Next stop: success

Stigma: In and Out is a monthly series profiling the clients, providers and leaders of AFC's Corrections Case Management program, which helps HIV-positive people emerging from prison or jail get the support they need upon reentry.

While visiting the Austin Health Center of Cook County CBC Initiative, you may come across Derrick Burris, a volunteer peer educator working with the Corrections Case Management program as a part of the Returning Citizens Circle. He has managed to take a challenging past and turn it into a promising future.

Born the youngest of four children at Cook County Hospital, Derrick had no idea the struggles that he would overcome in his lifetime. It was in his early twenties that Burris’ long battle with drugs began. Being young and gay brings about many struggles, especially for a young black male on the west side of Chicago.

Burris’s consistent struggle with cocaine continued for years and introduced him to sex work, which led to his seven-month prison sentence in 2004. While in prison Burris was confronted with ignorance regarding his sexual preference from other inmates that made his stay very challenging at times. When Burris was released from prison and surrounded with insurmountable discrimination and isolation, he returned to his drug use and sex survival work. 

Derrick Burris has been HIV-positive since 1995; he found out when he was in his early twenties, during the same turbulent time in his life when he was experimenting with cocaine.  Being HIV-positive, a returning citizen and past drug user, Burris is no stranger to stigma. While incarcerated, Burris discontinued the use of his treatment medications to avoid being seen as different from his fellow inmates and to maintain his privacy.  With all of the struggles that Burris has faced in his lifetime, today he still finds himself struggling with the feeling of not being worthy of being loved.

Burris uses all of his life experiences to better his community. It started within himself, finding the strength to do the hardest thing in his life: break free of drugs. Burris has refrained from the use of drugs for the past eight years now and has no plans on returning to the habit.

Burris has been an active member of the Returning Citizens Circle for 2 years now, and he looks forward to coming into the sessions with an optimistic frame of mind. The returning citizen’s circle is perfect for people like Burris because he is able to not only maintain his sobriety easier, but he is able to share viewpoints, and help others sort out their own feelings. Burris through growth and resilience often makes encouraging declarations during the group sessions like, “I have HIV — HIV doesn’t have me!”

He is seen as a mentor and role model to many of his peers, which is how he earned his position as a peer educator at Austin CBC. Burris helps facilitate support groups, conducts HIV testing and more. Having worked in this position for the past nine months, Burris has begun to make plans for his future career in the HIV field.  He plans to return to school to begin courses to be a drug counselor.

As a community advocate, Burris has taken on responsibilities as they come. He annually produces a World AIDS Day program at his church, Harmony Community Church, where he is a member. During the program, preventive skits are performed, HIV testing is administered and members are educated about HIV as a whole. Recently married to his partner, Derrick is changing his life for the better, and not looking back unless it is to inspire and teach.

In the case of Burris vs. Stigma, Burris is winning and plans to keep winning. “Do not let people label you; you are worth more than they say you are,” he declared. Stigma has two sides: the side that can break you, and the side that can inspire you to stand up against letting imposed untruths win against you.

Categorized under Case management, Illinois, Inside Story and Stigma: In and Out.