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HIV Prevention in Latino Faith Communities: Counting Big Wins in an Uphill Battle
Q & A With Nathaly Rubio-Torio, Executive Director of Voces Latinas

By Olivia Ford

October 17, 2011

"Globally, HIV and violence against women are twin pandemics," says Nathaly Rubio-Torio, co-founder and executive director of Voces Latinas; "We get women experiencing violence every day, yet having no awareness around HIV."

Voces Latinas, which began as a volunteer-run organization in 2004, works to prevent HIV and domestic violence among immigrant Latinas in the community of western Queens, N.Y. And how does it reach this often isolated community with prevention messages? By partnering with institutions that already have influence within the community. In western Queens, this means the small, community-based Christian churches that dot the avenues.

The topic of HIV prevention is a controversial one in many faith communities, and the local churches of Queens are no different. "We go to 10 churches in order to recruit one or two," Rubio-Torio explains; "But getting that one or two is a huge step."

Nathaly Rubio-Torio

Nathaly Rubio-Torio

Tell us about Voces Latinas.

We primarily target immigrant Latinas living with, or at high risk for, HIV and violence. The way we do our work is by first meeting the immediate needs that immigrant Latinas come in with. We know the realities that they face in their daily lives. If we don't meet those immediate needs, then we'll most likely not be able to get to the whole HIV and violence prevention message. We obtain a woman's trust by guiding her to resources and services.

One of the biggest components of our work are the women who participate in our peer education training -- we call them our promotoras. The promotoras are the very same women from the community that came in seeking services. We've trained this group of women to actually do the outreach, and educate around awareness, and connect women to the organization so that they can then be referred to services.

Our promotoras are the heart and soul of our organization, because they're the women that have experienced violent situations, dealt with them, survived them, and are moving forward in life. Who better to reach and access the women that are currently in these situations? The promotoras bring in about 70 percent of our clients.

Our population is very isolated, very fearful around immigration issues and policies, so they're a bit hard to reach. We really need to be able to connect and build their trust, in order for them to come in for services. We do that through our promotoras, but we also engage with partners that have an influence in the community and have access to the population. One of our latest endeavors is partnering with local, community-based churches.

Because many of the women that come to our organization belong to different churches, and have leadership roles in their churches or are very close to their pastors, we were approached to try to do this outreach and education regarding HIV and violence within the church. We partnered with Iris House to reach out to churches in the community to be able to provide HIV intervention information to women from the church. It's an evidence-based intervention called SISTA (Sisters Informing Sisters around Topics on AIDS) from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's designed for African-American women, and we've adapted the language and cultural references so that it's suitable for immigrant Latinas. We're into our second year of this partnership.

Can you talk a little bit about the "faith diaspora" of the Queens community where you're working?

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If you drive along Northern Boulevard in western Queens, or even Roosevelt Avenue, or some side avenues, you'll see a lot of small community churches. They're not the Catholic Church. A lot of them are Christian churches. There are definitely Protestant, Lutheran, Mormon congregations.

It's got its pluses and its minuses. Trying to get into a big Catholic church and reach the main priest that makes the decisions is harder. I think the bigger churches have so many other people they need to answer to, so the risk is a bit higher for them. I think we tried one big Catholic church in our community: It was impossible to get a meeting with them once we talked about who we are and what our agency is about. I think we'll get there; but reaching the pastors that run these smaller, community-based churches is a little bit easier. Not that convincing them is easier. We utilize our promotoras that are part of these churches to introduce us to the pastors that we need to speak to.

Of course, the topic of HIV in the church is very controversial. We have never to date been able to reach a church that says to us, "Sure, we'll give out condoms; we'll talk to our women about safer sex practices." Because the intervention covers a lot of health topics, and health includes violence, and the church pastors realize that there's a lot of violence -- particularly domestic violence -- in the community, that's a big interest of theirs.

How do these partnerships with churches work?

We present the outline of the curriculum, and how it addresses all these different needs of our communities. The pastor begins to see: "Yes, this is what's happening. This is what I'm hearing from the members of my church." But at the same time, they'll tell us, "We really can't distribute condoms or any kind of contraceptives."

Many times they have to tell us what they feel comfortable with us discussing, and what not to do within the church. That's OK for us. We'll get there one day, regarding condom distribution. But the fact that some pastors are partnering with us, and some churches are open to letting organizations like ours come in and have these conversations with their members, especially their women, are huge steps.

Once the pastor OKs the curriculum, there are four different phases of the partnership, which goes on for several months. First we identify women that have shown leadership within the church that would be great candidates to take this training. About 10 women from the church take this five-week intervention. From those 10, two are selected for a "train-the-trainer" training to learn how to give educational workshops to their church members. Then we help them with organizing a workshop and delivering it to their church. This could be in our space or in the church space. We leave it very open. The final step of the partnership is holding a health fair within their church.

We leave them with the curriculum in Spanish. They have materials they can follow. They're now trained to give these workshops to the members of their church. And it's the women that are taking the lead in that.

But we have our challenges: Out of 10 churches that we visit, maybe one or two will say, "Sure. Come on in." You can imagine how many churches we visit in order to maybe recruit five to do this work. And these are not churches that are financially stable themselves. Like nonprofits, they have all the challenges of fundraising and staying within the community. Some are better off than others. But it's a big process of trying to get a first meeting with the pastors, a sit-down, so that we can get their full attention.

Is it more a lack of capacity or time that keeps churches from becoming involved? Or is it more faith-based reasons, such as that people shouldn't be talking about their private business, or about sex?

I think it's a mix of both. Even in churches that have completed the whole cycle of the partnership, we've heard back that some of the pastors aren't completely comfortable with the HIV prevention work the promotoras do in our organization. Because when you talk about HIV, you have to talk about sex.

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I think they're experiencing some stigma. The pastors get confused. I think they want to do this work. They recognize that it's important. But they're unsure: Is it really their role as a pastor to talk about these issues? I can see there's a dilemma they're going through. That gets communicated over to the promotora, and her dilemma starts. We've been having conversations with our promotoras about the differences between their role in their church and their role as peer educators: This is about educating. Luckily, we haven't lost any promotoras as a result of this, or any pastors ... knock on wood.

In one of our last HIV testing campaigns, where we go out and table, we partnered with one of the churches. So it was us, table to table with a church, giving HIV information and condoms. I have a picture. I had to take pictures, because it was the first time that you could see an HIV prevention organization and a church together in our community.

When we go to different conferences and meetings, it's great when you have somebody from the clergy, or somebody from a faith-based organization, at the table. It's an area that HIV providers are starting to reach, and it's been going on for a while. But certain communities are a little more closed, more conservative, more traditional.

Say another organization wanted to start working with these smaller local churches in Latino communities, and sought your counsel. How would you advise them to begin reaching out? What would you want them to keep in mind?

Look at who you're serving first. The very people that we're serving belong to churches. Those are our allies. They're coming to our organization for a reason. They believe in our mission. They believe in what we're doing. They're probably getting a lot of help and services from our organization. So talk to them. Get their buy-in first, so they can then open that door and make that introduction to their pastors, or to their churches.

It's not always going to happen. They can't decide for that pastor. But that's where we need to be very patient and understanding. We can't get angry. We can't get frustrated. Like I said, we go to 10 churches in order to recruit one or two. That could get very tiresome. But don't get discouraged. Getting that one or two is a huge step.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Olivia Ford is the community manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.


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