Yolo Akili (Courtesy of AIDS United)
Together with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, AIDS United is celebrating people who are making health equity a reality in their community and bringing us closer to ending the HIV epidemic in this country. We are proud to announce that the recipient of the 2018 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Award for Health Equity, presented by AIDS United, is Yolo Akili Robinson!
Yolo is the executive director and founder of the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM), in Los Angeles, CA. Yolo has worked as an HIV counselor, branched into violence prevention, training and capacity building, and most recently oversaw a multimillion-dollar NIH research initiative focusing on improving health outcomes for young black and Latino men.
Reflecting on Yolo's career, his friend and former colleague and nominator for this award Angela Knudson writes, "Through Yolo's work, what he couldn't ignore were the structural barriers that black people experience getting access to or staying connected with emotional health care and healing. These injustices led to Yolo's creation of BEAM ... a collective of advocates, yoga teachers, artists, therapists, lawyers, religious leaders, teachers, psychologists and activists committed to the emotional/mental health and healing of black communities."
We caught up with Yolo to learn more about his work, drivers, and future goals.
Can you tell me more about your journey to start BEAM and the mission of the organization?
I started BEAM in response to the things I felt were neglected in the work I saw over the past 15 years of my career in public health: Things like mental health literacy, toxic community leadership, and healing that was not informed by black feminism and social justice.
For example, I was taken aback at how many HIV/AIDS and Intimate Partner Violence organizations failed to integrate mental health or healing justice into their work. The model for so long has been to just have a mental health counselor -- not to have all staff from admin to programs -- understand mental health 101 and have basic counseling support skills. The result has been HIV/AIDS testers and program people being barriers to care and enforcers of mental health stigma. It's also led to benign neglect of the vicarious stress people living with HIV deal with in these organizations; which has largely been Trans, black and Latinx folks. I started BEAM with the intention of filling in these gaps. Our mission is to "remove the barriers black people experience getting access to mental health care and healing." And the barriers are HIV stigma, lack of insurance, Transphobia, racism and much more.
So many of your programs draw the link between holistic health care, mental health, and HIV. Can you share more on how your approach integrating HIV prevention and treatment in your work?
I will never forget a young black gay man I supported, who told me that his problem with taking his medications was that every time he saw those pills it reminded him of what he saw as his shame and failure. How he had relatives who died of AIDS related complications and his family's response was shame and silence. He had been to so many evidence-based interventions (EBI's), numerous case management counselors, and said no one had ever broached the subject. They just preached at him about what he needed to do without asking him about how he felt about his meds. Some of that was about race and how we don't see black gay men's emotional pain. And some of it is because dominant approaches to HIV/AIDS stigma and treatment can be so intellectual -- neglecting that whenever you are engaging black gay communities for example, we are a part of a context where many of us have lost friends, family members, and loved ones for years and that trauma lives on in our bodies, hearts, and in stigma in our communities. Our work at BEAM creates space for that processing, on an emotional and somatic level. We give all public health workers healing justice informed skills and tools to have these conversations and engage their own emotional work as care workers for our communities.
Who have been your big supporters and mentors in starting BEAM? What are some lessons that you've learned from them?
I have so many people who have inspired me and supported me. First of course is the organization's namesake--Joseph Beam, the prolific HIV/AIDS activist and feminist whose work really helped me see how we had to tend to the heart of black gay communities because we are so deeply wounded and hurting. When it comes to other models -- I am grateful for Vignetta Charles, whose example always encourages me to be innovative and honest; Monique Tula, who teaches me constantly the importance of having an organization that is grounded and strives towards embodying the ethics they preach into the world. There are so many to name but others are Ronald Johnson, Kenyon Farrow, Susan Wolfson, Kali Lindsey, Gina Brown, Naina Khanna, Ashlei Rodgers, Rebecca Genin, Erica Weinberg, Charles Stephens and my AIDS United Fam -- in the field of HIV/AIDS work they are the people who I really look up to and admire because of their thoughtfulness and commitment to the work.
Thinking back, what are you most proud of?
Whew. What a question. I am most proud of the fact that I can be a part of a movement of people striving to bring Healing justice to the forefront. It took me a long time to figure out where I fit in. I'm not a traditional corporate suit and tie leader and the work that I have called for has only recently been seen as important. But people like Erica Woodland, Cara Page, Tarana Burke, Prentis Hemphill, Adrienne Marie Brown, Chani Nicholas -- help me know what I came here to do and where I belong. I feel a great sense of pride when they show love for my work; as their work has shown so much love to me and helped me survive.
Stigma is one of the most pervasive drivers of the HIV epidemic. Do you have suggestions for how people can break down this stigma?
We need to talk about the trauma of stigma. We have to realize that sharing the science does not always help us transform the pain. We have to explore our feelings about who we have lost, how we are treated and how stigma has literally killed the people we care about. Healing is our birthright, and there is no ending HIV Stigma without actively engaging the healing journey.
Anything else you'd like to share?
The most exciting thing to me about this award is that it's for the work of healing justice.
The work of holding our leaders accountable and stopping the trauma cycle of community based organizations. The work of building up our skills so that we can show up for our people. It's for the work of undoing mental health and HIV stigma and understanding they are inextricably intertwined. It's for a grassroots organization that is led by the people and for the people. That's what really excites me, and I share this award with all those alongside me. Because when this work is illuminated, it's helping us all shine ... and I'm in a constellation of communities that make my light possible.
Thank you and congratulations, Yolo!
[Note from TheBody: This article was originally published by AIDS United on Dec. 7, 2018. We have cross-posted it with their permission.]