If Freda

LOTUS, Inc., Founder and Executive Director, Freda Jones opens up about trauma and childhood abuse; her diagnosis with HIV; and the restorative journey that brought her to a place of loving herself

Friday, March 8, 2024
Interview by Candace Meadows
Photos and Introduction by Sean Black
Layout and design by Tori Placona

March 10th is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and Freda Jones is modeling hope for other women living openly with HIV. She shares her story of resilience to raise awareness about the heavy burden that HIV has on women, particularly Black women living in the U.S. South. According to AIDSvu.org, Black women continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV, accounting for 54% of new HIV diagnoses in women in the U.S., despite making up less than 15% of the female population. Among Black women, 91% of new HIV diagnoses were attributed to heterosexual contact. The HIV diagnosis rate among Black women was the highest compared to women of all other races and ethnicities.

“I find a common thread [in new diagnoses] is low self-esteem caused by childhood trauma”, shares Jones who’s been a voice for the community since 2002, the year of her HIV diagnosis. Two decades later she is running her own nonprofit, LOTUS (Loving Our Selves Through Unity and Strength) Inc., a support group of over 350 women.

Research has proven that low self-esteem has been associated with a number of psychological, physical, and social consequences that may influence successful adolescent development and the transition to adulthood, including but not limited to sexual activity (in girls).1, 2

“Many of our female members have childhood experiences that have never been addressed. So, our conversations are not just about consequences of condomless sex, they’re more about having agency over our entire physical and psychological bodies, protecting ourselves and demanding better. We want to be accepted. We want to be loved. And we don’t want to be judged.”

Using an Intersectional approach, researchers are beginning to better understand and quantify the complexity of outcomes in different populations based on a framework of characteristics such gender and race while factoring privilege and other multicultural considerations. Black women and girls face disproportionately high rates of HIV due to gender-based violence, racism, poverty, and childhood trauma and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) as Freda warns.

Like many victims of sexual violence, Freda learned to mask and bury the pain. She escaped into the comforting diversions around her like sipping sugary soft drinks at the World of Coca-Cola Museum; and taking long walks from her Westside Atlanta neighborhood, known as the Bluff, to the Omni Hotel where she’d watch other young children roller skate, skip-rope, play kickball, or shoot marbles. These bittersweet memories percolated from the sidelines for Freda; looking on as a spectator, too frightened to let herself slip off-guard to reveal her body and her womanhood.

“There are a lot of beautiful places and a lot of historic moments right here in Atlanta. And even though I grew up in what some might consider the-other-side-of-the-tracks, our grandmother never let us feel like we were poor. We ate black eyed peas and cornbread for dinner and that was a full meal for us.”

Reflecting on her humble roots, the devastating impact of HIV was immense for Freda and her family having lost her two older twin sisters to complications from AIDS only six months apart. Linda and Brenda lost their battles between the fall of 2006 and the summer of 2007 setting off a flurry of loss and fear.

“It was hard for me to disclose to my mom when I found out about my diagnosis. In fact, she was one of the last people I told because I didn’t want her to worry. She was getting older and had her own medical conditions to deal with. I knew that I needed to try to make a difference in the world. I didn’t want this to happen to other families so I began volunteering my services in the community. I began to make myself seen and participated in campaigns and newspaper ads. I knew that I needed to be more than ‘a face’ for my community, I needed to go out into these neighborhoods and help them.”

With her newly designated 501(c)(3) LOTUS, Inc., Freda is branching out further into community.  In a candid interview with Emory COMPASS Coordinating Center’s Director of Strategic Partnerships & Initiatives, Candace Meadows, Freda Jones opens up about her journey.

Candace Meadows:  I’m here [at THRIVE SS in Atlanta, Georgia] with the beautiful Freda Jones. This is her time to tell us about her queendom and how she has come to the space of HIV Advocacy here in Atlanta?

Freda Jones: Thank you, Candace. I am pleased to be here with you. Back when I was diagnosed in 2002, I wanted to focus my love and my support on my community, but I was scared. I was like, ‘Okay God, you want me to really put my face out there?’

I was one of the top hair stylists here in Atlanta- born and raised. So, I knew that I may be faced with backlash and discrimination, and I wanted to protect myself against what I might be faced with. I knew God gave me the strength to handle it, so I just put myself out there. And ever since then, I have been trying to help erase the stigma of HIV and help people understand that just because you are heterosexual or in a committed relationship or married that you still can get HIV without saying your husband or boyfriend is out cheating. We’re not saying that they are gay or bisexual. What we are saying is that if you are having condomless sex, then it is possible for you to acquire HIV. We are simply trying to get out the message about the importance of getting tested for HIV and other STIs for that matter.

Candace Meadows: Who inspired you to become a hair stylist?

Freda Jones: My whole life I was surrounded by great women. My aunties encouraged me to do what I loved to do. I learned to do hair from my fourth-generational aunt – Auntie Rosa Belle Jackson who worked at salon on MLK next to Bronner Brothers (who manufactured the very first black hair products right here in Atlanta). I remember going down to the salon one day and my Auntie Ann asked me what it was that I wanted to do when I got older. I told her right then and there that I wanted to be a hairstylist. But honestly, I had always known that I wanted to be a hair stylist; ever since I was a little girl.

I remember going into the salon on Saturdays, the busiest day of the week before early morning church the next day. Women would come to get their hair pressed. It would be kinky when they walked in and when they walked out it would be shiny, silky and black. I can still recall the smell of pressed hair and pleasant scents of Royal Crown Hair Dressing or Blue Magic Bergamot hair dressing.

Candace Meadows: You frequently talk about the impact of childhood trauma and how it shows up in various aspects of our lives. Can you share how your childhood trauma showed up and impacted you?

I myself, was violated as a child ever since I can remember. I remember the apartment where I was living, and knew that it kept happening up until I was in middle school. I ultimately feel that I received my diagnosis as a result of my childhood trauma which made me very vulnerable and created patterns of me looking for love in the wrong places. I found myself needing to be loved.

We need to talk about molestation and sexual abuse in our homes. We need to make it comfortable for young people to open up and talk candidly. I finally stood up to my abuser one day, and I said, ‘Don’t you dare touch me again.’ That’s when I knew I could stand up for myself. Before that I hid my beauty. Whether it’s certain things that I just wouldn’t wear because I’ve always been shapely. You know, I was born like this. I’ve had to embrace my body. Friends and coworkers and others have helped me embrace my sexiness. I still get shy. When a man would say, ‘Oh, girl, look at you, you are sexy?’ It would trigger me and I’d ask myself ‘why is he looking at me?’ You know, instead of embracing my sexiness I would become self-conscious and defensive. I’d shut down. We have a lot of work to do for ourselves and our kids. I use a metaphor of apples. They rest on the grocer’s rack nice and shiny and pretty. But we’re not getting to the core of the apple. And that’s what’s wrong with our communications with our kids. When we don’t realistically talk about sex and why young kids are engaging in sex. As community workers we need to get to the core of the issues around sex and see why that child is being promiscuous.

Candace Meadows: Can you tell me about how testing and receiving a diagnosis is different today?

Freda Jones: When I got my diagnosis, they didn’t have 20-minute testing. It was the longest two weeks of my life waiting for the results back then. Today, when I’m out talking about HIV prevention, I talk about the ease of home testing kits. I add a little anecdotal humor because that helps people to relax and to relate. I’ll say, ‘Just think about how long you engage in foreplay? test results can be ready in the same window of foreplay.’ They stop and think about it. Right? I want the community to understand that we are human beings first, that we are sexual beings, that we enjoy sex. So why not get educated more about what we enjoy?

Before my diagnosis I never thought HIV applied to me because I was only seeing it affect gay white men or drug users. I wasn’t seeing it happening to professional women who were running successful salons.

It’s important for me to say this and I want women to hear me, ‘If Freda could get an HIV diagnosis, so could you.’

I had a negative test result prior to becoming involved with a certain gentleman from whom I knew I acquired HIV. He was the only person that I had been sleeping with. That’s one of the reasons why I push the importance of getting tested and getting tested often. I was with him for four years. After my positive test result, I found out that he had an AIDS diagnosis for nine years before he and I met. What I want women to know is that if we don’t ask these critical questions, or we don’t go with them to get tested, then how do we really know?

Candace Meadows: Can you tell me about LOTUS?

Freda Jones: My organization LOTUS, Inc. is about empowerment for women and discovering that there is life after a diagnosis of HIV. You can become a teacher, doctor, lawyer, hairstylist, whatever you want to become. Don’t allow your status to stop you from dreaming your dreams. But sometimes people don’t see that. They don’t think they can live their dreams. I have a wonderful coworker, a young woman named Kennedi Lowan. She and I met at a private physician’s office years ago. She is a bright, compassionate young lady who at the time wanted to become more instrumental in helping her community. Like myself, she did the work and attended educational programs like ‘Lunch and Learn’ and other community-based training programs and she volunteered her services as well.

Being able to give back to our community and to help them is what has honestly helped me. I don’t feel this journey is just about me. I am glad when I see someone come into my office to get back on track with their health.

Candace Meadows: Where does your strength come from?

Freda Jones: My strength comes from my upbringing by my grandmother and the other strong women I mentioned earlier. My grandmother taught me how to feed and to support myself. Growing up in one of the lowest-income neighborhoods of Atlanta, I learned how to survive by the grace of God. I didn’t want to go down the same path that I saw so many others going down. So, I can say by praying and staying prayed up – that is why I am where I’m at today.

Candace Meadows: Tell me about your relationship with THRIVE SS. How did you come to know the leadership here?

Freda Jones: Over the years, I’ve been referring same-gender-loving-men to THRIVE SS for support. I got to know Daniel Driffin and then Larry Walker and Dwain Bridges. They shared their experiences in what they were doing for same-gender-loving-men and helped me through the process so that I could do the same for women. They are incredible men, and they continue to support me in my mission to this day.

According to AIDSVu.org, Black people only accounted for 21% of pre-exposure prophylaxis users in the South in 2022.

Freda Jones: What I can say about Black women and prevention is that we don’t have enough Black women using the biomedical prevention tools that are available. These tools are medications that have been proven to work. I wish I saw more women in the commercials and advertisements like us. Representation is key. It’s like why am I picking up a Sports Illustrated magazine. I know nothing about basketball or football. If I don’t see anything on a cover that relates to me; why would I pick it up? We have to start putting things out there as it relates specifically to Black women at risk for HIV. AND It’s going to take more than just one person, more than one company, and more than one agency. This is going to take all of us as a community. We have to make it inclusive and family-friendly too.

Candace Meadows: Your testament speaks volumes to the importance of empowering Black women. Even as we’re living our best lives, we can still be mindful of ways of protecting ourselves and others. I appreciate you.

Candace Meadows interviewed Freda Jones during a photoshoot at THRIVE SS in Atlanta, Georgia on October 6, 2023 for Stories of Triumph, an ongoing storytelling collective of resilience, hope and triumph of Emory COMPASS Center’s funded partners in the U.S. South.


  1. McClure AC, Tanski SE, Kingsbury J, Gerrard M, Sargent JD. Characteristics associated with low self-esteem among US adolescents. Acad Pediatr. 2010 Jul-Aug;10(4):238-44.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.acap.2010.03.007. PMID: 20605547; PMCID: PMC2914631.
  2. Spencer JM, Zimet GD, Aalsma MC, Orr DP. Self-esteem as a predictor of initiation of coitus in early adolescents. 2002;109(4):581–584.

The views, opinions, and conclusions expressed within this piece are those of the author(s) and those being interviewed, and do not reflect the official stance of the Gilead COMPASS Initiative® or Gilead Sciences, Inc. The content herein is provided for informational purposes and is intended to foster dialogue and understanding on topics relevant to public health and community support.

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