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Champions of Change: A Celebration of Black Women Changemakers in HIV

Linda H. Scruggs, The Warrior

Linda H. ScruggsLinda H. ScruggsLinda H. Scruggs

A conversation with Linda H. Scruggs, founding director of Ribbon

When Linda H. Scruggs looks back on her childhood in the Maryland and Washington, D.C. area, the long-time HIV survivor, advocate, and co-executive director of Ribbon,* a national nonprofit, easily recalls good times, like vacations and road trips that still make her smile. As for bad times, those memories are just as lucid. A survivor of childhood molestation, “I discovered men could be cruel.”

In the face of that discovery, she sought agency. “I learned to utilize control over my body to help myself.” For years, she saw sex as transactional, and as a young adult, she became the victim of rape and turned to drug use. Then one day, she recalls hearing the voice of her deceased grandfather. “He was the only person I believed loved me. He said, ‘Go home.’ I walked to my parents’ house and never used drugs or my body as my own economy again.”

Two years later, Scruggs was in a healthy relationship and pregnant when her world changed forever. While visiting a clinic, she was told very coldly that she’d tested positive for HIV, an experience she calls “traumatic.” Then, “they said, ‘You can terminate the baby today.’ I felt disempowered.” Linda persevered through this challenge, refusing to give up her child. “My son is 32 now and HIV negative. The day I got his negative diagnosis was the day that I had to do something.”

The year was 1991, and Scruggs’ first act of advocacy was on behalf of a 5-year-old girl named Brianna who was HIV positive and just wanted to go to school. “Her nurse practitioner and I got together and convinced a vice principal we knew to let Brianna attend for three days.” That triumph was when she found her voice and her calling. Scruggs began working alongside nurses at Johns Hopkins, educating and advocating for pregnant moms and children living with HIV to help improve their lives. She also helped improve their perspectives. “All the women’s groups at the time were talking about dying, and all the gay guys were talking about living. I always tell folks my gift to Baltimore was helping women learn to have vision.”

“I always tell folks my gift to Baltimore was helping women learn to have vision.”

-Linda H. Scruggs

For one program, “I loaded up a school bus and took 30 women and their kids to the beach,” she says, wanting to give them some joyful release. “There was nothing like watching those kids see the ocean for the first time.” Scruggs went on to other HIV/AIDS organizations like AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth, and Families before forming her own, where she believed she could have the greatest impact. Ribbon is in its 11th year of establishing and supporting programs and initiatives to arm women and other forgotten populations of the HIV epidemic, like heterosexual Black men, with what they need to survive and thrive. If it’s in HIV advocacy, Scruggs has done it, all while using her story to inspire. Rather than a victim, “I’m a healer.”

*This organization is a Gilead grant recipient.

*Viral suppression means the amount of virus in the blood is very low or cannot be measured by a test (<200 c/mL). Viral suppression is the goal of HIV care and treatment.13

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