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Photograph by Michael Simon

The atmosphere in Boatwright Memorial Library is focused. In nearly every nook and cranny, students are absorbed in equations plastered across whiteboards or reviewing flashcards as they prep for their next exams.

But on an unusually warm afternoon in October, the atmosphere inside a back-corner seminar room offers a stark contrast.

The room is scattered with construction paper, faux flowers, handwritten poems, and more, and buzzes with chatter and energy. Students enrolled in a documentary theater course are here with members of a women’s HIV/AIDS support group from St. Paul’s Baptist Church, a predominantly African American church in Richmond. Their task is to develop a collection of cascading books that will be displayed at “Voices of Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic,” an exhibition for the Valentine Museum in downtown Richmond.

“These books are to be a colorful centerpiece of the exhibition,” said Laura Browder, American studies professor and co-curator of the exhibition. “They’ll be the medium for you to tell your story, the way you want to tell it,” she explains to the women, all of whom are HIV/AIDS-positive.

In Richmond, a city that ranks in the top 20 among more than 2,300 localities in the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, the disease disproportionately affects people of color. In 2015, AIDSVu reported that 4,678 individuals were living with HIV in Richmond; 70 percent of them were black. Yet the story of HIV/AIDS is predominantly told from the perspective of white gay men, so it needs additional voices, according to Browder and theater professor Patricia Herrera.

After co-teaching a docudrama course on the HIV/AIDS epidemic last year, Browder and Herrera urged students this fall to seek out stories often left untold.

“I’m all about storytelling, but authentic storytelling,” said Johnette Johnson, ’20, a student in the course. “What I love about this project is that these women get a voice. They get to tell their own story of transformation from their own perspective.”

As bright, colorful books developed in the small seminar room in Boatwright, Johnson and her classmates took in stories of transformation, faith, activism, relationships, and legacy from women who live with the disease — stories they would transform into a docudrama they performed with members of the support group in November.

“Students often get tunnel vision in everyday life, but they dig into these creative projects, and it helps them open up and see a bigger picture,” Herrera said. “The meaningful experiences that happen along the way also establish relationships between students and the community that far outlast the semester.”

The women of the support group, in turn, are able to raise their voices and visibility.

“It’s important for me to share my story with HIV/AIDS,” said support group member Sheila Rollé. “I used to be hush-hush about this, but not anymore.”