It was with heavy hearts that we shared news of the passing of Chakena “CC” Conway / David Isaiah Joseph, in January of this year. CC was 28 years old.
Also known to many as David*, CC touched countless lives across the US as a poet, health motivator, advocate, activist, public speaker, and youth representative. CC had been living with HIV all their life. In 2008, at age 21, CC became the youngest founding member of Positive Women’s Network-USA.
CC was a beloved sibling, cousin, friend, family member, and community member; CC’s voice and spirit will be missed by many.
Several dear friends, fellow advocates, and loved ones shared remembrances of CC in the article below. Our hearts, thoughts, and prayers are with CC’s many loved ones now and always in the ongoing journey of coping with this terrible loss.
Lolisa Gibson-Hunte, Motivational Speaker, Author, HIV Educator, Activist; Brooklyn, NY
“With a smile bright enough to be noticed from across the room, Chakena’s welcoming spirt is what drew people to her.
The fact that she was no longer ashamed or embarrassed about not only her sexuality but also her status encouraged many to become more comfortable with who they are.
Charging herself with a solid yet very complicated task of making a positive change on our world, “CC” always had both an ear and shoulder to lend.
It was Chakena who held my hand as I disclosed my own status to my closest family members after three years of keeping the “secret” to myself.
Though the relationship we shared was unexpectedly cut short, it had an impact that changed my life forever.”
Quintara Lane, LQLane Awareness Movement, Inc.; Miami, FL
“CC and I grew up in the local hospital together, at the University of Miami. We were in a support group every Friday, and had the opportunity to go to camp together.
Our friendship was so amazing over the years. CC was my sister, who really understood what I was going through; we looked out for each other. I have two other sisters, but they’re not living with HIV.
CC was brilliant – she could strategize anything. We went on a trip to New York when we were about 13 or 14, and CC got lost in the subway. The chaperones didn’t know where she was, but CC had a photographic memory and could find her way back.
No matter what she was going through, I knew she could find her way back – and at the end of her life, she found her way back to Miami.
We always did things together on our birthdays. Everyone said we wouldn’t make it to age five, six, seven; it was a big thing to celebrate every year that we made it!
CC didn’t really know what was going on with her body. When I picked her up from the airport the last time I saw her, I said, “Oh my God, you’re sick. Why didn’t you tell me?” But we didn’t ever want to be told we were sick, or talk about being sick.
She was alone living in New York, family-wise. Being at home in Miami would have been motivation to stay on top of medications. Even adults need motivation to push [toward being healthier] – that hand-holding situation – because we get tired. CC was tired of taking meds. Now she knows a life without HIV.
Years ago, we started traveling and being advocates together – it was a new beginning! We didn’t want anyone to go through what we’ve been through. We went to the Campaign to End AIDS’ Youth Action Institute together, met Charles King and everyone. We took caravan trips together, and CC was the mastermind behind the caravans: to advocate in Mississippi, kayaking in California …
We had scary moments but we didn’t let it stop us. We traveled so many places and did so many things that people from our environment wouldn’t dare to go through. Even when folks tried to put us in a box and say “You can’t do that, you shouldn’t do that” – we did.
I understood her anger; it said, “Allow me to be me; allow me to make my own mistakes to become the person I’m going to be” – not so much in a negative context, but: “Allow me to be free.”
Not only was she a mastermind, she knew how to cook! Chicken breast can be kind of dry, but she told me to put mayonnaise and mustard on it and put it in the oven – it makes it moist, and it was one of my favorite dishes when I was a kid!
Her auntie wanted me to convey her belief that God created us with a purpose, and once we fulfill that purpose we will be called back home, and she believed that was the case about CC.
We fundraised to get CC down to Miami for her funeral. It was a closed casket, because her body had gone thru so much trauma and illness.
Her funeral was quick but well attended, and really nice. CC enjoyed music – she had a scholarship to college for band. Her band was there, as well as her alumni band from Miramar Hospital.
Some of the kids from our past support groups at KoolKids came out. It had had about 500 kids in it who became HIV positive perinatally or got HIV early, through blood transfusion, etc. There are about 40 of us left alive. We have reunions, but the ones left have lives and kids – I myself have a 1-year-old daughter and a son who was born just after CC passed.
Those who are left from our support group are trying to hang on and stay together and encourage each other to push forward. If I didn’t have my kids, I don’t know if I could keep pushing forward.
Part of my advocacy now is training some of the past KoolKids to become public speakers. We have partnerships with Miami Dade and Broward Counties. It’s important that they be compensated for their time; I know what it’s like to be used for my story!
It’s hard – everyone knows CC. CC was beautiful, and her energy itself was so powerful, like, “There goes CC” – or David in respect to her also identifying as David. CC’s death took a toll on the KoolKids family; that was the last person we thought would pass.”
From Bklyn Boihood (a collective that provides visibility and empowerment to masculine-presenting queer and trans people of color):
Loren Jones, Founding Member, PWN-USA; Berkeley, CA
I do remember CC’s youth, and the hope that the young always bring to those of us who are older. I see her death as a sign of how much work we still need to do in finding out what goes wrong even with new medications, better doctors, and more support. I am sure that CC would expect us to keep fighting for an end to AIDS in THIS generation.
Maura Riordan, AIDS United, Washington, DC
I remember CC at the meeting of positive women from around the US to launch PWN-USA. CC brought energy and vitality to the meeting and was able to offer the valuable perspective of a youthful activist. They were smart, funny, engaged and inspiring. It was clear that CC intended to be the best activist they could be, for them and their sisters. I am saddened to hear the news of CC’s death. CC was an important part of the PWN-USA legacy and will be remembered by those of us who were privileged enough to be in that room in 2008.
Antionettea “Dreadie” Etienne, Iris House, New York City
“I met CC about five years ago, at Cicatelli’s in New York, attending a workshop. CC mentioned being from Florida, and not being able to be who she wanted to be there. She was coming to terms with her diagnosis but her family was not supportive – not about HIV, but her sexuality – she identified as a woman, and a lesbian, at that time.
CC was looking for a job; I hired her to work with me, with young women coming out of prison, and dealing with their health status. She was fantastic. In working with kids and young people, she was in her space – she was where she wanted to be.
I later found out she was not following the message she was giving out – it was “Do as I say not as I do” – because CC didn’t like taking meds. We all knew that to continue on, we needed to do that, whether we wanted to or not. At the time I said “You can’t go out there and tell people to take HIV meds and not take yours.” As a young woman without family support, my heart went out to her; I didn’t have family support either.
She once did an open mic that was fierce. When she took the open mic and did her poetry, everyone, a roomful of clients, stood still and listened to her. She was a very intelligent, very talented young person.
I talked to her about her wanting to become a trans man; I said, “You may have to take more medication to transition, and you don’t like taking medication.” She said that was what she wanted to do. But she wasn’t able to do and take what she needed to for her transition. I last saw CC on the subway; she was concerned her body wasn’t taking to the transition, and she wasn’t able to access and take the right doses of hormones.
With not being able to adhere to meds, and an unsupportive grandmother … I believe CC just got tired. She was only 28 years old. I feel she’s at rest now; she’s out of pain mentally and physically. I know at times she felt lonely, even though she was closely connected with a group of young people who’ve been living with HIV for a very long time, and the other girls were very supportive of her.
I’m supposed to be strong, but I’m also a mom; I feel like I lost this child that I tried to bring into the fold, who was just walking a different path. I’m going to miss her calling every once in a while, saying “You thought I didn’t remember your phone number!”
People expect people who pass from the virus to be older, or IV drug users, not younger, under 30. It’s hard for our young people today, because some of them don’t realize how serious this pandemic still is. CC should not have gone home.”
*Those closest to CC who are quoted in this piece indicated that CC was going by “CC” and identifying as female at the time of their passing. Without being able to confirm with CC, and with respect to the years and communities in which CC identified as a transgender man, the editor of this piece will refer to CC using the gender-neutral pronouns “they,” “them,” and “their.” Quotes from individuals will preserve the names and pronouns those individuals used in sharing their memories.