HIV/AIDS awareness in the Atlanta University Center: alive and well

Recently, my alma mater took part in National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD), held on February 7, 2012. Morehouse College, the only all-male, historically black institution of higher learning in the world, has a history of student activism and involvement. Nestled within the Atlanta University Center (AUC), Morehouse collaborated with the historically black institutions of Clark-Atlanta University and Spelman College on an important day of action for the black community.

When I learned of the opportunity to visit Morehouse during NBHAAD, I honestly had low expectations for student involvement. As a student at Morehouse less than a year ago, I understood that busy class schedules packed with homework and extracurricular activities may impede student engagement. In an age of social media and multi-tasking, the driving question in my mind was, “Will students really…care?”

As the day arrived, this question remained in the back of my head and I recall expressing my concern to my JSI colleagues as we walked onto the buzzing campus toward the campus health center, “Just so you both know, there may not be a huge turnout tonight……” But why was I saying this? I found myself subconsciously trying to make excuses for my peers. In many ways, compared to the students of the civil rights generation, my collegiate generation has been regarded as complacent in the arena of social change. To my astonishment, when we entered the health center, we were met by a packed room full of energetic college students!

We interviewed several students to hear their impressions of the awareness day activities. During the enthusiastic interviews, several recurring topics emerged. Students spoke about the challenges of spreading awareness, knowledge about different types of HIV testing, and stigma around being tested or testing positive for HIV.

As the HIV testing events began to draw to a close, a student panel entitled “Magnum Lifestyle” was held in a large lecture hall. When I walked into the room, the cavernous space was quiet and empty. As I waited for the event to begin, I habitually pulled out my phone and checked my Twitter account. To my surprise I saw several “tweets” regarding HIV awareness with the identifier “#NBHAAD.” It appeared that the events of the day had successfully crossed over into the cyber world.

Students began gradually filing in and moments before the start of the panel discussion, almost every row of the auditorium was full. The students, many wearing HIV/AIDS awareness themed t-shirts, anxiously waited to hear the thoughts and opinions of community and student leaders.

The panel focused on many challenging HIV-related topics including relationship negotiation, sexual responsibility, and stigma. Panel members include student leaders, fraternity members, Morehouse alumni, community leaders, and members of “Safe-Space,” a campus organization that openly addresses the issues of homophobia and offers resources pertaining to the safety and well being of black gay and bisexual men at Morehouse College. Three topics that generated a great deal of discussion were homosexuality, identity, and the roles of masculinity within the black community. At Morehouse, dialogue on these topics is often challenging, but has a great deal of relevancy with the unique all male campus population. With any discussion related to HIV, having a discussion on acceptance and tolerance is a crucial component of raising awareness, increasing dialogue, and encouraging safe practices. I felt that the honesty and open-mindedness of the discussion was both engaging and thought provoking for the students in attendance.

One of the most interesting experiences that I had during the day was learning about “b condoms.” Created by young, black, urban professionals (including alumni of Morehouse College), b condoms is a chic condom distribution company offering several ultra premium condom choices. With the tagline, “b cool. b safe. b yourself.,” b condoms has the mission of reducing the suffering and deaths caused by sexually transmitted infections, while promoting safe sexual practices. The idea of marketing condom use to be a “smart, cool and hip” lifestyle choice is an innovative and clever way to tackle the spread of HIV. As many companies are beginning to embrace the practice of social entrepreneurship, the creators of b condoms are demonstrating their passion for reducing the HIV epidemic within at-risk communities.

As the sun began to set on the sprawling campus, a candle light vigil was held on the plaza of the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel to pay respect to family and friends who have been affected by HIV. Students from the AUC gathered, exchanging hugs and words of empathy. One of the student leaders shared how his passion for spreading HIV awareness began when he lost family, friends, and classmates to HIV. Under the shadow of the colossal statue of Morehouse’s most famous alumnus, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the scene was both inspirational and encouraging. Almost exactly fifty years ago, students from these very same campuses joined together to begin the Atlanta Student Movement, an integral part of the larger Civil Rights Movement. Today, I realize that the very same spark that inspired those students fifty years ago exists today.

As a young black male and recent college graduate, I am proud to say that my classmates and friends have accepted their role in taking steps to tackle the HIV epidemic in the black community. Today my lack of faith in my peers has dissolved. In one day, I was reminded that the collective action of many can create a paradigm shift to make a major change in the world. If the microcosm of the AUC is an indicator of the dedication of my generation, then I am very hopeful for a future that will one day truly be HIV free.

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