The InSite: Kim, tell us about your organization.
Kim: We're a federally funded agency started about four years ago by some youth advocates here in San Francisco. We began as a project to train people to work with HIV positive youth. Now we have three different projects: H.A.R.T. Health Action Research Team), T.R.C. (Training Resource Center), and Project AHEAD.
The InSite: What's the usual way a doctor would communicate a test result?
Kim: Doctors are seldom connected to the community in the way that organizations like us are. So it's really helpful when we're able to bring our perspective to them. They are not always resistant, it's just that their medical training does not include stuff like talking to young people as a special population. They are different from children. Different from adults.
TI: How about the numbers of people you serve?
Kim: Just the speaker's bureau alone probably serves tens of thousands per year. We speak to whole high school assemblies and small ESL [English as a Second Language] classes. It just depends on where there's a need. Everyone from middle schools up to university level classrooms.
Young people said for a long time,
TI: What are the presentations like?
Kim: Mostly the speakers tell their stories... What was it like before they tested [positive for the HIV virus]? What's it like now? And then they open it up for questions. Our philosophy is that personal stories can make a difference. Young people said for a long time, "Stop with the Just Say No!" programs. Stop with all the scolding and the judgment and "Leave us alone!" because a lot of people just didn't know how to approach youth. But if you go to young people and say, "If I teach you, can you teach your peers?" That's what our model is about. You know, let's get away from judgment. Let's get away from telling people what to do and just talk about the real... what's it like. There's no finger pointing, there's no telling people how to live their lives. It's just "This is what my life is like." So you make your own choices based on what you hear.
TI: The people on your speaker's bureau, who are all HIV positive, did they know the "facts" about HIV and AIDS and engaged in high risk behavior anyway?
Kim: I think it varies. I just heard a speaker, a woman who is HIV positive. She had a real powerful moment in her speech when she said, "Will all the women in the audience please stand?" And all the women stood. Then she said "For those of you who have had an honest informational session with your health care provider about your HIV risk please sit down." And probably only about a dozen women sat down out of a room of about 300! Then she said, "Well, I stand here with you." Her voice was quavering! We take it for granted that a lot of people have the information, but they don't.
They've heard of AIDS but not HIV. Especially the young people. There are some people on the Speaker's Bureau who have been positive for 8 or 9 years. So they got infected in the 1980's when there was even less information for everyone.
TI: What kind of questions do the youth ask?
Kim: A lot of them ask "Are you gay?" And a lot of that is about trying to make it "us and them." Trying to make it a gay disease, something that's "over there." I'm glad to send out one gay man and one straight person so people can hear more than one perspective. 'Cause gay men have something to say about this disease and sometimes people are like "Well, I don't want to hear that." That's the stereotype, but it's also important to hear that "stereotype" and to make it human. Instead of thinking that it is something that's over there and far away (and I don't need to think about it).
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