Listening to African Communities About HIV

Fifty-one percent of new HIV infections among Minnesota women occur in the African-born community even though they make up one percent of the population. That’s a statistic that shocked MAP staffers Joy Ladu and Allison Connelly when they were attending a conference on HIV and stigma in the African community in Minnesota. The two decided to see what they could do to help advance HIV education in African communities, communities that have been underserved by HIV prevention efforts.

“The most important work that we have been doing is meeting with leaders in the Ethiopian, Somali, Liberian, and Kenyan communities to gain an understanding of the needs of their communities around HIV education and services,” says Allison, who is an MNsure navigator at MAP. “These leaders have community influence that we can never have and do not deserve, and can best direct the work we do.”

Joy and Allison are working individually with leaders in these communities to determine what needs they have, as well as attending training within these communities to gain understanding.

“The understanding we have gained from these meetings and training has allowed us to create resources that meet the needs of these communities,” says Joy, a Benefits Counselor at MAP. “These resources contain information about HIV statistics, transmission, treatment, prevention, and MAP services available to communities disproportionately affected by HIV. We are also collaborating with community leaders to work on developing culturally appropriate training for community-specific African women’s groups and larger community forums.”

Allison says that there are misconceptions about HIV in African-born communities.

“Many people do not appreciate the dramatic impact of HIV on African-born women in Minnesota. Because HIV is most commonly associated with men who have sex with men, women are frequently overlooked or forgotten in conversations about disproportionately impacted communities,” Allison notes.

“A common misconception is that leaders in the African communities do not know basic information about HIV, either in general or in relation to their communities. This is blatantly false,” Allison states. “As in any community, leaders in our prioritized communities are well educated, socially aware, and committed to the wellbeing of their communities.”

It’s clear from these conversations that leaders in these communities are ready to act.

“They voice that they have been ready to do this work for a long time but have lacked the capacity that organizations like MAP can provide,” says Joy. “Building relationships of trust and respect with leaders from our prioritized communities is critical to effectively communicating best practices around HIV to a community that ASOs like MAP have are perceived as neglecting.”

The short-term goal for the initiative is to create an environment where folks feel safe and welcome accessing MAP’s services, and that MAP’s programs from Benefits Counseling to Case Management to Risk Reduction are culturally responsive. The initiative also aims to provide long-lasting training to community leaders.

“We hope that our initiative provides effective training about HIV to community leaders,” says Joy. “Providing effective training for leaders would work towards realizing our long-term mission of building capacity in the Ethiopian, Somali, Liberian, and Kenyan communities to co-create sustainable community-led education around HIV.”

For Joy and Allison, much of the work is about listening. The hope is that new funding can be identified to increase capacity for the work that many African-born women are already doing.

“Our work feels most effective when we receive honest feedback from community leaders about ways in which we can improve our communication and access to services for their communities,” Joy adds. “MAP, like all ASOs, has a lot to learn from the experience and understanding of African community leaders, and it is rewarding when we are working towards improving or forming sustainable and respectful relationships with these communities.”