Starting in the HIV Field? Here's Advice From People Who've Been There

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Just like the first day of school, starting in the field of HIV as a provider, activist, or advocate can be pretty intimidating. It can seem as if everyone knows each other, except you. People throw around strange words and abbreviations, such as "ASO," "MSM," or "MIPA," and never explain them. And some people, you notice early on, are treated like rock stars.

So, what's the best way to begin working in HIV without feeling lost or alone? We asked several community leaders to give advice to people who are newly entering the field.

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

Image credit: smshoot for iStock via Thinkstock.

Josh Robbins

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

There is a long history of hierarchy in the HIV and AIDS activism community: who's important and maybe who's not. I would tell you to ignore that, be proud of exactly what your messages are, and pretend that that hierarchy really doesn't exist -- because it doesn't. Just be you, be proud, be as loud as you want to be, and never stop working.

Image credit: Charles Sanchez.

Khadijah Abdullah

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

Every day is a learning experience. You're always going to keep learning. You're never going to know everything. It's good to stay open-minded and keep learning and growing in the field, because things are changing every day -- scientifically, awareness-wise, education-wise. It's good to build allies and partners because we're in this together. It's important that we work together to end HIV stigma and to end AIDS incidence rates. Work with others. You're not alone.

Image credit: Olivia G. Ford.

Sharon DeCuir

DeCuir is a leadership advocacy coordinator at the HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two (HAART), Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

I'm trying to let others know that it's OK to be free; it's OK to be open. When you're able to freely disclose, you break the chains that are binding you. There are chains of stigma, discrimination, and hatred. But, when you can break those chains, it's like a brand-new world.

Today, I live out loud, HIV positive. It doesn't matter who knows. I can freely disclose. I can tell others, and I'm not ashamed.

Image credit: JD Davids.

Ivory Howard

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

I make sure that volunteers or interns I work with know that it's important to speak up and have a voice and be present at the table. Definitely bring the next generation to the table.

Image credit: Olivia G. Ford.

Tony Christon-Walker

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

Make sure it's something that you're passionate about doing. Don't make it about making money, and don't make it about you.

People who benefit from the work that we do need to know that people are in it to authentically help them. I've been to conferences where I heard people talk about doing this work and getting burned out. I don't understand that. How can you get burned out doing it?

Image credit: Olivia G. Ford.

Krista Martel

Martel is the executive director of The Well Project in New York City.

It can be overwhelming. A lot of people know each other, so it can be intimidating to dip your foot in. But know that this is a community based on love, and you will be welcomed with open arms wherever you go.

Also, if you find yourself starting to be asked to be a speaker, or be on panels, or be on advisory boards, it's OK to say no. Once advocates start having more of a presence, they start getting asked to be at everything. Sometimes it's hard to say no, but you have to not burn yourself out.

Image credit: Olivia G. Ford.

Marcus McPherson

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

Don't tire yourself out. You can't take on the whole world at once. Pick something that you know you are good at and constantly work, and work, and work to hone that skill.

Make sure that you are not only speaking for yourself, but you are also speaking for others in the community.

Image credit: Charles Sanchez.


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

As someone new to HIV advocacy, you may be really highly motivated, but you're never going to experience the pain, suffering, and loss that people who have been doing the work for many years have experienced. Therefore, there will be times when you won't understand the motivation of those people. Your job is to hang in there and listen.

It takes time to learn. You can't have access to everything that you want access to just because you show up and say, "I'm interested in this important topic."

Image credit: JD Davids.