Janet Kitchen (above left) and a friend organizing for change
Janet Kitchen is one of those women who learned she was HIV-positive and — instead of wallowing in her own depression — took that firsthand insight into the emotional toll the disease can have and set out to help others.
Her first attempt to connect with other positive women was hampered by her location in rural Florida. Davenport, a town south of Orlando, had a population below 3,000 people as of 2010, and the area had little or no public transportation. But that didn’t deter Kitchen. She formed her support group anyway, connecting with other women through conference calls.
It’s applying that kind of ingenuity that impresses other HIV activists.
“I've see her demonstrate extraordinary passion and courage in her very public HIV education and advocacy,” says Mark Misrok, co-founder of the National Working Positive Coalition, who first met Kitchen a decade ago and nominated her for this honor.
In the ensuing years, rather than abandoning her hometown for a city with more resources, Kitchen has remained in Davenport and created local resources for others living in the region between Tampa and Orlando. She’s applied the same tenacity in her activism, Misrock says, whether she is “fighting against HIV stigma, working in HIV prevention, [or] supporting and organizing women living with HIV.”
In 2010, Kitchen founded Positively-U, a nonprofit organization where she and other “minority citizen activists in central Florida,” join forces to provide a broad range of “culturally appropriate” prevention, education, support and outreach services to those living with, affected by, or at risk of contracting HIV.
Kitchen also joined the Positive Women’s Network and became a member of Common Threads’ network of female activists and micro-entrepreneurs sharing the goals of decreasing HIV stigma, increasing HIV testing and linkage to health care, and creating opportunities through “economic collectives.”
Now a mental health counselor and consultant with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Kitchen continues her advocacy.
“I often only hear about her activities on Facebook,” muses Misrok. “I marvel at her day-in, day-out grassroots commitment: always seeming to be out there speaking, educating, and organizing events that typically fly under the radar.”
By staying in her small town and doing that important work Kitchen isn’t courting the kind of attention that Misrok says she would have gotten if she was “engaged in higher visibility, sometimes more glamorous or even more grandstanding work.” But that’s exactly why she deserves this kind of recognition, Misrok says.
“I appreciate [Kitchen’s] leadership,” he adds. “And [I] know how important it is to many who may receive little to no support otherwise."
[Editor's note: Kitchen has been dealing with a family emergency and was unable to speak with us directly.]