When Deon Haywood, the executive director of Women With a Vision, last left her office on Jefferson Davis Parkway and Canal prior to May 25, she had no idea that the next time she entered it, she’d do so in the early hours of that morning after a call to inform her that it had been set on fire. The building also housed a dry cleaning business and a residence from which two people were safely evacuated. What was even more disturbing was that the WWAV office was intentionally burnt to a crisp, leaving a charred skeleton of its former self.
After an investigation, the NOPD and NOFD determined that the crime was aggravated arson since there were multiple areas of ignition. Witnesses to the event saw a Caucasian male fleeing the scene, however he has never been identified and is still at large. The fire caused thousands of dollars worth of damage, especially due to the loss of models used to educate women about their reproductive organs, breasts and how to use birth control properly as well as posters to make them aware of their constitutional rights regarding their bodies—most of these items were gathered and intentionally destroyed. The posters were set on fire while still on the walls. Costly HIV tests were also lost in addition to awards given to the organization and to Haywood herself. With valuable electronics still sitting on desks, it was obvious that the arsonist was there to send a message.
I sat down with Ms. Haywood recently and although it had been a few months since the fire, the mental wounds were still very fresh. “I still have moments when I become emotional and we still don’t have answers as to why this happened,” explained Haywood as her eyes started to swell with tears. She has a lot of questions for the man who stole the safe haven for many of her clients and her staff. “Did you not like our work with transgender women? Did you not like that we speak out for the LGBT community? Do you not like that we speak out for women? Which one of those things is it? Or do you just not like me?” she questioned. We both agreed that a molotov cocktail thrown from a moving vehicle would have felt less like a calcualted, personal attack.
Haywood tries not to take it personally but it’s not easy. “Because for the most part, I am the person who really carries this message and I am the one in charge. I don’t know who you didn’t like but to break in and to sit on the back steps of our office and whittle away at the door—because the door was thick—and to get in says a lot about that person.”
Despite the disaster, Haywood and her staff forged ahead after the clean up where clients, colleagues and neighborhood friends selflessly showed up to assist in salvaging what they could. While searching for a new space, one which they would own and install their own security system, WWAV had a temporary base nearby at First Grace United Methodist Church. Although the arsonist sent a strong message, WWAV continued spreading the mission that they’ve embraced for over two decades, providing assistance to women in high-risk situations such as homelessness, prostitution, drug and alcohol addiction, and sexual and physical abuse. The organization also supports the LGBT community and provides a strong network for dealing with issues specific to their needs.
Bottom line is that WWAV treats all women equally, especially in their efforts to empower them and give them the tools to be successful and self-confident. “At WWAV, we don’t say we’re going to save you or we’re going to protect you. We'll give you the tools to make your life better, whatever that may be,” said Haywood who also notes that most women do not want to be saved, and when given the proper information, education and group support, the results are outstanding. “Once given the tools they need, it is the most beautiful and amazing thing…I almost become emotional. To sit with women who can say ‘I am beautiful and you know what, I am not the sum of all my experiences. Being abused or having been incarcerated or addicted to drugs does not define who I am as a woman. I am more than that. I am bigger than that.’ It’s an amazing joy…I don’t have words to describe it.”
Haywood’s efforts have not gone unnoticed and while working at WWAV, she also still finds time to travel across the country and abroad to be an advocate for equality for women and help the fight against HIV and AIDS. She shared a story about one conference where she sat next to a woman from Russia who was taken aback that the US, especially Louisiana, still has issues when it comes to basic human rights, health care access and housing, “Most people think that because we live in the United States, we’re better off, but after I spoke to her, she said New Orleans was worse off then they are,” said Haywood, shaking her head. Overall, she calls on local government to get involved in support of women. “We need the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana to invest in the lives of women. It’s basic and, at least to me, it seems very simple. But it’s a hard fight.”
Just last week, Haywood called me to confirm that the bank had approved their loan for their new space on North Claiborne and she was elated. What wasn’t covered in the loan, however, was a provision for the extensive renovations that need to be done to make the space habitable. Knowing Haywood, I am confident she’ll be very creative and relentless until she has the funds to make the new WWAV home the best it can be for her clients.
We at NolaWoman.com strongly support the efforts of Ms. Haywood and her staff at WWAV. For further information on their organization, upcoming fund raising events or to donate to their renovation efforts, please visit www.wwav-no.org.