Community Education Group's Founder and Executive Director, A. Toni Young, with her dog, Hank

So, I’ve Been Thinking: Getting Back to Basics

So, I’ve been thinking about how the HIV landscape, and the HIV movement, have changed a lot and are still changing rapidly—and how Community Education Group has changed rapidly, too, over the last few years. Many of you will notice that we haven’t put out a newsletter in several years, and that we no longer do direct service in the District. We are positioned differently now: we do work in DC and West Virginia.

In order to be true to the mission we started out with 25+ years ago, and to fulfill our motto of building stronger, healthier communities, we’ve had to change and grow. We’ve had to take some of the skills we learned and some of the projects that worked successfully in African-American communities in the District, and apply those in white, rural America, in places like West Virginia, where race, class, and access play key roles in the ability of all communities to access services and resources.

We had more than 80 new HIV cases in the state of West Virginia in 2019, mainly among white people who inject drugs or have a secondary connection to PWID. This is an example of how America’s poor in Appalachia are often forgotten in our HIV prevention, care, and treatment strategies, even though they have much in common with black, urban communities experiencing similar barriers to access to care and treatment. I’ve been thinking about black women and PrEP. Our message can’t just be about getting black women prescriptions and getting them on PrEP; it also has to be about getting black women educated about PrEP, aware of, and understanding about PrEP – to be able to raise their hands and say, “I know what that is.”

We’ve got to do a better job with that and I think, in this case, doing a better job means getting back to basics. What’s old is new, and what’s new is old. And so much of what’s missing or needed in our work is a “back to the basics” model. When we look around at biomedical interventions, it’s easy to say, “U=U.” It’s easy to provide PrEP, and we hear messages about “PrEP for all,” but really, PrEP for who?

The poor can’t access it, and black women are often unaware of it, even if it’s free. But we also have to remember the people involved in these interventions.

How do we touch people?

How do we hold people?

How do we embrace communities, now, during some of the most trying times that I can honestly remember?

Add HIV on top of trying economic times and trying political times, with Substance Use Disorder in many communities, and if there’s no behavioral and social support to go along with that—to bring that person, that family, that community together and make them whole—the challenges will still always remain.

We can provide a pill to help end the epidemic, but can we heal the community? That’s the bigger challenge that lies ahead of us: healing. So, that’s what I’ve been thinking about – how do we heal what has created these schisms?

It’s not solely the underlying race, class, and gender schisms, but that is so much of it. In our work, we often don’t talk about the need to be mindful of one another and to take a moment to ask if our colleagues are okay…if we’re okay. Because we do hard work, and in this work, sometimes we see one another but we don’t see one another.

Again, we have to heal not just with a pill, not just with treatment, but with behavioral and social supports that we will need if we are to heal whole communities, whole towns. We often hear Millennials talk about being “disruptors,” but so many systems have been disrupted of late.

How do we heal those systems that have been disrupted? That’s our job, and if we’re in a hole, how can we do it? How can we heal those systems that are so fractured, if we’re fractured ourselves?

That’s what I’ve been thinking about.

New River Bridge Bridge Day Celebration

Community Education Group to Launch New Weekly Blog in 2020

CEG will be launching a new weekly blog in 2020 focusing on some of the main issues facing healthcare consumers in West Virginia and other rural states, including the opioid epidemic, growing infection rates of Viral Hepatitis and HIV, and the state of healthcare infrastructure in the parts of America largely left behind or ignored in the past two decades of healthcare and economic progress.

Stay tuned to CEG’s social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram (@CEGInWV) for more information as we ready our blog site for publication.

Community Education Group's Founder and Executive Director, A. Toni Young, with her dog, Hank

So, I’ve Been Thinking: Helping Each Other Through

So, I’ve been thinking about the work that we do in social justice movements and in areas like HIV and reproductive health. It’s not easy work. It’s work that requires a lot of stamina, and it’s often very emotional work. For instance,
right now Community Education Group is focused on three distinct areas:

• Working to eliminate HIV and Hepatitis C in the state of West Virginia, by raising awareness and educating people about risk, prevention, and treatment;

• Working to protect black women from HIV by raising awareness and educating people about PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis);

• Working to include people of color in community-based participatory HIV research, both domestic and global.

Now, these are big challenges requiring a lot of work, but I think these are the areas where women, young people, and people of color need us to advocate, to open doors and improve access. It’s where I see a need, and that is what guides me and guides CEG: working in areas where we see a need and where we can add value.

What helps us keep going as we take on these challenges? Obviously we need investment, and we’ve been very fortunate with some recent support from Gilead for our work in West Virginia. But we need more support in the other areas: black women and PrEP, and including people of color in HIV research.

Even beyond financial support, however, is something equally or even more important. To accomplish our goals, we have to work together, collaboratively. Unity is especially important in these troubling times, and if we’re going to do this together then we have to take care of one another. We have to help each other remain healthy emotionally.

That starts with being aware and cognizant of our own emotional state. For me, and I know also for a lot of my colleagues, this isn’t just a job. It’s my passion and I feel like it’s what I was put on the planet to do. But even in the midst of fighting for what you believe in, it’s also very important to find the joy in what we do. I try to find the joy in each day, in my work, in the things that I do.

This doesn’t just make me feel better; it also enables me to take the next step: working to bring joy into other people’s lives as well. I want to support my colleagues, my friends, my sister and brother warriors out there fighting HIV, fighting for reproductive justice, social justice, racial justice. And in these times that we’re in, it gets harder. It wears on us. These fights take a toll on us and often we are not sufficiently kind to one another. I am looking for ways to be kinder and more supportive of my colleagues, as well as being kinder to myself. I am looking
at how I may have failed to do that in the past, and how I can do a better job of being kind today.

Those things are important, when you’re engaged in intensely emotional work, like so many of us are. It’s important that we support one another, that when we see an ally who may be hurting, that we take a moment and ask if they’re okay. I will try to do that for you, and I hope you’ll do that same thing for me.

That’s what I’ve been thinking.

Old Street in Fall

Community Education Group Awarded Grant For HIV Work In WV

Gilead Sciences has awarded Community Education Group $500,000 over two years to conduct HIV-specific work in West Virginia. This grant will enable CEG to build a statewide coalition to integrate HIV, Viral Hepatitis, and Opioid Epidemic prevention policies and activities, and address the drivers of, and responses to, all three interrelated epidemics.

This is an important step in developing an overall statewide policy agenda in preparation for West Virginia’s inclusion in the Trump administration’s “Ending the HIV Epidemic” initiative.

Stay tuned to CEG’s social media pages on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter (@CEGInWV) for more information as it becomes available.

Screenshot of Steven W. Thrasher, PhD's opinion piece, HIV is Coming to Rural America, in the New York Times

Community Education Group Founder and Executive Director, A. Toni Young, in The New York Times

CEG’s founder and executive director, Toni Young, was featured in a piece published in The New York Times Opinion section: “H.I.V. Is Coming to Rural America And rural America is not ready” by Dr. Steven W. Thrasher (Northwestern University), speaking about West Virginia and rural America’s burgeoning HIV crisis lurking beneath the bucolic scenery: As A. Toni Young, an AIDS activist, puts it, the “epidemic of opioid addiction — fueled by drug companies’ promotion of pain medications beginning in the 1990s — is a crisis for rural regions in part because these regions are completely unprepared to deal with the magnitude of the problem.” Ms. Young founded what is now called the Community Education Group in Washington, D.C., in 1993, originally to address H.I.V. and AIDS in women. An African American lesbian, she has spent most of the past 30 years working to help members of the Black, gay and urban communities it affects.

Follow the link to read the full article: HIV Is Coming To Rural American And Rural America Is Not Ready

A petri dish with an silhouette of the state of West Virginia in the culture

Community Education Group in WV

In 2019, CEG opened a new regional office in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, to begin the arduous task of attacking, from a policy perspective, the myriad health crises faced by West Virginians. These crises include: the fourth HIV outbreak in four years, the highest rate of Hepatitis C in the U.S., the highest rate of Hepatitis B in the U.S., the highest rate of overall drug overdose deaths in the U.S., and the highest rate of opioid-related overdose deaths in the U.S.

In our research, we found that none of these crises are unrelated; they are all part of an untenable cycle involving numerous social determinants of health, Substance Use Disorder, Injection Drug Use, lack of healthcare access, and poor health literacy—both generally, and specic to infectious disease. Moreover, we have determined that these issues cannot be solved by direct service provision, alone.

CEG is working to build a statewide coalition of infectious disease specialists, HIV advocates, Viral Hepatitis advocates, Medication-Assisted Treatment providers, Harm Reduction Programs, health department ocials, local ocials, and patients. This coalition will work to bring together organizations and providers that focus solely upon individual aspects of these various crises, to develop an overarching strategy to combat all of these interconnected healthcare issues at every step of the way.

So, what does this mean? It means convincing MAT providers and general practitioners to include HIV and Viral Hepatitis testing and education as part of their service provision. It means convincing infectious disease specialists to begin working with MAT providers to link their patients living with HIV and Viral Hepatitis into SUD treatment. It means bolstering local health department testing and linkage eorts by helping local advocates create new AIDS Service Organizations and Community-Based Organizations to help extend these eorts outside of the health department walls and into local communities.

This statewide coalition will also work with CEG to craft new policy proposals that will push for greater funding, greater access, and a more integrated and comprehensive outbreak response and preparedness landscape in West Virginia.

We are still in the beginning steps of this eort and will have more to share with you throughout 2020, so stay tuned to CEG’s social media pages on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (@CEGInWV) for more information as it develops.

2019, CEG was one of a handful of West Virginia-based organizations to receive a HEPConnect grant funded by Gilead Sciences and the Harm Reduction Coalition. Using these funds, CEG will be partnering with county health departments in Berkeley, Jeerson, and Morgan Counties in the Eastern Panhandle to provide harm reduction supplies (at least 5,000 clean syringes, naloxone, and wound care kits) in support of those counties’ existing Harm Reduction Programs, as well as developing a marketing campaign with those departments to increase awareness of their harm reduction services.

These partnerships will allow CEG to provide support for linking these departments’ clients to HIV/Viral Hepatitis care and treatment, STI screening, MAT for SUD, and other healthcare and psychological care services. In return, CEG will receive much-needed data regarding harm reduction operations in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. Stay tuned to CEG’s social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (@CEGInWV) for more information as our media campaign develops.

And image of a finger being pricked to gather a blood sample ostensibly for an HIV test

University of Kentucky/Community Education Group CHAMPS Collaboration

CEG is advising the University of Kentucky in developing a peer-based community engagement strategy for promoting HIV/HCV testing, replicating CEG’s Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Prevention Services (CHAMPS) model statewide in Kentucky. CEG originally pioneered CHAMPS in Washington, DC, recruiting and training community health workers including ex-offenders, people living with HIV/AIDS, and individuals with histories of substance abuse.

Community Education Group's Founder and Executive Director speaking on a panel at a meeting in Mexico City in 2019

Una Conversación Communitaria: Cura y Más de VIH (A Community Conversation: HIV Cure & More)

As part of the lead-up to the 2019 International AIDS Society (IAS) conference in Mexico City, CEG collaborated with local NGO partners Casa de la Sal and Clínica Especializada Condesa, as well as Mexico’s Centro de Investigación en Enfermedades Infecciosas (CIENI) and the Washington DC-based Martin Delany Collaboratory (MDC) BELIEVE program, to present a two-day pre-conference event on July 18-19, 2019. Hosting more than 300 attendees, Una Conversación Communitaria brought local people living with HIV/AIDS, NGO workers, students, and public health professionals who might otherwise have been unable to experience IAS 2019 together with international researchers, scientists, academics, and community organizations offering global learning opportunities. The event also helped ensure that the voices of the Mexican people could still be included in the international dialogue about HIV/AIDS, at a time when the Mexican government has cut back the resources available to local NGOs. Podcast of the event is available here.