Each One, Teach One: HIV Community Leaders Share Their Mentorship Stories

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Many of us who are living with HIV or work for the community have benefitted from the presence of someone who took us under their wing. Whether they were physically present in our lives or inspired us through the courage of their work, their mentorship was a key component helping us challenge stigma, live with HIV, and commit to a life of service. We asked some community leaders to tell us about their mentors and what they've gained from these relationships.

Interviews for this article were conducted by Charles Sanchez, JD Davids, and Olivia G. Ford. Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity.

Image credit: Rupert King for Photodisc via Thinkstock.

Khadijah Abdullah

Abdullah is the founder and president of Reaching All HIV Positive Muslims in America (RAHMA), Washington, D.C.

My inspiration was a Muslim man living with AIDS. I met him when I was working in a hospital part time while I was in school. He was a patient there, and he really opened my eyes to the isolation and stigma he faced in the Muslim community and how he didn't feel welcome there.

It made me realize that we don't even talk about sex in our community, let alone HIV or AIDS. It inspired me to go back to my school and raise awareness. And then, I learned my 19-year-old friend was HIV positive. This made it personal for me, and it made me want to continue doing the work.

When I got into the work, I worked at a local AIDS nonprofit called AIDS Project New Haven. The director there, Christopher Cole, was a mentor for me. He was really "there" and guided me in my path to working in HIV and AIDS.

Just giving you time and helping you answer any questions that you may have is very important for someone who doesn't know much about any new field. Christopher's letting me come to his organization, volunteer there, and meet people and learn from them was very helpful for me when I started working in the HIV and AIDS field.

Image credit: Olivia G. Ford.

Ivory Howard

Howard is program manager, Urban Coalition for HIV/AIDS Prevention Services (UCHAPS), Washington, D.C.

The most important lesson that I've taken from my mentors is that it's really important to make sure that your voice is heard, especially as a young person or as a woman. It's important to speak up at the table, not wait to be heard or wait to be asked for your opinion, but make sure that you say what you're thinking and people know what you're thinking. Don't make people have to guess or ask you about it.

And, certainly, make sure that you help other people come to that same table.

Image credit: Olivia G. Ford.

Josh Robbins

Robbins is an HIV activist, speaker, and creator of the blog I'm Still Josh.

Chris Richey from The Stigma Project inspired me at the beginning of my journey in HIV activism and advocacy. He inspired me to be very authentic and not afraid to tell the truth, no matter if it ruffled people's feathers, even if they are part of the HIV establishment.

I think that his advocacy and The Stigma Project's direction early on helped shaped the way I grew as an activist and what I focused on in my HIV activism -- which is to have people living with HIV live really, really well.

Image credit: Charles Sanchez.


Wakefield is director of external relations, HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN)

The most important lesson I ever learned was from Michael Thurnherr, who was a coworker with me at Test Positive Aware Network. He said to me: "You don't have HIV. You have been through as much pain in this epidemic as anyone else, but you will always have to listen as an ally and act as an ally."

Image credit: JD Davids.

Sharon DeCuir

DeCuir is leadership advocacy coordinator, HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two (HAART), Baton Rouge, La.

What I learned from my very first national mentor, Linda Scruggs, was that it was OK to live in my space and be free. I had just recently been diagnosed at that time, and another friend who had been through the Consumer Leadership Training for this program told me about it and told me to apply.

I applied for the program, and we went through these personal developments. We learned how to tell our stories, and we learned how to give information about disclosure and medication adherence to the broader community. It was defining for me because so many others saw something in me that I didn't think I had.

Image credit: JD Davids.

Tony Christon-Walker

Christon-Walker is director of prevention and community partnerships for AIDS Alabama, Birmingham, Ala.

I don't know whether I would call them mentors; there were just people whom I watched. I have been positive for a while, but I just got into this work about four years ago. I went to a positive living conference in Fort Walton, and I happened to sit in on a session about being able to tell your story. Olivia Ford and Naina Khanna ran the session.

I learned how to tell my story without being the story in order to give people the information they needed without making it about me. Olivia and Naina didn't know they were my mentors, but I picked up a lot from them.

Even my Seatbelt Chronicles that I do on Facebook, I got it from being able to tell those stories in that condensed amount of time.

Image credit: Olivia G. Ford.

Krista Martel

Martel is the executive director of The Well Project, New York, N.Y.

I began working in HIV in 1994. In 1995, I met Dawn Averitt, the founder of The Well Project. We started working on some programming together. She really made me think. She felt that, if we're expecting people living with HIV to be at the table, share their time, and be an expert voice in the room, they need to be compensated just as a physician or a health care provider -- any other professional -- should be compensated for their expertise.

I've carried that tenet with me throughout my career. I feel strongly that all the women who are sharing their voices and trying to have a seat at -- or are already at -- the table need to be compensated for their work and expertise.

Image credit: Olivia G. Ford.

Nicole Elinoff

Elinoff is sexual minority health coordinator at the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, Orlando, Fla.

I first got into the HIV movement when my uncle passed away in 2012 from AIDS-related complications. He was one of my best friends, an amazing role model, and like my second father.

Before that, I was doing a lot of reproductive justice work. Once I learned about my uncle's diagnosis -- two days after he passed away -- I really wanted to dedicate more of my passion and energy toward HIV: ending stigma, working on developing spaces, and helping leverage my privilege to help others who might not have their voices be heard as regularly.

My mentors are all the people who share their stories and really create spaces for young people to be able to grow and develop within this work. I can't really think of an individual mentor that I can name, where one person made such an impact. I think that everyone collectively, and the collective story, has made a huge impact.

There's not one face to HIV; there are so many different faces.

Image credit: Charles Sanchez.

Marcus McPherson

McPherson is project coordinator at My Brother's Keeper and community advocate at Mississippi Positive Network, Jackson, Miss.

My mentor is Cedric Sturdevant. He has always been a fatherly figure, especially when I was diagnosed with HIV several years ago. He taught me to stand up, share my story, and speak out for those who were either afraid to share their stories or couldn't because of family or financial reasons. I live in Mississippi, and there's still a lot of stigma attached with HIV there. I try to be the person who listens to my brothers and sisters and to be able to repeat their stories to the policymakers, the bigwigs and all of the people who can actually make changes.

Image credit: Charles Sanchez.

Christian Daniel Kiley

Kiley is the founder of Unsure Positive Productions, Boston, Mass.

I would definitely identify Mark King as a mentor for me. I hadn't met him, but I stumbled on his content online. Since I had been struggling with meth use, and he was able to talk about that without shame, it was the first time that I had been exposed to a dialogue about it in an open-minded way. That was a game-changer for me.

Image credit: Charles Sanchez.