October 18, 2011
The Black Treatment Advocates Network (BTAN) held community-mobilization sessions in three cities this summer -- Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago -- to address the disproportionate effect that HIV/AIDS has on Black communities. By engaging and mobilizing Black organizations, leaders and individuals, the sessions provided people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS with answers, support, stronger skills and a better understanding of the virus.
Gresham, who has been living with HIV since 1996, attended the L.A. mobilization sessions. The Los Angeles County resident says that the workshops helped her realize that there is life after a diagnosis. "My husband died, and people around me were leaving; I had a feeling of loss," she recalled. "When I started finding women who are positive also, I learned to not be a prisoner and to be in control."
In each city, local sponsoring organizations hosted two training sessions, each one three days long. The first focused on HIV/AIDS science and treatment and the second on teaching community-mobilization skills.
Prior to attending, Gresham experienced periods during which she felt lonely and lost, feelings not uncommon among those living with HIV. The sessions not only helped her better understand the science behind the virus but also taught her how to advocate politically for herself.
"They let me know how important it is to communicate with my peers and to plan to improve the community," Gresham explained. "It's important to understand the mind games the disease can play on you, and mobilization taught me to love life and to live."
Among BTAN's most important goals is increasing the critical mass of Black AIDS activists in each city who are networked, advocating for policy change, building bonds among various community stakeholders and connecting Black people living with HIV/AIDS to care and medical treatment.
"It is so important to gain a network in order to accomplish something in the community," said Charles Hilliard, Ph.D., clinical director of SPECTRUM Community Services and Research, the community-based clinical-research center associated with the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science that helped lead the Los Angeles trainings. Dr. Hilliard believes that a tight network is the key to creating change. People are encouraged when they have support, he says.
Participants in the Atlanta mobilization training expressed similar sentiments.
"People walk away with a better understanding of HIV and lifestyle," said Shanebrae Price, HIV-prevention and outreach specialist, and advocacy coordinator, for SisterLove, an Atlanta-based reproductive-justice organization and lead host of that city's mobilization training. Price thinks that many organizations and people contribute to BTAN because they can see how the trainings assist others.
Some of the most influential moments of the Atlanta mobilization occurred during group exercises that allowed the diverse group of participants -- including case managers, peer educators and other people from the community living with HIV/AIDS -- to interact, since one person or organization cannot reach everyone.
"BTAN was very helpful for the advocacy work we do with positive women," Price explained. "People walk away with a better lifestyle for living with HIV and have more knowledge to impact the epidemic."
Knowledge and understanding are crucial, given the disease's startling statistics. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (pdf), Blacks accounted for 44 percent of new AIDS diagnoses in 2009 in the U.S. Once diagnosed, they often face greater barriers to accessing care than their White counterparts.
Louis Spraggins, a coordinator at the South Side Help Center, host of Chicago's mobilization training, believes that people underestimate their risk of becoming infected. He believes that the Black community needs to better understand how racial disparities increase the likelihood that African Americans will be exposed to HIV. "These sessions are really specific to the Black community," Spraggins said.
Evany Turk, who has been HIV positive for 10 years, left the Chicago workshops with more skills and a greater understanding of why African Americans are affected disproportionately.
"It helped me realize how all these disparities in our community mean we need to advocate more for our own people. In a sense we need a new civil rights movement," said Turk, a peer advocate for the Living Positively Project at the University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital, and a volunteer with the Illinois Alliance for Sound AIDS Policy, an advocacy group for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.
"My expectations were beyond filled," Turk said. "I think this should be a recurring training in the community."
Kimberley Richards is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.