An interview with activist and longtime Prison Health News editor Teresa Sullivan
By Suzy Subways
From PHN Issue 40, Summer/Fall 2019
Teresa Sullivan, who has been a vital part of keeping Prison Health News going for the past ten years, is leaving the editorial collective. We are overwhelmed with gratitude for her wisdom and guidance over the years, and we are so excited to support her amazing work in the world moving forward. From teaching classes at Philadelphia FIGHT to her leadership role in the Positive Women’s Network, a social justice organization of women living with HI V , T eresa helps so many people grow stronger and smarter . In this interview, we asked Teresa to tell us more about her work and vision.
Suzy: What is the work you do with TEACH Outside at Philadelphia FIGHT?
Teresa: I am the lead coordinator for TEACH Outside, which was designed for people living with HIV who are formerly incarcerated, coming home back to the community, to educate themselves about how to live with the virus. It’s grounded in activism. When we’re facing something that impacts people living with HIV, we can mobilize around it and become activists, go to demonstrations, go to the White House, go to lobby day once a year. There’s power in being connected back to the community and being part of a movement that’s bigger than just one person. I’ve been doing the TEACH program for ten and a half years.
My mentor, John Bell, saved many lives, including mine, as a person living with HIV. When I was incarcerated, they gave me the wrong medication, and I wound up in the ER and almost died. And I had my son call John Bell, and he came up to see me. And he made sure I got my medication corrected. He invited me, when I came home, to sign up for the TEACH program. Having a place to come after you leave is so important for you to be able to build community and to find out that you’re not alone. You don’t have to do this alone—John Bell taught me that. And when John passed away, I took on that leadership in the TEACH class.
Suzy: I remember you saying you were cured of hepatitis C. Is there anything you’d want to share about that for our readers?
Teresa: Keep fighting if you’re not receiving the new treatment for your hepatitis C. Know that there are legal avenues that you can take. Go to that library if you’re currently incarcerated, read up on it. Don’t let them say because you’re incarcerated they can’t do it. You just keep pushing, and get your family involved, on the outside, if you have family. Or a lawyer. Or you can talk to the doctor up there, and see what the doctor thinks, up in the medical ward. But keep trying, because human rights is part of your medical care. You don’t lose that just because you become incarcerated. They’re supposed to take care of your health regardless of what it is. And don’t let them say, “Oh, we’re going to wait till it gets really bad. ” That’ s backward thinking. Y ou take medicine before it gets real bad. We’re talking about hepatitis C—that can be cured at any stage.
Suzy: What work have you done with Positive Women’s Network?
Teresa: I’ve done a lot of things with PWN. From electoral campaigning, getting out the vote, being part of political trainings, a fellowship. And as time went on, I became the vice chair of the board. PWN is the only network of women living with HIV, run by women living with HIV, founded by women living with HIV. The whole entire board is women living with HIV. We support each other, we support women and allies and other people living with HIV, but our endgame is to make sure that we’re educating and mobilizing women living with HIV, underneath the umbrella of these six policies: economic justice, reproductive justice, trans justice and rights and equity, women-centered care, HIV prevention justice, and against HIV criminalization.
Suzy: What is your vision for a better world?
Teresa: When I see the injustice in this world being taken seriously, and when the people in the places of power are able to actually hear the voices of the people that they’re supposed to serve, and they actually do it, that’s a just world. And it’s not just in one silo, one state, one country—I’m talking about globally ending injustice.
Suzy: How can we get to that better world from where we are today?
Teresa: Another mentor of mine, Vanessa Johnson, used to tell me, “If we tear down something, we must have something to replace it with.” Think about what you want to replace it with before you dismantle it. It needs to be better than what we had. And it needs to be achievable. We have to see something better, and we have to be at the same table, together, to decide that. Make people stop making decisions for other people’s lives without actually having those people in the room or having what they think is right on the agenda.
Suzy: What motivates you as an activist?
Teresa: It motivates me because it impacts not just me. It impacts those that I love. I have grandchildren, I have great-grandchildren. I’m not going to sit back idly and do nothing, and be one of the people who say, “Oh, that’s a shame, this is happening.” I’m going to be one of the people who say, “Oh, this is a shame—let’s do something about this.” And actually be real proactive doing it, even when it feels really hard. And if it’s a situation where I feel uncomfortable, sometimes we need to feel uncomfortable.
Suzy: Can you say more about that?
Teresa: An example is when we talk about racial justice, and being in the room with Black and Brown bodies, and white/Caucasian people who feel real uncomfortable because we’re speaking our truth. I’ve watched people feel real uncomfortable—the reaction of the white people in the room was, “Oh, that’s not me,” or being offended or crying. Those are times that you need to feel uncomfortable, because if we don’t have those hard conversations, nothing’s going to be achieved. Black people shouldn’t have to be talking about how can I change and end racism. No, white people need to. And do their part.
Suzy: Do you have any other words you’d like to share with our readers?
Teresa: For those sitting in their cells, thinking all is lost and that there’s nowhere to turn and that no one cares about you, know that caring for yourself is the first step you need to do. And know that there’s people like myself and others out here in the world fighting for you. When your voice cannot be heard, we will be that voice for you. Stay strong, hold on.