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HIV-Positive North Carolina Teen Becomes Advocate For Youth

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File photo of blood test. (Photo Credit: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

File photo of blood test. (Photo Credit: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

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FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Sitting at a conference table inside the White House in December, AIDS and HIV activist Stephanie Brown could not have been happier.

The fiery, opinionated 26-year-old was surrounded by celebrities and policymakers, the audience she believed would help her spread her message – to educate and empower young people to not only get routinely tested for HIV and AIDS but to realize that the virus is no longer a death sentence.

She should know.

Brown, a graduate of Seventy-First High School and Fayetteville State University, has been HIV-positive for six years, after contracting the virus at age 19.

“They wanted to know what stops young people from getting tested or taking HIV seriously, and I think I was a bit controversial,” said Brown. “I said people in my generation aren’t worried about getting tested; we’re worried about having a job. Health was never a big topic.”

Brown was chosen as a representative for young people on the White House World AIDS Day panel by MTV, with whom she participated in a documentary called “I’m Positive.” The documentary aired in December and followed the lives of three young people living with HIV.

Brown said the last year has been busy for her. Near the end of 2012, she was chosen as the keynote speaker at an observance of World AIDS Day sponsored by several Cumberland County organizations, including the Cape Fear Regional Bureau for Community Action.

She has worked with the Southern Regional Area Health Education Center. She visits jails in the region and community centers where she shares her story.

Brown said her activism has become her life’s calling.

“If it wasn’t for HIV, I have no clue what I would be doing right now,” she said. “I’m here for a purpose – to help others – and I’m not going anywhere until I’m done.”

Brown’s courage does not surprise fellow activist Art Jackson, a counselor and retention coordinator at Southern Regional Area Health Education Center. He has been a mentor to Brown.

“She was scared about being an activist when we first met about four years ago,” said Jackson. “But she is a fighter and has grown into a really positive force right before my eyes.”

Jackson, who also is HIV-positive, works with the medical team in the infectious disease clinic to make sure HIV-positive clients keep up with their care plans. He said Brown puts a face on HIV that young people can relate to.

“She’s a beautiful young lady, and young people can see her and see that while HIV can happen to anyone, you can live a vibrant, healthy life,” he said. “She hasn’t let her circumstances define who she is, and when she talks to young people she lets them know they need to stand up and be counted, and not counted out.”

Jackson said Brown’s work locally and regionally will be augmented by her appearance on the MTV documentary and at the White House.

“She’s just now beginning to have a real impact on a national level,” said Jackson. “It’s exciting to see what she can do.”

Siobhan Walshe, a producer who worked with Brown on MTV’s “I’m Positive” program, agreed with Jackson’s assessment.

“Stephanie has a depth of understanding, but she’s not glib about her situation,” said Walshe. “She’s got such a sincerity when she talks about what she’s going through and what she feels.”

Brown’s openness and likability were among the reasons Walshe said she was chosen for “I’m Positive” and the White House panel.

“You can sense she still feels pain about what’s happened to her, but that vulnerability made her very likable and relatable,” said Walshe. “She has this wisdom beyond her age.”

Walshe said Brown brought a new perspective to “I’m Positive” and to the White House discussion.

“Everyone at the panel, including host Rosie Perez, were all very buttoned up, and in walks Stephanie and she turned questions around on the panel and handled herself well,” said Walshe.

“Everyone there was talking outreach, policy and workshops, and Stephanie said, ‘Let’s just tell our stories and get people to relate,’ ” said Walshe. “No one was considering that, and Stephanie helped move the conversation in a direction it needed to go.”

Walshe said it was Brown’s supportive family – especially her mother, Melissa – that affected her the most.

“There’s so much stigma attached to HIV, and to have family support and not be judged – that’s very compelling,” said Walshe. “That was a beautiful thing to see when we filmed.”

Michael D. Brown, Stephanie’s father and a retired Army master sergeant once stationed at Fort Bragg, said his daughter is a source of strength for the family.

“We were all shocked, saddened when we heard the news,” said Michael Brown. “I give Stephanie all the credit. It’s because of her we’ve pulled together to fight this thing. I’m so proud of her.”

Michael Brown said he felt he had failed his daughter, and he didn’t realize how ignorant he was about how far HIV treatment has come in the past two decades until his daughter enlightened him.

“It was like a ton of bricks hit us when we heard. I thought, ‘Where did I go wrong?’ ” he said. “But then, as she learned more – as we all learned more – we knew this wasn’t a death sentence and that we can fight this.”

The thing that’s stuck the most with Michael Brown is that parents need honest and open communication with their kids about sex.

“The world is so different than when I grew up,” he said. “As a parent, I would encourage other parents to talk with their kids about sex and why it’s important to protect yourself and be careful.”

That level of communication between parent and child is part of Brown’s platform. She wants to encourage advocacy groups and policymakers to bring the HIV and AIDS discussion to where young people are most likely to be receptive to the message.

“We have to do a better job of talking to young people where they’re at,” said Brown. “We need to reach them through the Internet, social media, fashion, music, documentaries and video games.”

Brown said she is working to create her own advocacy and activist organization – Red Panther – that will act as an umbrella to focus efforts.

“Right now, there are too many HIV and AIDS groups that are all fighting over the same funding – the same pie,” said Brown. “If we could work together in the same direction, think what we could do.”

Brown said she has worked with a few celebrities and music artists to get Red Panther going. For now, she stays busy speaking, managing her health and living a full life.

“I have what I have, but I’m not going to die from it, and there’s nothing I can’t do,” said Brown. “I could have chosen to cry and drown in tears, but I chose to live instead.”

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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