Star of the South
HIV-Positive AIDS Activist -- and Single Mom -- Jessica Mardis Wins Her State's Young Activist of the Year Award
July 6, 2007
When AIDS Action in Mississippi's Jessica Mardis learned she was nominated for Mississippi ACORN's Young Activist of the Year Award, she started preparing for the ceremony the right way—not by writing a speech, but by readying her pitch about the Early Treatment for HIV Act for one of the event's VIPs, gubernatorial candidate John Arthur Eaves. After she made her impassioned argument about the legislation that could save thousands of lives, Eaves said he would support it. " I would never miss an opportunity for AIDS advocacy," said Mardis. "I eat, sleep and breathe HIV."
Oh, and by the way, at the June 20 ceremony, she won.
Mardis, 30, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1995, is modest about her recent accolade, which is given by the Mississippi chapter of ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) to the young community leader who most helped the fight for social and economic justice in Mississippi. But she is happy to talk about the accomplishments of AIDS Action in Missisissippi (AAIM), where she is a field organizer. Since Mardis and AAIM's other field organizer Valencia Robinson joined forces a year ago, AAIM has successfully lobbied for supportive housing for HIV positive people in the state, continued the battle to end a cruel drug cap that only allows Mississippians to have two name brand drugs a month, and relentlessly pushed for comprehensive services like transportation and housing for people with HIV. In March AAIM hosted a successful summit of 50 HIV-positive Mississippians. While change has been slow, Mardis is starting to see progress."Through persistence and meeting after meeting, letting people know that we're not going anywhere has started to pay off," she said.
Though Mardis was diagnosed more than a decade ago, she was only spurred to activism by the death of her fiancé in 2005, which left her a single-mother to their baby Gabriel. (Gabriel is HIV negative). Mardis is certain that her fiancé died of AIDS-related infections, though he refused to ever take an HIV test. Mardis no longer felt "ashamed and dirty" about her HIV status -- she wanted to do something to help. So she joined the tiny HIV/AIDS support group in her native Gulfport, Miss.
When Housing Works President CEO Charles King came to town in 2005 to promote the Campaign to End AIDS, Mardis decided to join one of seven activist caravans traveling to Washington, D.C. for a historic AIDS activist summit. She took then two year old Gabriel along. "We were only on the caravan for two weeks, but it was an eternity for him," Mardis said. But, she noted, by the end of the trip, even those out of diapers were cranky. "It got a little edgy towards the end, but I don't think it was because of him," she laughed.
Since that journey, Mardis has found her calling, telling her story to anyone who will listen. Her new oustpokenness led to her getting hired by the newly formed AIDS Action in Mississippi. "When I met Jessica, she was still obviously grieving the death of her partner and was unsure of herself, but very eager to be challenged," said Charles King, Housing Works President and CEO. "She still takes each challenge personally and invariably rises to the occasion, to her own surprise."
Honored by her Young Activist of the Year Award, Mardis plans to continue advocacy until she's an old lady. "I plan on living for a very long time," she said. "And I'm very loud so people will be hearing from me for a good long time too!"
This article was provided by Housing Works. It is a part of the publication Housing Works AIDS Issues Update. Visit Housing Works' website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.