roe, with Black Lives Matter, with the moment of trans-rights, queer-rights, all of it. At the end of the day, you should care. We all share this space called Earth. You cannot remove yourself from an issue because you think it doesn’t bother you. 

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Karli Winfrey graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Public Relations from Loyola University. With a background in the New Orleans hospitality industry, Winfrey has first-hand experience with grassroots...