Marnina Ross-Miller Is a Young Leader Who Wants to Learn From Older HIV Activists

Marnina Ross-Miller
Selfie by Marnina Ross-Miller

At the 2018 U.S. Conference on AIDS (USCA), Phill Wilson, president and CEO of Black AIDS Institute, announced that he was preparing to retire from the AIDS movement by the end of 2018. Wilson delivered a historic speech on preparing a young generation of leaders in the AIDS advocacy movement. He left the movement with a legacy of passing the baton on to the next generation by mentoring younger activists and giving them space and leadership positions in the movement. Wilson said, "The best gift we could give this movement is to step aside. ... The next generation is smarter, younger, wiser, more capable, and they have the foundation that we built." Addressing young people, Wilson added, "You have got this! You will end the epidemic."

After this powerful speech, I sat down with Marnina Ross-Miller to hear from her own experience as a young black woman who is expected to step into leadership in the movement. In her own words, she shares what she learned from NMAC's Youth Initiative fellowship and her next steps after the fellowship. Ross-Miller shares the obstacles young black women still face to take on leadership in the movement, as well as opportunities they have -- and how she is going to turn the 2018 fellowship into a movement for young people affected by HIV and AIDS. At the end of the interview, Ross-Miller expressed that young people need a day of fellowship with NMAC's HIV 50+ Strong and Healthy scholars, to learn from one another and get to know each other.

Tuyishime Claire Gasamagera: Would you mind introducing yourself?

Marnina Ross-Miller: My name is Marnina Miller and I am an out and proud black, queer, young woman living with HIV. I am a Michigan native, but I currently reside in Houston, Texas. I'm a HIV activist, and I work as a program coordinator for a local LGBTQ community engagement facility.

TCG: What were the main takeaways from the youth fellowship program this year?

MRM: I learned so much. One of the things that I hold near to my heart that I learned would have to be body autonomy. I learned that people living with HIV have their body autonomy violated consistently, with all these HIV criminalization laws that require us to disclose our personal medical diagnosis due to outdated laws with no scientific data.

TCG: What was the most exciting thing at the youth fellowship?

MRM: It was exciting to network with other youth that are equally as passionate about ending new HIV diagnoses while addressing the stigma, discrimination, and intersectionality issues that plague this epidemic.

TCG: What is your next project as a youth fellow?

MRM: As a youth fellow, we are asked to partner with local HIV organizations to increase youth visibility and programming directed for young people. I decided to partner with my local African American HIV Task Force and bring visibility to youth through their annual gala and awards dinner for Worlds AIDS Day. I asked if they would be willing to sponsor five tickets for youth living with HIV and add a youth award to their roster of awards that they give out annually. They willingly agreed. So, youth will have an entire table at the gala, and one of us will also be receiving the first "Rising Star Award."

TCG: "The best gift we could give this movement is to step aside. ... The next generation is smarter, younger, wiser, more capable, and they have the foundation that we built," was what Phill Wilson told attendees of USCA. What is your take on Wilson's words?

MRM: I agree with Mr. Wilson, and I will add to it that we are not the leaders of tomorrow, but we are leaders now!

Related: It's Time for the Next Generation of HIV Activists to Lead

TCG: What would you like mentoring from older women to look like?

MRM: I often tell people that while I have an awesome relationship with my mother (a resilient woman who quickly educated herself on HIV/AIDS after my HIV diagnosis), she couldn't show me how to be a woman living with HIV. To me, that's where my mentors have picked up at. I am blessed to have older black women in my life who have shown me how to be a woman living and thriving with HIV, and I'm eternally grateful for it. They not only honor me with their wisdom and knowledge, but they allow me to make mistakes and pick me back [up] when I have fallen. They don't just check up on me to see if I'm okay. They put me in leadership roles and showed me how to network, while allowing me to be my authentic self.

TCG: Why is it important to prepare a young generation of leaders?

MRM: With the graying of HIV (over 50% of people living with HIV are now over the age of 50), and with this epidemic entering its fifth decade in this world, a new batch of problem-solving leaders will be emerging. While we young adults can be impatient and spoiled, we are also confident, socially responsible, and savvy with technology. It is our elders' responsibility to prepare us to lead, but it is our job to listen intently.

TCG: As a young black woman, how are you positioning yourself in the young generations of leaders? What do you want to be in the movement? What roles do you want to play as a member of the young generation of leaders?

MRM: I am aligning myself with other young leaders that are not just focused on ending the epidemic but addressing multiple dimensions of this disease, like addressing economic justice, racial justice, and HIV criminalization. In this movement, I want to be a change agent that is multidimensional. I want my primary focus to be on policy change, because for me that's where the real change happens. You can positively affect millions of people living with or at risk for HIV through public policy.

TCG: What are the struggles and challenges young black women face in terms of having access to HIV treatment, HIV prevention services, and sexual reproductive health services?

MRM: Young black women must be at the forefront of the reproductive justice movement. Not only are young black women more likely to receive an HIV diagnosis than our white counterparts, but we are also more likely to die during childbirth and receive a late cervical cancer diagnosis. These reproductive and sexual health issues come from racial disparities in health care. Poor health outcomes for women of color do not just reveal bad policy, but they are evidence that the U.S. is failing to meet its human rights obligations to provide equal access to reproductive health care.

TCG: What are the opportunities young women have now?

MRM: When this epidemic first started, women were rarely heard or seen by this movement. Thank God those days are over. As a young woman, I directly benefit from national organizations like Positive Women's Network-USA that are run for and by women living with HIV.

TCG: How can older women prepare a young generation of leaders?

MRM: Older women can prepare the younger generation of women by cultivating authentic intergenerational relationships with them. Older women must know that they have so much wisdom to give, while also learning from younger women as well.

TCG: How can other organizations incorporate the NMAC youth fellowship?

MRM: Many of my colleagues who participated in the NMAC youth fellowship are not only living with HIV, but they also happen to be public health professionals who would greatly benefit from a paid internship with a national or international organization.

TCG: If there was a day at USCA where both the HIV 50+ Strong and Healthy fellows and youth fellows could spend a day learning together, what questions would you like to ask the HIV 50+ Strong and Healthy fellows?

MRM: I would want to know the secrets to long-term, healthy self-care while being an advocate/activist. I want to know how the 50+ fellows handled internal conflicts within the movement while maintaining a united front. I would also love to know more about their personal stories and how they live intersectional lives as women, men, LGBTQ+, mothers, fathers, etc., so that we can start collecting their memories. This is the first generation to face HIV and aging. Their struggles and triumphs must be recorded and shared.

Tuyishime Claire Gasamagera is a motivational public speaker, life skills coach, and visionary operations executive; fluent in over seven languages including English, French, and Kinyarwanda; anti-AIDS activist, freelance writer, lobbyist, and consultant with solid experience managing all levels of projects including fundraising, advocacy, budgeting, and administration on the national, regional, and global level.