HIV/AIDS awareness for Black people…and all of us

Today is the 18th Annual National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. You might ask yourself, “Why do we need a special day just for Black people with or at risk of contracting HIV?” I ask you to consider the following:

  • In 2015, 3,379 African Americans died from HIV disease, accounting for 52% of total deaths attributed to the disease that year.
  • At the end of 2014, an estimated 471,500 African Americans were living with HIV (43% of everyone living with HIV in the United States), and 16% were unaware of their infection.
  • In 2016, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention predicted that HALF of all gay and bisexual Black men will contract HIV in their lifetime.
  • Young Black men between the ages of 13 and 24 face a particularly high risk, as they make up 54% of new infections among all men who have sex with men.
  • Black women account for 60% of new infections among all women and are 16 times more likely to contract the virus compared to their white counterparts.

In July 2016, Charlize Theron, who is UN Messenger of Peace and founder of an outreach project targeting South African youth affected by HIV, said something profound when speaking to a crowd at 21st International AIDS Conference. She said, “We value men more than women … straight love more than gay love … white skin more than black skin … and adults more than adolescents” and even though her frame of reference is based largely on situations in South Africa, it’s hard to deny the striking parallels between there and here in the United States. The risk factors for HIV/AIDS seem to be global.

With that said, there are significant geographical disparities within the United States. Even though it’s widely accepted that HIV is “no longer a death sentence,” that is not the case for many people, particularly those in the South. According to a New York Times article written in June 2017:

“2,952 people in the Deep South (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas) died with HIV as an underlying cause, with the highest death rates in Mississippi and Louisiana. Among black men in this region, the HIV-related death rate was seven times as high as that of the United States population at large.”

(Take the time today to watch this short documentary about young black men dealing with HIV/AIDS in Jackson, Mississippi, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOSN1bKG3zQ)

The so-called Deep South is ground zero for the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S. Each of the states this region encompasses (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas) share other notable but seeming related characteristics:

  • They all have public school curriculums that teach abstinence-only sexual education;
  • They are among the top 15 most impoverished states;
  • They are collectively the home of 47% of the total Black population of the United States.

Even though statistics provide a sobering glimpse into this devastating epidemic, at the end of the day the numbers represent real people with unique stories, experiences, and perspectives.

Properly managing HIV/AIDS requires regular medical appointments, medication management, diet control, and major lifestyle changes.

For many people with HIV/AIDS, they also struggle with substance abuse, mental health issues, homelessness, and food insecurity.

Compound those challenges with misinformation, stigma, and discrimination, and you can see that fighting HIV/AIDS becomes more than an issue that can be solved with medicine, clean needles, and condoms alone. Attitudes have to change, and education is at the cornerstone.

The sooner everyone understands the risk factors and how the virus is spread, the sooner we as a society will get from under this daunting but preventable disease.

For more information about HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention in Southern Maine, contact the Frannie Peabody Center—the largest community-based HIV/AIDS service organization in Maine, providing prevention services for at-risk groups and direct services for people living with HIV/AIDS. They also offer free, confidential HIV testing every Wednesday and by appointment.

Get Tested. Know your status. End the stigma.


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Life on the intersection of class and the shame

In a nation with growing income inequality, we rarely seem to talk about what that means on a personal and lived level. Instead we all call ourselves middle class never commenting on the fact that today’s middle class includes people in well heeled communities earning more than $150,000 a year as well as families scraping to get by and playing financial three card monte who bristle at the idea of not being middle class. No one wants to be poor and really no one wants to be rich, but the reality is some of us are closer to the ends than we are to the middle.

I live on the intersection, I am a Black woman, technically I am middle class according to the numbers reported annually on my 1040 but I prefer to consider myself working class. I am a class straddler, I am aware that my place in the middle class is tenuous at best and dependent on my ability to work and earn a certain amount of money. For those unfamiliar with the term class straddler, we are the people who were born working class or poor but who over our lifetimes have moved up the class ladder. America has always had its share of class straddlers, as a nation of upward aspirations, it’s hard to not know someone who is a class straddler. Some of us blend in well and some of us struggle with our place further up the class ladder; I would be the latter.

Like race, talking about class or even money is uncomfortable for many, so we coast along on our assumptions, never realizing that just like the assumptions made about race and racial matters, assumptions about class also hurt.

Growing up, my parents were working class when times were good and when times were bad, I knew the miracles of government cheese and butter. Like many from similar backgrounds, who live life as a class straddler, I have often at times tried to distance myself from my childhood because of the shame. Yet shame is a powerful and destructive force because it keeps us locked in a dance of inauthenticity where we fear being ourselves, we fear sharing our truth and that fear is a destructive force.

In the past year, while I have talked more openly and honestly about race in this space than ever before, I have sidestepped the class issue entirely due to a misguided sense that with my change in professional positions, it would be harmful to share. Yet it’s tiring to pretend and as I get older, I just don’t do artifice well. In fact it’s antithetical to the life I am striving to lead and the person I want to be.

A series of recent conversations sent me in a spiral and I realized that my downward spiral was a result of personal shame…shame because I have never traveled abroad. A well meaning person suggested that I should travel abroad to gain a better perspective on anti-black bias and racism. I would love to travel abroad but I cannot afford to do so at this stage in my life. Hell, I couldn’t even afford to visit my dad this summer which was very shameful…but I digress. For many first generation removed from broke folks like myself, we often carry a heavy financial burden, often comprised of family members in need of help and other obligations that our peers who were born higher up the class ladder may never face. In my case, parents who never had more than two nickels to rub together as well as early parenthood have meant that my ascent up the class ladder has come with baggage, baggage that weighs me down at times.

My story though is not unique, I know far too many other straddlers in the same place, juggling the professional face of success and the financial rewards that are reaped yet at the same time helping out family members, paying off astronomical student loans often the same loans that allowed us to gain access to the world that changed our class status. It’s a lonely place at times because never are you fully comfortable in your new world or your old world. Friends and loved ones in your old world make assumptions and often assume your life to be what it isn’t….if I had a dollar for every distant family member who assumes I am rich. Chuckle. Or for new friends who I must hide my life from. I am tired of it all. Tired of wearing a mask that isn’t real, we cannot help the circumstances to which we are born, we can only do better if the opportunities and resources present themselves to us.

There is no shame in being who we are and as I journey in this middle stage of my life, I finally see that the cost to pretend or not be fully authentic is more than I wish to pay. So, yes, traveling to see the world is a great idea yet in a country where only 2 out of 5 Americans regularly fly, I am hardly alone in staying close to home. That said, if you want to pack me in your bag, the next time you are off to see the world just let me know. Until then, I am joyful for what I have and always mindful that in a world where many struggle to make ends meet and toil at jobs where human respect and dignity is lacking that I have a chance to make a difference in this everchanging upside down world and that my kids have never known the miracles of government cheese and butter or the horrors of spoiled food from the food pantry.

Ending Childhood Hunger or not…thoughts from the frontlines

Like many people, I have a complicated relationship with food. Our relationship for the past decade has been especially tenuous as I have worked hard to unlearn a lifetime of bad eating habits and adjust to the metabolism that I really have and not the one I wish I had. As a result, I buy very little of my food at the grocery store instead opting to buy as much as possible at the local farmers market and direct from local farmers. As much as I would prefer to nosh on unlimited bags of Ruffles Sour Cream and Cheddar Chips and follow it up with swigs of ice cold RC, I know that such eating habits simply don’t work for me. However I am still a work in progress when it comes to food. Of course having an extremely picky eater keeps me humble when it comes to food since her list of what she won’t eat is three times longer than what she will eat. Whenever there is a food that she likes to eat, and will really eat it, I pretty much go with the flow.  I just keep reminding myself that my 21yo vegetarian son used to be the king of ham and chicken wings before he adjusted his views on food several years ago.

In addition to having my own issues with food, I am one of those rare people who literally sees food insecurity daily in my professional life. Currently at the agency I run, 95% of the kids registered in our programs come from food insecure households and on any given day upwards of 20% of the kids that drop into our programs, will not be going home to eat dinner because there is no dinner available to eat.

I started my social services career over 15 years ago in a program that offered meals to women in need and as hard as it was to see adults without food, I struggle deeply seeing so many kids going without. Kids in our center talk as casually about eating at the local soup kitchen with their families as middle class kids speak about the newest apps on their iPads.

Maybe it’s because of my professional background that my interest was piqued when I saw the hashtag #endchildHunger and #ConAgra a few days ago on Twitter. From what I gather there was a conference and attendees were asked to spread awareness about the issue of child hunger and apparently ConAgra would be donating resources to end child hunger. In theory this sounds great and many well-meaning folks were doing their part to spread the word…after all no one wants to think of hungry kids.

The problem is that ConAgra is not exactly going to end childhood hunger and if in this current US economy the idea of childhood hunger is not something you have heard about it, it’s because your head has been in the sand. Food stamp use has been up and while the economy is slowly turning around, for the millions of folks that were already close to the bottom of the economic ladder this supposed growth is about as real as unicorns.

ConAgra partners with Feeding America which is the largest hunger relief charity in the US and they do awesome work. They have a lot of great programs; some that I have worked with directly through my work and they make a huge difference in the lives of a lot of kids. They are also a supplier to a fair number of food banks in the US.

So what is the problem you may ask? ConAgra is helping out Feeding America and Feeding America is helping feed folks including kids, so how are they not ending child hunger? See, this is where it gets tricky. In most communities no matter how small they are in the US, there is a local food pantry. A place where people can get a bag or two of food if they have nothing to eat. In theory, the food pantry in your community should be able to get food from the food bank in your area but in many cases that is not the case. Ever notice how food pantries often have food drives? See, the reason they are asking people to donate food is because they can’t afford to buy the food from the food bank. Here in Maine, the food bank is Good Shepherd and if you run a food pantry, if you want to get food from that food bank that is getting support indirectly through ConAgra you have to pay. No money means no food for the hungry people in your town including those hungry kids that Con Agra is using social media to say they will be supporting.

Now I knew from my 1st job back in Chicago a lifetime ago that feeding programs that used the food banks had to pay. Actually part of my job at that agency was overseeing our meal program so I knew there was a cost. However at that time I worked at an agency in Chicago, which is only the 3rd largest city in the US at an agency that had a million dollar plus budget. So for us buying the food was a no brainer and affordable.

I didn’t learn until almost 5 years ago when I took over as the head of a small agency in a rural state that the economics of using the food bank means being poor and hungry in rural America sucks balls. In the county I work in, many agencies use a food rescue service (yep, its exactly what it sounds like) rather than the state’s lone food bank because they cannot afford to pay the food bank for food to give to people who cannot afford to buy groceries at the grocery store. In many small towns and villages in the US, the local food pantry is a volunteer run affair often operating in donated space with donated food and a shit load of good will.

When I learned a few years ago just how skewed social services are in rural states, it was a wake-up call for me. It meant unlearning much of what I understood about poverty and reframing it in a rural framework. In this case, if ConAgra were making direct donations and contributions to small pantry operators across the nation rather than the food bank network that exists through Feeding America, I would say hell yeah they are ending child hunger. The truth is they are nothing more than a band aid solution to ending child hunger on a wide scale in a social services system that favors larger agencies over smaller ones despite the fact that in many communities it’s the small agencies working tirelessly to meet needs in locations that sometimes are untouched by the larger agencies.

Am I saying ConAgra is evil? Not really, though I prefer to buy my food directly from folks who if there are problems with my food, I know where they live. I will say though that campaigns such End Childhood Hunger are not being as honest as they can be and that is what bothers me. Because the sad reality is even in the helping word much like the corporate world, the large folks are the winners. How many resources were spent on a campaign to increase awareness when those same resources could have actually fed folks?

 

PS: If you want to make a difference, donate directly to the food pantries in your community. Call them and ask them what they need, and if you have the means donate often. Real change only requires real people making a difference.