When CCH Pounder isn’t playing strong women on TV (Warehouse 13) and in the movies (Avatar, Bagdad Café), the gracious actress is raising money and awareness for AIDS charities. More than 20 years ago, Pounder and a number of other celebrities, including Blair Underwood and Alfre Woodard, founded Artists for a New South Africa. Back then the charity’s goal was to support the struggle to end apartheid, but now the focus has shifted to AIDS prevention and treatment in the nation. Pounder, Emmy-nominated for her work on FX’s The Shield, says there is still much work to be done — both in Africa and here in the U.S.
What first got you involved in fighting HIV and AIDS?
I had a great friend, Fausto. He was one of the men in my wedding party. Fausto was the first person in my immediate life who passed away from AIDS. I went to see him in an AIDS hospital, and this is when drugs were experimental. He looked really, really wretched. Prior to that, [AIDS] was always sort of a rumor, and then Fausto, for me, was the impact. That educated me.
You cofounded Artists for a New South Africa more than 20 years ago. What were those early days like?
I came to Artists for a New South Africa when it was all about ending apartheid. We thought, How amazing, how successful, Nelson Mandela is president and all will be well. Well, of course, after 50 years of that kind of [apartheid], we were watching a whole cycle of AIDS develop in South Africa. Work that we thought was over sort of began anew. In terms of political process, the problem was solved, but now the people needed healing. So it’s been around as part and parcel with my career for over 25 years.
Do you get the sense that things are improving in Africa?
I’d like to think that every day something gets a little better for one or two people. I’ve been thinking about charities that seem to have existed for too long — which to me means they’re unsuccessful, but which to the charity business means they’re extremely successful. So I’m trying to reconcile how I feel about charities in terms of their longevity, and therefore I find myself interested in checking things off the list. Like, “OK, if I get 40 pairs of shoes, 40 uniforms, and these children can go to school for one year, problem solved.” I think sometimes we have to do that — see the dent that we’re making, and you hope that in that dent, you’re educating someone who will educate someone else and alleviate the bigger problem.
You’re also very active with the African Millennium Foundation, which works to help children orphaned by AIDS. How did you get involved?
Neal Baer, the executive producer of Law & Order: SVU [Pounder has a recurring role on the show], had a visit with Malena Ruth, who’s the cofounder [of the African Millennium Foundation], on a project of photographing children. When he came back and told their stories, people volunteered to help. There were stories like a 14-year-old taking care of these two kids — people here in the U.S. would offer to [financially] take care of their schooling and food for a year. So we parceled out the children that we met through those photographs to the celebrities and noncelebrities on the show. I took on a family — there were, at the time, eight of them. I’ve been with them now for four years. It’s been a great pleasure because I think children want to be accountable. I still write and say, “I want to see your grades.”
Do you think there’s a stigma about HIV in the black community?
When a society has been overburdened with negativity, the last thing you want to hear is, “Here comes yet another thing that belongs to our community.” So you have this extraordinary sense of denial — of “this is not us.” But it is us. We’re part of this society. But I’m very keen on pushing things forward instead of the blame game on the lack of information. I would like to think we have made huge leaps since the onset in the ’80s compared to where we are now.