Nobody can make a positive out of a negative quite like Mary Fisher. Few people believed that Mary Fisher would live to publish her sixth book, Messenger: A Self Portrait which is out this week, be a successful artist benefiting AIDS victims and research, and attend her son Max's wedding this weekend. But Mary has defied all expectations, and her influence is more powerful than ever.
Twenty years ago, at the 1992 Republican National Convention, Mary Fisher changed the face of AIDS. She called on all Americans to "lift the shroud of silence that had been draped over those with HIV/AIDS." She proclaimed that 200,000 Americans were dead or dying from AIDS, and a million more were infected. Mary, as a white affluent woman who contracted HIV during marriage, declared:
"AIDS is not a political creature, it does not care if you're Democrat or Republican, black or white, gay or straight, young or old. I represent an AIDS community whose members have been reluctantly drafted from every segment of American society."
Her fervent, passionate speech left millions of Americans in awe. In the early '90s, many people regarded AIDS with ignorant fear, deeming it "the gay man's illness." But Mary, as someone who was told to count her days left to live, so courageously addressed the nation, knowing of the stigma that could potentially haunt her for a lifetime.
Mary turned her concern to helping her African "sisters" living with AIDS, particularly in Zambia where one in three women lives with HIV. There she has created a Women's Circle, one in which they feed off and foster sisterhood. This desire for women's empowerment and a women's community is what brought our paths to cross nearly three years ago.
It was 2008 and I had just spent a year designing jewelry for the "trade-not-aide" initiative Same Sky. Not long after the initiation of Same Sky, Mary Fisher, who had founded ABATAKA, a similar ethical jewelry line, called me. Uneasy at what the phone call would bring, I called back, and to my surprise Mary was absolutely thrilled to meet me. She applauded me for going to Rwanda and finding success in employing HIV-positive women, she was honored that I wanted to further her design, and eager to begin collaboration.
Mary looks at business in a different light -- where one business owner sees competition, Mary sees collaboration.
She is the living example of what Melanne Verveer, the United States Ambassador for Global Women's Issues, stands for when she said, "The great work of these women's initiatives have been siloed, we need to figure out how to bring them together."
Now that Mary and I work closely both of our ethical jewelry lines have grown tremendously. We have opened countless doors for one another, developing a community filled with advice and support. Mary introduced me to her co-operative in Zambia, where we had the adventure of a lifetime renting and furnishing a safe workspace for the 35 women we employ there. Even in Zambia, Mary managed to find all the right deals to purchase new stoves and refrigerators for the women. The Zambian women have created a powerful community in which they help each other on all levels -- from opening a bank account, to cooking food, to helping each other cope with being HIV positive, they are all providing one another with the self-confidence necessary to feel empowered.
Collaboration is the idea that transcends and resonates in the work we do -- we strive to model the concept of women empowering women. As Mary said in her just-published memoir, Messenger: A Self Portrait, "all the challenges and differences are diminished by the community that holds us, binds us, defines us, and frees us."