As the saying goes, knowledge is power. And for many young Black men in the city of Newark, NJ, being aware of their HIV status means taking responsibility and making choices, for themselves and for others. In 2001, the African-American Office of Gay Concerns (AAOGC), an inner city community-based organization, was founded by Gary Paul Wright, its current executive director, to address the needs of the Black gay community in Newark with the slogan “Status Is Everything.” Using its own tagline, the organization embarked on an ambitious promotional campaign to encourage Black gay men in their early teens to mid-20s to be tested, get to know their HIV status, and be able to make choices in their lives that are more informed.
The “Status Is Everything” campaign blitz, which cost approximately $35,000, is scheduled to be launched with an all day event at the Newark City Hall on Thursday, Feb 4th. The campaign features posters with images of young Black men placed inside and outside Newark city buses and the city’s Light Rail and on a Washington Street billboard. The campaign will also use social media and public service announcements on cable television and in movie theaters to encourage other young men to be tested and know their own HIV statuses.
At a recent conference for African-American men, Wright noted that there was no organization taking up the cause of fighting for these men. “’Status Is Everything’ is my brainchild and it is more than the tagline to the organization. It began in my kitchen with my partner and six other friends.” Funded by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), and by the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), the effectiveness of the “Status Is Everything” campaign is monitored by a team led by Anne Dey, Ph.D., program development administrator with the HIV Prevention Community Planning Support and Development Initiative of Rutgers University. Dr. Dey’s department will count the young men who go to three testing locations around the city and will report those numbers to the state. The testing locations include St. Michaels on Central Avenue, UMDNJ Rapid Testing Center, and the NJCRI HIV Counseling and Testing Team.
Unlike other campaigns, this exercise makes use of contemporary technology, including YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. A person could text, using his cell phone, to one of the locations and receive directions to the nearest testing site. If a person does not have access to a cell phone, he could call the number on the posters and receive testing information. The fact that from start to finish researchers and campaign planners listened to what the target population had to say made the project exciting, according to Dey. She also said, “When the billboard went up in Washington Street, we got word that someone saw it and went to a testing center to be tested.”
According to Wright, the AAOGC staff waded through streams of data on the numbers of young Black men who are HIV positive and moved beyond his kitchen. After five focus groups examined the best and most effective tactics of encouraging young men to get tested, and after reviewing six competitive bids, contracts were signed in October 2009 with FEMWORKS, LLC, a Newark-based public relations firm, and Robert Penn Productions, a NYC-based film production company, to develop and promote the “Status Is Everything” campaign, which is scheduled to run until June of 2010. Following an evaluation and depending on the responses and effectiveness of the campaign, Wright said, the AAOGC could approach the state and the CDC about continuing it in Newark and expanding it to other cities. “If there is an increase in the numbers of young men who get tested and we see this through anyone of the modes, it could be replicated in other parts of the state. But, if there is no increase, then we would ask what did we do wrong, where we failed, and it would be a lessons learned exercise,” Dey said.
In support of the slogan “Status Is Everything” driving the campaign and giving it a reason, Glenn Bryant Jr., an AAOGC staff member and a student at Jersey City University, compiled a narrative based on the June 30, 2009 New Jersey HIV/AIDS Report, available on the DHSS Website. The report said Black men who have sex with men (MSM) accounted for close to one-fifth, 19 percent, or 5,048 of all the accumulated reported HIV cases in New Jersey. And Black MSMs who are injection drug users (IDUs) made up 4 percent or 1,155 of the population.
Bryant’s narrative states that 24 percent of all the MSMs with HIV in New Jersey live in Essex County. “Only 199 MSM-identified IDU cases are living in Essex, while the number of Black or African-American-identified men [living with HIV] remains frighteningly high at 4,154,” he said. Yet, Bryant said, that while the scope of the data collection narrowed, the numbers remained constant. For example, he said, the number of MSM HIV cases reported in Newark is 20 percent or 1,388, and the number of MSM-identified IDUs is at 5 percent or 422.
“This is the most professional emerging campaign I’ve seen in a long time and I’ve heard from a lot of clients that they have seen it,” said Dey.