Raising HIV Awareness, One Young Person at a Time

A young activist’s mission: To get young people tested for HIV. As she says, we’re all human, so we’re all at risk.

DoSomething, headed by Fast Company columnist Nancy Lublin, has recognized four young social entrepreneurs with $10,000 grants–and one with a prize of $100,000. Fast Company will profile one of these enterprising youth each day this week.

Marvelyn Brown

Marvelyn Brown is sassy. When rapper Lil Mama presented her with a $10,000 Do Something award last week and told her she was strong and beautiful, Brown replied, “I know!”

She didn’t always feel so confident. When she was 19, the Tennessee native contracted HIV. “I was selfish, I was an athlete, I was used to getting what I wanted,” she says. “What I felt was important was my social life, and I had it.” Once the news she was HIV-positive spread, things weren’t so easy. “One day I had a social life, I was popular, and the next I was rejected.”

At that point, it would have been easy to shut down, close off, withdraw. Instead, Brown opened up. Within six months of testing positive, she was giving her first speech about HIV awareness. Today, she has a published autobiography (The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and (HIV) Positive) and a business traveling the country talking with high-school and college audiences about safe sex.

The Naked Truth

Spending all day, every day, talking about the biggest mistake of your life is not what most people would choose for a career, but at 25, Brown thinks every day about driving a message into the head of her 19-year-old self. “What would catch me?” she says. “To see something that looked like me. This is not something I wanted to spend my life doing, but I have to do it. I have to put myself, my feelings, my emotions aside to help somebody else. And that’s really what helps me.”

Brown doesn’t play the victim because she knows the stats. Her problem is becoming more and more prevalent. In the United States, more than 10% of the 56,000 new cases of HIV reported each year are in people ages 13 to 24, and 55% of newly diagnosed young people are black. More than 20% of people living with HIV are undiagnosed. “Some people look at this like I did before, like it’s a gay white man’s disease and always has been,” she says. “But they’re wrong. The one thing we all have in common that puts us as risk for HIV is that we’re all human. I don’t want other groups to do what I did and eliminate themselves.”

Through her consulting business Marvelous Connections, Brown has spoken face-to-face to more than 450,000 young people and gotten more than 200,000 tested. Through the media–she’s been on Oprah–Brown says she’s reached millions more. But she hasn’t taken the traditional activist route: Marvelous Connections is technically a for-profit that relies on earned revenue, not donations or public-health funds. “The government is not going to give my open, honest ass any money anyway,” she says. “I’m not talking about abstinence, and I’m not going to follow their guidelines because their guidelines don’t work. They haven’t been working! I have to do what I want to do in my way.”

Be Safe PSA

Not that Brown is making a financial profit. In 2008, she claims she filed less than $4,000 in income on her taxes. “It’s not about the money,” she says. “When I started, I didn’t have any money, I just had a vision. And I used the media to get me more speaking engagements, to grow the brand of Marvelous Connections.” Beyond speaking to high school and college audiences, Brown consults with media companies on how to work HIV awareness into programming. She also trains other HIV-positive young people in public speaking.

Brown’s entire strategy is based on something she has come to realize over the last six years. “People always say knowledge is powerful, but the truth is that it’s not,” she says. “What’s powerful is when you use that knowledge. Anybody can just have knowledge, but it only matters when you use it.”

More winners’ stories:
Eric Glustrom: Choosing Your Own Adventure in Uganda