Real Michiana: Educating and empowering "the other"

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The founder of Imani Unidad, which means "faith and unity" has dedicated her life to educating and empowering "the other", which began in her story as those living with HIV/AIDS.

Written in every chapter of Debra Stanley's life, you'll find untold stories of "the other"--people she says society labels as taboo and who often aren't given the resources they need to succeed.

"When you keep people ignorant about themselves and about their bodies, then they become powerless...when you are powerless, then you are easily oppressed," said Stanley.

To Debra, education and empowerment are key to fighting the theme she's found on every page she's turned.

"Stigma. Stigma is probably the prevailing cause for social services in the first place, you know the whole creation of 'the other,'" she said.

From the health clinic, where she discovered an HIV problem; to AIDS Ministries, where she worked to treat the mental and social impacts of the disease; all the way to the non-profit she founded, Imani Unidad, to fill in the gaps in prevention and treatment.

"When we founded Imani, it was with the whole prevention of HIV and substance abuse and anything that comes with that...trying to eliminate the stigma, trying to humanize this, making sure that everybody clearly understood this is a health issue," she said.

Debra believes the mental health aspect deserves more than a footnote.

"What we do is we have taken a mental health approach to everything we do...because that's going to determine behaviors...We focus on individuals first getting to know themselves...and so everybody that comes into our counseling program, their very first assignment is 'who am I?'...but that's a struggle for most...and so pushing people to think about themselves...and understanding that that's a process as well," said Stanley.

It's a process for another group Imani serves: convicted felons returning home from prison, like the foundation's own Outreach Manager, Bayé Armen Sylvester.

"How do I navigate coming home from incarceration to a community that is designed to do nothing but send me back?" posed Debra.

Sylvester was sent to prison at age 17 for robbery and other serious charges and spent 26 years staying silent to survive.

He shares more of his story here:

"Being released without having meaningful consultation with any kind of counseling meant I had to now deal with things from the emotional standpoint of a young man...but when they come in contact with Imani Unidad, especially Debra, they get the sense that someone is listening to me," said Sylvester.

"Everybody deserves to have the knowledge, most importantly about themselves," said Debra.

When that knowledge is passed on through her clients, she says that's the cherry on top.

"Talk about eternal life. That's where it is. When what you share is important enough to continue to be shared...can't ask for anything more than that," she said, laughing.

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