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Peer Education: An Appreciation

May 1999

Body Positive was founded in 1987 by Michael Hirsch, a person living with AIDS who was also a founder of the People With AIDS Coalition. Back then, when information was scarce and much sought after, Mr. Hirsch's vision was simple -- individuals living with HIV/AIDS lending their time to educate those who had been newly diagnosed and their loved ones. Individuals who were living with HIV led educational forums where they shared information about HIV/AIDS and themselves. When they saw the same people coming back week after week, they helped form support groups to address their emotional needs.

One thing always stayed the same: All of the groups were peer-led.

Although twelve years later the state and face of AIDS is quite different, peer-led education and support groups continue to flourish. AIDS service organizations throughout New York and the world employ peer educators to reach populations labeled "hard to reach" or "at risk." Peer educators for the most part mirror the populations their organizations are trying to serve. They are people in recovery, transgender individuals, people living with HIV/AIDS, ex-offenders, former sex workers, gay men and women.

Peer educators are the ones who go into the places that many of us have seen only in documentaries (yes, the very neighborhoods some service providers love to target in their grants, but have never taken the train to). They are the ones who conduct street outreach on streets sprinkled with crack vials. They go into the sex clubs and turn their flashlights on those who are barebacking. They hand out condoms and literature and talk to sex workers in the dead of night in the cold! They go into schools, sharing their own experiences in hopes of preventing addiction, homophobia, or HIV infection. In short, peer educators go to the action -- they don't wait for the action to come to them.

Some peer educators do it to get out of the house, to contribute to the cause, or to gain access to information. Some volunteer their time, while others are paid an hourly wage. Many receive some sort of entitlement or are on disability, and the amount of money they may earn is restricted. And yes, some are given such a hard time, by the Division of AIDS Services and the like, that they have to forfeit getting paid. "They want us to sit home staring at the four walls and die rather than work," says a former peer educator.

Agencies such as Exponents Arrive, National Development and Research Institutes, and Cicatelli Associates have provided useful training to peer educators, and some of them eventually are able to utilize the experience and training acquired to become full-time employees at the very agencies where they work at or other community-based organizations.

Individually we all have met persons who fall into the peer educator/role model/mentor/activist category -- those who fought hard to the very end for the rights of people with HIV and AIDS and who have had a great impact on all of our lives. These are the people who went far beyond the call of duty to educate and empower people living with HIV/AIDS:

  • Katrina Haslip, an ex-offender and founder of ACE (AIDS Counseling and Education) Out, a program for women coming out of prison, who fought to expand and include woman-specific ailments on the CDC's list of AIDS-defining illnesses.

  • Iris de la Cruz, a former sex worker, ex-addict, and poet who fought for the others like herself and for whom Iris House, a center for women in East Harlem, is named.

  • Iris de la Cruz's mother, who to this day, after forming Mothers' Voices, continues to advocate on behalf of mothers of children with AIDS.

  • Rosendo Cintron, a former addict and ex-offender whose work at drug rehab and detox centers inspired many individuals to wean themselves off of methadone just by the power of his example.

  • Evelyn, one of Body Positive's most endearing peer educators, who, after finding out she had ovarian cancer on top of her AIDS diagnosis, continued to facilitate her assigned groups while going through debilitating chemotherapy.

  • The countless others who have marched, protested, gotten arrested, answered helpline calls, and shared a little of their lives with those who needed an extra incentive to live.

Are peer educators easy to work with? Some administrators and program managers are guilty of treating peer educators with kid gloves. Regular supervision, evaluations, and accountability are not always enforced. This is a great disservice both to these peers and to the agency for which they work. Agencies that employ peer educators should hold them to the same standards that apply to their full-time employees.

When I am asked whether I think that a service provider who has never been incarcerated, who is HIV-negative, or who has never been addicted to drugs can work effectively with ex-offenders, people with HIV/AIDS, and former addicts, my answer is, Yes. When asked whether persons who mirror these populations are providing effective interventions and support, I say, Absolutely. Whether service providers lend themselves to one of those labels we so love to place on people or not, we should never devalue the power of peer education programs.

Carmen Navarro is Co-Director of Community Outreach and Education at Body Positive, Inc.

Back to the May 1999 issue of Body Positive magazine.

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This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
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