Dallas group builds a black MSM community

Outreach staff dress in burgundy fatigues

For an AIDS service organization to succeed in attracting an elusive and at-risk population, it must demonstrate that outreach workers care about the clients and accept them just as they are, according to a long-time HIV/AIDS activist who has succeeded where others have failed.

Renaissance III of Dallas recently opened the state’s first community center for young African-American men who have sex with men (MSM), where they can take educational courses, receive leadership training, attend support group meetings, and engage in recreational activities, including movie nights, says Don Sneed, executive director of the organization.

"We have a computer lab and conduct history courses," Sneed says. "We have a whole array of services where we work with young people to help them become viable members of the American mainstream."

The center, which caters to African-American men ages 17-24, also provides health screenings and counseling on education, life skills, and psychosocial concerns. Renaissance III also participates in Ryan White Planning Council meetings, as well as community planning group meetings.

Fighting against isolation

"One of the things we do is give young men training about what these groups are and what they’re able to do, and we help the youths be at the planning table when decisions and strategies are made," Sneed says. "We had one youth from our program who was selected to be on a National Youth Advocacy Coalition council, so we’re making good progress."

In building a cohesive young MSM community, the organization’s staff demonstrate that these young people are not isolated from the mainstream African-American community, Sneed says.

"It’s important for them to understand how we are just as much a part of the fabric and fiber of the overall community as is Mr. John Doe down the street," Sneed says. "We do not support or endorse a situation where our young people who happen to be MSM need to be isolated, alienated, ostracized, or cut away from the African-American community, although that’s the reality of being born gay and black in America."

Renaissance III’s other efforts to reach and support at-risk African-Americans include these programs:

Social marketing campaign.

The organization works to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and human rights in the African-American community, primarily through programs on the local public access television station, Sneed says.

"We have three educational one-hour TV programs about HIV/AIDS on the local public access system, and we have had about 30 shows over the last four years," Sneed says. "This has gone a long ways toward sensitizing the overall African-American community to our own diversity and to HIV and AIDS."

Sneed, another staff member, and a youth served by the center each have their own talk show programs. For instance, one of Sneed’s shows discussed HIV and AIDS in the African-American community and focused on how this is a health emergency and no one is exempt from the epidemic.

TV host gives living proof of second chances

"We had an epidemiologist from the county on there and HIV/AIDS service providers," Sneed says. "I, as an HIV-positive, African-American man who has sex with men, and ex-crack addict, am the show’s host."

Sneed says his own status as someone who has been there, done that, and now copes with HIV, shows his audience that people can get a second chance if they apply themselves.

Also, Sneed’s openness about his own situation helps to reduce the burden of stigma and shame that many HIV-positive people experience. For example, one African-American mother who is HIV-positive had experienced considerable guilt and shame about her disease. But after seeing Sneed’s show, she contacted him to say that he had helped her develop enough courage to come down to the agency and ask for help in living successfully with her disease.

Client advocacy program.

The organization helps clients receive the HIV/ AIDS services they need, either through the center or through other organizations with whom the organization has special agreements.

Services include individual and group counseling, assisting clients with transportation to get to medical appointments, and HIV/AIDS treatment and services libraries in one of the center’s five offices, Sneed says.

"Our program is available to African-American women, but 80% of the black people in Dallas who are infected with HIV are African-American men," Sneed says.

Renaissance III has one unique program that is very popular among its clients. It’s called "Clothesline," and the program provides new clothing to clients at no charge, Sneed says.

"We just gave out brand-new winter coats for those who haven’t gotten one in the last two years," Sneed adds.

Another program involves a partnership with the Texas prison system to help provide pre-release planning and post-release services for HIV-infected inmates, Sneed says.

Funding for the clothing program comes from annual fundraising efforts by the black gay and lesbian community, and the organization and its staff of 17 are funded by money from Ryan White, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and the Texas Department of Health, Sneed says.

Outreach efforts.

Renaissance III workers visit the African-American community in teams of two to three people each day and evening, promoting HIV education and prevention, Sneed says.

Outreach workers visit people in neighborhoods where crack is sold, in parks where married men meet other married men for sex, in nightclubs, at junior colleges, and in other places, Sneed says.

Dressed in burgundy and purple battle fatigue outfits, consisting of a hat, jacket, shirt, and pants, these workers, nicknamed "commandos," let people know there is a war against HIV and AIDS, Sneed says.

"We’re not interested in who you are by day and that other person by night," Sneed says. "It’s not relevant. What is relevant is there are certain things you can do to protect yourself and others, and if you get infected, you need to get help."

The commandos are forceful with their prevention messages and are so strict with their confidentiality of people who come forward for help that they have gained respect in the community, Sneed adds.

"We have a whole series of marketing materials that are Afrocentric and which we distribute to folks," Sneed says. "We do this seven days a week, and now they see us coming and start running up to us, saying, Do you have any condoms today? What do you got for us?’"

Incentive-based programs.

Sneed says he doesn’t believe that some of the more traditional incentive programs of providing fast food coupons or theater tickets to people who are tested for HIV would work as well as Renaissance III’s incentive program.

"When they come back for their HIV test results, they get their incentive, and that’s why we have an 87% return rate for HIV test results," Sneed says.

Each person who is tested and returns for the results receives a new pair of tennis shoes or colorful urban boots, Sneed says. "We also offer incentives from our Clothesline program, including coats, shirts, sweaters, pants, dresses, skirts, socks, underwear, and personal hygiene kits."

The shoes and boots cost the organization between $7 and $11 per pair, and they help to build the community’s trust in the organization because people know Renaissance III goes the extra mile for them, Sneed says.

"Black folks really understand if you care about us, and based on how you treat us, they respond positively," Sneed adds. "One thing that warms my heart is when we come to open our testing office and we have three to five people waiting at the door at 8:30 a.m. to take the HIV test."