African American men and women across the United States are disproportionately impacted by the ongoing HIV health crisis in America. Although African Americans make up only 13% of the overall population, they represent 40% of all people living with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Black adolescents and young adults between the ages of 13 and 24 are particularly at risk for contracting HIV, and represent over half of new infections. The high prevalence of HIV among African Americans is due to several intersecting factors including socioeconomic factors, cultural stigmatization, and high rates of sexually transmitted infections, according to the CDC.
“We know that these disparities are happening because of a lot of sociocultural factors. In most cases it’s not increased risky or irresponsible behavior on the part of individuals, it’s often linked to socio-environmental determinants of behavior,” said Dr. Faye Belgrave, University Professor of psychology at VCU.
Belgrave is the founding director of the VCU Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention (CCEP), a center which works with local community-based organizations to reduce health disparities among African American and other minority populations. The center was established in 2001 to conduct research and provide innovative, evidence-based programs and interventions to reduce health disparities and promote healthy youth, families, and community.
For the past two years the CCEP has focused it’s research and community outreach efforts on the Building Capacity for Substance Abuse and HIV Prevention Among African American Young Adults project, which is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The goal of the program is to strengthen the capacity of community organizations and the university to provide HIV and substance abuse prevention programs and services to the Richmond area. According to the CDC, Richmond is ranked 19th among US cities and metropolitan areas with the highest rates of HIV infections.
“It’s important that we’re always on top of things and making sure we protect our students but also the community members,” said Chelsie Dunn, senior prevention specialist and events coordinator at the CCEP.
The Building Capacity project educates and trains African American young adults so they can serve as resources for peers with accurate information on HIV and sexually-transmitted infections, understanding of the impact substance abuse has on sexual behavior, normalizing HIV testing and reducing the stigma of HIV. The program works closely with community organizations including the Health Brigade (formerly Fan Free Clinic), NIA Incorporated of Greater Richmond (an affiliate of St. Paul’s Baptist Church), and the VCU Wellness Resource Center to provide HIV prevention and testing services to students and residents.
“We bring them a sense of support knowing that this university entirely is behind them and their health and I think that’s what the community appreciates the most, to see that such a large university cares about them,” Dunn said
Through the Building Capacity project, the CCEP provides HIV testing events and evidence-based HIV prevention interventions which they’ve adapted to engage African American young adults in the Richmond area.
“You don’t want to use videos and texts and graphics where nobody looks like you. I think when you think about the culture of a group, it’s not just about what is said, but how it is said,” said Belgrave.
The center also hosts entertaining/educational events, called “edutainments”, on the VCU campus which are designed to engage and educate young adults, particularly African American young adults, about the prevalence and dangers of HIV. Last fall they held a HIV-themed Night at the Improv, a Stay Tested and Informed (STI) lecture-based event, and an HIV Family Feud competition. Their affiliate student organization, Raise 5 @ VCU, organized a panel discussion for World AIDS Day.
The CCEP also trains students in conducting culturally informed and community engaged research, in order to raise the next generation of health disparity researchers committed to making a difference.
“Our main focus is on building capacity,” said Deborah Butler, associate director of the CCEP. “You build capacity by building an army of soldiers, and I hate to use a military analogy but it does at times feel like we’re fighting a war against this.”
The Building Capacity project recently won the 2016-2017 Currents of Change Award from the VCU Council for Community Engagement, recognizing their exemplary partnership in research with the community. Once the project concludes in 2020, Belgrave says she hopes to focus the center’s efforts on improving HIV testing and broadening the CCEP’s research to include HIV treatment and prevention for older African American women.
Learn more about the Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention (CCEP) at their website.
Written by Megan Schiffres