For HRC Foundation’s HIV and Health Equity Director J. Maurice McCants-Pearsall, community engagement is the foundation of the work to end HIV.
“We have to go out into the community and listen to what they have to say -- and far too often LGBTQ people of color are left out of that equation,” McCants-Pearsall said. “We must make sure there are safe spaces for people of color to go where providers are culturally responsive to patients that they serve.”
April 10 is National Youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day, an annual observance to raise awareness of the disproportionate and unique needs of young people in the effort to combat the spread of HIV. This day is an important opportunity to bring young people into the conversation about the urgency of this work, said McCants-Pearsall.
“We have to combat the stigma surrounding HIV, and we need to ensure that everyone can access equitable services and care,” McCants-Pearsall said. “What are young people’s needs? Are we going to where they are and listening to their feedback?”
Despite declining HIV infection rates in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control reported that youth ages 14 to 24 continue to be at a high risk of acquiring HIV, making up 21% of all new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. -- with African American and Latinx men comprising a majority of those diagnoses. The CDC also found that a staggering 51% of young people living with HIV do not know their status, in large part due to inadequate HIV educational resources for young people.
“When I was growing up, there were no resources or services available -- not just in my local community but for my community in general. Most of the services that did exist only existed in white spaces or other spaces that I wasn’t privy to,” McCants-Pearsall said. “And then, on top of that, I grew up in a Black middle-class family where community-based stigma often makes it hard to talk to family members and friends about these issues. That’s what pushed me into this field.”
McCants-Pearsall began his career in public health at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund where he developed the CDC Ambassador Program, which was designed to introduce students at HBCUs to careers in public health. He comes to HRC after serving in the Philadelphia Department of Public Health where he was project manager in the AIDS Activities Coordinating Office, working on HIV-related programming for Black and Latinx communities.
“As this administration continues to roll back the clock on all the progress that we have made in the last three decades, we have to teach each other how to get involved,” McCants-Pearsall said. “From working at the grassroots level to reaching out to your Congress members and local representatives, there is a way for everyone to make a change.”
Be a part of the conversation on social media using the hashtag #NYHAAD. To learn more about the HRC Foundation’s work on HIV and AIDS, click here.