Maya Merriweather, who is a program coordinator with the Black AIDS Institute’s mobilization team, is channeling a lifelong desire to help others by actively engaging in the fight against the spread of HIV among communities of color. At age 26, she has joined the next generation of HIV/AIDS activists and organizers focused on ending the epidemic.
As a child, Merriweather dreamed of being a doctor, but she developed a passion for playing the flute at age 10, eventually going on to earn a bachelor’s degree in music performance from DePaul University. After graduating, she freelanced with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra but became disenchanted because of a lack of diversity in the field. So she decided to re-engage her original passion—medicine—and entered the postbaccalaureate premedical program at the University of Southern California (USC).
“At USC there was a heavy emphasis on explaining the science and treatment, all of these cellular and microcellular aspects, and they used it as a huge learning tool,” Merriweather says of her education about HIV/AIDS within the program. “But they only ever talked about that dimension of it, and I knew there were a lot of systemic factors and barriers to care that were not being addressed at my school, and that this was providing doctors with only a fraction of the knowledge they needed to be effective HIV clinicians.”
While she was digesting the premed studies, she noticed that a lot of voices and concerns from marginalized populations in the neighborhoods around USC were not being heard. “Because of what I was seeing in the community, I felt called to reach that population. I wanted to reach Black people on the populational level, to see populational change versus a clinical setting,” Merriweather says.
She finished the program at USC knowing that it was unlikely she would attend medical school. Her interests had now changed to a different kind of healing, and she was inspired to bring her HIV/AIDS clinical training to communities that really needed it.
During this time, Merriweather became aware of the Black AIDS Institute, which is located close to the university. Through word of mouth and her own research, she noticed that BAI’s programs aligned well with her new career path. It would take her two years to become a program coordinator there.
The first big project Merriweather helped work on is the Black Women and PrEP Toolkit, a resource and reference guide for Black women written through the cultural lens of Black women, which was launched on March 10, National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. The toolkit answers the who, what, why, when and where questions about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). “We’re focusing particularly on Black women and passing knowledge along to them, because often they’re erased from the conversation,” Merriweather says.
Merriweather is glad to be aboard as the Institute gears up for the next generation of HIV/AIDS capacity building, advocacy, mobilization and service delivery.
“Phill Wilson’s retirement is bittersweet, but I think it’s exciting, too,” she says. “We have a lot of young and really eager, motivated people here, so I hope to be a part of that and continue Phill’s legacy.”
Along the way, Merriweather is enjoying learning everything she can while working with the community and creating policies to help end the AIDS epidemic. “I want to learn to galvanize my voice in places I want to be heard, and promote full health in Black communities the best I can,” she says.
April Eugene is a Philadelphia-based writer.