At 19, Marvelyn Brown met her Prince Charming, then she was diagnosed as HIV positive. She decided to dedicate her life to raising awareness about this preventable virus. She started going from school to school to tell her story, then town to town, then state to state, then worldwide. Now 26, Marvelyn is CEO of Marvelous Connections, which houses her activist efforts, and she also serves as a consultant to other organizations on HIV/AIDS issues. She's spoken about her experiences in almost every state and around the world from Mexico to Rwanda. She also wrote a 2008 memoir, The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and (HIV) Positive, she's told her story on Oprah's couch, and even won a 2007 Emmy Award for an AIDS public service announcement. Marvelyn shared her remarkable story and passion, and told us why she's proud to be a member of this Change Generation.
What's your big idea?
With Marvelous Connections I want to dispel the myths associated with HIV, through reducing stigma, tackling HIV infection rates, raising HIV awareness and HIV education and empower men, women and children to gain control of their sex lives. I do all of that with no sugar coating, I offer an honest and relatable approach.
What inspired Marvelous Connections?
After I was told I had contracted the preventable disease, HIV, at 19 years old and feeling like enough was not being done to prevent it from happening to others, and me—I wanted to make a difference.
What problem were you first trying to address?
Educating other about HIV and AIDS. My initial goal was to educate my community in Nashville, Tennessee about these issues. With youth ages 13 to 25 making up half of all HIV infections, educating youth about HIV and AIDS in a way that they can relate and understand has become key. Being diagnosed at 19, I never had anybody come talk to me about HIV in an effective manner or even known someone who looked like me. If someone had, I would not be HIV positive.
And now ...
It went from educating my city, to the state, to the region, to the whole country, and now entire the world, adding the importance of getting an actual HIV test into the mix along the way. I am not a person who really likes to set goals. I feel like if you set a goal then there is a finish line. I just put my all in whatever I do and reach for the sky.
How did you know it was working?
I received the first ever Youth Leadership Award from The National Association of People with AIDS within months of taking my story public.
Where did you grow up?
I grew in Nashville, TN.
What does your mom do?
My mom is an activist in her own right. If I had to give her a title it would be hell raiser.
Where did you go to school? What was your major?
I went to Vol State in Gallatin, TN. My major was Communications but I was not sure what direction I wanted to take.
What's your favorite specific class or teacher? What was memorable about them?
My favorite professor was Sidney Hardaway. He was very supportive of me early on in my diagnosis and believed in me when no one else did.
What figures do you most admire? Whom do you seek out for advice?
I admire women like Malaak Compton-Rock and Hollie Robinson-Peete, who believe that service is the rent we pay for life. For advice I look to long time HIV activist Maria Davis. She is always there for me. I can call her anytime, and talk to her about anything.
How is your life different now?
Life feels so much more rewarding. I know I am doing what I am destined to do.
What excites you or concerns you about your generation?
Nothing! I believe in my generation. I am excited to see how we leave our mark on this world.
How has technology and social media affected your work?
Social media has given me a platform to get my message to a boarder audience in a very unique way and take my message straight to them.
What's your biggest challenge?
Growing up in a home where no one told me they loved me and was always only telling me the bad I was doing. I felt like a failure. So there was actually a time when I was scared of success and I was very insecure about what I was doing. I would hear peoples discouraging words and I would believe them. My biggest challenge was believing in myself.
What assets or challenges do you face as a young person present?
Being told I was not wise enough or smart enough to do the work that I was doing but in fact being young is what gave me the advantage. I took a fresh and more relatable approach than what was already being done.
How would the world be different in 10 years if you had your way?
In a collaborative effort, we would have eliminated HIV, preventing the spread of this virus through education.
If you weren't doing this, you'd be ...
I have no idea where I would be but since it took a diagnosis to change my perspective on life, I can only think back to the person I was before that. I would have a selfish job with limited goals and ambition.
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur himself, having completed his first documentary 18 in '08 for which he was awarded a $10,000 grant from Nancy Lublin's DoSomething.org. He is the Founder & Executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in fall 2011.
David and Fast Company are producing Change Generation, a new series profiling a young generation of change-seekers. We'll be covering everything from educational activists to champions of political reform, creative entrepreneurs, and outright thrill seekers. We'll be hosting Q&As as well as video profiles with production partner shatterbox.