Knowing means better decisions, choices, and responsibilities
By Antoine Craigwell
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 is 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, NJ with a 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 middle 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, was launched with an all day event at the Newark City Hall on Thursday, Feb 4. As a campaign, it would feature images of young Black men on posters placed inside and outside Newark city buses and the city’s Light Rail, on a Washington Street billboard, use social media, and in public service announcements on cable television and in the movie theaters; to encourage other young men to be tested and know their HIV status.
At a conference for African-American men, Wright said, he noticed 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 tag line 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 from the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control, 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, whose department would be tracking the numbers of young men who go to any one of three testing locations around the city and reporting to the state. The testing locations include St. Michael’s 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: someone could text, using his cell phone, to one of the locations and receive instructions 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 locations and 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, Dey 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 as a practical project, moved beyond his kitchen. After five focus groups had met and examined the best and most effective manner of reaching the target audience, including messaging, encouraging young men to get tested, and reviewing six competitive bids; contracts were signed in October 2009 with FEMWORKS, LLC, a Newark, NJ-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 Jun 2010.
Following an evaluation and depending on the responses and effectiveness of the campaign, Wright said, the AAOGC would 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 lessons learned exercise,” Dey said.
In support of the slogan, “Status Is Everything,” driving the campaign and giving it a reason, a Jun 30, 2009 New Jersey HIV/AIDS Report, (http://www.state.nj.us/health/aids/repa/popgroups/documents/blacknothispanic.pdf) states that as recently as of the middle of last year, Black men who have sex with men (MSM) – an estimated 25,899 – accounted for close to one-fifth, 19.5 percent, or 5,048 of the accumulated reported HIV cases.
As a demonstration and a more comprehensive understanding of the significance of the impact of HIV on the state, the report included those MSMs identified as injection drug users (IDUs), who make up close to 4.46 percent or 1,155 of the overall population. Against the statewide numbers, of an estimated, 11,132 Black men living with HIV, approximately 24 percent or 2,654 are MSM, and 3.43 percent or 381 are MSM-identified IDUs.
Drilling down from the state to the county level, the report stated that of the13, 552 HIV/AIDS cases in Essex County, Blacks were 77 percent or 10, 451 of that population, of which 20 percent or 2,714 were MSMs, and 4.52 percent or 613 were categorized as MSM-IDUs. In Essex County, Newark tops a list of cities in the state with more than 100 HIV/AIDS cases with 13,744 cases. (http://www.state.nj.us/health/aids/repa/county/documents/essex.pdf)
In Newark, (http://www.state.nj.us/health/aids/repa/impactcities/documents/newark.pdf) Blacks were 74.50 percent or 2,537 of the 3,405 people living with HIV. Of the numbers in Newark, the men living with HIV with the highest numbers are those 35 to 44 years old, who make up 25 percent or 840 men, and 38 percent or 1,277, who are between 45 to 54 years of age.
“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.