This Fourth of July, I’ll be thinking a lot about independence. I’ve lost my freedom so many times—only to regain it, then lose it yet again.

My world used to revolve around drugs; in the early ’80s in New York City, I was arrested three times for possession. After being set free, I moved to Texas, thinking life would improve. But I found myself in prison there on three felony convictions involving heroin and cocaine. I was still bound by drugs when I was released and returned to New York.

But finally, in 1994, I found the support to break the cycle of incarceration. I was living in a shelter when I met someone wonderful. We moved into an apartment, and I trusted him dearly. I thought I was free, forever, at last—until I learned that he was HIV positive and that I was too. I thought I was going to die, but this time I didn’t turn to drugs. I learned to live freely while being positive at New York City’s Housing Works, which put a roof over my head and self-respect in my heart.

I enrolled in the agency’s job-training program in 1996 and then became a Housing Works employee. I didn’t stop there. I had earned a GED in prison, so I decided to go to college and grad school. I have three degrees now—not bad for a seventh-grade dropout. As the director of a Housing Works program for positive women leaving the correctional system, I advocate for those who don’t have a voice. I help them declare their independence—from fear and stigma.