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Soft side of AIDS war

An L.A.-based program urges people worldwide to make and trade dolls to start discussion and reduce the stigma around the disease.

December 25, 2008|Ari B. Bloomekatz

Cynthia Davis, one of Los Angeles' best-known HIV/AIDS activists, has logged 580,000 miles on her Camry station wagon and replaced the engine twice in her decadelong campaign of using dolls to educate young and old about the deadly disease.

Her latest stop was at Westchester High School a few days before Christmas. As usual, Davis brought along her Dolls of Hope: hand-stitched pieces made by AIDS awareness groups around the world.

She used the colorful cloth dolls to help lure students to her information booth. Once she had their attention, Davis went to work.

"Did you know that the rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia in Los Angeles County are increasing fastest among black and Latina women between 15 and 24?" she asked a group of four Latina students.

The young women shook their heads no, listened to Davis and then grabbed a stick of lip balm and a few fliers titled "Get Informed, Get the Facts" and "What's Up With HIV/AIDS."

Davis, the director of HIV education and outreach programs at Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science, has been a titan of activism for more than two decades.

She started the county's first mobile HIV/AIDS testing van program in the early 1990s. Two years later she gave a presentation at the first Women's and AIDS Conference in Uganda and in 1996 gave a talk titled the "Global Impact of HIV/AIDS on Women" at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in China.

But Davis, 59, now also relies on the Dolls of Hope to spread her message.

After her daughter was born in 1985, Davis said, she had a tough time finding black dolls. She began collecting and making dolls herself -- she has a personal collection of about 600 -- and soon found she could use the craft to help promote her HIV/AIDS activism.

For World AIDS Day in 1998, Davis arranged for volunteers to make a few hundred cloth dolls that would be given nationally and internationally to women and children who were infected with HIV, had AIDS or were orphaned because of HIV/AIDS.

She asked participating agencies to create one or two dolls representing their communities and send them back as part of an exchange program. The Dolls of Hope project was continued indefinitely, and Davis has since partnered with agencies as far away as South Africa, India, Tanzania and Malawi and as close as Alabama and Compton.

Davis now spends most of her time outside of work traveling, finding national and international partners and teaching groups how to make the cloth dolls. She sells the dolls and other things made by international groups to help fund the project.

She has flown all over the world, working with traditional African doll makers in South Africa and women's groups in Honduras.

"I do this because of my passion. If I can prevent one new infection, it's a success," Davis said. "It's more about community mobilization. This is one strategy I use to break the silence around HIV/AIDS and to reduce the stigma."

She held up letters and pictures from outreach agencies that had received dolls.

"Dear Cynthia, I write to you on behalf of our young recipients of the eight wonderful handmade Dolls of Hope, given to our project at the recent International AIDS Conference in Bangkok," read one letter that Davis received in 2004 from an outreach group in Thailand.

"May God bless all your efforts to break down the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and to be a sign of hope in the lives of all who receive your dolls with loving and grateful arms," the letter read.

Floyd Bell, a teacher at Westchester High School and an internationally renowned doll maker with handcrafted works that have been in the White House and at the Louvre Museum in Paris, said he is not surprised that Davis' dolls have caught on.

"I say dolls have a magic. You can take a doll and put it in a construction site where they're tearing down an old house, but if there's a doll there, they won't destroy the doll. They'll go and pick it up," Bell said. "I call that doll magic."

Bell said he met Davis about a decade ago when she contacted him to help out with the nascent Dolls of Hope project. Since then, he said, she's become a fixture of the local doll world as well.

"She's always out there carrying those dolls around," Bell said.

Alma Castro, 24, works with the group La Nueva Esperanza in Brooklyn, N.Y. She said she met Davis in 2006 in Los Angeles and is starting an extension of the Dolls of Hope project in Brooklyn.

"AIDS is already a difficult topic to discuss," Castro said.

"I just think it's sitting down and working with your hands that conversations start flowing," she said. "It's so non-threatening that people listen."

An exhibit of the dolls is on display at the Friends of William Grant Still Arts Center in Los Angeles through March 29. Davis will hold doll making workshops there Jan. 10, Feb. 21 and March 21.

For more information on the Dolls of Hope project or to set up a workshop, contact


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