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Back to Virginian senators or Ahead to The devil’s work

NAME:
Dr. Janet Mitchell
CLAIM TO FAME:
runs the largest prenatal program for pregnant, drug-addicted women in New York City
RECENT TRIUMPH:
Successfully lobbied the National Institutes of Health to include black women in testing AIDS drugs during pregnancy
IN HER LINE OF FIRE:
ACT-UP and other activist groups, Harlem Hospital Center administrators

When Dr. Janet Mitchell’s patients, many of whom are homeless, skip appointments, she sends Harlem Hospital Center staff into the neighborhood to find them. She refuses to turn away uninsured, HIV-infected women, which makes for frequent clashes with hospital administrators. And her fearless, outspoken ways have led her into some ugly public scrapes with AIDS activists: When ACT-UP tried to stop a drug trial that Mitchell helped develop because they felt it put “unsuspecting” black women at risk, she attacked the group as “a bunch of gay white women deciding what’s right for people of color.”

“I felt the activists were paternalistic and didn’t understand the trial was an opportunity for women to have all the options available to them,” she explains. “Poor doesn’t mean dumb.”

Mitchell has long advocated critical funding to black and Latino groups that have been ignored by the federal government. She questions what she sees as a gay choke hold on government funding. “The changing face of AIDS is bullshit,” she insists. “Communities that traditionally get funding are not the populations most affected, but those with political clout.” But Mitchell resists demanding an increase to cover the gap because “then the money will come from other health programs. The reality is I’d rather see it come from defense.”

Mitchell’s uncompromising advocacy is inspired by her belief that without affirmative action, she could easily have been a Harlem Hospital Center patient. The daughter of a butler and a domestic servant, she lived in the projects of Lexington, Ky., until a government program brought her to Mount Holyoke College. She later studied at Howard and Harvard universities and is now affiliated with Columbia University’s medical school and school of public health.

Mitchell argues that activist groups need to be sensitive to other communities. “White women’s idea of empowerment is different. Just trying to get black women to ask their doctors a question is a big deal. In fact, if I hear the word ’empowerment’ one more time I’m going to upchuck.”

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