Venita Ray will never forget April 2, 2003. It’s the day she was diagnosed with HIV. The then 44-year-old successful attorney had overcome a lot in her life—teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse—to finally be living her dream. It instantly turned into a four-year nightmare filled with daily thoughts of suicide and despair.

“I didn’t want to live with the stigma and shame of living with HIV,” she said. “I became disconnected and refused to accept it.”

Ray is one of more than 20,000 people in Houston living with HIV. Almost half of those diagnosed in Houston between 2011 and 2015 were black. For every white woman diagnosed, 21 black women tested positive. It makes Ray “angry” that so many people who look like her are still fighting this fight.

“I believe that if this epidemic looked different, we might treat it differently,” said Ray, now a public policy manager at Legacy Community Health. “We do not value black and brown bodies to the same degree we value others.”

It’s those elements of racial, social and economic justice that first attracted Samira Ali to the fight against HIV/AIDS more than a decade ago. According to Ali, an assistant professor at the UH Graduate College of Social Work, the disease disproportionately affects communities of color because of stigma, poverty, racial inequality and lack of access to affordable and culturally appropriate health care.

“These social determinants of health shape individuals’ well-being and mental health. Nobody makes a choice to get HIV. It’s a product of the policies, systems and structures,” said Ali.

Thanks to a $5 million grant from Gilead Sciences, Inc., Ali now leads the SUSTAIN (Supporting U.S. Southern States to Incorporate Trauma-Informed HIV/AIDS Initiatives for Wellbeing) Wellbeing COMPASS Coordinating Center to enhance HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in six states along the Gulf Coast—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Georgia. These states have the highest HIV rates in the South. The grant is a part of a new $100 million, 10-year program by Gilead to address HIV/AIDS in the Southern United States, which accounts for approximately 45 percent of all people living with HIV in the country, despite being home to only one-third of the population.

As center director, Ali is focusing on the role of wellness, trauma and mental health as important components of effective intervention strategies. The center provides resources, training and technical assistance to HIV/AIDS service organizations and clinics while incorporating culturally tailored best practices to strengthen care.

“We are meeting people where they are to identify the areas with the highest HIV rates with limited access to care. Community health is essential because communities best know their needs and should be a part of the development of programs, their evaluations and dissemination of results,” said Ali.

“We are meeting people where they are to identify the areas with the highest HIV rates with limited access to care. Community health is essential because communities best know their needs and should be a part of the development of programs, their evaluations and dissemination of results,” said Ali.

Community agencies on the frontlines of the battle are also getting support in applying for grants, evaluating their programs and incorporating telehealth initiatives, such as teleconferencing, to increase reach and impact. Efforts to reduce stigma, reframe mental health care and address opioid use are underway as well.

Ray, meanwhile, made the choice to start living again, and is now an HIV/AIDS activist. Ali asked her to lead the center’s community advocacy leadership board across the six states to build community engagement efforts. Ray understands the battle ahead better than most, because she lives it every day.

“My message to the HIV community is that we are here for you. You are not just the carrier of a disease, not just the consumer of a drug; you have the power to influence and help end this epidemic,” she said.