“You ever seen the people on the street corners doing church verses and singing? Well, that was me with condoms,” says Brenda Flowers, founder of Rising Against All Odds, Inc. and the 2021 recipient of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundations Award for Health Equity.
The vision of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is to build a culture of health to ensure the achievement of health equity. This award honors those who have successfully implemented systems changes and promoted and highlighted solutions at the community level that lead to health equity. And Flowers and her organization are doing just that.
After moving around a lot while serving in the military, Flowers decided to return to her hometown of DeLand, Florida, where she also started Rising Against All Odds.
“There weren’t many resources and there weren’t many services here for people like me. And I wanted to have a presence here for people that were at risk or had HIV, so I started Rising Against All Odds from a street corner handing out condoms with a poster board with magic marker on it.”
From there, Rising Against All Odds grew into what it is today: a grassroots organization committed to providing HIV prevention, education and awareness in the deep South. Rising Against All Odds provides free and confidential HIV testing and counseling, comprehensive non-clinical case-management services, peer advocates, consulting and public forums dedicated to the elimination of HIV one person-one community at a time.
Flowers says she is proud to be working in DeLand where conversations about HIV are still scarce.
“There are a lot of obstacles here. There’s a lot of division here. I have had to go into rooms where I was humiliated and devalued as a person, not an agency, but I still took it and I’m here. So, I’m very proud of that. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I got through it. You would think that through the years that it would be easier, but every year it’s the same process—fighting to provide services in the community.”
She says that she finds a lot of strength in speaking about her experience because for so many years she was silenced by stigma and shame brought on by others.
“I remember the first speech I ever did, I was at a park. Some agency had come down from Chicago and I confided in them because they were an HIV agency, and they invited me to speak. This was disclosing myself in front of everybody and I never did anything like that before. I remember my knees were buckling and I was shaking, but I did it and I haven’t stopped since,” she said with a grin. “I was able to have a voice when I didn’t know it was possible.”
As she continues this work, Flowers hopes to see others use their stories as well and encourage conversation about living with HIV in the South.
“HIV hasn’t gone away. It is still very prominent. Just because you don’t talk about it and don’t acknowledge it doesn’t mean it’s gone away. And we need to keep having a voice and keep working towards eradicating it, and you can’t eradicate it by being silent.”
She does this by opening up all of her speeches with the same question: “How many of us are human?” When everybody raises their hands, Flowers points out that all you have to be is human in order to be affected by HIV. Flowers uses these connections to make impacts in her communities where there is a lot of resistance, denial and stigma about people living with HIV. But it’s not just about addressing HIV. Flowers’ work—and the work of so many HIV organizations—is intersectional at its roots.
“It’s addressing health disparities. If you are high risk for anything, any other disease, you are at high risk for HIV. If you are living with social inequality, you are at high risk for HIV. And it’s kind of bridging all of those things together to give a message on HIV prevention. You have to be strategic, I guess. You can’t just say I am an HIV counselor—no, you are a human counselor. You are a life coach. It’s more than just being an HIV counselor or advocate.”
And although the job often feels thankless and emotionally and physically exhausting, Flowers is thrilled for the opportunity to be recognized for her work.
“It is wonderful to be recognized,” she says. “The award gives me validation that I am doing the right thing, I am on track, I am doing work for the community, for the nation, for the world.”