Our People: Q&A with Darrin Johnson

PowerHouse Project coordinator lives to help HIV+ people

In the decades since the advent of HIV/AIDS, there have been a number of activists who went above and beyond to address and abate the epidemic. Darrin Johnson of PowerHouse Project (PHP) is one of these leaders. His current posts include serving as PHP’s empowerment coordinator, project director of a CDC-funded study called the Online Safe Space Initiative and working full-time on his doctorate in Health Services Research. The term “overachiever” doesn’t quite cover it. In the past, Johnson has had a decade of experience working on HIV prevention and community outreach. He has worked with the Metrolina AIDS Project and the Carolinas CARE partnership and participates in many more programs and initiatives to benefit HIV+ people and prevent the disease’s spread. It’s safe to say that with champions like Johnson, the movement to end HIV/AIDS has a very big advantage.

What’s the most challenging part of your work?

The most challenging part of working in HIV prevention and research is addressing stigma in the community, but also in healthcare. Stigma…creates barriers to healthcare access and community engagement…This is why I see HIV prevention and care through the lens of social justice. When people think of social justice they think of race relations and racial equality for minority populations, and race, class and privilege are often embedded in how health services are delivered. Acknowledging and dismantling these in addition to addressing stigma are major challenges.

What’s the source of your passion for working to fight HIV?

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The source of my passion for working to decrease new HIV infections and engaging people into care is because there are so many people who look like me and love like me who are disproportionately impacted by HIV. These are also people who have the most barriers to prevention and care services…The work isn’t about fighting HIV. It’s about caring for people holistically and making sure that HIV is the minimal part of people’s lives as we get persons living with HIV virally suppressed and reduce fear for those who are not living with HIV.

When you were a kid, what did you see yourself doing when you grew up?

When I was a kid, I thought I would be an actor. I thought that I would be on television or on the movie screens. The interesting part about that is that I am shy…so not really sure how that would work, but I loved the passion and talent displayed from actors and actresses in my favorite TV shows and movies. I found my idols on the TV and movie screens and, in some ways, they taught me a lot. I wanted to have the same effect on people.

What is the importance of early engagement with youth in the goal to prevent HIV/AIDS?

It’s simple! Proper education at earlier ages will help keep youth safe…abstinence-only education in schools and other places where youth engage is inadequate. We need to teach youth risk reduction techniques and ways to protect themselves against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections…We can’t prevent HIV in young populations if we aren’t realistic about the behaviors in which they engage.

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You must stay very busy with all your work. What do you do to relax?

Right now, I get very few moments to just relax. Honestly, I just work a lot, and I am finishing up a Ph.D. program in Health Services Research at UNC Charlotte. However, I’ve taken a few Sunday afternoons to watch movies at home on the couch.

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Malawi! I’ve been twice; once for work, and another time for a spring break Social Work study abroad course. I love the people and the relationships that my colleagues and I have nurtured with the people there. It’s known as the “warm heart of Africa.” I have so many great memories of the people and places I’ve visited while there. We were intentional in removing the idea that it was a mission trip. It was about engaging communities and working with leaders in villages and cities who were already doing empowering work and supporting their efforts. It was a wonderful experience.

How would you describe your “happy place”?

A “happy place” for me is just being at peace. That could be on one of my random Sundays watching movies alone on my couch, enjoying the sunset on a beach or just a quiet and silent break with no movement. Just a time when I can stop and be present in the moment.

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