Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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Raising the Next Generation of HIV Warriors

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Like so many other young nonprofit leaders, I often struggle with the question “Am I good enough?” I thought a lot about that question recently, using my 30th birthday as an opportunity to to do some critical, self-reflective work around what it means to be a leader in the fight to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the United States.

My work as an advocate began with what was to be both my first and my last HIV test. This was back when I was a student at the University of Memphis and wasn’t feeling well. I made an appointment with my primary care physician and requested an HIV test because of the symptoms I was experiencing. But little could have prepared me for the call I later received from my doctor’s office, confirming my HIV diagnosis, or for the stark reality that followed: There was really no place for me, a black gay man, to turn to for help grappling with the diagnosis and what it would mean for my life.

There were no organizations in my community led by black gay men or focused on black gay men. So I started the Red Door Foundation, also an Elton John AIDS Foundation grantee, to save my life, and the lives of others. And while I’m proud of the progress made since then, I truly believe I could have accomplished much more and sooner had there been an opportunity to build my leadership capacity and deepen my knowledge of the communities mostly impacted by HIV. I wish someone would have shown me how to do an environmental analysis, for example, or assess my foundation’s strengths and weaknesses. I wish someone would have shown me how to develop a logic model and how to write a grant or give a fundraising speech.

Those opportunities were not there for me, which is why I’m so grateful to be part of an innovative new leadership program for young nonprofit leaders working to end HIV in America’s hardest-hit communities. The Human Rights Campaign and the Elton John AIDS Foundation are making this opportunity possible through the HIV 360° Fellowship Program, which has awarded fellowships to 10 outstanding young community-based leaders to elevate the work they are already doing to end HIV.

Over the next nine months, the HIV 360° Fellows will deepen their leadership and nonprofit management skills, exchange ideas and best practices, and ultimately develop innovative new programs to help reduce HIV transmission rates and ensure equal and equitable access to care. They’ll also work closely with HRC staff to help us think about the work we’re doing in new and exciting ways.

But what excites me most about this group is the diversity of their work and their lived experiences. Many of them hail from the Deep South, where rates of HIV transmission are among the highest in the nation. Many of them are members of the communities most impacted by HIV — and their leadership is essential, given the staggering rates we’re seeing among young black and Latino gay and bisexual men and transgender women. Some are policy advocates and community organizers. Others are artists and storytellers. And all of them share a deep and unshakable commitment to realizing a world where everyone — regardless of HIV status — can lead a long, healthy life, free of stigma and discrimination.

As I reflect on the journey I’ve taken over the past 30 years, I remember people like Dorcas Young Griffin, Nikia Grayson, and David Malebranche, who provided me with love, mentorship, and constructive feedback when I started leading my nonprofit. As I embark on the next nine months with this wonderful group of outstanding, young leaders, I can only hope to do the same for them.

Marvell Terry
MARVELL TERRY is HRC Foundation's HIV & AIDS Project Manager and the founder of the Red Door Foundation.

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