For a few years, I worked at a local teen program in Washington, DC. And while I spent a lot of time there focusing on writing and design intangibles in a magazine workshop, I also had the privilege of participating and facilitating other workshops as well.
One of those workshops, entitled Think Twice, was designed to promote safe sex awareness and mature/important conversations around the sexually transmitted infections and viruses effecting the teens in their community.
It was amazing how much I learned from them while they were learning from me. And one such topic in which this occurred was around the scariness and prevalence of HIV in their neighborhoods.
[Side note: If you’re not aware, at least 1 in 20 residents in DC is HIV positive, a fact that gives the city the highest infection rate in the country.]
Now, I was a certified STI counselor speaking with them on these topics, but I had never actually experienced dealing with a loved one or a friend who was infected by the HIV virus. From my perspective, it was one of the scariest things in the world.
However, many of the teens not only knew someone who was infected with HIV, they knew several people who had progressed to the AIDS stage of the virus. And yet, most of them were not scared of contracting the virus.
I was blown away. How could something so closely affect you and you not be scared of it? Was it because they didn’t understand the severity of it, I wondered. Was it because they still believed that it was a gay disease? What was it that didn’t have them shaking in their britches like me?
And then, as we continued talking about HIV, I realized what it was – HIV had become normalized for them. It was like speaking to a bunch of gang members about how they should prevent violence in their neighborhood. These kids didn’t think about prevention; they just knew that it happened (a lot) and they hoped they wouldn’t find themselves a part of the statistic.
That summer I spent having honest and open conversations with those teenagers recently came to my mind when I read the Washington Post’s article on the newly released statistics for HIV infection rates in DC. In it, they said:
The HIV infection rate for heterosexual African American women in the District’s poorest neighborhoods nearly doubled in two years, from 6.3 percent to 12.1 percent, according to a study released Wednesday by the D.C. Department of Health. The large increase reflects wider testing of people who were previously unaware of their status and possibly a still-rising rate of new infections in that high-risk group, officials said.
Pretty disheartening news, but mostly because it tells me that we’re still not getting to the heart of prevention issues in this community. We’re still finding that too many poor Black women are being infected at alarming rates. We’re still learning that even with these numbers, many people infected do not know their status. And I bet if I spoke with a bunch of random teenagers now, the conversation would start off the same. “It’s not scary. It just is what it is,” they’d probably say.
And I’d want to explain to them that what they’re missing is that it doesn’t have to be what it is now.
DC is to be commended for their increased commitment to testing in the city. But testing without frank conversation and efforts towards enacting real preventative measures is not working. It sounds great to say that the numbers have increased so dramatically because more people are getting tested and are now aware of their status. It’s a lot harder to admit that they’re increasing because more people are becoming infected, despite the massive efforts the city has tried to implement to stop it.