Educating, empowering young leaders
A few months ago, a member of our #A1PHA community at Mazzoni Center came in for assistance in writing his resume. In teaching him the skills to write a great resume, we had a conversation about his past as well as his goals. He shared the story of how he left his family at a young age because they weren’t accepting of his sexual orientation. In order to support himself, he was forced to drop out of high school so that he can take on a few part time “under the table” jobs. Although he was nervous as to what type of life he would be able to create for himself at such a young age, he pursued his goals of independence with resiliency.
I first met this young man when he attended an #A1PHA retreat in May of 2014. #A1PHA Project, a program of Mazzoni Center, is a group-level, evidenced-based prevention intervention targeting young men of color and trans identified persons of color between the ages of 14 and 24 that sleep with men. The intervention addresses factors that influence the decision-making and behavior of our communities such as: cultural, social, and religious norms; sexual relationship dynamics; as well as racism and homophobia.
Gay and Trans youth of color don’t live in a simple one dimensional LGBT bubble. They navigate the world in their race, gender, and social class, all of which have an impact on HIV transmission rates. #A1PHA provides access to a culturally competent health education facilitated by members of our community. For many, #A1PHA is the first safe space where one is asked to think about what it means to be a young person of color and a young gay / trans identifying person.
#A1PHA challenges our young people to break down stereotypes and misconceptions. We tackle what racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and HIV stigma do to us and how we internalize it to think less of ourselves. #A1PHAs (as participants are called once they complete the four session program) are given the skills to change how we see and think of ourselves.
#A1PHA builds community. We bring young people from various and diverse parts of the city together and challenge them to step outside of their comfort zone. That young #A1PHA who left his home at an early age was able to find family through the friendships he has made from the retreat and participation in other activities. The friends he made are important to him because as he says “they are there when they need each other and it’s always good to have someone’s shoulder to lean on.”
#A1PHA builds leadership. Once a participant completes the four sessions they are invited to join our #A1PHA Leadership Council. The Leadership Council, an initiative of Mazzoni Center, fosters the new leaders of tomorrow by creating a safe space where young people can be empowered to talk about sex and sexuality through education and self-advocacy, as well as professional development. This is accomplished through trainings, conversations, and learning how to be accountable for themselves.
#A1PHA Leadership Council is also responsible for planning various activities for the community throughout the year. Last summer, the Leadership Council put on its first annual “#A1PHA Monologues.” The event, held at William Way Community Center, provided a platform for young people to showcase and express their artistic talent. It was emceed by one of our leaders. The event provided our leaders with the opportunity to plan, organize, and promote a big community event. We are currently organizing another “#A1PHA Monologues” event in collaboration with Philly Black Pride as well as workshops for other community events and outreach opportunities that will take place later this year.
If you ask our #A1PHAs who their role models are some will tell you I am the person they look up to. If you asked me who my role models are I would tell you it is the almost two hundred #A1PHAs I’ve gotten to meet and work with at Mazzoni over the last two years. They come to a new space and together they support each other in building community. They are the ones leading the fight against the HIV epidemic that continues to plague our community.
#A1PHA challenges societal norms, builds community, builds leadership, and fights to end HIV. February 7th marked National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. It is national initiative to mobilize the black community around HIV testing and education. In Philadelphia, our #A1PHAs are leading that challenge every day. Through all the obstacles they are relentlessly persevering. #A1PHAs aren’t just surviving HIV. They are living their lives to the fullest and turning dreams into reality.
If you are reading this, and you’re a young man or trans-identified person of color who would like to learn more about the #A1PHA program and other peer support and leadership development opportunities for young people at Mazzoni Center, please drop me a line at [email protected] or call 215-563-0652 x 240. (And if you know someone who might be interested, please pass it on!) Make new friends, and make a difference, just by being yourself.
Special thanks to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the AIDS Activities Coordination Office of Philadelphia (AACO) for funding this program, and for their ongoing commitment to advancing the health of our communities.