Just after midnight on May 25, Deon Haywood got the call: her office was ablaze.
Haywood was awake, watching television with members of Women With a Vision (WWAV), a women's health and social justice organization where she serves as executive director. Haywood called board members and two of the organization's founders. At 1 a.m., they arrived on the scene to find a waning two-alarm fire at WWAV's Mid-City office at Canal Street and Jefferson Davis Parkway. Two people were evacuated from the building, which also houses a residence and a dry cleaning business. Later, Haywood did a walkthrough to assess the damage.
"I don't know if I've been able to put into words what that was for me, to walk in and know that this wasn't normal," she says. "This wasn't just a firebug. This was intentional."
The office was covered with a thick black crust. Breast exam models were gathered, carefully stacked and set on fire, as were models of uteruses, ovaries and the female reproductive system. Reproductive health displays and informational posters about HIV in African-American communities were torched. Closets filled with community resources, from toiletries to clothes to pamphlets, were charred. Two awards given to WWAV were thrown out a window.
"There was tons of stuff in packages they could've put in the contractor garbage bags we keep in the office, and carried a sack out like Santa Claus. It would've been Christmas," Haywood says. "Twenty-inch monitors on our computers, all still there. ... Either you don't like what I'm doing — and it's hard not to take it personal — or you just really hate women that much that you would do this."
For more than 20 years, WWAV has provided a safe place for women in at-risk communities — sex workers, drug users, victims of abuse and homeless women. It offers safe-sex education, HIV testing, breast cancer support and prevention, and referrals to LSU and St. Thomas medical centers for uninsured women. The organization serves hundreds of women a year, and Haywood says clients also found it a comfortable place where they sometimes would eat lunch or just hang out. WWAV also is an advocate for stronger health services for women in Louisiana, and a vocal supporter of incarcerated women. The group recently won a landmark case against the state's 200-year-old crimes against nature statute, which overturned a requirement that people convicted of soliciting oral and anal sex register as sex offenders, while people convicted of prostitution do not have to register.
But it's a small organization with limited funds and a staff of six and some interns. WWAV won't be returning to its rented space at 215 N. Jefferson Davis Pkwy., where it had been for the past three years. For now, it's sharing a small conference room from its neighbor, First Grace United Methodist Church.
"We don't know any real reason why someone did it," Haywood says. "We can sit and talk about it all day, why they targeted us. There are just so many what ifs, or whys. I feel like we deserve an answer, but we don't have one."
At a June 27 City Council Criminal Justice Committee meeting a month after the fire, Haywood spoke before Councilwoman-at-Large Stacy Head and District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry, in whose district the WWAV office operates. Both were disturbed to hear that Haywood has had little success reaching the New Orleans Fire Department (NOFD) about an investigation into the blaze, or whether it was being investigated at all.
"We haven't heard anything from the authorities and have had no followups with the police," Haywood says.
On July 9, Gambit called NOFD to request the initial report on the fire, and emailed NOFD and NOPD's public information officer Remi Braden, as well as city attorney Richard Cortizas and Cherie Guggenheim at NOPD's records division, requesting the initial report and accompanying police report. NOFD public information officer Capt. Edwin Holmes directed Gambit to NOFD's Office of Prevention. A staffer at that office said the investigation was still ongoing, that the "report is not ready," and that samples from the scene were gathered and sent to an undisclosed lab.
One day later, NOFD sent an email blast to media, saying NOFD and NOPD are pursuing a joint investigation and have categorized the blaze as aggravated arson, "because the building was occupied and the fire indicated multiple points of origin."
The release also said Crimestoppers is offering a reward of up to $2,500 for information leading to an arrest and indictment of any suspects.
"This wonderful organization has been providing health education services to low-income women in our community for many years in response to the spread of HIV/AIDS," Guidry wrote in an email to Gambit. "The possibility that this crime was motivated by this organization's work is very troubling. I hope we can get to the bottom of this as soon as possible."
One of WWAV's male clients steps in from the rain and enters a small conference room near the front of the church, where Haywood and WWAV staff huddle around an oval table.
How is Haywood today? "I've been better," she says. This week, Haywood leaves for Baltimore to discuss programs for incarcerated women. At the end of July, Haywood will make a presentation at the International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. It's the first time the conference has been held in the U.S. in more than 20 years, and about 20,000 delegates from 200-plus countries are expected to attend. Haywood will discuss criminalization with panelists from Egypt and Jamaica, addressing WWAV's victory in the crimes against nature case: what it took to win, and what it means to the people who were charged. Haywood also will address a group of 500 women in Calcutta, India via satellite on the subject of sex workers.
"This is why people like me are asking Louisiana politicians to pay attention, to listen to us, because the world is listening," she says. "Deon Haywood, from New Orleans, born and raised, 3rd Ward. Everyone who works, or comes in, becomes a part of Women with a Vision — we're all here for one reason: we're all connected to this city, and we believe in it. My voice will be speaking about the experiences of poor women in the South, and I'll be doing a satellite presentation to women who are experiencing the same things as we are in the U.S. South. That is big."
Despite losing a home base, Haywood says WWAV won't slow down. It's not the first time the group's offices were trashed — their former drop-in center on LaSalle Street was burglarized several years ago. WWAV also is launching a micro-enterprise project for at-risk or low-income women to supplement their income. The Bead Shop on Magazine Street has partnered with WWAV to offer jewelry-making classes. ("I visited one of our clients and she had a table full of earrings, bracelets she made," Haywood says. "She does work, but she struggles. This is a way for her to generate other income for herself.")
Haywood is grateful for the community (and global) support and the attention from international partner organizations following the arson — which resembles similar burglaries and arsons at women's health clinics in Georgia earlier this year. WWAV's motto, for now, Haywood says, is "through the fire."
"This was an act of violence toward women," she says. "This was a hate crime. Everyone else around the world has called it that. Probably for a long time — if we don't get an answer — I'm going to wonder, 'Why?' And it's hard not to take it personal. ... You can't allow acts of violence to stop you from speaking out about what's right."