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

Marlene McNeese, The Leader

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A conversation with Marlene McNeese, Deputy Assistant Director at the Houston Health Department

As early as Marlene McNeese can remember, she’s been crystal clear about her future. “I instinctively knew what my life’s work was going to be,” says the dogged HIV activist and 20-year veteran of the Houston Health Department, where she serves as Deputy Assistant Director, Bureau of HIV/STI and Viral Hepatitis Prevention. “I’ve always been a champion for the underdog, the protector.”

“I’ve always been a champion for the underdog, the protector.”

-Marlene McNeese

She first flexed her advocacy muscle in high school, where she remembers sticking up for a friend. “One day, kids were going off about her hair and how she didn’t have anybody taking care of her. Then I went off. I said, ‘She’s more than her hair and her clothes. I know her spirit, and she’s better than all of you!’” McNeese later learned how impactful she’d been. “My friend said, ‘That was the first time I felt like anybody understood who I was on the inside.’”

By 1989, she was 21, out of college, and interviewing in Houston to be an outreach coordinator at a nonprofit serving local homeless and LGBTQ youth. Through that role, she’d learn how HIV might have touched not only those around her but also her own family. “My grandmother died abruptly in her fifties after receiving a blood transfusion,” she recalls. “Doctors didn’t tell us exactly what it was, they just talked about her immune system being compromised.” After connecting the dots between her new job and that tragedy, “I had no doubt that HIV would be my life’s work. Had we had the information, the openness to really discuss what we were experiencing, we could have wrapped around my grandmother in a deeper way during her final moments.”

Armed with a passion to better equip those impacted by HIV, McNeese sought out mentors and expanded her knowledge of the epidemic and its growing impact on Black women. “Today we are still looking back on how much we’ve lost and the missed opportunity early on to avert HIV among Black women.” That said, for decades, she’s worked diligently to effectively employ Houston resources to change the landscape, arming countless Houstonians of color with accessible information, programming, and support systems that have saved lives. One example: HIP HOP for HIV, “a public-private collaboration to host testing events each summer, bringing HIV testing and other services to over 55,000 young adults over 10 years.” Additionally, during her tenure as a board chair for the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors,* McNeese shared her learnings on racial equity with programmatic leaders from across the nation, advocating for the hardest-hit communities to have a seat at the table. “It’s my responsibility to use what I know to have some impact in a system that wasn’t built for us and strive to change that system from the inside.”

*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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