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Team Detroit Honors MLK Day

In the spirit of community service, compassion, and commitment to what Dr. King famously called “beloved community,” AmeriCorps AIDS United Team Detroit joined AmeriCorps members across the nation in making this year’s Martin Luther King holiday a day on – not a day off.  In contrast with past years, when activists boldly took to the streets, our team chose a less public display of solidarity and commitment to social justice. From behind dimly-lit warehouse walls, this year’s Team Detroit decided we would take to the shelves.

While friends and family slept in late, I’m proud to say that Team Detroit arrived bright and early, at a kick-off rally hosted by City Year Corps members, serving nearby. Once the formalities of introduction, historical acknowledgement, and preparation were complete, the team converged on an unlikely building, just a few miles north of the downtown core. Outside the small office space, we waited for the clank of a chain-link gate’s opening, then followed dozens of other volunteers through a discreet side door, and into the warehouse stowed behind.

Clambering away from the icy January wind, we piled into a cramped aisle, tucked between two columns of metal shelves, on top of which lay countless stacks upon stacks of books. Greeted by an older man who beamed from ear to ear, Team Detroit was introduced to the work of the Kiwanis Book Club. Kiwanis, we learned, was an organization committed to promoting literacy in Detroit youth. As we further surveyed our surroundings, Team Detroit members realized that the two towering bookshelves were just the beginning of what was actually a mountainous literary collection. There were books piled everywhere, so that it was nearly impossible for the scores of volunteers to avoid brushing shoulders—or, occasionally, stepping on toes. All these books—donations collected from near and far—were to be sorted, packed, and sent off to teachers who could then send them home with a student unable to afford to purchase literature.

As we got to work, it was hard to avoid grinning. Smiling to myself, I thought, if I had to pick just one, I’d say MLK day was my favorite team day, so far. That’s because, of all the national holidays, Martin Luther King Day has always been my favorite. Its spirit is beautifully in sync with the core value of the AmeriCorps program – to serve, and participate actively in community. This past MLK day, we didn’t sleep in late, spend money, or dress up in our nicest clothes; but we did give a gift. And, after some reflection, I think it’s safe to say we were given a gift, ourselves, too.

Team New Mexico | Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Team New MexioAn individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day which many people take to recognize racial and other social inequalities that still exist in our nation, Team New Mexico promoted diversity and equality in a parade in Albuquerque. We teamed up with N’MPower, an organization for young gay and bisexual men aimed at raising HIV/AIDS awareness and education through positive social connections and peer support. We met early in the morning and decorated our banner, then joined the parade route around 1 p.m.

Surrounded by the cacophony of beating drums and buzzing vuvuzelas, we marched proudly with our banner amongst others who held signs bearing paintings and quotes of Martin Luther King Jr. The parade itself was rather informal, but the passion behind those marching in it was clear and abundant. We marched a few miles from the University of New Mexico’s campus to the courthouse downtown, where several others rallied together and a number of key speakers recited some of Dr. King’s speeches, stressed the importance of the holiday, and provided various forms of traditional New Mexico entertainment.

Through our presence in the parade, we worked to educate the community on the importance of the intersection between the rights and lifestyles of black and LGBTQ communities and how they’re affected by HIV/AIDS. We handed out flyers for an upcoming event we’re participating in at N’MPower for National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on February 7th. We will be administering free HIV testing at a health fair, followed by a candlelight vigil and some fun entertainment. We hope our outreach done during the parade will reflect a good turnout for this upcoming event!

PrEP, African-Americans, and the Future of Prevention

Charles Stephensby Charles Stephens, Regional Organizer, Southern  Region

African-Americans remain the population most disproportionately impacted by HIV in the United States . Comprising only 14% of the population in 2009, they accounted for 44% of HIV infections that year. Of the 1.1 million people living with HIV in the United States, 545,000 are African-American. In addition, new HIV infections among young African-American men who have sex with me (MSM) increased by 48% from 2006–2009. This suggests the urgency and critical place we find ourselves in as we grapple with the HIV epidemic in African-American communities that are facing the most severe burden of the epidemic.  HIV in the United States will not be eradicated until it’s confronted head on in the African-American community.

Over the past three decades there have been a number of key advances in HIV prevention. Condom education for example, has become an institutionalized part of comprehensive sexual health education. We have also seen the overwhelming success of syringe exchange programs as another critical step in reducing HIV infection among injecting drug users. Over the past few years, the advances in biomedical HIV prevention have offered additional hopeful signs in our HIV prevention efforts. Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis or (PrEP), is one of those advances. PrEP is a strategy in which HIV negative people take HIV medicine (antiretrovirals or ARVs) prior to a possible HIV exposure to reduce  risk of infection. Using ARVs to decrease the risk of HIV transmission has already been successful in reducing transmission in HIV positive mothers to their infants.

Two recent studies make this point even clearer, demonstrating that PrEP can be both safe and effective. The iPrEx study was a multinational randomized controlled study in 2,499 HIV-negative men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women who have sex with men. The Partners PrEP study enrolled 4,758 HIV serodiscordant couples, in which one partner has HIV and the other does not, from nine research sites in Kenya and Uganda. Both studies indicated the safety and efficacy of PrEP within their respective populations.

With the proliferation of information about PrEP, especially as information is disseminated into communities, there has been understandable excitement, caution, and in some cases alarm. The Final Call, the newspaper of the Nation of Islam recently published a story about PrEP and black communities. The article highlighted some of the anxieties and concerns that the introduction of PrEP into our national HIV prevention toolbox might create. Understandably the present relationship and history between researchers and marginalized communities have contributed to some of the ambivalence. Any mention of scientific research and African-Americans is usually coupled with reflections of Tuskegee.  Tuskegee refers to the now infamous research conducted from 1932 and 1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama by the U.S. Public Health Service to study syphilis that went untreated in poor black men. The black men in the study thought they were receiving free health care from the government. In the aftermath of Tuskegee there have been a number of precautions taken and policies implemented to ensure the safety and understanding of study participants. There has also been the development of very successful community engagement programs like The Legacy Project. The Legacy Project is an initiative of The Office of HIV/AIDS Network Coordination (HANC), and has sought to remedy the broken relationship with education, and even promote the value of participating and engaging in research to people of color.

Currently, Gilead Sciences Inc. is seeking approval with the US Food and Drug Administration for the HIV drug Truvada to be used as PrEP. And if approved, will present another historical milestone for the history of the HIV epidemic in this country.

Besides effectively engaging communities another challenge is cost. Cost of expensive HIV drugs, staffing support to ensure treatment adherence, and expanded HIV testing and counseling efforts, is a inescapable factor to successful deployment of our HIV prevention toolbox.  As government assisted AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP) waiting lists grow, what does it mean to provide HIV medications to negative people? There are very tough questions we have to struggle with.

The HIV rates among African-Americans indicate that innovation in prevention is not only a scientific necessity, but a moral one. The implications around PrEP and African-American communities is a highly complex issue that must be examined both with rigor and courage.   One thing is certain, we need more research into how PrEP operates in a real-world context, particularly within the African-American community. This National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day provides us an opportunity to acknowledge the challenges such strategies like PrEP, but also the hope of effectively reducing HIV rates in African-American communities.

The King In Our Midst: Team D.C. @ The National Cathedral

Team DC MLK Day 1It was quite fitting that Team D.C. did its MLK Day of Service at the Washington National Cathedral.  Ironically, a few days before the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., he spoke at the Cathedral’s pulpit on March 31, 1968, which happened to be his final sermon.  The title of his sermon was titled, “Remaining awake through a great revolution.”  To us, this speaks volumes. Right now, the AIDS epidemic is going through many changes and breakthroughs as it works to establish an AIDS-free generation.  It is very important that we continue to fight the fight and “remain awake” throughout what is taking place!  Like Martin Luther King, Jr. it is important to stand boldly and confidently in the things that you believe in if you want change to take place!

Team D.C. members started off their day of service at Soka Gakkai Buddhist Cultural Center, collecting clothing that were dropped off for a clothing drive.  There, we sorted and bagged the clothing that was dropped off by members of the community.

Team DC MLK Day 2Later on in the day, the rest of the members walked over to the National Cathedral where we talked to high school scholars about the importance of doing community service, especially when applying to college.  Each of us went around and talked about the AmeriCorps and what we did at each of our agencies.  It was exciting to talk with these young people because just a few years ago, we were in their shoes.  It is always good to share insight with youth who want to make a difference in their communities!  From there, we joined forces with the high school scholars and split up into groups.  Some of our team helped with the food drive, some ushered for the ceremony that was taking place in honor of Dr. King, and some helped sort out donated books that would be going to different organizations around D.C. that lacked resources!

The ceremony started off with a processional where I.J., Nia and Ryan were chosen to carry the donated food, clothes, and books to the altar.  Following that, lots of great performances ensued.  Dancers and drummers, gospel choirs, and spoken word artists from all over D.C. performed to give tribute to the legacy of Dr. King.  Through music and dance, each performer brought in a different aspect of the city’s rich heritage.

No matter if you were raking leaves, serving food, or reconstructing homes throughout your city, each service project reflects Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s love for service which promotes and uplifts unity and peace in our communities.  Now we must ask ourselves, what can we do and what must be done to promote HIV/AIDS awareness while still uplifting and uniting the communities that are being overlooked and ignored by society?

Historic Numbers of Virginia HIV/AIDS Advocates Tell General Assembly to End ADAP Wait List Now!

caressa cameronby Caressa Cameron, Regional Organizer, Mid-Atlantic Region

As the Mid-Atlantic regional organizer for AIDS United, I help to coordinate HIV/AIDS advocacy and organizing efforts throughout the region.  This week I had the pleasure of collaborating with Sue Roland of Virginia Organizations Responding to AIDS (VORA) to prepare advocates to tell their lawmakers to support Virginia’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP).

Record numbers of HIV/AIDS advocates came to Richmond this week urging lawmakers to end the state’s waiting list and allocate $1 million to ADAP.  Thanks to the leadership of VORA, more than 60 advocates hit the halls of the General Assembly telling lawmakers to make their lives a priority by funding ADAP. By the end of the day, the diverse group of advocates—people living with HIV/AIDS, their families, friends, and healthcare providers– spoke with representatives from 130 of the 140 offices in the House and Senate.

For some advocates, the event marked the very first time they were able to share their personal stories in a political setting.  As the advocates told lawmakers stories of how ADAP saved their lives, it was clear they were making an impact. The advocates helped members of the General Assembly understand how treatment is prevention, how investing in ADAP can save Virginia money by avoiding costly hospitalizations, and how ADAP keeps people living with HIV healthy so they can provide for themselves and their families.

However, the day was not without its painful reminders that HIV stigma persists. After disclosing their statuses and telling their stories, a few advocates faced legislative aides unwilling to shake their hands. Though disappointed by such behavior, the advocates pressed on, determined to get their message out. They reported never feeling more empowered. They were excited to return home with their new knowledge and experience to educate and mobilize their communities around ADAP.

It is not too late for the voices of Virginians to be heard! Constituents have until Valentine’s Day to tell Virginia lawmakers to allocate the $1 million needed to fully fund Virginia’s ADAP and ensure that no person living with HIV has to be put on a waiting list before receiving life-saving medications. If you are a Virginia resident and are interested in joining this advocacy effort, contact your legislator today! For more knowledge on Virginia’s ADAP, how you can get involved, or to find contact information for your legislators, please visit www.voraonline.org. Sue Rowland can be reach at info@voraonline.org.

To get involved with HIV/AIDS advocacy in the Mid-Atlantic Region (District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey) contact me at 202.404.4848 x.212/202.557.5904 or ccameron@aidsunited.org

World AIDS Day in New Mexico

On this day of worldwide recognition for those living with and those who have already passed from HIV/AIDS, not to mention increasing numbers of HIV infection rates  amongst younger people, Team New Mexico was able to collaborate with the New Mexico Department of Health and the University of New Mexico LGBTQ Resource Center in Albuquerque to provide HIV testing for all students. We split up to administer tests at three locations set up throughout the campus giving students multiple opportunities to get tested during the day - The Student Union Building, El Centro de la Raza (Student Affairs), and the LGBTQ Resource Center. The turnout was great being that the temperature was in the 20s, and wind gusts reached up to 44mph.

Two weeks later, the NMDOH returned for a ”Results Day.”  Out of the 33 tests administered on World AIDS Day, 20 results were given. The response to the event could not have been better.