By: Mike Givens/TRT Assistant Editor—
BOSTON, Mass.—Connected Boston, a program of the Multicultural AIDS Coalition (MAC) that provides health navigation services for Black and Latino gay, bisexual, transgender and queer men in Boston, held its Forward 2016 summit in late April.
“The theme today was how does art influence and contribute to our work and how it can help us do a better job of reaching people, getting people to do a better job of taking care of themselves,” said Gary Daffin, executive director of MAC, of the day’s theme, “At the Intersection of Arts, Culture and Public Health.”
The keynote series featured four Black and Latino artists and activists who spoke about how their art connects to larger issues of public health. The presentation was followed by in-depth discussions amongst attendees about how art can be used to improve the health of our communities.
Connected Boston was conceptualized in the spring of 2014 and connects Black and Latino GBTQ men with health and social services. The program provides HIV/AIDS testing and counseling, resources and information on health insurance and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), drop-in spaces for homeless youth, group counseling sessions and a free computer lab.
The day-long summit, the second to be hosted by Connected Boston, also featured a panel on intimacy, vulnerability, and risk where several men discussed the intersection of identity, sexual relationships and the HIV epidemic.
Panelists discussed the fact that Black and Latino men are more likely to contract HIV despite the fact that they have fewer partners, do not in engage in more high risk sex, or use drugs at a higher rate than other groups of men who have sex with men (MSM). A controversial concept that’s been shared publicly is that black and Latino MSM experience higher rates of HIV because they choose to limit their sexual partners to men of their own race or ethnicity.
“You can have sex with anybody you want and not get infected with HIV,” said Gary Daffin during the discussion. “Having sex with a black man, or a Latino man, or a white man, you can have complete control over your risk of HIV … It’s actually not that difficult to protect yourself from HIV. So having sex with a black man doesn’t put you at any more a risk than having sex with a white man. What puts you at risk is not using a condom, or not taking PReP, or not taking care of yourself, which I relate to not loving yourself as much … HIV is a disease driven by intimacy. People want to touch. People want to have sex … We need to understand that we are the most important person in the world and take care of ourselves.”
Though a time for discussion and learning, the summit was also an opportunity to gather feedback from the community about what Connected Boston can be doing to better support GBTQ men of color in the Greater Boston area.
Attendees participated in breakout sessions in one of three areas: substance abuse and recovery, LGBTQ youth homelessness, and racial justice. Facilitators of the discussion took notes and Connected Boston staff will use the information to plan out the work for the program in the next year.
“We got clear, actionable steps out of the summit that we as a community look forward to working on,” said Amir Dixon, program manager for Connected Boston. According to Dixon, within the last six months nearly 600 people have dropped into the Connected Boston space seeking help.
“We want to do more work around youth homelessness and trying to think through what is a community response to addressing the need for more housing, more beds, access to education, life skills programs, stabilization programming,” he continued.
Twiggy Pucci Garcon, a senior program officer with the True Colors Fund in New York who travelled to Boston for the event, was impressed by how community-driven the summit was.
“The thing that stood out the most to me [about the summit] was the centering of youth and young adult voices,” he said. “I always believe that in order for effective change to be made you need to be centered, youth voiced and youth lead.”
Mike Yepes, a health navigator at Fenway Community Health who helped co-organize the event, said he sees great value in the summit because it provided the space to focus on how to better serve marginalized communities.
“… I think … we [often] forget that LGBTQ people of color are disproportionately impacted by issues such as poverty, mental illness, HIV/AIDS and other [sexually transmitted infections] and, as a result, our services function more as resources for survival rather than resources of convenience,” he said. “I think it’s less a matter of seeing our institutions offer services that don’t currently exist and more a matter of seeing our institutions offer currently existing services in a manner that’s more accessible for populations that don’t just want us but need us.
“In the context of sexual health, all institutions do a great job at offering free STI testing but few offer evening or weekend clinics, which are more accessible to communities of color who often work two or three jobs than a few weekday testing hours running in the late morning or early afternoon,” he continued. We need to revise our programs so they address care ‘from the margins,’ meaning, if you make your programs accessible to the most disenfranchised individuals then they’ll surely be accessible to the most privileged.”
Angelo Lima, also a health navigator at Fenway Community Health, observed the need to have more voices at the table when having conversations about disenfranchised communities.
“One of the recurring topics of conversation … seemed to be how do we engage more and more youth and other community members who are being affected by the issues discussed during the event,” he said. “Folks seemed to feel that it was important to have more of those voices around the table … those folks we are talking about as being affected by all of these different issues but have not yet empowered themselves enough to join the fight should be the folks we are more focused on targeting and bringing into this space.”
To learn more about Connected Boston, visit http://goo.gl/LwoBjg or call 617-238-2424.