Esther Ross was already a seasoned community advocate when she began working with NCAAN’s Women Empowerment (WE) Teams.
“I was diagnosed with HIV in 1993 while living and working in New York City,” she explains.
“I’ve been part of the community for a long time.”
A plain-spoken social worker with a Master’s degree in Human Services, Esther and her husband relocated to North Carolina from the Big Apple in 2002. As excited as they were to move down South, Esther recalls that “there were no forums for advocacy” in North Carolina when she first arrived. Even so, that did not stop the former mental health counselor from seeking out opportunities on her own.
Nor did it stop Alicia Diggs, a NC Triad resident whose interest in health equity began while watching her older brother pass out condoms in their hometown of Philadelphia. “I was like a sponge,” she remembers vividly. “During that time, it wasn’t called HIV. It was called GRID.”
After contracting the virus from her ex-husband in 2001, Alicia found herself wanting “to educate [other] women about self-worth and self-love, so they would be adamant about protecting their own [sexual health].”
For both Esther and Alicia, NCAAN’s WE Teams were the perfect fit.
In 2013, with generous support from Bristol-Myers Squibb, AIDS United, and Grammy award-winning artist Alicia Keys, NCAAN created the WE Teams to mobilize women living with and affected by HIV throughout the state. The program trains women to be a voice for the voiceless in their local communities since, according to Esther, “a lot of decisions about people living with HIV [in the state] often get made without us.”
Esther, Alicia, and the WE teams have garnered high-profile praise and media attention for their efforts to defend Medicaid funding, preserve the Affordable Care Act, and register women to vote. However, many of their biggest aspirations have been put on hold because of changes in funding priorities.
“With or without a grant, we are not gonna stop,” Alicia insists. “We will continue to pound the concrete, so we wake up our government leaders.”
Esther agrees wholeheartedly though she’s quick to point out that “having [additional] funding would allow us to [reach] other counties in North Carolina.”
“One of our greatest accomplishments has been our growth.”
NCAAN seeks to improve the lives of people living with HIV & AIDS in the state of North Carolina. To support Esther, Alicia, and the work of the Women’s Empowerment Teams, click here.