Chicago Teens Are Spreading The Word About HIV Prevention Among Their Peers
Since the mid-2000s, black women and girls have borne the weight of Chicago’s HIV epidemic, accounting for more than 70 percent of new cases even though they represent less than 40 percent of the city’s female population. The disparities persist to this day — due in part to health officials’ failure to tailor treatment and prevention options to the troubled group, health experts speculate.
That’s what members of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago want to change through a new community partnership named Project Elevate. Under the collaborative effort between the foundation, the city’s health department, and other partners, more than a dozen young women between the ages of 13 and 24 will take the streets of Chicago by storm and spread information about STD prevention among their peers.
Alan D. Johnson, Project Elevate’s program manager, said this project differs from its predecessors because it places much of the onus on its youth expert advisory board — a group comprised of more than a dozen young women and transwomen of color — to understand the barriers to access and use their influence among their contemporaries to create a wave of change in their communities.
“It’s important that we meet the youth where they are and allow them to lead this movement,” Johnson, a three-year member of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, told ThinkProgress. The teens will engage fellow young people through workshops, social media marketing, and a mobile app.
Project Elevate comes on the heels of other HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness activities that the AIDS Foundation has hosted throughout the month of March, including confidential HIV testing and counseling at a local nail salon, a community event for teens, a community forum, and female condom advocacy training.
Each event provided young women an opportunity to engage in honest discussion about HIV/AIDS and learn about community resources that are at their disposal. Johnson said he wants to create a similar atmosphere through the Project Elevate program. For him, that meant choosing the right women to lead the battle against HIV/AIDS.
“Our advisory board includes young women between the ages of 13 and 24 with a vested interest in raising awareness around sexual health,” he explained. “We wanted a body that represented the woman and transwoman population. Some of these women have volunteered with various programs and are aware of the problem. They will undergo trainings about sexually transmitted infections and awareness. We will look at new technology and expand that knowledge that some of the ladies may have already. Something like this takes some time but once we get it up and running, then we can get going.”
When the 15 young ladies get started, they have quite a bit of work ahead of them. Black women contract HIV 19 times more than their white counterparts and six times that of Latinas, according to a health profile compiled by Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Most black women who received a diagnoses did so through heterosexual contact and injection drug use. In the aggregate, blacks who live in low-income communities account for the majority of Chicago’s new HIV cases, standing at an astounding 66 percent as of 2008.
Health officials say that those most at risk of contracting and spreading HIV are those who don’t know they have the disease and engage in risky sexual behavior. Most young Americans who are HIV-positive don’t realize they are infected.
The public school district is working on doing its part. In 2013, the Chicago Board of Education passed a policy to mandate sexual education in each grade, starting in kindergarten. Under the policy, students learn the basics of human anatomy, reproduction, healthy relationships, and personal safety. Lessons in higher grades focus on family, appropriate and inappropriate touching, puberty, and HIV — with discussions dispelling myths about how sexually transmitted diseases spread, and stressing the importance of contraception.
For Chicago high school student Jadah Keith, however, these changes don’t go far enough. Jadah, a student at Whitney Young Magnet High School and a Project Elevate youth expert advisory board member, told ThinkProgress that messages about sexually transmitted diseases that come from students seem more genuine and less preachy, compared to when they come from teachers and other authority figures.
“These messages should come from the youth,” Jadah, 15, told ThinkProgress.“My ultimate goal is to build trust between different people and show the city that youth can talk about sexually transmitted diseases constructively. I know that if the message came from a person my age, it would come across better… I want to talk to my peers and let them know that it’s okay to get help if they think they have a sexually transmitted disease or even if they have questions.”
This is not a new idea. Peer education has long been touted as aneffective means of promoting healthy sexual behavior among teenagers. These methods hinge on the influence that young people have on their friends and the innate knowledge they have about the challenges of being a young person in a new world.
There’s some evidence that this type of positive peer pressure can really work. Studies have shown that adolescents who believe their peers use condoms are twice as likely to use them. An evaluation of a peer education program similar to Project Elevate found that condom use among the young black female enrollees increased by 11 percentage points. Reports of sex also fell by seven percentage points two weeks after the program wrapped up.
Those are the types of results that Johnson hopes to replicate. He said he ultimately wants to make treatment programs “culturally responsive” so that young women don’t face any barriers to using them.
“There are so many tools and resources to engage people so we want to make sure that they’re comfortable and have agency wherever they go,” he said.